Margaret Mead: Human Nature and the Power of Culture
Sections: Shaping Forces | To the Field and Back | “Learning to Live in One World”

Margaret Mead standing between two Samoan girls.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.”

Two women, one holding a baby.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 and interpret.