Margaret Mead

Margaret Mead books and biography


Margaret Mead

Born December 16, 1901(1901-12-16)
Died November 15, 1978
New York City
Education Ph.D., Columbia University (1929)
Occupation Anthropologist

Margaret Mead (December 16, 1901, Philadelphia – November 15, 1978, New York City) was an American cultural anthropologist.



Mead was raised near Doylestown, Pennsylvania by her university professor father and social-activist mother. She studied at DePauw University and graduated from Barnard College in 1929. She received her Ph.D. from Columbia University in 1929. Mead set out in 1925 to do fieldwork in Polynesia. In 1926 she joined the American Museum of Natural History, New York City, as assistant curator, eventually serving as curator of ethnology from 1946 to 1969. During World War II Mead served as executive secretary of the National Research Council's Committee on Food Habits. 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.) 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.

Although considered a pioneering anthropologist by some, there has been academic disagreement[citation needed] with certain findings in her first book, Coming of Age in Samoa (1928), based on research she conducted as a graduate student, and with her published works based on time with the Sepik and on Manus Island. In some instances, literate people from the cultures she described have challenged certain of her observations.

Margaret Mead was married three times; first to Luther Cressman (a theological student during his marriage to Mead; later an anthropologist himself), 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. Mead readily acknowledged that she had been devastated when Bateson left her and that she remained in love with him to her life's end, keeping his photograph by her bedside wherever she traveled.

Mead also had an exceptionally close relationship with Ruth Benedict. Mead's daughter Catherine, in her memoir of her parents With a Daughter's Eye, implies that the relationship between Benedict and Mead may have contained an erotic element (see also Lapsley 1999). While Margaret Mead never identified herself as lesbian, the details of her relationship with Benedict have led others to identify her thus; in her writings she proposed that it is to be expected that individuals' sexual orientation may change throughout their lives.

Coming of Age in Samoa and the Mead-Freeman controversy

Main article: Coming of Age in Samoa

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

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.

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.

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‘ū — in which she got to know, lived with, observed, and interviewed (through an interpreter) sixty-eight 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. (Perey).

As 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.

In 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 society. According 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 1983).

After an initial flurry of discussion, most anthropologists concluded that the truth would probably never be known.

The Mead partisans have asserted that Freeman's critique is 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. However, when Freeman died in 2001, his obituary in the New York Times pointed out that Freeman tried to publish his criticism of Mead as early as 1971, but that American publishers rejected his manuscript. In 1978, Freeman sent a revised manuscript to Mead. But Mead, who was ill and died a few months later, did not respond.

Second, Freeman's critics allege that Mead's original informants were now old women, grandmothers, and had converted to Christianity. They further allege 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.) Further, 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.

Some anthropologists also criticized Freeman on methodological and empirical grounds. For example, they claimed that Freeman had 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 (see Shore 1982: 229-230). Freeman's own data documented the existence of premarital sexual activity in Samoa. 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 premarital sex (1983: 238-240). In 1983, the American Anthropological Association passed a motion declaring Freeman's Margaret Mead and Samoa "poorly written, unscientific, irresponsible and misleading." In the years that followed, anthropologists vigorously debated these issues but generally supported the critique of Freeman's work (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).

Freeman continued to argue his case in the 1999 publication of The Fateful Hoaxing of Margaret Mead: A Historical Analysis of Her Samoan Research, introducing new information in support of his arguments.

After Freeman died, the New York Times concluded that "many anthropologists have agreed to disagree over the findings of one of the science's founding mothers, acknowledging both Mead's pioneering research and the fact that she may have been mistaken on details."

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) Lake region 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 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.

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 pattern.

When 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 the following information:

1. 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."
2. 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.


  • Coming of Age in Samoa (1928) ISBN 0-688-05033-6
  • Growing Up in New Guinea (1930) ISBN 0-688-17811-1
  • The Changing Culture of an Indian Tribe (1932)
  • Sex and Temperament in Three Primitive Societies (1935)
  • 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 (1972; a biographical account of her early years) ISBN 0-317-60065-6

Edited volumes

  • Cultural Patterns and Technical Change, ed. (1953)
  • Primitive Heritage: An Anthropological Anthology, ed. with Nicholas Calas (1953)
  • An Anthropologist at Work, ed. (1959, repr. 1966; a volume of Ruth Benedict's writings)

"The Study of Culture At A Distance" Edited with Rhoda Metraux, 1953 "Themes in French Culture" Co-authored with Rhoda Metraux, 1954 "A Way of Seeing" Co-authored with Rhoda Metraux, 1975


  • Gregory Acciaioli, ed. 1983 "Fact and Context in Etnography: The Samoa Controversy" Canberra Anthropology (special issue) 6(1): 1-97.
  • George Appell, 1984 "Freeman's Refutation of Mead's Coming of Age in Samoa: The Implications for Anthropological Inquiry" Eastern Anthropology 37: 183-214.
  • Mary Catherine Bateson, With a Daughter's Eye. 1984 ISBN 0-688-03962-6 , (2003 ppb ISBN 0-06-097573-3)
  • Ivan Brady, 1991 "The Samoa Reader: Last Word or Lost Horizon?" Current Anthropology 32: 263-282.
  • Hiram Caton, Editor (1990). "The Samoa Reader: Anthropologists Take Stock". University Press of America. ISBN 0-8191-7720-2.
  • Richard Feinberg 1988 "Margaret Mead and Samoa: Coming of Age in Fact and Fiction" American Anthropologist 90: 656-663
  • Leonora Foerstel and Angela Gilliam (eds) (1992). Confronting the Margaret Mead Legacy: Scholarship, Empire and the South Pacific. Philadelphia: Temple University Press
  • Derek Freeman (1983). Margaret Mead and Samoa. Cambridge, London: Harvard University Press. ISBN 0-674-54830-2.
  • Derek Freeman (1999). The Fateful Hoaxing of Margaret Mead: A Historical Analysis of Her Samoan Research. Boulder, Colorado: Westview Press. ISBN 0-8133-3693-7.
  • Hilary Lapsley (1999) Margaret Mead and Ruth Benedict: The Kinship of Women University of Massachusetts Press. ISBN 1-55849-181-3
  • Lowell D. Holmes (1987) Quest for the Real Samoa: the Mead/Freeman Controversy and Beyond. South Hadley: Bergin and Garvey
  • Eleanor Leacock 1988 "Anthropologists in Search of a Culture: Margaret Mead, Derek Freeman and All the Rest of Us" in Central Issues in Anthropology 8(1): 3-20.
  • Robert Levy 1984 "Mead, Freeman, and Samoa: The Problem of Seeing Things as They Are" Ethos 12: 85-92
  • Jeannette Mageo 1988 Mālosi: A Psychological Exploration of Mead's and Freeman's Work and of Samoan Aggression" Pacific Studies 11(2): 25-65
  • Mac Marshall 1993 "The Wizard from Oz Meets the Wicked Witch of the East: Freeman, Mead, and Ethnographic Authority" in American Ethnologist20(3): 604-617.
  • Bonnie Nardi 1984 "The Height of Her Powers: Margaret Mead's Samoa" Feminist Studies 10: 323-337.
  • Allan Patience and Josephy Smith 1987 "Derek Freeman in Samoa: The Making and Unmaking of a Biobehavioral Myth" American Anthropologist 88: 157-162.
  • David B. Paxman 1988 "Freeman, Mead, and the Eighteenth-Century Controversy over Polynesian Society" Pacific Studies 1(3): 1-19
  • Roger Sandall 2001 The Culture Cult: Designer Tribalism and Other Essays ISBN 0-8133-3863-8
  • Nancy Scheper-Hughes 1984 "The Margaret Mead Controversy: Culture, Biology, and Anthropological Inquiry" in Human Organization 43(1): 85-93.
  • Paul Shankman 1996 "The History of Samoan Sexual Conduct and the Mead-Freeman Controversy" in American Anthropologist98(3): 555-567.
  • Brad Shore 1982 Sala'ilua: A Samoan Mystery New York: Columbia University Press.
  • R.E. Young and S. Juan 1985 "Freeman's Margaret Mead Myth: The Ideological Virginity of Anthropologists Australian and New Zealand Journal of Sociology 21: 64-81.
  • Mary E. Virginia, "DISCovering U.S. History", Benedict, Ruth (1887-1948), Online Edition, (ed Detroit: Gale), 2003

See also

  • Visual anthropology
  • Tim Asch
  • Zora Neale Hurston
  • Elsie Clews Parsons

This article might use material from a Wikipedia article, which is released under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share-Alike License 3.0.

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