|Born||December 16, 1901(1901-12-16) |
|Died||November 15, 1978 |
New York City
|Education||Ph.D., Columbia University (1929)|
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 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.
In the foreword to Coming of Age in Samoa, Mead's advisor, Franz Boas, wrote of its significance that
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."
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:
"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