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Margaret Mead (1901-1978)


American anthropologist, author, lecturer, one of the most influential female thinkers in the social sciences. Margaret Mead was a celebrity as well as an intellectual, who wrote academic and popular books. However, some doubts have arisen about her famous Coming in Age in Samoa (1928), but otherwise Mead is respected as a major scientist in anthropology. Her other works include Male and Female  (1949), An Anthropologist at Work  (1959), a study of her colleague Ruth Benedict, A Rap on Race (1971) with James Baldwin, and memoirs Blackberry Winter (1972).

"As the traveler who has once been from home is wiser than he who has never left his own doorstep, so a knowledge of one other culture should sharpen our ability to scrutinize more steadily, to appreciate more lovingly, our own." (from Coming of Age in Samoa, 1928)

Margaret Mead was born in Philadelphia into a Quaker family. The family tradition was strong in the social sciences. Her father, Edward Sherwood Mead, was a professor of economics at the University of Pennsylvania, and mother, Emily (Fogg) Mead, a sociologist. In her early childhood, before she knew what the words meant, Mead learned to say, "My father majored in economics and minored in sociology and my mother majored in sociology ad minored in economics." In 1919 she entered DePauw University but transferred after a year to Barnard College, where she took a course in anthropology with Professor Franz Boas (1858-1942) and his assistant, Dr. Ruth Benedict; she was fifteen years older and a Ph.D. candidate in anthropology at Columbia University.

According to Margaret Caffey's biography about Ruth Benedict, Mead became eventually Benedict's intimate friend. They met in Rome in 1926 after Mead returned to Europe from her first fieldwork trip in Samoa. Benedict was five feet eight inches tall, had a large and athletic body. At that time her hair was cut shor; she resembled an Amazon. Mead was feminine in appearance. "I never played the male role in any relationship," she once said.

Mead's first marriage with Luther S. Cressman, a minister and archaeologist, ended in 1928. In the same year she married Dr. Reo F. Fortune, a New Zealand anthropologist, with whom she published Growing Up in New Guinea (1930). It compared observations of Pacific Island life with contemporary American educational system. Without accepting promiscuity Mead suggested that in modern society sex attitudes might be more relaxed.

Mead received her Ph.D. in 1929 from Columbia University. She carried out a number of field studies in the Pacific. Edward Mead once had said her, "It's a pity you aren't a boy; you'd have gone far." Her first field trip Mead made in 1925-26 to the island of Tau, in Samoa. There she studied the development of girls in that society, and published the results in Coming of Age in Samoa. In the study she investigated adolescence lovemaking, and demonstrated that the transition of Samoan young girls into adult women went apparently without emotional crises. The result was contrasted with that of American girls. Mead suggested, that Americans could learn things from the Samoans about rising children. An Australian researcher, Derek Freeman, claimed in his book Margaret Mead and Samoa (1983), that she had ignored biological factors in favor of a theory of cultural determination of sex roles. Jane Howard in her biography of Margaret Mead (1984) tells that she characterized the men of the Arapesh people of New Guinea as gentle and unaggressive while her co-worker Reo F. Fortune recorded that many old men "claimed one or more war homicides to his credit."

On her other expeditions Mead made field studies in the Admiralty Islands, New Guinea, and Bali. From 1926 Mead held a position at the American Museum of Natural History in New York. She remained a member of the staff for the rest of her career, retiring as a curator emeritus of ethnology in 1969. Mead was a visiting lecturer at Vassar College (1939-41), a lecturer at Columbia University (1947-51), and from 1954 to 1978 she was an adjunct professor of anthropology at Columbia. From 1969 to 1971 Mead served as a professor of anthropology and a chairman of the Division of Social Sciences at Fordham University. She also held a number of visiting professorships. At the age of 72, she was elected to the presidency of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

In 1936 Mead went with her third husband, the English anthropologist Gregory Bateson, to Bali to do field work. After about fifteen years, they divorced, but the period was probably the richest in her life. "American women are good mothers," she once said, "but they make poor wives; Americans are very poor at being attentive to anybody else." In their Bali years they took and annotated 25,000 photographs. Catherine Bateson, their daughter and only child, born in 1939, become the target of her parent's enthusiastic observations – her birth was filmed and her childhood was scrupulously recorded. Balinese Character appeared in 1942 and Growth and Culture, written with the collaboration of Frances Cooke Macgregor, in 1951.

During World War II Mead served as an executive secretary of the committee on food habits of the National Research Council. She wrote pamphlets for the Office of War Information. After the war Mead published Male and Female: A Study of the Sexes in a Changing World, which made use of her observations of people in the South Pacific and the East Indies. "We know of no culture that has said, articulately, that there is no difference between men and women except in the way they contribute to the creation of the next generation." (from Male and Female, 1948) Partly Mead wanted to prove that although there are certain differences between sexes – connected with impregnation, giving birth and nursing – they shouldn't be considered restrictions. In the last chapter Mead defended women's right to develop their talents.

Mead also tentatively presented the supposition that men have a subtle superiority in natural sciences, mathematics, and instrumental music compared to women, who are more skillful in humanities in which they can use intuition. Themes in French Culture (1954) was an attempt to apply anthropological mythology to the study of Western society. It was written with Rhoda Budendey Métraux, a younger colleague with whom Mead shared a house in Greenwich Village for many years.

"Mead's anthropology had many other red, white and blue- blooded virtues. One was the common anthropological conceit, out of which she made a career, to the effect that the ultimate value of studying other cultures was the use we could make of them to reconstruct our own a heady kind of intellectual imperialism, as if the final meaning of others' lives was their significance for us." (Marshall Sahlins in The New York Times, August 26, 1984)

With her publications, lectures on women's rights, child rearing and education and other social issues Mead became something of a guru, a larger than life character, who, in spite of her 5-foot-2-inch figure, was always the center of attention wherever she went. Noteworthy, before Mildred Crary initiated a serious campaign to launch Mead as a presidential candidate, David Cort wrote in 1963 a satirical article  or Monocle, titled 'Margaret Mead for President,' in which he put words in Mead's mouth as to her assessment of the childhood experiences of the various potential Republican candidates from Richard Nixon to Nelson Rockefeller. Mead  never had high hopes for the candidacy because she had been married and divorced three times. The FBI kept a file on Mead. Some of her anthropological colleagues were subjected  to intensive interrogation from the FBI. In the article 'What Makes the Soviet Character' (Natural History, 1951) Mead argued that "If a hundred Russian babies chosen at random were exchanged for a hundred American babies chosen at random, we assume that the Soviet-born babies would grow up to be indistinguishable from other children reared in the United States, and the American-born babies would be indistinguishable from other Soviet-reared children." Shortly after President Kennedy took office, he invited her to White House to discuss on the subject of the Russian character.

Among Mead's several awards is Unesco's Kalinga Prize. Its other receivers include Björn Kurtén, George Gamow, Fred Hoyle, Julian Huxley, Konrad Lorenz, and Bertrand Russell. One of her central themes in speeches and writings was that while cultural factors are fundamental determinants of behavior, they are themselves open to influences and capable of improvement. Mead's memoirs, Blackberry Winter, came out in 1972. She died of cancer in New York on November 15, 1978. From her 39 books, she wrote 15 in collaboration. Mead also was Ruth Benedict's (1887-1948) literary executor and published in 1959 an anthology, An Anthropologist at Work, based on her colleague's letters, diaries, and other writings. Mead's daughter, Mary Catherine Bateson Kassarjian, became an anthropologist and dean of social sciences at Raza Shah Civar University in Iran. Valuable first-hand information of Margaret Mead is to be found in her work With a Daughter's Eye: Letters From the Field, 1925-1975 (1984).

For further reading: Margaret Mead: A Biography by Mary Bowman-Kruhm (2011); The Trashing of Margaret Mead: Anatomy of an Anthropological Controversy by Paul Shankman and Paul S. Boyer (2009); Margaret Mead: The Making of an American Icon by Nancy Lutkehaus (2008); Intertwined Lives: Margaret Mead, Ruth Benedict, and Their Circle by Lois W. Banner (2003); Adolescent Storm and Stress by J.E. Cote (1994); Margaret Mead by Edra Ziesk (1990); Margaret Mead by Phyllis Grosskurth (1989); Ruth Benedict: Stranger in This Land by M.M. Caffey (1989); Margaret Mead: A Life by Jane Howard (1985); Margaret Mead, a Life by J. Howard (1984); Margaret Mead and Samoa: The Making and Unmaking of an Anthropological Myth by D. Freeman (1983)

Selected works:

  • Coming of Age in Samoa, 1928
  • An Inquiry Into the Question of Cultural Stability in Polynesia, 1928
  • The Maoris and Their Arts , 1928
  • Growing Up In New Guinea, 1930
  • Social Organization of Manu'a, 1930
  • The Changing Culture of an Indian Tribe, 1932
  • Sex and Temperament in Three Primitive Societies, 1935
    - Sukupuoli ja luonne kolmessa primitiivisessä yhteiskunnassa (suom. Aarne Sipponen, 1963)
  • The Mountain Arapesh, 1938-49 (5 vols. in 4)
  • From the South Seas: Studies of Adolescence and Sex in Primitive Societies, 1939
  • Balinese Character, 1942 (with Gregory Bateson)
  • And Keep Your Powder Dry: An Anthropologist Looks at America, 1942
  • Balinese Character: A Photographic Analysis, 1942
  • Male and Female, 1949
    - Mies ja nainen (suom. Annika Takala, 1957)
  • Soviet Attitudes toward Authority: An Interdisciplinary Approach to Problems of Soviet Character, 1951
  • Growth and Culture, 1951 (with Frances Cooke Macgregor, photos by Gregory Bateson)
  • The Study of Culture At A Distance, 1953 (ed. with Rhoda Métraux)
  • Cultural Patterns and Technical Change, 1953 (editor)
  • Primitive Heritage: An Anthropological Anthology, 1953 (ed. with Nicholas Calas)
  • Themes in French Culture, 1955 (ed. with Rhoda Métraux)
  • Childhood in Contemporary Cultures, 1955 (ed. with Martha Wolfenstein)
  • New Lives for Old: Cultural Transformation in Manus, 1956
  • An Anthropologist at Work, 1959 (editor)
  • People and Places, 1959
  • A Creative Life for Your Children , 1962
  • Continuities in Cultural Evolution, 1964
  • Family, 1965 (with Ken Heyman)
  • Anthropologists and What They Do, 1965
  • American Women, 1965 (ed. with Frances B. Kaplan)
  • The Wagon and the Star, 1966 (with M. Brown)
  • The Changing Cultural Patterns of Work and Leisure, 1967
  • Culture and Commitment, 1970
    - Ikäryhmien ristiriidat: sukupolvikuilun tutkimusta (suom. Ulf E. Qvickström, 1971)
  • A Rap on Race, 1971 (with James Baldwin)
  • Blackberry Winter: My Earlier Years, 1972
  • Twentieth Century Faith: Hope and Survival, 1972
  • A Way of Seeing, 1974 (with Rhoda Metraux)
  • World Enough: Rethinking the Future, 1975
  • Letters from the Field, 1925-1975, 1977 (with R.B. Métraux)
  • Margaret Mead, Some Personal Views, 1979 (with R.B. Métraux)
  • Aspects of the Present, 1980 (with W.W. Kellogg)
  • The Atmosphere: Endangered and Endangering, 1980
  • Time & Measure: Poems, 1986 (illustrations by Naomi Morrissette)
  • To Cherish the Life of the World: Selected Letters of Margaret Mead, 2006 (edited by Margaret M. Caffrey and Patricia Francis; with a preface by Mary Catherine Bateson)

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