She was born in New York.
She received her PhD along with Margaret Mead under Franz Boas at Columbia University where she subsequently taught until her death. A cultural relativist, in her work Patterns of Culture (1934), she describes the tiny subset of human behavior exhibited in any society. Her book The Chrysanthemum and the Sword (1946) is a study of the apparently conflicting traditions of beauty and formalism vs. warfare and honor in the society and culture of Japan. During World War II she was an adviser to the U.S. government on Japan.
She died in New York.