Margaret Mead: Human Nature and the Power of Culture

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Conducting Public FlutesAfter 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 classifications untenable.

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.

Accounting for the Observer

During the summer of 1930, Mead and Fortune did fieldwork among the Omaha Native American people. Mead realized from this first experience studying a non-Oceanic culture that there was a connection between the anthropological approach used to study a culture and the characteristics of the culture studied. She continued to think about the implications of this discovery as she returned to New Guinea for her second field trip there. In these notes, she is considering how to account for the perspective of the ethnographic observer when assessing the results of field studies.

Margaret Mead. “Theoretical considerations,” ca. 1932. Typescript. Manuscript Division, Library of Congress (155b)

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Coming to Arapesh

Mead and Fortune arrived in Arapesh in December 1931. The people had no name for themselves, so Mead and Fortune called them "Arapesh," after the word for "person" in the local language. Mead's ankle was too weak for her to hike through the mountains, so she had to be carried to the mountaintop village of Alitoa, she wrote, "strapped like a pig to a carrying pole." The couple was stranded there when the people carrying their belongings would go no further.

Margaret Mead's notes on Arapesh pigs and dogs. “Pigs,” ca. 1932. Typescript. Manuscript Division, Library of Congress (136b)

Slip Recording

Fortune went off to do research outside the village, while Mead was left behind. As she had in Samoa, she combatted depression by working constantly, accumulating a mass of notes. She published five technical volumes on the Arapesh. Here are note slips on which Mead recorded observations about Arapesh culture. She found her Arapesh investigation conducive to “slip recording.” She first took notes by hand, in a notebook, then typed specific observations about points of the culture onto slips, coding the slips by reference category and date.

Margaret Mead's notes on birth payments March 25, 1932. Typescript. Manuscript Division, Library of Congress (136c)

Reaction to a Magazine

From the time of her first field trip, Mead introduced various images and objects as a form of psychological testing. In Samoa she had used magazine photos of the film Moana of the South Seas for a picture naming test. Among the Arapesh, Mead recorded reactions of a group of women and children to HOME Magazine. She notes that “little children, laughed almost hysterically at large covers…Women imitated any overt gesture…Respond with shouts to any picture depicting movement.”

Margaret Mead's notes on “reactions of a mixed group of women and children to HOME Magazine,” ca. 1932. Typescript. Manuscript Division, Library of Congress (136f)

Arapesh Flutes

Here Mead is shown “conducting” Arapesh men playing secular flutes. In contrast to sacred flutes, from which women and children must hide, women are permitted to see these flutes. The Tamberan, guardian spirit of the adult males, is embodied through the sound of the sacred flutes and other instruments. The flutes shown in this photo may be the those Mead described in her writing on the Arapesh as “buan flutes, a series of triple flutes which have been secularized among the Arapesh.”

Reo Fortune, photographer. “Conducting Public Flutes.” Alitoa Village, Arapesh, 1932. Gelatin silver print. Manuscript Division, Library of Congress (147)

Mundugumor Culture

When Mead and Fortune left the Arapesh, they looked for a culture without much Western cultural contact and which was not the province of any other anthropologist. They settled on the Mundugumor (now Biwat), along the Yuat River in what is now Papua New Guinea. There they encountered an aggressive culture in a land plagued by ferocious mosquitoes. They stayed only three months. Mead's most prominent theory about the Mundugumor is the “rope” kinship system, which has been debated by later anthropologists. These paintings are among those Mead collected from the Mundugumor.

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  • Mundugumor Paintings I. Color painting of lizard and frog by Maikava, male, age 17, Kenakatem, December 4, 1932. Manuscript Division, Library of Congress (172a)

  • Mundugumor Paintings II. Color painting by Yeshimba, adult male, Kenakatem, December 4, 1932. Manuscript Division, Library of Congress (172b)

Carrying Babies

Mead reported that both Arapesh and Mundugumor mothers carried their babies suspended from their foreheads. While Arapesh generally women used net bags, which simulated the experience of the womb, Mead reported that the Mundugumor carried their babies in rough-plaited, rigid baskets. Older Mundugumor children would be carried on their mothers' backs with no support, holding on by grabbing the mother's hair. In this photograph a Mundugumor woman holds a baby over her arm.

Margaret Mead or Reo Fortune, photographer. Mundugumor woman holding baby. Gelatin silver print. Manuscript Division, Library of Congress (152)

Letter from Karen Horney

Mead corresponded and shared ideas with numerous individuals who shared her interests, regardless of their fields. Here Karen Horney (1885–1952), the German-born feminist psychoanalyst wrote to Mead suggesting they meet to discuss issues such as “female 'qualities' and their being subject to cultural factors.” Horney suggested the possibility of including German-born psychoanalyst Erich Fromm (1900–1980) and Yale psychologist John Dollard (1900–1980) in their meeting. All four shared an interest in combining psychology with the study of socio-cultural factors.

Karen Horney. Letter to Margaret Mead, February 8 [probably 1935]. Page 2. Holograph manuscript. Manuscript Division, Library of Congress (143a)

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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.

Three Anthropologists

This July 1933 photo shows [left to right] anthropologist 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 in 1936.

“Group of Anthropologists Who Arrived on Macdhui.” July 1933. Gelatin silver print. Manuscript Division, Library of Congress (139a)

Early Formulation of Culture and Personality Theory

While they were together in New Guinea, Mead, Fortune, and Bateson read a draft manuscript of Ruth Benedict's classic book Patterns of Culture (1934). In that book Benedict describes cultures as integrated wholes, embodiments of personality types. Reading the manuscript led Mead, Fortune, and Bateson to discuss ways of systematically classifying people and cultures in terms of temperament. This document is probably Mead's earliest written summary of her thoughts on this topic. Fortune's name was included on the original document, but he ultimately disclaimed any responsibility for the ideas, writing in the top right corner: “I have nothing to do with this.”

Margaret Mead [and Reo Fortune]. “Summary Statement on the Problem of Personality and Culture.” Tchambuli, 1933. Page 2. Additional handwritten notes by Reo Fortune, probably June—July 1935. Typescript photocopy. Manuscript Division, Library of Congress (142)

Squares Diagram

From the discussions she had with Bateson and Fortune along the Sepik, Mead attempted, ultimately unsuccessfully, to articulate a unified theory of culture and personality. She referred to this as the theory of “squares.” It was based on a fourfold system, with “compass points” labelled North (“caring possessive”), South (“careful responsive”) , East (“careful possessive”), and West (“caring responsive”).

This is an early attempt by Mead to diagram the squares. Note that she has included the names of some of her friends on the diagram, and the names of cultures. She has put herself at the southern point, along with sociologist Helen Lynd (1894–1982). At the North she has listed Franz Boas; to the northwest, Ruth Benedict; to the northeast, Karen Horney. Tchambuli men are to the southwest and women to the northeast. Mundugumor are northern and Arapesh southern.

Margaret Mead. Notes on squares from Tchambuli trip, ca. Spring 1933. Page 2. Holograph manuscript. Manuscript Division, Library of Congress (140b)

Tchambuli (Chambri) Lake

Mead and Fortune settled among the lake-dwelling Tchambuli (now Chambri) in early 1933. They were led there by Gregory Bateson, who studied the nearby Middle Sepik culture of Iatmul. Mead wrote of the lake: “on its black polished surface, thousands of pink and white lotuses and blue water lilies are spread, and in the early morning white osprey and blue herons stand in the shallows.”

Tchambuli Lake, ca. 1933. Gelatin silver print. Manuscript Division, Library of Congress (179)

Language Memorizing Book

While Mead was not known for her linguistic abilities, her papers include notes she kept as she studied various languages in the field, as well as language notes made by others. This is a small notebook Mead used for recording vocabulary among the Tchambuli. Mead wrote to anthropologist Clark Wissler (1870–1947), her department chairman at the American Museum of Natural History: “The language is the most difficult one we have struck.” The Tchambuli at this time numbered about 500 people, and their language was not understood outside the group.

Margaret Mead. “Tchambuli Language Memorizing Book,” ca. 1933. Holograph Manuscript. Manuscript Division, Library of Congress (178)

Tchambuli Woman Holding Baby

In contrast to her studies of the Arapesh and Mundugumor cultures, which standardized the same personality for males and females, Mead found expectations of contrasting personalities for male and female among the Tchambuli, with the woman being dominant and the man responsive. At the time Mead and Fortune studied the Tchambuli, however, many of the men were away, which may have distorted Mead's conclusions. Pictured here is a Tchambuli woman holding a baby.

“Tchambuli woman + child,” ca. 1933. Gelatin silver print. Manuscript Division, Library of Congress (180b)

Response to a Reader

Mead received a considerable amount of mail from members of the public who had read her work or heard her speak. She often responded to these letters personally, especially in earlier years. Here she answers a woman from Washington, D.C., who claimed that Mead attributes all differences between male and female personalities to environment. Mead replied that differences among people as individuals must be understood before understanding differences based on sex. She writes: “I nowhere say that there are no primary, i.e. biologically determined sex differences. I think there probably are.”

Margaret Mead. Letter to Maurine D. Burgess, August 26, 1937. Typescript carbon. Manuscript Division, Library of Congress (175)

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