Margaret Mead (December 16, 1901 – November 15, 1978) was an American cultural anthropologist who featured frequently as an author and speaker in the mass media during the 1960s and 1970s. She earned her bachelor's degree at Barnard College in New York City and her M.A. and Ph.D. degrees from Columbia University.
Mead was a respected and often controversial academic who popularized the insights of anthropology in modern American and Western culture. Her reports detailing the attitudes towards sex in South Pacific and Southeast Asian traditional cultures influenced the 1960s sexual revolution. She was a proponent of broadening sexual mores within a context of traditional Western religious life.
Margaret Mead, the first of five children, was born in Philadelphia, but raised in nearby Doylestown, Pennsylvania. Her father, Edward Sherwood Mead, was a professor of finance at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, and her mother, Emily (née Fogg) Mead, was a sociologist who studied Italian immigrants. Her sister Katharine (1906–1907) died at the age of nine months. This was a traumatic event for Mead, who had named the girl, and thoughts of her lost sister permeated her daydreams for many years. Her family moved frequently, so her early education was directed by her grandmother until, at age 11, she was enrolled by her family at Buckingham Friends School in Lahaska, Pennsylvania. Her family owned the Longland farm from 1912 to 1926. Born into a family of various religious outlooks, she searched for a form of religion that gave an expression of the faith that she had been formally acquainted with, Christianity. In doing so, she found the rituals of the Episcopal Church to fit the expression of religion she was seeking. Mead 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 degree in 1924. Mead set out in 1925 to do fieldwork in Samoa. In 1926, she joined the American Museum of Natural History, New York City, as assistant curator. She received her Ph.D. from Columbia University in 1929.
Before departing for Samoa, Mead had a short affair with the linguist Edward Sapir, a close friend of her instructor Ruth Benedict. But Sapir's conservative ideas about marriage and the woman's role were anathema to Mead, and as Mead left to do field work in Samoa the two separated permanently. Mead received news of Sapir's remarriage while living in Samoa, where, on a beach, she later burned their correspondence.
Mead was married three times. Her first husband (1923–28) was American 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 (1928–1935) was New Zealander Reo Fortune, a Cambridge graduate and fellow anthropologist. Mead's third and longest-lasting marriage (1936–50) was to the British anthropologist Gregory Bateson, with whom she had a daughter, Mary Catherine Bateson, who would also become an anthropologist.
Mead's pediatrician was Benjamin Spock, whose 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. 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.: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.:117–118 Mead never openly identified herself as lesbian or bisexual. In her writings she proposed that it is to be expected that an individual's sexual orientation may evolve throughout life.
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 clearly express a romantic relationship.
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 was also the aunt of Jeremy Steig.
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. She taught at The New School and Columbia University, where she was an adjunct professor from 1954 to 1978 and 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. In 1970, she joined the faculty of the University of Rhode Island as a Distinguished Professor of Sociology and Anthropology.
Following Ruth Benedict's example, Mead focused her research on problems of child rearing, personality, and culture. She served as president of the American Anthropological Association in 1960. In the mid-1960s, Mead joined forces with communications theorist Rudolf Modley, jointly establishing an organization called Glyphs Inc., whose goal was to create a universal graphic symbol language to be understood by any members of culture, no matter how primitive. In the 1960s, Mead served as the Vice President of the New York Academy of Sciences. 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. She was a recognizable figure in academia, usually wearing a distinctive cape and carrying a walking-stick.
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.
In 1976, Mead was a key participant at UN Habitat I, the first UN forum on human settlements.
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.
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. Freeman's book was controversial in its turn: later in 1983 the American Anthropological Association declared it to be "poorly written, unscientific, irresponsible and misleading."
In 1999, Freeman published another book, The Fateful Hoaxing of Margaret Mead: A Historical Analysis of Her Samoan Research, including previously unavailable material. In his obituary in The New York Times, John Shaw stated that his thesis, though upsetting many, had by the time of his death generally gained widespread acceptance. Recent work has nonetheless challenged his critique. A frequent criticism of Freeman is that he regularly misrepresented Mead's research and views. In a 2009 evaluation of the debate, anthropologist Paul Shankman concluded that:
While nurture-oriented anthropologists are more inclined to agree with Mead's conclusions, there are other non-anthropologists who take a nature-oriented approach following Freeman's lead, among them Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker, biologist Richard Dawkins, evolutionary psychologist David Buss, science writer Matt Ridley and classicist Mary Lefkowitz. The philosopher Peter Singer has also criticized Mead in his book A Darwinian Left, where he states that "Freeman compiles a convincing case that Mead had misunderstood Samoan customs".
In 1996, author Martin Orans examined Mead's notes preserved at the Library of Congress, and credits her for leaving all of her recorded data available to the general public. Orans point out that Freeman's basic criticisms, that Mead was duped by ceremonial virgin Fa'apua'a Fa'amu (who later swore to Freeman that she had played a joke on Mead) were equivocal for several reasons: first, Mead was well aware of the forms and frequency of Samoan joking; second, she provided a careful account of the sexual restrictions on ceremonial virgins that corresponds to Fa'apua'a Fa'auma'a's account to Freeman, and third, that Mead's notes make clear that she had reached her conclusions about Samoan sexuality before meeting Fa'apua'a Fa'amu. Orans points out that Mead's data support several different conclusions, and that Mead's conclusions hinge on an interpretive, rather than positivist, approach to culture. Orans goes on to point out, concerning Mead's work elsewhere, that her own notes do not support her published conclusive claims. However, there are still those who claim Mead was hoaxed, including Peter Singer and zoologist David Attenborough. 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, and that "her work may properly be damned with the harshest scientific criticism of all, that it is 'not even wrong'."
The Intercollegiate Review , published by the Intercollegiate Studies Institute which promotes conservative thought on college campuses, listed the book as #1 on its The Fifty Worst Books of the Century list.
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 among 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:
Deborah Gewertz (1981) studied the Chambri (called Tchambuli by Mead) in 1974–1975 and found no evidence of such gender roles. Gewertz states that as far back in history as there is evidence (1850s) Chambri men dominated over the women, controlled their produce and made all important political decisions. In later years there has been a diligent search for societies in which women dominate men, or for signs of such past societies, but none have been found (Bamberger, 1974).
In 1926, there was much debate about race and intelligence. Mead felt the methodologies involved in the experimental psychology research supporting arguments of racial superiority in intelligence were substantially flawed. In "The Methodology of Racial Testing: Its Significance for Sociology" Mead proposes that there are three problems with testing for racial differences in intelligence. First, there are concerns with the ability to validly equate one’s test score with what Mead refers to as racial admixture or how much Negro or Indian blood an individual possesses. She also considers whether this information is relevant when interpreting IQ scores. Mead remarks that a genealogical method could be considered valid if it could be “subjected to extensive verification”. In addition, the experiment would need a steady control group to establish whether racial admixture was actually affecting intelligence scores. Next, Mead argues that it is difficult to measure the effect that social status has on the results of a person’s intelligence test. By this she meant that environment (i.e., family structure, socioeconomic status, exposure to language) has too much influence on an individual to attribute inferior scores solely to a physical characteristic such as race. Lastly, Mead adds that language barriers sometimes create the biggest problem of all. Similarly, Stephen J. Gould finds three main problems with intelligence testing, in his book The Mismeasure of Man that relate to Mead's view of the problem of determining whether there are indeed racial differences in intelligence.
In 1929 Mead and Fortune visited Manus, now the northern-most province of Papua New Guinea, travelling there by boat from Rabaul. She amply describes her stay there in her autobiography and it is mentioned in her 1984 biography by Jane Howard. On Manus she studied the Manus people of the south coast village of Peri. "Over the next five decades Mead would come back oftener to Peri than to any other field site of her career.
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.
Mead worked for the RAND Corporation, a U.S. Air Force military funded private research organization, from 1948 to 1950 to study Russian culture and attitudes toward authority.
After her death Mead's Samoan research was criticized by anthropologist Derek Freeman, who published a book that argued against many of Mead's conclusions. Freeman argued that Mead had misunderstood Samoan culture when she argued that Samoan culture did not place many restrictions on youths' sexual explorations. Freeman argued instead that Samoan culture prized female chastity and virginity and that Mead had been misled by her female Samoan informants. Freeman's critique was met with a considerable backlash and harsh criticism from the anthropology community, whereas it was received enthusiastically by communities of scientists who believed that sexual mores were more or less universal across cultures. Some anthropologists who studied Samoan culture argued in favor of Freeman's findings and contradicted those of Mead, whereas others argued that Freeman's work did not invalidate Mead's work because Samoan culture had been changed by the integration of Christianity in the decades between Mead's and Freeman's fieldwork periods. While Mead was careful to shield the identity of all her subjects for confidentiality Freeman was able to find and interview one of her original participants, and Freeman reported that she admitted to having wilfully misled Mead. She said that she and her friends were having fun with Mead and telling her stories.
On the whole, anthropologists have rejected the notion that Mead's conclusions rested on the validity of a single interview with a single person, finding instead that Mead based her conclusions on the sum of her observations and interviews during her time in Samoa, and that the status of the single interview did not falsify her work. Some anthropologists have however maintained that even though Freeman's critique was invalid, Mead's study was not sufficiently scientifically rigorous to support the conclusions she drew.
Mead's reputation and significance as an anthropologist have not been diminished by Freeman's criticisms. In her book Galileo's Middle Finger, Alice Dreger argues that Freeman's accusations were unfounded and misleading. A detailed review of the controversy by Paul Shankman, published by the University of Wisconsin Press in 2009, supports the contention that Mead's research was essentially correct, and concludes that Freeman cherry-picked his data and misrepresented both Mead and Samoan culture.
On January 19, 1979, President Jimmy Carter announced that he was awarding the Presidential Medal of Freedom posthumously to Mead. UN 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:
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.
In addition, there are several schools named after Mead in the United States: a junior high school in Elk Grove Village, Illinois, an elementary school in Sammamish, Washington and another in Sheepshead Bay, Brooklyn, New York.
In the 1982 movie Summer Lovers, Valérie Quennessen's anthropologist character attributes the following to Margaret Mead: "Jealousy doesn't show how much you love someone, but how insecure you are."
Roger Fox, Professor of Anthropology, Rutgers: '[What Freeman did was to] attack the goddess... she couldn't be wrong because if she was wrong then the doctrine was wrong and the whole liberal humanitarian scheme was wrong'
Marc Swartz, Professor of Anthropology, University of California, San Diego: "one of the leading anthropologists came out immediately after Derek's book was out and said I haven't read the book but I know he's wrong"
Anthropologists Richard Goodman and Tim Omera talk about their work in Samoa and how it supports Freeman's findings
We girls would pinch each other and tell her we were out with the boys. We were only joking but she took it seriously. As you know Samoan girls are terrific liars and love making fun of people but Margaret thought it was all true.
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