Margaret Mead (December 16, 1901 – November 15, 1978) was an American cultural anthropologist, a pioneer of the feminist movement in America, an important popularizer of anthropology, and one of the most prominent public intellectuals of her time. When she died, Mead was considered the most famous anthropologist in the world.
Mead was a gifted writer with an outgoing personality and a complex worldview that combined her Anglican Christianity and an emphasis on the importance of early childhood development with positive views of free sex and a strong presumption of cultural relativism tending toward moral relativism. Mead sought to understand cultures not just through anthropological generalizations but through details of specific individuals' life experience, attitudes, and worldviews.
Mead was not only an innovative anthropologist; she was also an outspoken activist. Applying her conviction that cultural conditioning is a more major determinant of human behavior than genetic inheritance, she challenged prevailing assumptions about gender roles and aroused hope for a better human society. However, lacking a model of family and society appropriate to the culture of the West, and in particular the United States, her activism had negative as well as positive impact. In breaking down narrow societal norms regarding human sexuality her work supported the sexual revolution and increased promiscuity. Nevertheless, her optimistic view of the potential of human behavior to change for the better is her enduring legacy.
Margaret Mead was born on December 16, 1901 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, and was the oldest of four children. Her father was on the faculty of the Wharton School of Finance and Commerce and her mother a sociologist and early advocate of women's rights. Margaret graduated from Barnard College (the women's college affiliated with Columbia University) in 1923, majoring in psychology, and enrolled in graduate school at Columbia University. While in her senior year at Barnard, Mead took a course from Franz Boas, Columbia's professor of anthropology. His graduate teaching assistant, Ruth Benedict, persuaded Mead to switch to anthropology.
In 1923, Mead married Luther Cressman, a theology student. He remained in New York while she spent nine months studying local customs in Samoa in 1925-1926. She published her findings in 1928. Mead received her Ph.D. from Columbia University in 1929.
On the ship back to the US from Samoa via Europe, she fell in love with Reo Fortune, a psychologist from New Zealand who later shifted to anthropology. Mead divorced Cressman in 1928, married Fortune in the same year, and the newly married couple moved to New Guinea, where they spent several years studying child and adolescent development in the Manus cultures.
In 1935, Mead divorced Fortune and in 1936 married the English anthropologist Gregory Bateson. The couple spent four years, from 1936 to 1939, studying Indonesian cultures. Finally, in 1939, Mead fulfilled a long-standing dream and bore her first and only child, Mary Catherine Bateson, who also became an anthropologist. The couple divorced in 1950.
In addition to her three marriages, Mead also a close relationship with Ruth Benedict. They were professional collaborators who at times also shared an intimate sexual relationship. Despite marriages, affairs, and fieldwork that took them both to many different parts of the world, Mead and Benedict remained close over the 25 years until Benedict's death (Lapsley 2001). "Both Ruth and Margaret espoused free-love doctrines that called for sexual experimentation and prohibited jealousy, but both also believed in marriage and feared compromising their careers" (Banner 2003). This was not Mead's only close relationship with a woman. During a period of 17 years (1961-1978) Mead shared a house with Rhoda Metraux while the two of them co-authored a regular column for Redbook magazine.
Mead had a distinguished academic career. She had joined the American Museum of Natural History in New York City, as assistant curator, in 1926 and eventually served as its curator from 1961 to 1969. In addition, she taught at Columbia University, at New York University, Emory University, Yale University, and the University of Cincinnati. She founded the Department of Anthropology at Fordham University.
Mead received numerous honorary doctorates, and served as president of the American Anthropological Association, the Anthropological Film Institute, the Scientists Institute for Public Information, the Society for Applied Anthropology, and the American Association for Advancement in Science.
As a celebrity, Mead spoke out on a wide range of social issues including women's rights, parenting, racism, drug abuse, pollution, and war. She was an advocate of birth control, repeal of anti-abortion laws, and right to die legislation.
She firmly believed that human behavior was learned and so could be reshaped by a society determined to make changes for the better. In a time of pessimism about the future of human society, she became known for her optimistic view: "Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has."
Mead broke her ankle in 1960 and, disliking the bent over posture caused by the use of a cane, she adopted a taller "thumb stick," obtained in London, allowing her to walk upright. She continued to use it for the rest of her life as her personal symbol of human plasticity and the capacity for change.
In her last years, still an Episcopalian in religion, Mead took a considerable part in the drafting of the 1979 American Book of Common Prayer. Mead continued to research, write, and teach until she died from cancer in New York City on November 15, 1978, aged 76. In 1979, she was posthumously awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest civilian honor in the United States.
Following the example of her instructor, Ruth Benedict, Mead concentrated her studies on problems of child rearing, personality, and culture. Her work in cultural anthropology, especially of Polynesian cultures brought her fame. Her Coming of Age in Samoa (1928) has, since its publication, become one of the classics in anthropological literature and a staple text for instruction in undergraduate anthropology.
Mead's list of publications includes nearly 1400 entries, including 10 books, numerous professional journal articles, and even more popular articles written in such publications as the New York Times Magazine, Look, The Nation, the Saturday Review, and Redbook. Her books covered a broad range of themes within anthropology while her articles in non-professional publications ranged from bomb shelters, to witches, family problems, and astrology. She recorded radio programs, narrated films and videotapes, and traveled widely internationally giving lectures. Additionally, she was a member of the National Academy of Sciences and a consultant to government testifying to different congressional committees on a wide variety of subjects.
In the forward to Coming of Age in Samoa, Mead's advisor, Franz Boas, wrote of its significance:
Courtesy, modesty, good manners, conformity to definite ethical standards are universal, but what constitutes courtesy, modesty, good manners, and definite ethical standards is not universal. It is instructive to know that standards differ in the most unexpected ways.
Boas regarded a study of the problems faced by adolescents in another culture to be illuminating, especially due to the fact that so little was yet known about the subject. Mead herself described the goal of her research:
I have tried to answer the question which sent me to Samoa: Are the disturbances which vex our adolescents due to the nature of adolescence itself or to the civilization? Under different conditions does adolescence present a different picture? (Mead, 1928/2001, 6-7)
Mead conducted her study among a small group of Samoans in a village of six hundred people on the island of Tau, Samoa. She got to know, lived with, observed, and interviewed 68 young women between the ages of 9 and 20, and concluded that the passage from childhood to adulthood (adolescence) in Samoa was a smooth transition, not marked by the emotional or psychological distress, anxiety, or confusion seen in the United States. Portraying a society characterized by a lack of deep feelings and by a lack of conflict, neuroses, and difficult situations, the book offered Samoa as a clear example supporting the thesis that teenagers are psychologically healthier if they engage in sexual activities with multiple partners before marriage. The book was much more than a report of research conducted. It included an insightful introduction, a popularized opening chapter on "A Day in Samoa," and two popularized concluding chapters drawing lessons from the Samoan culture that Mead thought could be applied to improve the adolescent experience in the U.S.
As Boas and Mead expected, this book upset many Westerners when it first appeared in 1928. Many American readers felt shocked by her observation that young Samoan women deferred marriage for many years while enjoying casual sex, but eventually married, settled down, and successfully reared their own children. While the public focused on Mead's arguments about sexuality, the book was also a major statement supporting the view that culture overrides genetics in determining human character. The book started many controversies, of which the one with Derek Freeman was the most famous.
The "Freeman-Mead Controversy" about Coming of Age in Samoa carries multiple overtones similar to those of the original book. Mead, an advocate of cultural determinism and free love, found in Samoa a culture that substantiated her beliefs. Derek Freeman, an advocate of the view that character is determined by the interplay of genetics and culture, and an advocate also of a monogamous sexual ethic, found a Samoan culture that substantiated his beliefs and disproved Mead's model. While The New York Times in its first article on the Freeman book emphasized the "nature-nurture" issue and the connection between ideology and scholarship the issue of sexual mores was also a recurrent theme of the media coverage of the controversy. (Orans 1996)
Freeman, an anthropologist from New Zealand, was inspired by Mead's work, and spent four years there following up on her findings. He published his refutation of her work, Margaret Mead and Samoa: The Making and Unmaking of an Anthropological Myth in 1983, five years after Mead had died. The book of more than 350 pages is both a general statement about the whole controversy over biological determinism versus cultural determinism, and a specific statement about Mead's research procedures in Samoa and her published results. In conclusion, Freeman presented ideas about how to adapt anthropology to be more scientific in nature.
On the topic of sexuality in the controversy, a common point of focus of media articles was a few pages in which Freeman directly challenged the veracity of Mead's sources related to sexual practices. In those pages, he reported that Mead had been misled in the extreme by two of the girls with whom she spoke, and at worst may have been fabricating her whole research:
…while traveling around the islands with two teenage girls, she had the opportunity to question them privately about their sex lives and those of their friends... Mead kept prodding the girls. She did not want to hear about traditional taboos or Christian restraints. She wanted to hear about frolicking on the beach. The girls had no idea what Mead was up to. They didn't know she was an anthropologist or what one even was. But what they did know and enjoy was the "recreational lying" common among Samoan girls. Eager to please, they proceeded to spin the kind of yarns that Mead wanted to hear. Pinching each other all the way, they filled Mead's head with wild tales of nocturnal liaisons under the palm trees. (Freeman 1983)
It should be acknowledged that Freeman's account has been challenged as being ideologically driven to support his own theoretical viewpoint (sociobiology), and that considerable controversy remains over the veracity, or otherwise, of both Mead's and Freeman's account. Lowell Holmes (1987) completed a much less publicized study, and later commented that
Mead was better able to identify with, and therefore establish rapport with, adolescents and young adults on issues of sexuality than either I (at age 29, married with a wife and child) or Freeman, ten years my senior. (Holmes and Holmes 1992)
Anthropologists, even those who may have been critical themselves of Mead's methods or her constant communications to the general public, gathered round in support of Mead. Freeman was critiquing not only Mead's work but a whole type of anthropological studies. Freeman was criticized on methodological and empirical grounds. For example, it was charged that Freeman conflated publicly articulated ideals with behavioral norms. While many Samoan women would admit in public that it is ideal to remain a virgin, in practice they engaged in high levels of premarital sex and boasted about their sexual affairs amongst themselves (Shore 1982, 229-230). Freeman's own data supported Mead's conclusions: in a western Samoan village he documented that 20 percent of 15 year-olds, 30 percent of 16 year-olds, and 40 percent of 17 year-olds had engaged in pre-marital sex (Freeman 1983, 238-240). Freeman was also accused of having the same ethnocentric sexual point of view as the people Boas and Mead once shocked. The American Anthropological Association declared Freeman's Margaret Mead and Samoa "poorly written, unscientific, irresponsible and misleading."
In the years that followed, anthropologists vigorously debated these issues but generally continued to criticize Freeman (see Appell 1984, Brady 1991, Feinberg 1988, Leacock 1988, Levy 1984, Marshall 1993, Nardi 1984, Patience and Smith 1986, Paxman 1988, Scheper-Hughes 1984, Shankman 1996, and Young and Juan 1985).
In 1999, a Samoan chief published "Coming of Age in American Anthropology: Margaret Mead and Paradise." The book contains the chief's strong critique of Mead's work and asserts reasons to consider the book and the research program behind it as revealing a profound hubris characteristic of much of anthropology as it has painted pictures of primitive societies while assuming that the primitives should not even be consulted as to the validity of the picture (Isaia 1999). Lacking support from a major university or research institute, the book seems to have been largely ignored. Nonetheless, it does examine Coming of Age in Samoa from a valuable alternate perspective and through a spotlight on an important issue.
Mead's work on the Manus of New Guinea, Growing Up in New Guinea (Mead 1930), refuted the notion that "primitive" people are like children, at an earlier stage of psychological development. Based on her findings, she argued that human development depends on the social environment, reflecting her belief in cultural determinism.
Another of Mead's influential books was Sex and Temperament in Three Primitive Societies (Mead 1935). In this, she argued that gender roles differ in different societies, and thus depend at least as much on culture as biology. This became a major cornerstone of the women's liberation movement, since it claimed that females were dominant in the Tchambuli (now spelled Chambri) tribe of Papua New Guinea, without causing any societal problems.
She also found that the Arapesh, both men and women, were pacifists, and lived in a cooperative society, sharing garden plots, with an egalitarian emphasis in child-rearing, and predominantly peaceful relations among family members. Among the Mundugumor, however, the opposite was true: both men and women were warlike in temperament.
When comparing Arapesh, Mundugumor, and the Tchambuli cultures, Mead concluded that cultures mold human behavior. While in the Arapesh culture both women and men were cooperative, in Mundugumor they were both rather aggressive, and in the Tchambuli culture the women had the dominant role in society. Mead thus coined her famous statement: "human nature is malleable."
Mead remains one of the most famous American anthropologists of the twentieth century. The U.S. Postal Service issued a Mead Commemorative Stamp in 1998 as part of its "Celebrate the Century" series. The extensive collection of notes, manuscripts, letters, photographs, recordings, and other materials that Mead preserved are housed in the Library of Congress, and available to scholars interested in evaluating and building on her research. To commemorate the one-hundredth anniversary of her birth, the Library of Congress prepared an exhibition to document major themes in Mead's life and work.
Although controversial, Mead's contribution to the development of modern anthropology was great. She was one of the first to suggest that masculinity and femininity reflect cultural conditioning, and that gender differences are not entirely biologically determined. Her views on gender roles were quite radical for the time she lived in, but they led toward breaking of many taboos that existed in mid twentieth-century American society.
Mead was not only a pioneering anthropologist, she was also an outspoken activist. Although she did not like to be called a feminist, Mead is considered one of the pioneers of the feminist movement. Among Mead's many letters to husbands and lovers there is a record of her practice of maintaining a lesbian relation with Ruth Benedict and other women throughout her three heterosexual marriages. With her high-profile public exposure, her prolific expression of her ideas, and her focus on family structure, childrearing, gender, and education she was powerful force pushing a transformation of the moral standards related to sexuality.
Mead's preference for addressing the public audience placed her at times outside the norms of scientific anthropology. In effect, she sacrificed a measure of academic stature and in return gained a nearly unprecedented public stature and public influence for her writings and speeches. Through her work many people learned about anthropology and its holistic vision of human beings. When she died, many identified her as the most famous anthropologist in the world.
Mead was very effective in pointing out the limitations and problems of the culture of the United States and the associated stresses that were apparent, especially among adolescents. Through her studies of much simpler societies in Samoa, New Guinea, and Bali, she was able to shed important light on the ways in which culture conditions certain human behaviors. However, she did not find within those societies models of behavior or extended family that could be effectively transposed onto such a complex, rapidly transforming culture as that of the U.S.
Lacking a model of family and society appropriate to the multi-faceted and upwardly mobile peoples comprising the U.S. population, she nonetheless became an advocate for making changes in social conventions related to gender roles and sexual morality—in ways that endeared her to one segment of society and made her a reviled threat to another segment. While many would agree that the rigid gender role patterns of the American culture needed to be loosened and the valuation of women needed to be enhanced, many of those same people also would take issue with the loose sexual morality advocated both directly and indirectly by Mead. Her conviction that human behavior is not biologically determined, but adapts to the prevailing culture, gave hope to many for positive change in society at a time when there was little sign of a peaceful, harmonious world.
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