Margaret Mead portrait

Margaret Mead: The All-Time Influential Cultural Anthropologist

Margaret Mead was and remains to be one of the most influential and prominent figures in the field of anthropology in America. Not only in her time, but in the present day as well. In this post, we learn more about her and her contributions to anthropology.

Who is Margaret Mead and what is she known for?

margaret mead reading a book
Image Credit: Women you should know

Margaret Mead was first and foremost a cultural anthropologist who became an important and influential figure in the United States in the 20th century. Her contributions to anthropology and the overall understanding of mankind are impeccable. Margaret Mead was also an author, a museum curator, a professor and a speaker. She would often give speeches and lectures to diverse audiences on a variety of topics that were considered unconventional at her time, such as sexuality, gender, drugs, overpopulation and nuclear weapons, among others.

Her rise to fame, however, is attributed to her fieldwork in the South Seas, in the Pacific Islands and in Southeast Asia, where she worked with and observed primitive societies. Her work consisted of finding correlations between one’s personality and their culture, the influence of culture on gender roles assigned by society and the different child-rearing practices in other cultures.

Mead is also known for popularizing anthropological ideas and convincing Americans that understanding other cultures would help them better understand their own. She also advocated for the relaxation of rigid social norms pertaining to gender roles, sexuality, access to birth control and anti-abortion laws. Making tremendous efforts to broaden people’s views on sexuality and the influences of culture.

She was not only one of the most popular women in the field of Anthropology, but in the United States as a whole in the early to mid-1900s.

Margaret Mead’s Early Life

portrait of an infant margeret mead
Margaret Mead as an infant. Image Credit: Explore PA History

Margaret Mead was born on 16th December 1901, in Philadelphia to a father who was a professor of finance and a mother who was a sociologist. She was the oldest of five children. She grew up in a household where education was valued and highly encouraged. As her family was required to relocate a lot in her childhood, she was homeschooled by her grandmother in her initial years.

Since her childhood, Margaret had been quite an observant child, a trait which her family encouraged. She would, for instance, observe her younger siblings and their various stages of development. Whenever her family would relocate, she’d also find herself noting down different information about her surroundings. Information such as names, addresses, medical histories, etc. This surely polished her observational skills at a very early stage in her life.

Mead’s Education and Fieldwork

In 1920, Mead transferred to Barnard College from DePauw University to complete her studies in Psychology and earn a bachelor’s degree in 1923. In her final year at Barnard College, she attended an anthropology course by Franz Boas, which was one of the factors to motivate her to pursue anthropology for her graduate studies. Mead would go on to earn her master’s degree in 1924 and her PhD in anthropology from Columbia University, under the supervision of professor Franz Boas and his assistant Ruth Benedict.

portrait of franz boas
Anthropologist Franz Boas. Image Credit: The Famous People

Franz Boas was a German-American anthropologist who was one of the pioneers of anthropology in the United States. He ensured cultural anthropology became an academic discipline in the country. Boas is even known as the ‘Father of American Anthropology’.  Ruth Benedict was another anthropologist who would go on to become Mead’s lifelong friend. They would have an influence on her research in later years.  Mead earned her PhD in 1929.

Margaret Mead was interested in primitive communities in the more isolated areas of the world. So in 1925, Margaret Mead made her first field trip to American Samoa, in the Southern Pacific Ocean. Her work there inspired the publishing of her first book titled Coming of Age in Samoa in 1928. This was also the book that gained her fame.

Margaret Mead’s First Book: Coming of Age in Samoa (1928)

Mead went to Samoa to conduct her fieldwork still as a graduate student. The time she spent there would allow her to collect material and evidence for her to publish the first of many books, ‘Coming of Age in Samoa’ in 1928. This book contains her observations and findings recorded from spending 6 to 9 months on the island of Ta’u, located in western Samoa.

Her research concentrated on adolescent life in Samoa. Particularly focusing on girls and sexual life as an adolescent. She wanted to find out whether adolescence was a mentally and emotionally traumatic time for adolescent girls due to biological factors or cultural upbringing.

For her research, she studied 68 girls between ages 9 and 20 by observing their daily life, understanding their social constructs, conducting interviews and even administering psychological tests. She would also dress like the locals and even learn the local language.

margaret mead in samoan attire
Mead in Samoa having her picture taken with native Samoan women. Image Credit: Paula Felix

She found that in Samoa at the time, the culture didn’t consider subjects such as death, birth and sex to be taboo. Hence, people weren’t too reactive or secretive about the different phases in their lives. Adolescents were sexually active and freely explored their sexuality at that age without being burned by shame. Premarital sex was therefore considered normal.

Mead detailed in her book that the societal views on sex made it easier for teenage girls to transition into adulthood as they didn’t have the pressures to conform to society’s views on sexuality like in societies that were considered modern. Adolescent girls weren’t expected to nor pressurized to stay celibate before marriage, or to find a boyfriend, or to get married by a certain age. Their age group, therefore, did not face the same stresses of adolescence. Mead highlighted this impact on social norms on human behaviour.

Application to the American Context

She applied her findings to the context of the United States and found that children in Samoa transitioned into adulthood with more ease than children in the United States. Children in the United States at the time were still bound by Victorian rules of sexuality and the western world’s view of what being feminine was – which was to be modest, elegant, pure, and well-mannered. Such expectations made their transition into adulthood even more challenging.

Upon publishing her findings as a book, it quickly became a best seller and gained Margaret Mead fame.

Fieldwork in Papua New Guinea

During her fieldwork in Samoa, she became increasingly interested in the role of society and culture on a person’s development.

Understanding these roles encourages discussions on gender expression, gender norms and gender roles. Mead wanted to, therefore, explore other primitive cultures to explore this correlation. She journeyed to Papua New Guinea and extensively studied three different tribes to understand the influence of cultural and social standards on gender expression. She then presented her findings in her other published works.

She saw gender roles were more rigid in modern societies than in primitive societies. Men are seen as the breadwinners and are expected to be productive, aggressive, intelligent, while women are seen as submissive, more peaceful, nurturing.

cover of Sex and Temperament in Three Primitive Societies
Sex and Temperament in Three Primitive Societies. Image Credit: Amazon

The observations she made from her time in Papua New Guinea showed contrasting results. In her book Sex and Temperament in Three Primitive Societies published in 1935, she examines and presents the varying characteristics of men and women in three different cultures- the Arapesh, Mundugumor and Tschambuli. Seeing such differences in their behaviours, she theorized that it was indeed social norms that governed behaviour, more than biology. She notes that gender roles aren’t inbuilt, or in human nature, they are, on the contrary, taught, encouraged or dismissed by a culture. She found that in the Arapesh tribe, both females and males were peaceful and submissive because such characteristics are highly desirable and appreciated. Both males and females are discouraged from developing aggressive traits.

In the Mundumur tribe, both males and females were violent and aggressive. Overall, members of society are quite competitive with one another. Both had, what the western world would call, predominantly masculine traits.

The Tschambuli tribe is a matriarchal culture where the males in their society are more emotional and reliant on women. The females were found to be more violent, aggressive and productive.

Mead concluded that all people have the same potential to do a task or maintain a certain way of life, regardless of gender and race. Human behaviour was formed by developing and following social norms over centuries. These norms act as the unofficial rules of society that also directly influence a person’s psychology. She also found a pattern in male and female behaviour. Their roles differed in their societies and from the American gender roles.

Working with Children of the Manus Tribe  

This fieldwork was conducted between 1928 to 1939, a time when Mead made many trips to the South Seas and Southeast Asia. Also during this time, she studied child rearing and was in fact the first anthropologist to study child-rearing in detail. In her fieldwork in the village of Pere, in Manus, located in the Admiralty Islands in Papua New Guinea, she studied the Manus culture closely. She especially wanted to examine how children thought. The kind of thoughts that occurred to them naturally.

drawings made by children of the Manus tribe
Artwork of the Manus children. Image Credit: Library of Congress

For this study, she collected nearly 35,000 pieces of artwork from children of varying ages. In these artworks, they had mostly illustrated the world as they really saw it, instead of including elements of the supernatural in their drawings. The Manu culture is known for its belief in the supernatural. Mead also administered certain psychological tests on children, such as the inkblot test, for them to identify supernatural creatures the adults believed in. Most didn’t know what to call the image but they knew what it was, as adults would threaten them using stories of such creatures. With this information, Mead theorized that children do not inherently have the same personality or beliefs as their culture. Instead, they pick up on the behaviours of adults by watching, grasping and eventually adopting their behaviours. This is called imprinting.

Her findings from studying the Manu tribe are presented in detail in another one of Mead’s books called Growing up in New Guinea: A comparative study of primitive education, published in 1930.

Mary Mead’s Success

These are only some examples of Mead’s work. She would publish around 40 books and thousands of articles throughout her lifetime. Each work has been published in various languages and editions.

In addition to being a well-established anthropologist, she was also one of the curators at the American Museum of Natural History from 1926 till her death. She would diligently fulfil her duties of collecting, documenting, preserving and exhibiting artefacts. She even put in massive efforts to open the Peoples of the Pacific Hall, which is now called the Margaret Mead Hall of Pacific Peoples. This is a space dedicated to educating the public about the different cultures in the Pacific islands.

Margaret Mead Hall of Pacific Peoples
Margaret Mead Hall of Pacific Peoples at the American Museum of Natural History. Image Credit: WSImagazine

Mead also taught in many universities, including her alma mater – Columbia University.

Furthermore, she was made or was elected as the president of several scientific associations, including the American Association for the Advancement of Science. And, she even received 28 honorary degrees.

This success, however, did not come without controversy and criticism.

Controversy and Criticisms

Margaret Mead’s work and views were considered controversial. Conservatives in particular did not always agree with her theories and ideas. Her views on sexuality and women’s rights were often labelled radical and absurd because many of her critics still had traditional mindsets.

Her work, Coming of Age in Samoa, is perhaps Mead’s most popular work and her most criticized work. The book was, for instance, critiqued for excessively idealising Samoan life. Others accused Mead of formulating theories with insufficient and unauthentic evidence. Criticising her choosing to stay with an American family in Samoa instead of staying in an indigenous Samoan household. Many even found it unfair to apply her findings from a culture elsewhere to the American context.

Dr Derek Freeman

image of derek freeman
Dr Derek Freeman. Image Credit: Inside Story

Her most famous critic is perhaps New Zealander anthropologist Derek Freeman. A man who gained fame from criticising Mead’s fieldwork in Samoa. Freeman travelled to Samoa and conducted fieldwork in the late 1960s, and found that his results largely contradicted those of Mead. He argued that Mead’s ideas were in fact drawn from little evidence and that she had misunderstood Samoan culture. He noted that Samoan culture did actually treasure female virginity and upon being able to contact two of the original informants for Mead’s work, he found they had intentionally misled Mead. However, it was later revealed from Mead’s field notes that Mead did not interview those two women about their views on sex.

When these criticisms were first presented in the 1980s, Margaret Mead was already deceased and her work was immensely influential. She had many supporters in the anthropological community who harshly criticized Freeman. They argued that Freeman had mostly interviewed Samoans who were elderly, meaning they naturally had a different stance on adolescent sexuality. His work on Mead was, however, well received by non-anthropologists and scientists in particular, as they disagreed on her stance on the never-ending nature vs nurture debate. She believed that it was nurture more than nature that determined a person’s personality and behaviour.

Margaret Mead’s work wasn’t without. Nevertheless, her influence was huge and her ideas transformed the way Americans viewed culture and international topics. She also made anthropology a more approachable subject.

Death and Legacy

32 cent Margaret Mead stamp
The Margaret Mead stamp. Image Credit: Smithsonian National Postal Museum

Margaret Mead died of pancreatic cancer in 1978.  A year after her demise, she was awarded the Medal of Freedom, the highest civilian honour in the United States, by President Jimmy Carter. Additionally, in 1998, a stamp of the face value of 32 cents was issued in her honour.

Over the years, many schools were named after Mead in Illinois, Washington and New York.

Margaret Mead was and is still regarded as an icon, a leader in feminism, and a leader in eliciting social change that has helped reduce or remove social prejudice and misconceptions.  She urged Americans to create an educational system that could prepare young generations to live in a society where there are many choices.

Please do not hesitate to share your thoughts in the comments below.

Click here for more articles like this. 

Leave a Reply