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Configurationalism

Ruth Benedict and Margaret Mead developed an approach to culture that is called configurationalism. This is related to functionalism in the sense that culture is seen as integrated. They trace the geographic distribution of cultural traits. Traits might not spread if they met environmental barriers or if they were not accepted by a particular culture. There had to be a fit between the culture and the trait diffusing in and borrowed traits would be reworked to fit the culture adopting them. Although traits may diffuse in from various directions, Ruth Benedict stressed that culture traits are uniquely patterned or integrated. Mead also found patterns in the cultures she studied including Samoa, Bali and Papua New Guinea. Mead was particularly interested in how cultures varied in their patterns of enculturation. Stressing the plasticity of human nature, she saw culture as a powerful force that created almost endless possibilities. Even among neighboring societies, different enculturation patterns could produce very different personality types and cultural configurations. Mead travelled to Samoa to study female adolescence there in order to compare it with the same period of life in the US. Using her Samoan ethnographic findings ,Mead contrasted the apparent sexual freedom and experimentation there with the repression of adolescent sexuality in US. Her findings supported the view that culture, not biology or race, determines variation in human behavior and personality. Mead’s later work among Arapesh, Mundugumor and Tchambuli of New Guinea resulted in book, Sex and Temperament in Three Primitive Societies. This book documented variation in male and female personality traits and behavior across cultures. Mead was interested in describing how cultures were uniquely patterned or configured than in explaining how they got to be that way. 

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