Margaret Mead was an American cultural anthropologist.
was born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania and raised in nearby Doylestown,
Pennsylvania by a university professor father and a social activist
mother. She graduated from Barnard College in 1923 and received
her Ph.D. from Columbia University in 1929. She set out in 1925
to do her fieldwork in Polynesia.
1926 Mead joined the American Museum of Natural History, New York
City, as assistant curator, eventually serving as its curator
of ethnology from 1946 to 1969. In addition, she taught at Columbia
University as adjunct professor starting in 1954. Following the
example of her instructor Ruth Benedict, Mead concentrated her
studies on problems of child rearing, personality, and culture.
(Source: The Columbia Encyclopedia, Fifth Edition, 1993.)
has been disagreement with certain findings in her first book,
Coming of Age in Samoa (1928), based on research she conducted
as a graduate student; and her published works based on time on
the Sepik and on Manus, as literate people from the cultures she
described have challenged some of her observations. But her position
as a pioneering anthropologist—one who wrote clearly and
vividly enough for the general public to read and learn from her
Mead was married three times, first to Luther Cressman and then
to two fellow anthropologists, Reo Fortune and Gregory Bateson,
with whom she had a daughter, also an anthropologist, Mary Catherine
Bateson. Her granddaughter, Sevanne Margaret Kassarjian, is a
stage and television actress who works professionally under the
name Sevanne Martin.
died in New York City on November 15, 1978, aged 76.
of Age in Samoa
In the foreword to Coming of Age in Samoa, Mead's advisor, Franz
Boas, wrote of its significance that:
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 went on to point out that at the time of publication, many
Americans had begun to discuss the problems faced by young people
(especially 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.
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?" She found
that it did.
conducted her study among a small group of Samoans — a village
of 600 people on the island of Ta‘u — in which she
got to know, lived with, observed, and interviewed (through an
interpreter) sixty-eight young women between the ages of 9 and
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
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.
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
to Mead, the taupou system is one of institutionalized virginity
for young women of high rank, but 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
an initial flurry of discussion, most anthropologists concluded
that the absolute truth would probably never be known. Many, however,
find Freeman's critique highly questionable. First, these critics
have speculated that he waited until Mead died before publishing
his critique so that she would not be able to respond. Second,
they pointed out that Mead's original informants were now old
women, grandmothers, and had converted to Christianity.
further pointed out 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.
(Note also that one of Freeman's interviewees gave her born-again
faith as her reason for admitting to the past deception.)
they suggested that these women would not be as forthright and
honest about their sexuality when speaking to an elderly man,
as they would have been speaking to a young woman. Many anthropologists
also accuse Freeman of having the same ethnocentric sexual point
of view as the people Boas and Mead once shocked.
also criticized Freeman on methodological and empirical grounds.
For example, Freeman 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.
own data supported Mead's conclusions: 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 pre-marital sex. In 1983, the
American Anthropological Association passed a motion declaring
Freeman's Margaret Mead and Samoa "poorly written, unscientific,
irresponsible and misleading."
the years that followed, anthropologists vigorously debated these
issues but generally supported the critique of 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).
continued to argue his case in the 1999 publication of The Fateful
Hoaxing of Margaret Mead: A Historical Analysis of Her Samoan
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) tribe 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.
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, male anthropologists often miss the significance
of networks of political influence among females.
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.
stated that the Arapesh people 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
Margaret Mead described her research to her students at Columbia
University, she put succinctly what her objectives and her conclusions
were. A first-hand account by an anthropologist who studied with
Mead in the 60s and 70s provides this information:
Mead tells of Sex and Temperament in Three Primitive Societies.
"She explained that nobody knew the degree to which temperament
is biologically determined by sex. So she hoped to see whether
there were cultural or social factors that affected temperament.
Were men inevitably aggressive? Were women inevitably "homebodies"?
It turned out that the three cultures she lived with in New Guinea
were almost a perfect laboratory — for each had the variables
that we associate with masculine and feminine in an arrangement
different from ours. She said this surprised her, and wasn't what
she was trying to find. It was just there.
"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 tells of Growing Up in New Guinea. "Margaret Mead told
us how she came to the research problem on which she based her
Growing Up in New Guinea. She reasoned as follows: If primitive
adults think in an animistic way, as Piaget says our children
do, how do primitive children think?
"In her research on Manus Island of New Guinea, she discovered
that 'primitive' children think in a very practical way and begin
to think in terms of spirits etc. as they get older.
"Note: Animistic thinking gives feelings or personality to
inanimate objects. For example, a child can say "Bad sidewalk!"
if she falls and hurts herself on it — seeing the sidewalk
as mean for causing her pain. The term animism comes from the
Latin for soul, "anima." And tribal cultures often do
have animistic concepts: Pueblos see the clouds as cloud people,
who can be pleased or displeased by what man does — and
give rain or drought."