Ruth Benedict’s psychological types in the SW (by ben johnson)

Ruth benedict, in her article Psychological types in the Cultures of the southwest, explains a disunion she notices between the ritualistic practices of the pueblo peoples and all the other tribes in the region. This she attempts to outline with the framework of the famous psychologist Friedrich Nietzsche. In his work he develops an existing opposition of two Greek gods: Apollo and Dionysus. These two Greek characters represent different and opposing philosophies, and Nietzsche extends them to the psychological development of individuals.

Benedict begins her article with defining the two personas, stating that their importance lies the different “ways of arriving at the values of existence”. The Apollonian arrives at his values with characteristics of order, control of the senses, and maintaining stability in self and behavior. By doing this, the Apollonian can draw conclusions in the moment and be sure of his existence. The Dionysian, as benedict describes, “seeks to attain in his most valued moments, escape from the boundaries imposed upon him by his five senses, to break through to another order of existence.” In other words, he values the experience of control loss.

Benedict relates these two perspectives to the Pueblo peoples’ ritualistic behavior in relation to all the other tribes in the surrounding regions. She notes that only the Pueblo people value complete sobriety and intent ritualistic behavior in ceremony. She notes that in contrast to surrounding tribes, the Pueblo groups do not produce alcoholic beverages, take hallucinogens, nor participate in self-induced trance (these are considered to be the Dionysian behaviors).

She notes that the use of these out-of-control type substances and behaviors are used to provide ritualistic and ‘holy’ experiences. Her examples include: the “tizwin” drinking and production by the Pima, the use of Peyote by various groups including the Winnebago, Serrano, and Cahuilla, the practice of orgy, or more specifically fertility and sex practices, and the presence or conceptual presence of self-mutilation or suicide. It is through these concepts and ritualistic practices that we see foundation for drawing such a conclusion.


Interestingly, Nietzsche eventually abandoned his original conclusion of the Apollonian/Dionysian conflict heavily influencing the psychological state of an individual; however, I believe that we all probably find one applying to us more than the other. As a younger adult I had my fair share of experimentation with substances, and can say with some assurance that the things I enjoy most now in my life, involve extending and pushing my mental and social capacities. I can say that I do value Dionysian experience, but I also make sure that the Apollonian side of me has everything in order.

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  • Denise  On March 8, 2011 at 2:37 pm

    Again, I ask myself what happened to the colors in between? Why does everything have to be black or white? What happened to shades of gray? Benedict lays things out as if one tribe is all one-way & the other tribe is all opposite? Has this argument been thought completely through or am I missing the point?

    While it is easy to come up with the neat little categories, putting people into them is not as easy. I cannot help but believe that no one society can be locked under one category. Is choosing small, little known societies the right way to go with this type of research?

  • zephramseazephyr  On March 13, 2011 at 5:00 pm

    Contrary to Denise’s opinion, I see this as merely a way to organize data. If you are even slightly more of one over the other, or if a group is predominantly Apollonian or Dionysian then it becomes easier to categorize. In a world of gray, Benedict pressed the “easy button” and made a dichotomy.

    I personally may have made more groups based on the various attributes of other deities, perhaps using Demeter, Hermes, Venus, or Artemis as archetypes.

    To get past her organizational method, I find her point valid, if short in it’s useful lifespan. It becomes readily apparent that Benedict was feeding into a readership, popularizing her work by embedding a then-current theme in psychology.

  • Leslie Sipat  On March 20, 2011 at 8:52 pm

    I wonder if it’s an entirely good thing to categorize psychological types.

    On one hand, I can see categorizing as a plus when doing some type of diagnosis because it can help with medicine afterwards. On the other hand, it seems a bit limiting because the human mind is a complicated thing and to group them together is inaccurate because one size does not fit all.

    Concepts and ritualistic practices could draw a conclusions, I’m just not sure if it is the same as Benedict’s.

  • Martha  On March 30, 2011 at 9:22 am

    I agree with the whole “easiness” that these two categorize bring. However I feel that Benedict felt it important to use both extreamities in order to make a point. Because if he got to specific perhaps it would add further confusion. In a way if feels as if Benedict lets you or rather encourages the “gray” area in between. We see these extreamities deeply embedded into many relgions which is perhaps why he developed this concept. Where he deems Apollonian and Dionysian some may deem it the difference between right or wrong and evil vs. good. So if we question his two categories we would have to begin questioning other things, like particular religious beliefs as well.

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