Margaret Mead was born in Philadelphia on December
16, 1901, and grew up in a household that included three generations.
She was the first of five children born to Edward Sherwood Mead
and Emily Fogg Mead, social scientists who had met while attending
the University of Chicago. Margaret's early home life, with emphases
on education and social issues, exerted a pronounced influence
on her later life and career. She was a child of the Progressive
Era, when reformers felt that social problems could be solved
by the application of the social sciences. Growing up with a mother
who was a well-educated social reformer and a father who was an
economist, Margaret had a lifelong Progressivist orientation.
In later years, she was criticized for encouraging traditional
cultures to adopt Western ways in the name of progress.
As an anthropologist, the adult Margaret Mead
sought to apply the principles of anthropology and the social
sciences to social problems and issues, such as world hunger,
childhood education, and mental health. She was constantly observing
and gathering information in all kinds of settings. A public figure
for much of her adult life, Mead sought the spotlight and sometimes
found herself at the center of controversy.
Self-portrait completed around the age of thirteen, ca. 191415.
Pastel on paper.
Manuscript Division (18)
Self-Portrait at Age 13
Despite her family's academic background, young Margaret's formal
schooling consisted of two years of kindergarten, a year of half-days
in the fourth grade, and six years of high school. When not attending
school, she and her siblings were taught at home by their grandmother.
Since their mother believed that children should learn skills
and crafts, the children were also taught such things as music,
carving, basketry, drawing, and painting by local artisans in
the various places they lived.
Anthropology involves the
study of human culture, the socially shared and
learned system of beliefs, values, customs, language, and material
goods necessary for people to function as members of a particular
social group. Twentieth-century American anthropology is distinguished
by the four-field approach. These four fields
are archaeology, the exploration of
past human cultures through their material remains; linguistics,
the study of language; physical anthropology,
the study of human biology and evolution; and, cultural
anthropology, the study of the customs and traditions of human
social groups. The descriptive accounts of cultures written by
anthropologists are called ethnography.
To the Field and Back
Margaret Mead's professor, Franz Boas, was
the dominant figure in early twentieth-century anthropology. He
sent generations of his students to the field to document preliterate
cultures and small-scale societies whose way of life was changing
because of contact with the modern world. Boas wanted Mead, with
her training in psychology, to study Native American adolescents,
but she wanted to go to Polynesia, the culture area she had researched
for her doctoral dissertation. They compromised, and she went
to American Samoa, where there was an American military presence
and boats arrived regularly.
Between 1925, when she set out for Samoa, and
1939, Mead studied seven cultures in the South Pacific and Indonesia.
In all of these studies, she focused on the relationship between
the individual and culture, particularly in the transmission of
culture to children. Mead was one of the earliest American anthropologists
to apply techniques and theories from modern psychology to understanding
culture. She believed that cultures emphasize certain aspects
of human potential at the expense of others. Mead was especially
interested in how cultures standardize personality and what happens
to people temperamentally at odds with the behavior expected of
them. Her pioneering researches included looking at different
cultural expectations for males and females, an early attempt
at understanding what are now called "gender roles."
Some of Mead's conclusions have been questioned,
both during her lifetime and since her death. One frequent criticism
of her work--particularly in her writings for general audiences--has
been that she drew conclusions too broadly without offering sufficient
evidence. Although Mead often responded sharply to criticism,
she was sensitive to the possibility of observer bias in her field
research. Primarily for this reason, she preserved her complete
field notes and other materials for other researchers to consult
"Catching Fish in a Net,"
Manus Children's Drawings
Mead collected nearly 35,000 children's drawings in Manus on
her 192829 field trip. This drawing is by Kilipak, described
by Mead as "the brightest" in the group of older boys
from whom she collected her first drawings. Mead found no tendency
towards spontaneous animism in the drawings she collected, but
she did observe some variations in types of drawings by sex and
age. Girls, for instance, often tended to draw designs and to
use color, while boys avoided color and depicted "realistic"
scenes and subjects like human beings, animals, and ships.
"Catching Fish in a Net"
by Kilipak, New Guinea, male age 13.
Manuscript Division (92)
Nature versus Nurture: At
the time Margaret Mead journeyed to Samoa in the mid-1920s, scientists
and scholars were engaged in an ongoing dispute over the relative
importance of biological versus socially-acquired determinants
of human behavior, the so-called "nature-nurture debate." The
question is still discussed today: To what extent are human personality
and behavior the products of biological factors and to what extent
are they products of cultural forces?
Samoa: The Adolescent Girl
In 1925, Margaret Mead journeyed to the South
Pacific territory of American Samoa. She sought to discover whether
adolescence was a universally traumatic and stressful time due
to biological factors or whether the experience of adolescence
depended on one's cultural upbringing. After spending about nine
months observing and interviewing Samoans, as well as administering
psychological tests, Mead concluded that adolescence was not a
stressful time for girls in Samoa because Samoan cultural patterns
were very different from those in the United States. Her findings
were published in Coming of Age in Samoa (1928), a vivid,
descriptive account of Samoan adolescent life that became tremendously
popular. It was published in more than a dozen editions in a variety
of languages and made Mead famous. One of the reasons for the
popularity of the book was that Mead had revised the introduction
and conclusion of her original manuscript, adding two chapters
that dealt directly with the implications of her findings for
child rearing in the United States.
Though it was a popular success and has been
used in numerous undergraduate anthropology classes, Coming
of Age in Samoa has received varying degrees of criticism
over the years. Some of her results have been called into question
by other anthropologists, and she has been criticized for romanticizing
Samoan life and downplaying evidence contrary to her main argument.
In addition, some Samoans have found her depiction of Samoan adolescent
In addition to her popular volume on Samoan
adolescence, Mead wrote a more technical account of Samoan culture
entitled The Social Organization of Manu'a (1930).
Manus: Childhood Thought
On the boat returning from Samoa, Mead met her second
husband, Reo Fortune, a New Zealander headed to Cambridge, England,
to study psychology. They were married in 1928, after Mead's divorce
from Luther Cressman. They traveled together to Pere, a small village
on the island of Manus, in what was then the Admiralty Islands and is
now part of Papua New Guinea. Mead wanted to study the thought processes
of children in preliterate cultures and asked the children of Pere to
prepare drawings for her. On the trip she collected approximately 35,000
pieces of children's artwork. Contrary to prevailing thought, she discovered
that what is considered childlike in thought varies according to the
emphases of the culture. In a culture such as Manus, where the supernatural
permeates everyday life, Mead found that children showed no particular
interest in the supernatural in their drawings. They focused instead
on realistic depictions of the world around them. She published her
findings in Growing Up in New Guinea (1930), a book written
for a general audience. But, as with her Samoan research, she also published
a technical monograph on Manus for her peers entitled titled Kinship
in the Admiralty Islands (1934).
Holding On in Pere
Mead, an early student of gesture and body language, was interested
throughout her career in the way children were held and carried
in various cultures. Among the Pere villagers, she wrote in her
notes, "the reaction of grasping the elder's throat comes
very early." Because much of village life occurred in or
over water, small children were carried on their elders' shoulders
Reo Fortune, photographer. Margaret
Mead carrying a Manus girl, probably Piwen, on her back, 1928.
Gelatin silver print.
Manuscript Division (110)
Margaret Mead or Reo Fortune, photographer.
"The mariners of the next generation,"
Pere Village, Manus, Admiralty Islands, ca. 192829.
Gelatin silver print.
Manuscript Division (115)
Nanua and Ponkob
In her field notes on psychology, Mead described an episode where
Nauna is sent by his mother to retrieve his recalcitrant younger
brother Ponkob. In the photo on the left, the brothers are in
a canoe (Nauna, in front; Ponkob, paddling), with Pere village
in the background. With the westernized name Michael Nauna, the
older brother became a leader of postwar Pere. According to Mead,
in the 1950's Nauna was "the most trusted man in the village."
Sex and Temperament
After a field trip to Nebraska in 1930 to study the
Omaha Native Americans, she and her husband, Reo Fortune, next headed to the
Sepik region of Papua New Guinea for two years. While there Mead did
pioneering work on gender consciousness. She sought to discover to what
extent temperamental differences between the sexes were culturally determined
rather than innate. She described her findings in Sex and Temperament
in Three Primitive Societies (1935) and explored the subject more
deeply in the next decade with Male and Female (1949).
Mead found a different pattern of male and female
behavior in each of the cultures she studied, all different from gender
role expectations in the United States at that time. She found among
the Arapesh a temperament for both males and females that was
gentle, responsive, and cooperative. Among the Mundugumor (now
Biwat), both males and females were violent and aggressive, seeking
power and position. For the Tchambuli (now Chambri), male and
female temperaments were distinct from each other, the woman being dominant,
impersonal, and managerial and the male less responsible and more emotionally
dependent. While Mead's contribution in separating biologically based
sex from socially constructed gender was groundbreaking, she was criticized
for reporting findings that seemed custom-made for her theory. For Mead
each culture represented a different type within her theory, and she
downplayed or disregarded information that may have made her simple
In the later stages of the Sepik trip, Mead and Fortune
encountered British anthropologist Gregory Bateson, who was studying
the Iatmul people. The three worked to develop a systematic explanation
of the relationships between cultures and personality types. Mead discovered
such an intellectual bond and temperamental affinity with Bateson that
she eventually divorced Fortune and married Bateson.
This July 1933 photo shows [left to right] anthropologists Gregory
Bateson with Margaret Mead and Reo Fortune, all of whom had just
arrived in Sydney, Australia, from their New Guinea fieldwork.
Mead and Fortune met up with Bateson just before Christmas of
1932. They did their next fieldwork near him in the Middle Sepik,
resulting in an intense exchange of information and ideas.
While their collaboration in the field advanced their anthropological
work, it also had personal repercussions. Mead and Fortune's marriage
was effectively over at the time this photograph was taken. She
filed for divorce from Fortune two years later and married Bateson
"Group of Anthropologists
Who Arrived on Macdhui." July 1933.
Gelatin silver print.
Manuscript Division (139a)
Culture and Personality Studies
is a school of psychological anthropology that focuses on the
interaction of culture and individual personality. What part of
one's personality comes from his or her culture and what part
from the individual's psychological makeup? Margaret Mead and
Ruth Benedict were two of the most prominent anthropologists associated
with an approach in culture and personality studies that conceives
of culture as a set of patterns similar to the organization of
an individual personality.
Bali: Personality Formation
Mead and Bateson were married in 1936 in Singapore
as they headed for fieldwork in Bali in the Netherlands East Indies
(today Indonesia). In this pioneering work in visual anthropology,
they used a variety of methods to explore the role of culture
in personality formation.
They documented Balinese culture in extensive
field notes and through the innovative use of still photographs
and motion picture film. Collaborating with other Westerners living
in Bali and with Balinese secretary-informants, Mead and Bateson
produced multiple layers of documentation of such behaviors as
parent-child interactions, ritual performances and ceremonies,
and artists at work. In addition to other objects, they collected
Balinese art from adults and children and acquired over 1200 pieces
of artwork. Among the works they produced from their research
in Bali are the film Trance and Dance in Bali (1952)
and the book Balinese Character: A Photographic Analysis
(1942). The latter contains a selection of 759 still photographs,
arranged thematically to illustrate theoretical points about Balinese
culture and character formation. For instance, they used photographs
to show how children learned physical skills passively by having
their bodies moved into the necessary positions by their teachers.
While this field work is still considered groundbreaking,
it has been criticized, particularly for not accounting sufficiently
for the role of religion in Balinese culture.
Ken Heyman, photographer.
Margaret Mead holding a baby who
is teething on Mead's necklace.
Bajoeng Gedé (Bayung Gedé), Bali, January 1958.
Manuscript Division (277)
Mead returned to Bali in December of 1957, with photographer
Ken Heyman, who collaborated on projects with her for the next
two decades. In Heyman's words: "Dr. Mead loved this photograph,
and the following year she used it as her Christmas card. Village
mothers put a white spot on their babies' heads as a charm to
protect them from evil, in accordance with the local form of Hinduism."
Iatmul: Personality Formation II
Before returning to the United States, Mead
and Bateson traveled to New Guinea to test in a different culture
the fieldwork techniques they had developed in Bali. They spent
approximately six months observing, photographing, and filming
the Iatmul of the Middle Sepik region for their comparative study
of the connections between child-rearing practices and adult personality.
They selected the Iatmul because Bateson had previously studied
them, and Mead was familiar with other cultures of the region.
Due to the onset of World War II, very little was ever published
from the 1938 Iatmul research.
"Learning to Live in One World"
The World War II period marked a shift in Mead's
work. She increasingly paid more attention to contemporary so-called
"complex" cultures, including the United States, and less time
to fieldwork among distant cultures. She also began commenting
on issues of direct concern to American society. One of Mead's
major interests during the war and postwar period was global interdependence,
and she became increasingly involved in international organizations
working on global human issues. In addition to her continued writing
of popular books and magazine articles, she traveled frequently
within the U.S. and overseas. She lectured to diverse groups,
did radio interviews, and, from the early years of the new medium,
appeared on television. In these years, Mead continued to take
notes incessantly, filling nearly 200 volumes of notebooks on
her everyday activities.
In the 1960s and 1970s, Mead was easily identified
by her tall, forked walking stick, which she began using after
recovering from a break in a chronically weak ankle in 1960, and
her trademark cape. In addition to becoming widely recognized,
Mead became an increasingly controversial figure during this period
and was criticized by some people, including other anthropologists,
for offering her views on many different contemporary topics outside
the scope of her research or expertise.
When Mead died in 1978, she was widely eulogized.
Senator Jacob K. Javits of New York recalled her lasting contribution
in a eulogy in the Congressional Record: "Margaret Mead
lives on. She is with us in the brilliant studies she conducted
on human behavior; she lives on in the many books she has authored
. . . her ideas thrive in the minds of her students whom she stimulated
with her zeal and zest for the search for knowledge and truth."
Examining Sputnik Drawings
Margaret Mead and Rhoda Métraux (b. 1914) began working
together on food habits issues during World War II. Following
the war, they continued their work, collaborating on studies of
contemporary cultures. In the 1950s, they inaugurated a project
to study images of the scientist among American students. After
the launch of the Soviet satellite Sputnik in 1957, they expanded
the latter project to include children's images of that satellite.
Here Mead (right) and Métraux (left) examine
American children's drawings of Sputnik.
Arthur Herzog, photographer.
"Margaret Mead and Rhoda Métraux
looking at children's Sputnik' drawings," 1958.
Gelatin silver print.
Manuscript Division (252a)
National Character Studies: This type
of culture and personality study came about during the World War
II years, as the methods of culture and personality were applied
to large-scale, so-called "complex cultures." Researchers
sought to understand the cultural patterns of nation-states such
as Great Britain, Germany, Japan, and the Soviet Union, largely
through indirect methods rather than by traveling to those countries.
These are also sometimes called "studies of culture at a
National character studies in the war and postwar
periods were subsequently criticized by scholars for their homogeneity
and over-generalization. These studies, some funded directly by
government agencies, marked a new stage in the ongoing relationship
between social scientists and the U.S. government.
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