Margaret Mead

The American anthropologist Margaret Mead (1901-1978) developed the field of culture and personality research and was a dominant influence in introducing the concept of culture into education, medicine, and public policy.

Margaret Mead was born in Philadelphia, Pa., on Dec. 16, 1901. She grew up there in a liberal intellectual atmosphere. Her father, Edward Sherwood Mead, was a professor in the Wharton School of Finance and Commerce and the founder of the University of Pennsylvania's evening school and extension program. Her mother, Emily Fogg Mead, was a sociologist and an early advocate of woman's rights.

In 1919 Mead entered DePauw University but transferred after a year to Barnard College, where she majored in psychology. In her senior year she had a course in anthropology with Franz Boas which she later described as the most influential event in her life, since it was then that she decided to become an anthropologist. She graduated from Barnard in 1923. In the same year she married Luther Cressman and entered the anthropology department of Columbia University.

The Columbia department at this time consisted of Boas, who taught everything, and Ruth Benedict, his only assistant. The catastrophe of World War I and the dislocations that followed it had had their impact on the developing discipline of anthropology. Anthropologists began to ask how their knowledge of the nature of humankind might be used to illuminate contemporary problems. At the same time the influence of Sigmund Freud was beginning to be felt in all the behavioral sciences. The atmosphere in the Columbia department was charged with intellectual excitement, and whole new perspectives for anthropology were opening up.


Early Fieldwork

Mead completed her studies in 1925 and set off for a year's fieldwork in Samoa in the face of opposition from older colleagues worried about sending a young woman alone to a Pacific island. Her problem was to study the life of adolescent girls. She learned the native language (one of seven she eventually mastered) and lived in a Samoan household as "one of the girls." She found that young Samoan girls experience none of the tensions American and European adolescents suffer from, and she demonstrated the kind of social arrangements that make this easy transition to adulthood possible.

On returning from the field Mead became assistant curator of ethnology at the American Museum of Natural History, where she remained, eventually becoming curator and, in 1969, curator emeritus. Her mandate in going to the museum was "to make Americans understand cultural anthropology as well as they understood archaeology."

When Mead wrote Coming of Age in Samoa (1928), her publisher, concerned that the book fell into no conventional category, asked for a chapter on what the work's significance would be for Americans. The result was the final chapter, "Education for Choice," which set the basic theme for much of her lifework.

In 1928, after completing a technical monograph, The Social Organization of Manuá, Mead left for New Guinea, this time with Reo Fortune, an anthropologist from New Zealand whom she had married that year. Her project was the study of the thought of young children, testing some of the then current theories. Her study of children's thought in its sociocultural context is described in Growing Up in New Guinea (1930). She later returned to the village of Peri, where this study was made, after 25 years, when the children she had known in 1929 were leaders of a community going through the difficulties of transition to modern life. She described this transition, with flashbacks to the earlier days, in New Lives for Old (1956).


New Field Methods

Mead's interest in psychiatry had turned her attention to the problem of the cultural context of schizophrenia, and with this in mind she went to Bali, a society where trance and other forms of dissociation are culturally sanctioned. She was now married to Gregory Bateson, a British anthropologist whom she had met in New Guinea. The Balinese study was especially noteworthy for development of new field techniques. The extensive use of film made it possible to record and analyze significant minutiae of behavior that escape the pencil-and-paper ethnographer. Of the 38,000 photographs which Mead and Bateson brought back, 759 were selected for Balinese Character (1942), a joint study with Bateson. This publication marks a major innovation in the recording and presentation of ethnological data and may prove in the long run to be one of her most significant contributions to the science of anthropology.


Studies Relevant to the "Public Good"

Largely through the work of Ruth Benedict and Margaret Mead, the relevance of anthropology to problems of public policy was recognized to a degree, though somewhat belatedly. When World War II brought the United States into contact with allies, enemies, and peoples just emerging from colonialism, the need to understand many lifestyles became apparent. Mead conducted a nationwide study of American food habits prior to the introduction of rationing. Later she was sent to England to try to explain to the British the habits of the American soldiers who were suddenly thrust among them. After the war she worked as director of Research in Contemporary Cultures, a cross-cultural, trans-disciplinary project applying the insights and some of the methods of anthropology to the study of complex modern cultures. An overall view of the methods and some of the insights gained is contained in The Study of Cultures at a Distance (1953).

For the theoretical basis of her work in the field of culture and personality Margaret Mead drew heavily on psychology, especially learning theory and psychoanalysis. In return she contributed significantly to the development of psychoanalytic theory by emphasizing the importance of culture in personality development. She served on many national and international committees for mental health and was instrumental in introducing the study of culture into training programs for physicians and social workers.

In the 1960s Mead became deeply concerned with the unrest among the young. Her close contact with students gave her special insight into the unmet needs of youth—for better education, for autonomy, for an effective voice in decisions that affect their lives in a world which adults seem no longer able to control. Some of her views on these problems are set forth in Culture and Commitment (1970). Her thoughts on human survival under the threats of war, over-population, and degradation of the environment are contained in A Way of Seeing (1970).

Ever since Margaret Mead taught a class of young working women in 1926, she became deeply involved in education, both in the universities and in interpreting the lessons of anthropology to the general public. She joined the anthropology department at Columbia University in 1947 and also taught at Fordham University and the universities of Cincinnati and Topeka. She also lectured to people all over America and Europe. Mead died in 1978 and was posthumously awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

Margaret Mead was a dominant force in developing the field of culture and personality and the related field of national character research. Stated briefly, her theoretical position is based on the assumption that an individual matures within a cultural context which includes an ideological system, the expectations of others, and techniques of socialization which condition not only outward responses but also inner psychic structure. Mead was criticized by certain other social scientists on methodological and conceptual grounds. She was criticized for neglecting quantitative methods in favor of depth analysis and for what has been called "anecdotal" handling of data. On the theoretical side she was accused of applying concepts of individual psychology to the analysis of social process while ignoring historical and economic factors. But since her concern lay with predicting the behavior of individuals within a given social context and not with the origin of institutions, the criticism is irrelevant.

There is no question that Mead was one of the leading American intellectuals of the 20th century. Through her best-selling books, her public lecturing, and her popular column in Redbook magazine, Mead popularized anthropology in the United States. She also provided American women with a role model, encouraging them to pursue professional careers previously closed to women while at the same time championing their roles as mothers.


Further Reading on Margaret Mead

Of the many studies of Margaret Mead's life and career, see With a Daughter's Eye: A Memoir of Margaret Mead and Gregory Bateson (1984) by Mary Catherine Bateson; Margaret Mead: A Voice for the Century (1982) by Robert Cassidy; and Margaret Mead's Contradictory Legacy (1992), edited by Leonard Foerstel and Angela Gilliam. See also Anthropologists and What They Do (1965), which was written for high school students and contains accounts of her life in the university and in the field. Her essay "Field Work in the Pacific Islands, 1925-1967" appears in Peggy Golde, ed., Women in the Field: Anthropological Experiences (1970). A full-length study of Mead is Allyn Moss, Margaret Mead: Shaping a New World (1963). Hoffman R. Hays, From Ape to Angel: An Informal History of Social Anthropology (1958), has an essay appraising her career. There are essays on Mead's life in Eleanor Clymer and Lillian Erlich, Modern American Career Women (1959), and Eve Parshalle, The Kashmir Bridge-women (1965).