Margaret Mead (December 16, 1901, Philadelphia – November 15, 1978, New York City) was an American cultural anthropologist who was frequently a featured writer and speaker in the mass media throughout the 1960s and 1970s.
She was both a popularizer of the insights of anthropology into modern American and Western culture, and also a respected, if controversial, academic anthropologist.
Birth, early family life and education
Mead was the first of five children, born into a Quaker
family, raised in Doylestown, Pennsylvania
by her finance professor father at the University at Pennsylvania, Edward Sherwood Mead, and mother, Emily Fogg Mead, a sociologist who studied Italian immigrants. Her family moved frequently, so her early education alternated between home-schooling
and traditional schools. Margaret studied one year, 1919 at DePauw University
, then transferred to Barnard College
where she earned her Bachelor's Degree in 1923.
She studied with Professor Franz Boas and Dr. Ruth Benedict at Columbia University before earning her Master's in 1924. Mead set out in 1925 to do fieldwork in Polynesia. In 1926, she joined the American Museum of Natural History, New York City, as assistant curator. She received her Ph.D. from Columbia University in 1929.
Margaret Mead was married three times. Her first marriage, from 1923 to 1928, was to Luther Cressman
, a theological student during his marriage to Mead, and later an anthropologist himself. Mead dismissively characterized her marriage to Cressman as "my student marriage" in Blackberry Winter
, a sobriquet with which Cressman took vigorous issue. She was then married to New Zealander Reo Fortune
, a Cambridge
graduate, from 1928 to 1935; Fortune was also an anthropologist, but is best known for his Fortunate number
theory. Her marriage to Fortune was described by her as a more passionate one, embarked upon when she was told that she could not have children and abandoned when she was given hope by another physician that childbearing might indeed be possible.
Her third and longest-lasting marriage (from 1936 to 1950) was to British anthropologist Gregory Bateson, also a Cambridge graduate, with whom she had a daughter, Mary Catherine Bateson who also became an anthropologist. Early in his career, Dr. Benjamin Spock was her pediatrician for the baby. Mead's experiences observing how babies were raised in other cultures, and her implementation of some of the same techniques such as breastfeeding on demand according to the baby's need rather than a schedule, were influential on Spock's subsequent writings on child-rearing. She readily acknowledged that Bateson was the one she loved most of her three husbands, possibly in part because he was the father of her only child. She was devastated when he left her, and she remained his loving friend to her life's end, keeping his photograph by her bedside wherever she travelled, including beside her hospital deathbed.
Mead also had an exceptionally close relationship with Ruth Benedict. Mead's daughter, Mary Catherine Bateson, in her memoir of her parents With a Daughter's Eye, implies that the relationship between Benedict and Mead contained an erotic element. While Margaret Mead never openly identified herself as lesbian or bisexual, the details of her relationship with Benedict have led others to identify her thus; in her writings she proposed that it is to be expected that an individual's sexual orientation may evolve throughout life.
She spent her last years in a close personal and professional collaboration with anthropologist Rhoda Metraux, with whom she lived from 1955 until her death in 1978. Letters between the two published in 2006 with the permission of Mead's daughter clearly express a romantic relationship.
Mead's granddaughter, Sevanne Margaret Kassarjian, is a stage and television actress who works professionally under the name Sevanne Martin, Martin having been the intended name for her prematurely born elder brother, who lived only long enough to be christened.
Both of Mead's surviving sisters were married to famous men. Elizabeth Mead (1909-1983), an artist and teacher, married cartoonist William Steig, and Priscilla Mead (1911-1959) married author Leo Rosten. Both of these marriages produced children, but ended in divorce. Mead also had a brother, Richard Mead (1904-1975), a professor of business.
Mead's sister Katharine (1906-1907) died at the age of nine months. This was a traumatic event for Mead, who had named this baby, and thoughts of her lost sister permeated her daydreams for many years.
Career and later life
During World War II
, Mead served as executive secretary of the National Research Council
's Committee on Food Habits. She served as curator of ethnology
at the American Museum of Natural History from 1946 to 1969. She taught at Columbia University as adjunct professor from 1954 to 1978. She was a professor of anthropology and chair of Division of Social Sciences at Fordham University
's Lincoln Center campus from 1968 to 1970, founding their anthropology department. Following the example of her instructor Ruth Benedict, Mead concentrated her studies on problems of child rearing, personality, and culture. She held various positions in the American Association for the Advancement of Science
, notably president in 1975 and chair of the executive committee of the board of directors in 1976.
In later life, Mead was a mentor to many young anthropologists and sociologists, including Jean Houston.
Mead died of pancreatic cancer on November 15, 1978.
Margaret Mead was both a popularizer of the insights of anthropology into modern American and western life
, and also a respected, if controversial, academic anthropologist. Her reports about the purportedly healthy attitude towards sex in South Pacific and Southeast Asian traditional cultures amply informed the 1960s sexual revolution
. Mead was a champion of broadened sexual mores within a context of traditional western religious life.
A committed Anglican Christian, she took a considerable part in the drafting of the 1979 American Episcopal Book of Common Prayer.
She was a recognizable figure in academia, usually wearing a distinctive cape and carrying a tall, forked walking stick.
Coming of Age in Samoa
In the foreword to Coming of Age in Samoa
, Mead's advisor, Franz Boas
, wrote of its significance that
- Courtesy, modesty, good manners, conformity to definite ethical standards are universal, but what constitutes courtesy, modesty, very good manners, and definite ethical standards is not universal. It is instructive to know that standards differ in the most unexpected ways.
Boas went on to point out that at the time of publication, many Americans had begun to discuss the problems faced by young people (particularly women) as they pass through adolescence as "unavoidable periods of adjustment." Boas felt that a study of the problems faced by adolescents in another culture would be illuminating.
And so, as 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?" To answer this question, she conducted her study among a small group of Samoans — a village of 600 people on the island of Ta‘ū — in which she got to know, lived with, observed, and interviewed (through an interpreter) 68 young women between the ages of 9 and 20. She concluded that the passage from childhood to adulthood (adolescence) in Samoa was a smooth transition and not marked by the emotional or psychological distress, anxiety, or confusion seen in the United States.
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.
The Mead-Freeman controversy
In 1983, five years after Mead had died, Derek Freeman
published Margaret Mead and Samoa: The Making and Unmaking of an Anthropological Myth
, in which he challenged all of Mead's major findings. Freeman based his critique on his own four years of field experience in Samoa and on recent interviews with Mead's surviving informants. The argument hinged on the place of the taupou
system in Samoan society. According to Mead, the taupou system is one of institutionalized virginity for young women of high rank, but it is exclusive to women of high rank. According to Freeman, all Samoan women emulated the taupou system and Mead's informants denied having engaged in casual sex as young women, and claimed that they had lied to Mead (see Freeman 1983).
After an initial flurry of discussion, many anthropologists concluded that the truth would probably never be known, although most published accounts of the debate have also raised serious questions about Freeman's critique.
First, these critics have speculated that he waited until Mead died before publishing his critique so that she would not be able to respond. However, when Freeman died in 2001, his obituary in the New York Times pointed out that Freeman tried to publish his criticism of Mead as early as 1971, but American publishers rejected his manuscript. In 1978, Freeman sent a revised manuscript to Mead. But Mead, who was ill and died a few months later, did not respond.
Second, Freeman's critics point out that by the time Freeman arrived on the scene Mead's original informants were old women, grandmothers, and had converted to Christianity, so their testimony to him may not have been accurate. They further allege that Samoan culture had changed considerably in the decades following Mead's original research, that after intense missionary activity many Samoans had come to adopt the same sexual standards as the Americans who were once so shocked by Mead's book. They suggested that such women, in this new context, were unlikely to speak frankly about their adolescent behavior (one of Freeman's interviewees gave her born-again faith as the reason for admitting to what she now claimed was a past deception.) Further, they suggested that these women might not be as forthright and honest about their sexuality when speaking to an elderly man as they would have been speaking to a woman near their own age.
Some anthropologists also criticized Freeman on methodological and empirical grounds. For example, they claimed that Freeman had conflated publicly articulated ideals with behavioral norms — that is, 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. Freeman's own data documented the existence of premarital sexual activity in Samoa. In a western Samoan village he documented that 20% of 15-year-olds, 30% of 16-year-olds, and 40% of 17-year-olds had engaged in premarital sex. In 1983, the American Anthropological Association passed a motion declaring Freeman's Margaret Mead and Samoa "poorly written, unscientific, irresponsible and misleading." In the years that followed, anthropologists vigorously debated these issues but generally supported the critique of Freeman's work.
Freeman continued to argue his case in the 1999 publication of The Fateful Hoaxing of Margaret Mead: A Historical Analysis of Her Samoan Research, introducing new information in support of his arguments.
After Freeman died, the New York Times concluded that "many anthropologists have agreed to disagree over the findings of one of the science's founding mothers, acknowledging both Mead's pioneering research and the fact that she may have been mistaken on details."
Research in other societies
Another extremely influential book by Mead was Sex and Temperament in Three Primitive Societies
. This became a major cornerstone of the women's liberation movement, since it claimed that females are dominant in the Tchambuli (now spelled Chambri
) Lake region of the Sepik basin of Papua New Guinea
(in the western Pacific) without causing any special problems. The lack of male dominance may have been the result of the Australian administration's outlawing of warfare. According to contemporary research, males are dominant throughout Melanesia (although some believe that female witches have special powers). Others have argued that there is still much cultural variation throughout Melanesia, and especially in the large island of New Guinea
. Moreover, anthropologists often overlook the significance of networks of political influence among females. The formal male-dominated institutions typical of some high-population density areas were not, for example, present in the same way in Oksapmin, West Sepik Province, a more sparsely populated area. Cultural patterns there were different from, say, Mt. Hagen. They were closer to those described by Mead.
Mead stated that the Arapesh people, also in the Sepik, were pacifists, although she noted that they do on occasion engage in warfare. Meanwhile, her observations about the sharing of garden plots amongst the Arapesh, the egalitarian emphasis in child-rearing, and her documentation of predominantly peaceful relations among relatives hold up. These descriptions are very different from the "big-man" displays of dominance that were documented in more stratified New Guinea cultures — e.g., by Andrew Strathern. They are, indeed, as she wrote, a cultural pattern.
In brief, her comparative study revealed a full range of contrasting gender roles:
- *"Among the Arapesh, both men and women were peaceful in temperament and neither men nor women made war.
- *"Among the Mundugumor, the opposite was true: both men and women were warlike in temperament.
- *"And the Tchambuli were different from both. The men 'primped' and spent their time decorating themselves while the women worked and were the practical ones — the opposite of how it seemed in early 20th century America."
Mead also researched the European shtetl, financed by the American Jewish Committee. Although her interviews at Columbia University with 128 European-born Jews disclosed a wide variety of family structures and experiences, the publications resulting from this study and the many citations in the popular media resulted in the Jewish mother stereotype, intensely loving but controlling to the point of smothering, and engendering enormous guilt in her children through the enormous suffering she professed to undertake for their sakes.
She also was a co-founder and supporter of "The Parapsychological Association ", for the advancement of parapsychology and psychical research.
As a sole author
- Coming of Age in Samoa (1928) ISBN 0-688-05033-6
- Growing Up in New Guinea (1930) ISBN 0-688-17811-1
- The Changing Culture of an Indian Tribe (1932)
- Sex and Temperament in Three Primitive Societies (1935)
- And Keep Your Powder Dry: An Anthropologist Looks at America (1942)
- Male and Female (1949) ISBN 0-688-14676-7
- New Lives for Old: Cultural Transformation in Manus, 1928-1953 (1956)
- People and Places (1959; a book for young readers)
- Continuities in Cultural Evolution (1964)
- Culture and Commitment (1970)
- Blackberry Winter (1972; a biographical account of her early years) ISBN 0-317-60065-6As editor or co-author
- Cultural Patterns and Technical Change, ed. (1953)
- Primitive Heritage: An Anthropological Anthology, ed. with Nicholas Calas (1953)
- An Anthropologist at Work, ed. (1959, repr. 1966; a volume of Ruth Benedict's writings)
- "The Study of Culture At A Distance" Edited with Rhoda Metraux, 1953
- "Themes in French Culture" Co-authored with Rhoda Metraux, 1954
- A Rap on Race, Co-authored with James Baldwin, 1971
- "A Way of Seeing" Co-authored with Rhoda Metraux, 1975
- Gregory Acciaioli, ed. 1983 "Fact and Context in Etnography: The Samoa Controversy" Canberra Anthropology (special issue) 6(1): 1-97.
- George Appell, 1984 "Freeman's Refutation of Mead's Coming of Age in Samoa: The Implications for Anthropological Inquiry" Eastern Anthropology 37: 183-214.
- Mary Catherine Bateson, With a Daughter's Eye. 1984 ISBN 0-688-03962-6 , (2003 ppb ISBN 0-06-097573-3)
- Ivan Brady, 1991 "The Samoa Reader: Last Word or Lost Horizon?" Current Anthropology 32: 263-282.
- Hiram Caton, Editor (1990). "The Samoa Reader: Anthropologists Take Stock". University Press of America. ISBN 0-8191-7720-2.
- Richard Feinberg 1988 "Margaret Mead and Samoa: Coming of Age in Fact and Fiction" American Anthropologist 90: 656-663
- Leonora Foerstel and Angela Gilliam (eds) (1992). Confronting the Margaret Mead Legacy: Scholarship, Empire and the South Pacific. Philadelphia: Temple University Press
- Derek Freeman (1983). Margaret Mead and Samoa. Cambridge, London: Harvard University Press. ISBN 0-674-54830-2.
- Derek Freeman (1999). The Fateful Hoaxing of Margaret Mead: A Historical Analysis of Her Samoan Research. Boulder, Colorado: Westview Press. ISBN 0-8133-3693-7.
- Hilary Lapsley (1999) Margaret Mead and Ruth Benedict: The Kinship of Women University of Massachusetts Press. ISBN 1-55849-181-3
- Lowell D. Holmes (1987) Quest for the Real Samoa: the Mead/Freeman Controversy and Beyond. South Hadley: Bergin and Garvey
- Howard, Jane (1984) Margaret Mead: A Life. New York: Simon and Schuster.
- Eleanor Leacock 1988 "Anthropologists in Search of a Culture: Margaret Mead, Derek Freeman and All the Rest of Us" in Central Issues in Anthropology 8(1): 3-20.
- Robert Levy 1984 "Mead, Freeman, and Samoa: The Problem of Seeing Things as They Are" Ethos 12: 85-92
- Jeannette Mageo 1988 Mālosi: A Psychological Exploration of Mead's and Freeman's Work and of Samoan Aggression" Pacific Studies 11(2): 25-65
- Mac Marshall 1993 "The Wizard from Oz Meets the Wicked Witch of the East: Freeman, Mead, and Ethnographic Authority" in American Ethnologist20(3): 604-617.
- Bonnie Nardi 1984 "The Height of Her Powers: Margaret Mead's Samoa" Feminist Studies 10: 323-337.
- Allan Patience and Josephy Smith 1987 "Derek Freeman in Samoa: The Making and Unmaking of a Biobehavioral Myth" American Anthropologist 88: 157-162.
- David B. Paxman 1988 "Freeman, Mead, and the Eighteenth-Century Controversy over Polynesian Society" Pacific Studies 1(3): 1-19
- Roger Sandall 2001 The Culture Cult: Designer Tribalism and Other Essays ISBN 0-8133-3863-8
- Nancy Scheper-Hughes 1984 "The Margaret Mead Controversy: Culture, Biology, and Anthropological Inquiry" in Human Organization 43(1): 85-93.
- Paul Shankman 1996 "The History of Samoan Sexual Conduct and the Mead-Freeman Controversy" in American Anthropologist98(3): 555-567.
- Brad Shore 1982 Sala'ilua: A Samoan Mystery New York: Columbia University Press.
- R.E. Young and S. Juan 1985 "Freeman's Margaret Mead Myth: The Ideological Virginity of Anthropologists Australian and New Zealand Journal of Sociology 21: 64-81.
- Mary E. Virginia, "DISCovering U.S. History", Benedict, Ruth (1887-1948), Online Edition, (ed Detroit: Gale), 2003