Margaret Mead: Human Nature and the Power of Culture

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Shaping Forces

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.

Margaret Mead self-portrait
Margaret Mead.
Self-portrait completed around the age of thirteen
, ca. 1914–15.
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 and interpret.

"Catching Fish in a Net,"
Manus Children's Drawings

Mead collected nearly 35,000 children's drawings in Manus on her 1928–29 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
"Catching Fish in a Net"
by Kilipak, New Guinea, male age 13.
Page 2
Pencil drawing.
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 sexuality offensive.

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).

Letters and Images of Life in the Field

Mead did not keep a field diary in Samoa. While she wrote a series of field bulletins for family and friends, the most intimate view of her time there comes from her almost-daily letters to Ruth Benedict. These letters chronicle her activities and varied emotional states in great detail. These three photographs were enclosed in a letter Mead sent Benedict dated February 10, 1926. In the accompanying text, Mead has written of her appearance: "I look very prim and proper and unpolynesian." In these photographs, Mead is wearing a wedding dress woven by Makelita, last Queen of Manu'a.

Margaret Mead standing between two Samoan girls
Margaret Mead standing between two Samoan girls, ca. 1926.
Gelatin silver print.
Manuscript Division. (50a)

Margaret Mead sitting between two Samoan girls
Margaret Mead sitting between two Samoan girls, ca. 1926.
Gelatin silver print.
Manuscript Division
. (50b)

Margaret Mead sitting on a canoe in Samoa
Margaret Mead sitting on a canoe in Samoa, ca. 1926.
Gelatin silver print.
Manuscript Division
. (50c)

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 and backs.

Margaret Mead carrying a Manus child on her back in New Guinea
Reo Fortune, photographer. Margaret Mead carrying a Manus girl, probably Piwen, on her back, 1928. Gelatin silver print.
Manuscript Division (110)

Two Manus boys in a canoe
Margaret Mead or Reo Fortune, photographer.
"The mariners of the next generation,"
Pere Village, Manus, Admiralty Islands, ca. 1928–29.
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 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.

Three Anthropologists

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 in 1936.

Group of Anthropologists Who Arrived on Macdhui
"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.

Margaret Mead in Bajoeng Gedé, Bali
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)

Bali, 1958

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.

Margaret Mead and Rhoda Metraux looking at 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 distance."

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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