Ethnologie: Gesellschaft und Individuum

Das Zusammenspiel zwischen dem Einzelnen und der Gesellschaft, die ihn umgibt, ist das Thema des ethnologischen Klassikers “Patterns of Culure” von Ruth Benedict. Darin zeichnet sie nicht nur die Muster nach, die unterschiedliche Gesellschaften gemeinsam haben bzw. die sie unterscheiden, sie interessiert sich auch für die Beziehung des Einzelnen zur ihn umgebenden Gesellschaft, die Muster hervorbringt, perpetuiert oder beseitigt:

“The man in the street still thinks in terms of a necessary antagonism between society and the individual. In large measure this is because in our civilization the regulative activities of society are singled out, and we tend to identify society with the restrictions the law imposes upon us. The law lays down the number of miles per hour that I may drive an automobile. If it takes this restriction away, I am by that much the freer. This basis for a fundamental antagonism between society and the individual is naive indeed when it is extended as a basic philosophical and political notion. Society is only incidentally and in certain situations regulative, and law is not equivalent to the social order. In the simpler homogeneous cultures collective habit or custom may quite supersede the necessity for any development of formal legal authority. American Indians sometimes say: ‘In the old days there were no fights about hunting grounds or fishing territories. There was no law then, so everybody did what was right’. The phrasing makes it clear that in their old lives they did not think of themselves as submitting to a social control imposed upon them from without. Even in our civilization the law is never more than a crude implement of society, and one is often enough necessary to check in its arrogant career. It is never to be be read off as if it were the equivalent to the social order.

Society in its full sense as we have discussed it in this volume is never an entity separable from the individuals who compose it. No individual can arrive even at the threshold of his potentialities without a culture in which he participates. Conversely, no civilization has in it any element which in the last analysis is not the contribution of an individual. Where else could any trait come from except from the behaviour of a man or a woman or a child?

It is largely because of the traditional acceptance of a conflict between society and the individual that emphasis upon cultural behaviour is so often interpreted as a denial of the autonomy of the individual.


The problem of the individual is not clarified by stressing the antagonism between culture and the individual, but by stressing their mutual reinforcement. This rapport is so close that it is not possible to discuss patterns of culture without considering specifically their relation to individual psychology.


We have seen that any society selects some segment of the arc of possible human behaviour, and in so far as it achieves integration its institutions tend to further the expression of its selected segment an to inhibit opposite expressions. But these opposite expressions are the congenial responses, nevertheless, of certain proportion of the carriers of the culture. We have already discussed the reason for believing that this selection is primarily cultural and not biological. We cannot, therefore, even on theoretical grounds imagine that all the congenial responses of all its people will be equally served by the institutions of any culture. To understand the behaviour of the individual, it is not merely necessary to relate his personal life-history to his endowments, and to measure these against an arbitrarily selected normality. It is necessary also to relate his congenial responses to the behaviour that is singled out in the institutions of his culture” (Benedict, Patterns of Culture, pp.233-235).