Margaret Mead

Margaret Mead
Margaret Mead
Born December 16, 1901(1901-12-16)
Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
Died November 15, 1978(1978-11-15) (aged 76)
New York City
Education A.B., Barnard College (1923)
M.A., Columbia University (1924)
Ph.D., Columbia University (1929)
Occupation Anthropologist
Spouse Luther Cressman (1923-1928)
Reo Fortune (1928-1935)
Gregory Bateson (1936-1950)
Children Mary Catherine Bateson (b. 1939)

Margaret Mead (December 16, 1901 – November 15, 1978) was an American cultural anthropologist, who was frequently a featured writer and speaker in the mass media throughout the 1960s and 1970s.[1]

She was both a popularizer of the insights of anthropology into modern American and Western culture, and also a respected, if controversial, academic anthropologist. Her reports about the attitudes towards sex in South Pacific and Southeast Asian traditional cultures amply informed the 1960s sexual revolution. Mead was a champion of broadened sexual morals within a context of traditional western religious life.

An Anglican Christian, she played a considerable part in the drafting of the 1979 American Episcopal Book of Common Prayer.[2]:347-348


Birth, early family life and education

Mead was the first of five children, was born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, but raised in Doylestown. Her father, Edward Sherwood Mead, was a professor of finance at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, and her mother, Emily Fogg Mead,[3] was a sociologist who studied Italian immigrants.[4] Her 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.[2] Her family moved frequently, so her early education alternated between home-schooling and traditional schools.[4] Born into a family of varying religious outlooks, she searched for a form of religion that gave an expression of the faith that she had been formally acquainted with, Christianity.[5] In doing so, she found the rituals of the Episcopal Church to fit the expression of religion she was seeking.[5] 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.[6] Mead set out in 1925 to do fieldwork in Polynesia.[7] In 1926, she joined the American Museum of Natural History, New York City, as assistant curator.[8] She received her Ph.D. from Columbia University in 1929.[9]

Both of Mead's surviving sisters were married to well-known men. Elizabeth Mead (1909–1983), an artist and teacher, married cartoonist William Steig, and Priscilla Mead (1911–1959) married author Leo Rosten. Mead also had a brother, Richard, who became a professor.

Mead's observation skills came from her grandmother and her mother. When Mead was a child they would observe and record her actions in a notebook. Mead realized the importance of observing and recording important findings.

Personal life

Mead was married three times. Her first husband (1923–1928) was Luther Cressman, a theology student at the time who eventually became an anthropologist. Mead dismissively characterized their union as "my student marriage" in Blackberry Winter, a sobriquet with which Cressman took vigorous issue. Her second husband was New Zealander Reo Fortune, a Cambridge graduate (1928–1935). As an anthropologist, his Sorcerers of Dobu remains the locus classicus of eastern Papuan anthropology, but he is best known instead for his Fortunate number theory. She described her second marriage as more passionate than the first, 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.[citation needed]

Her third and longest-lasting marriage (1936–1950) was to Englishman Gregory Bateson, also a Cambridge graduate, with whom she had a daughter, Mary Catherine Bateson, who would also become an anthropologist. Her pediatrician was Benjamin Spock early in his career. Spock's subsequent writings on child rearing incorporated some of Mead's own practices and beliefs acquired from her ethnological field observations which she shared with him; in particular, breastfeeding on the baby's demand rather than a schedule.[10] She readily acknowledged that Gregory Bateson was the husband she loved the most. She was devastated when he left her, and she remained his loving friend ever after, keeping his photograph by her bedside wherever she traveled, including beside her hospital deathbed.[2]:428

Mead also had an exceptionally close relationship with Ruth Benedict, one of her instructors. In her memoir about her parents, With a Daughter's Eye, Mary Catherine Bateson implies that the relationship between Benedict and Mead was partly sexual.[11] While Margaret Mead never openly identified herself as lesbian or bisexual, the details of her relationship with Benedict have led others to so identify her. In her writings she proposed that it is to be expected that an individual's sexual orientation may evolve throughout life.[11]:120-22

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[12] clearly express a romantic relationship.

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 was elected a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1948.[13] She taught at The New School and Columbia University, where she was an adjunct professor from 1954 to 1978. She was a professor of anthropology and chair of the Division of Social Sciences at Fordham University's Lincoln Center campus from 1968 to 1970, founding their anthropology department. Following the Ruth Benedict's example, Mead focused her research on problems of child rearing, personality, and culture.[14] She served as President of the American Anthropological Association in 1960. 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.[15]

Mead was featured on two record albums published by Folkways Records. The first, released in 1959, An Interview With Margaret Mead, explored the topics of morals and anthropology. In 1971, she was included in a compilation of talks by prominent women, But the Women Rose, Vol.2: Voices of Women in American History.[16]

She is credited with the pluralization of the term "semiotics." [17]

In later life, Mead was a mentor to many young anthropologists and sociologists, including Jean Houston.[2]

Mead died of pancreatic cancer on November 15, 1978. She was buried at Trinity Episcopal Church in Buckingham, Pennsylvania.[citation needed]


Coming of Age in Samoa

Samoan girl, c. 1896

In the foreword to Coming of Age in Samoa, Mead's advisor, Franz Boas, wrote of its significance:

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.[18]

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.[citation needed]

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‘u — in which she got to know, live with, observe, and interview 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.[citation needed]

As Boas and Mead expected, this book upset many Westerners when it first appeared in 1928. Many American readers were shocked by her observation that incest was common in the Samoan culture and her claim that young Samoan women deferred marriage for many years while enjoying casual sex but eventually married, settled down, and successfully reared their own children.[citation needed]

Mead's findings suggested that the community ignores both boys and girls until they are about 15 or 16. Before then, children have no social standing within the community. Mead also found that marriage is regarded as a social and economic arrangement where wealth, rank, and job skills of the husband and wife are taken into consideration.

In 1983, five years after Mead had died, New Zealand anthropologist Derek Freeman, published Margaret Mead and Samoa: The Making and Unmaking of an Anthropological Myth, in which he challenged Mead's major findings about sexuality in Samoan society, citing statements of her surviving informants' claiming that she had coaxed them into giving her the answers she wanted. Most anthropologists have been highly critical of Freeman's arguments, even if they are often skeptical of Mead's popular works, such as Coming of Age in Samoa. A frequent critique of Freeman is that he regularly misrepresented Mead's research and views.[19][20] In a recent evaluation of the debate, anthropologist Paul Shankman concluded that:

There is now a large body of criticism of Freeman's work from a number of perspectives in which Mead, Samoa, and anthropology appear in a very different light than they do in Freeman's work. Indeed, the immense significance that Freeman gave his critique looks like "much ado about nothing" to many of his critics.[19]

Evaluating Mead's work in Samoa from a positivist stance, Martin Orans' assessment of the controversy was that Mead did not formulate her research agenda in scientific terms, nor did she carry it out with proper scientific rigour, meaning that her enquiry could not have provided the evidence needed to prove her thesis. Thus he concludes that "her work may properly be damned with the harshest scientific criticism of all, that it is "not even wrong"".[21]

Sex and Temperament in Three Primitive Societies

Another influential book by Mead was Sex and Temperament in Three Primitive Societies. This became a major cornerstone of the feminist 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 areas of high population density 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. 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 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 a different 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."[citation needed]

Other research areas

Mead has been credited with persuading the American Jewish Committee to sponsor a project to study European Jewish villages, shtetls, in which a team of researchers would conduct mass interviews with Jewish immigrants living in New York City. The resulting book, widely cited for decades, allegedly created the Jewish mother stereotype, a mother intensely loving but controlling to the point of smothering, and engendering guilt in her children through the suffering she professed to undertake for their sakes.[22]

She also cofounded the Parapsychological Association, a group advocating for the advancement of parapsychology and psychical research.


Derek Freeman, an anthropologist who spent many years among the Samoans, was critical of Mead's findings that culture is responsible for the disturbances of adolescence, and that Samoans had a significantly different experience. He wrote:

"It is with the scientific adequacy of Mead's picture of Samoan society that I shall be concerned with from now on, for to the extent that this picture is defective, Samoa ceases to be a negative instance and Mead's central conclusion that culture, or nurture, is all-important in the determination of adolescent and other aspects of human behavior is revealed as ungrounded and invalid."

Martin Orans, another anthropologist who worked in Samoa, wrote:

"Occasionally a message carried by the media finds an audience so eager to receive it that it is willing to suspend all critical judgment and adopt the message as its own. So it was with Margaret Mead's celebrated 'Coming of Age in Samoa'."


On January 19, 1979, President Jimmy Carter announced that he was awarding the Presidential Medal of Freedom posthumously to Mead. U.N. Ambassador Andrew Young presented the award to Mead's daughter at a special program honoring Mead's contributions, sponsored by the American Museum of Natural History, where she spent many years of her career. The citation read:[23]

"Margaret Mead was both a student of civilization and an exemplar of it. To a public of millions, she brought the central insight of cultural anthropology: that varying cultural patterns express an underlying human unity. She mastered her discipline, but she also transcended it. Intrepid, independent, plain spoken, fearless, she remains a model for the young and a teacher from whom all may learn."

The 2006 music video for "If Everyone Cared" by Nickelback ends with her quote: "Never doubt that a small group of committed people can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has."

In addition, there are several schools named after Margaret Mead in the United States: a junior high school in Elk Grove Village, Illinois,[24] an elementary school in Sammamish, Washington[25] and another in Sheepshead Bay, Brooklyn, New York.[26]

See also

Publications by Mead

As a sole author
  • Coming of Age in Samoa (1928) ISBN 0-688-05033-
  • 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: My Earlier Years (1972; autobiography) ISBN 0-317-60065-6
As editor or coauthor
  • Cultural Patterns and Technical Change, editor (1953)
  • Primitive Heritage: An Anthropological Anthology, edited with Nicholas Calas (1953)
  • An Anthropologist at Work, editor (1959, reprinted 1966; a volume of Ruth Benedict's writings)
  • The Study of Culture At A Distance, edited with Rhoda Metraux, 1953
  • Themes in French Culture, with Rhoda Metraux, 1954
  • The Wagon and the Star: A Study of American Community Initiative co-authored with Muriel Whitbeck Brown, 1966

kanye race]], with James Baldwin, 1971

  • A Way of Seeing, with Rhoda Metraux, 1975


  1. ^ "Margaret Mead As a Cultural Commentator". Margaret Mead: Human nature and the power of culture. Library of Congress. Retrieved 2008-03-08. 
  2. ^ a b c d Howard 1984
  3. ^ "Shaping Forces - Margaret Mead: Human Nature and the Power of Culture (Library of Congress Exhibition)". Retrieved 2010-09-29. 
  4. ^ a b ""Margaret Mead" by Wilton S. Dillon" (PDF). Retrieved 2010-09-29. 
  5. ^ a b Mead 1972, pp. 76–77
  6. ^ "Encyclopædia Britannica's Guide to Women's History". Retrieved 2010-09-29. 
  7. ^ Mead 1977
  8. ^ "Margaret Mead". 1901-12-18. Retrieved 2010-09-29. 
  9. ^ "Margaret Mead". Retrieved 2010-09-29. 
  10. ^ Moore 2004: 105
  11. ^ a b Bateson 1984:117-118; Lapsley 1999
  12. ^ Caffey and Francis 2006
  13. ^ "Book of Members, 1780-2010: Chapter M". American Academy of Arts and Sciences. Retrieved 16 April 2011. 
  14. ^ The Columbia Encyclopedia, Fifth Edition, 1993.
  15. ^ Wendy Kolmar. "Margaret Mead". Retrieved 2010-09-29. 
  16. ^ Mead at Smithsonian Folkways
  17. ^ Thomas A. Sebeok, Alfred S. Hayes, Mary Catherine Bateson, ed (1964). Approaches to Semiotics. 
  18. ^ Franz Boas, "Preface" in Margaret Mead, Coming of Age in Samoa
  19. ^ a b Shankman, Paul 2009 The Trashing of Margaret Mead: Anatomy of an Anthropological Controversy. Madison: The University of Wisconsin Press
  20. ^ 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, Young and Juan 1985
  21. ^ Orans, Martin 1996 Not Even Wrong: Margaret Mead, Derek Freeman, and the Samoans.
  22. ^ "The Jewish Mother", Slate, June 13, 2007, p. 3
  23. ^ "Jimmy Carter: Presidential Medal of Freedom Announcement of Award to Margaret Mead". The American Presidency Project. January 19, 1979. Retrieved 2009-10-20. 
  24. ^ Margaret Mead Junior High School
  25. ^ "Margaret Mead Elementary (Washington)". 2010-08-16. Retrieved 2010-09-29. 
  26. ^ "P.S. 209 Margaret Mead". 2009-04-19. Retrieved 2010-09-29. 


  • Shore, Brad. (1982) Sala'ilua: A Samoan Mystery. New York: Columbia University Press.
  • Stassinos, Elizabeth (1998). "Response to Visweswaren, 'Race and the culture of anthropology'". American Anthropologist 100 (4): 981–983. doi:10.1525/aa.1998.100.4.981. 
  • Stassinos, Elizabeth (2009). "An Early Case of Personality: Ruth Benedict's Autobiographical Fragment and the Case of the Biblical "Boaz"". Histories of Anthropology Annual 5: 28–51. doi:10.1353/haa.0.0063. ISSN 1557-637X. 
  • Virginia, Mary E. (2003). Benedict, Ruth (1887–1948). DISCovering U.S. History online edition, Detroit: Gale.
  • Young, R.E., and S. Juan. (1985). "Freeman's Margaret Mead Myth: The Ideological Virginity of Anthropologists". Australian and New Zealand Journal of Sociology 21 (1): 64–81. doi:10.1177/144078338502100104. 
  • Jimmy Clemons

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