Thursday, January 19, 2012

The Science of Custom by Ruth Benedict

According to Ruth Benedict, custom has not been commonly regarded as a subject of any great moment.The inner workings of our own brains we feel to be uniquely worthy of investigation but for custom, we have a way of thinking ,is behavior at its commonplace.As a matter of fact it is the other way around.Traditional custom taken the world over is a mass of detailed behavior more astonishing than what any one person can ever evolve in individual actions no matter how aberrant.The fact is the predominant role that custom plays in experience and in belief and the very great varieties it may manifest.

No man ever looks at the world with pristine eyes.He sees is edited by a set of customs and institutions and ways of thinking.Even in his philosophical probings he cannot go beyond these stereotypes of the true and the false will still have reference to his particular traditional customs.


The life history of the individual is first and foremost an accommodation to the patterns and standards traditionally handed down in his community.From the moment of his birth the customs into which he is born shape his experience and behaviour.By the time he can talk he is the little creature of his culture and by the time he is grown and able to take part in its activities,its habits are his habits,its beliefs his beliefs,its impossibilities his impossibilities.

Except for our unwillingness to face cultural change in intimate matters until it is forced upon us it would not be impossible to take a more intelligent and directive attitude.A very little acquaintance with other conventions and a knowledge of how various these may be would do much to promote a rational social order.The study of different cultures has another important bearing upon present day thought and behaviour.Modern existence has thrown many civilizations into close contact and at the moment the overwhelming response to the situation is nationalism and racial snobbery.There has never been a time when civilization stood more in need of individuals who are genuinely culture -conscious and who can see objectively the socially conditioned behaviour of other people without fear and recrimination.

All over the world,since the beginning of human history it can be shown that people have been able to adopt to the culture of peoples of another blood.There is nothing in the biological structure of man that makes it difficult.Culture is not a biologically transmitted complex.What is lost in nature's guaranty of safety is made up in the advantage of greater plasticity.From all we can learn of the history of intelligence in prehuman as well as human societies,this plasticity has been the soil in which human progress began and in which it maintained itself.

The chief requirement for a discussion of culture is that it should be based on a wide selection of possible cultural forms.It is only by means of such facts that we can possibly differentiate between those human adjustments that are culturally conditioned  and those that are common and so far as we can see inevitable in mankind.The conditioned response is as automatic as the organically determined and culturally conditioned responses make up the greater part of our huge equipment of automatic behaviour.

The careful study of primitive societies is important because they provide case material for the study of cultural forms and processes.They help us to differentiate between those responses that are specific to local cultural types and those that are general to mankind.They also help us to understand the immensely important role of culturally conditioned behaviour.Culture with its processes  and functions is a subject upon which we need all the enlightenment we can achieve and there is no direction in which we can seek with greater reward than in the facts of preliterate societies.

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