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Ruth Landes As A Cultural Relativist

Ruth Landes was a pioneering American Anthropologist. Her work revolutionized Anthropology’s understanding of power structures in relation to culture. The City of Women became a bestseller in Portuguese after being translated from English. It is necessary to understand Landes’ motivation and theory in order to fully appreciate her work. In this article, I will discuss Landes’ theories of society and the relationship between her work and these theories. The discussion will focus on Landes and her relationship to Cultural Relativism.

Landes studied with Ruth Benedict, who is a Boasian student as well. Barnard claims that “classic culture relativism was born from Franz Boas’s students and their work”. Ruth Landes was influenced by Boas, and Ruth Benedict studied with him at Columbia University. However, Ruth Landes eventually moved away from Boas’ concept of “cultural integration” — the idea that cultures are made up of patterns. Cultural Relativism looks to explain cultures through their own lenses. For example, according to the theory, ideals and beliefs are best understood by looking at them in relation to a particular culture. We can see this theme throughout Landes’ work. This omission to compare to other societies is evident in Landes’ research with the Ojibwa indigenous people of Canada. She defines their extant society, based on the unique interactions that she observed, as being isolated.

Sally Cole writes in The American Anthropologist about Landes’ Anthropology, which is a look at the differences between people who live in peace in a given society and others who do not. It also discusses the power structures that exist in society. In order to reach her conclusions, Landes immersed herself in the cultures she studied. Landes’ primary method of research was fieldwork, since each piece focuses on how the interactions between different individuals defined each society.

The ethnographies collected by Landes also looked at the impact “power and culture change” had on a given society. While Benedict encouraged Landes to search for patterns in a culture, Landes was unable to do so. She found this to be untrue to her research as individuals would disregard a rule because it suited their personal preferences. A result of Landes’ research was that she came up with cultural definitions which were based off of interactions that were specific to each society. Ruth Landes’s work can be categorized as Cultural Relativism because of her personal methodology.

One thing remains constant in Landes’s work: her views on society. In each of her novels, one can see that society is a “social environment” created by the interactions of people in a given setting. It is evident in the way Landes describes different societies. She always explains them according to their relevance and never in comparison with another society. Ruth Landes describes how the Ojibwa live in Canada in a way that shows the differences in roles between men and females, yet she draws no comparisons. The research is unique to Ojibwa and Landes meant it to be. Landes discovered that in Ojibwa societies, she was unable to follow the same cultural patterns as her mentor Ruth Benedict. The Ojibwa exhibited unpredictable behavior and did not conform to the expected mechanisms. Sullivan cites Landes as stating that Ojibwa society is characterized by a low level of interaction. This is distinct from the social environment Landes created for Brazilians living in isolation.

We know that Landes defines society based on the individual social interactions within a given group. This is directly related to the previously established idea of Landes’ relationship with Cultural Relativism — that is, she adhered to this theory while focusing on the individual and modernist sentiment. It is clear that Landes defined social life based on the interactions between individuals in a particular group. This is consistent with her relationship to Cultural Relativism. In order to contextualize Landes’ views, we need to consider the theory Evolutionism. This was a theory with which Boas was at odds. Evolutionism and Cultural Relativism are in opposition, at least according to Boasian Tradition.

This essay has established that Cultural Relativism forms the basis of Landes’s work. Boas’ objections regarding Evolutionism are important, because Landes, by association, would have shared these same feelings. Boas claimed that Evolutionism had no place in Anthropology. Anthropologists ought to be focused on the present rather than the past. Boas also said that Evolutionism has a “racial-cultural superiority” which undermines its own stance.

In attempting to highlight the diversity of cultures, it is not correct to assume Landes was blind to the racist implications of Evolutionism. In the quote below from Landes’ best-known work, City of Women, it is clear that she did not ignore the racist implications of Evolutionism. The life of the people there appears distant and timeless in retrospect. I was sent in Bahia, to see what people do when Negr*es aren’t oppressed. I discovered they were oppressed primarily by economic and political tyranny but not by racism. The text shows us that Landes was not only concerned with the economic and political implications, but also racial discrimination without trying justification. This departure from racist perspectives enabled Landes to develop a power theory that was far beyond what her mentor Ruth Benedict could have imagined. This view of society’s power, which is not based on race or culture, further separates Landes from Evolutionism. She becomes a Cultural Relativist. Landes’s personal approach to her work is a criticism. This is what makes Landes a Cultural Relativist.

Melville Herskovits is another Boas student who has a thorough critique of Landes. Herskovits focuses on City of Women, Landes’ career-defining work. Herskovits says Landes’s intimate research on the Bahian people is a major issue. Her own preconceptions about Brazil and the people she encountered also impacted her research. Herskovits argues that because of this, the transliteration of many Portuguese words is incorrect.

Herskovits argues that Landes’ work was flawed by her inability to do fieldwork, especially when she was working with a population about which she did not know much. Her thesis was therefore distorted and so were the results of the research. It is a valid criticism, but Landes’ involvement with each society that she researched ultimately allowed her consistency in her work. Landes continued to be a prominent Anthropologist despite the criticism. She eventually got a position as a professor at McMaster University (Canada) in Ontario. In her role as professor Emerita, Landes taught a generation of new Anthropologists. Ruth Landes was a famous American Anthropologist. Her work sought to define society by its own individualistic lens.

I have shown in this essay how Landes’s work was able to contextualize society and contrasted it with other Anthropological theories prevalent at the time when Landes was active, which would be the 1930s through 1940s. In highlighting these perspectives and a few criticisms of her work, I’ve demonstrated the relevance of Landes’ research. I also explored Landes’ society theory and how it impacted her work.


  • tommyperry

    I'm Tommy Perry, a 55-year-old educational blogger who enjoys traveling. I've been writing about education since 2012, and I hope to continue doing so for as long as I can. I also enjoy cooking and spending time with family and friends.

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