Margaret Mead: Human Nature and the Power of Culture

Photograph ca. 1909–1910.

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.

“The Original Punk”

Mead recalls in her autobiography that her father's affectionate nickname for her as a small child was “Punk.” When her brother, Richard, was born a little more than two years later, her father called him “the boy-punk,” while she became known as “the original punk.” This was, Mead wrote, “a reversal of the usual pattern, according to which the girl is only a female version of the true human being, the boy.”

Margaret Mead as an infant, 1902. Gelatin silver print. Manuscript Division, Library of Congress (31)

Margaret Mead at Age 6

When Emily Fogg Mead (1871–1950), Margaret's mother, learned that she was pregnant with her first child, she began keeping a diary of her state of mind and daily experiences, believing these factors would affect her baby's development. She continued the note-taking after Margaret's birth, filling thirteen notebooks with observations on minute details of Margaret's behavior and development. This page from one of Emily's surviving notebooks details Margaret's “Characteristics at 6 Years.”

Emily Fogg Mead. “Characteristics at 6 Years,” ca. January 1908. Diary. Manuscript Division, Library of Congress (5)

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Margaret's First Teacher

One of the most important people in Margaret's early life was her paternal grandmother, Martha Adaline Ramsay Mead (1845–1927). A widowed schoolteacher, Martha lived with her only son's family and was responsible for much of the children's education. Martha believed it harmful for children to be indoors for long periods of time, so young Margaret and her siblings also spent time learning outdoors, absorbing practical lessons in natural history and botany. Here Martha records Margaret's progress.

Martha Ramsay Mead. Notes on Margaret Mead's early childhood learning, “Margaret,” possibly ca. 1905. Holograph manuscript. Manuscript Division, Library of Congress (21)

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An Early Observer

Margaret had four siblings—one brother, born two years after Margaret, and three younger sisters. Katharine died in 1907 at the age of nine months, a traumatic event for Margaret, who had named her. Elizabeth and Priscilla Mead were born in 1909 and 1911, respectively. Margaret's grandmother assigned her to take notes on her sisters' behavior while they were still babies, encouraging Margaret to see emerging differences in temperament between the two girls. Mead recalled: “I learned to make these notes with love, carrying on what Mother had begun.”

Margaret Mead. Diary record of her sister Elizabeth's language development, probably ca. 1911–1912. Diary. Manuscript Division, Library of Congress (22)

Tracing old patterns was something I began to do very early, as I noted family resemblances—who in the next generation had the eyes or the nose or the curling hair or the sharp wit of some member of the generation before.

Margaret Mead, Blackberry Winter: My Earlier Years, 1972

Recording “My Every Day Life”

Margaret Mead started several journals as a child but did not keep a diary consistently. This is a diary she began in the summer of 1911, while vacationing on the island of Nantucket, Massachusetts, with her family. The diary contains numerous misspellings. Her grandmother, who was her primary teacher, did not emphasize spelling. Consequently, Mead was an inattentive speller throughout her life, relying on others to edit her writing. Their family name was originally “Meade,” and Margaret still spelled her name that way in some childhood writings.

The accompanying photograph shows Margaret, aged 9 and her brother, Richard, aged 7, on the beach that same summer.

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  • Margaret Mead. Diary, begun July 11, 1911. Holograph manuscript. Manuscript Division, Library of Congress (20)

  • Margaret and Richard Mead on the beach, Nantucket, Massachusetts, summer 1911. Gelatin silver print. Manuscript Division, Library of Congress (9)

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.

Margaret Mead. Self-portrait completed around the age of thirteen, ca. 1914–15. Pastel on paper. Manuscript Division, Library of Congress (18)

Home Life

Born into a family of educators and home-schooled by her grandmother for much of her childhood, Margaret learned early to be a keen observer of the world around her. She was treated as a unique individual within her family, rather than as just a child, and this inspired confidence and curiosity in the young Margaret. She learned from being studied by her mother and grandmother that to be observed was, as she recalled late in her life, “an act of love.” In turn, Margaret was encouraged to observe the development of her younger siblings.

Margaret's father was a professor at the Wharton School of Finance and Commerce at the University of Pennsylvania, while her mother pursued graduate work in sociology. As Mead herself said, they were “like a family of refugees,” moving often to accommodate her parents' academic careers. Margaret had to adjust to frequent changes in surroundings and people from a young age. She learned that it was necessary to write things down, keeping track of such things as neighbors' names and addresses and the medical histories of herself and her siblings. In addition, she learned to respect books and the acquisition of facts. Due to her unconventional upbringing, Margaret also acquired a variety of manual skills, such as typing and woodworking, at a young age.

Margaret Mead and Luther Cressman

In June of 1917, Margaret Mead met Luther Sheeleigh Cressman (1897–1994), the younger brother of one of her teachers at Doylestown High School. She and Luther became secretly engaged on New Year's Eve 1917. After a lengthy engagement, they married on September 3, 1923. At the time, Cressman was an Episcopalian priest doing graduate work in sociology. He ultimately left the priesthood and became a prominent archaeologist of the American Pacific Northwest. Cressman and Mead divorced in 1928.

Margaret Mead and Luther Sheeleigh Cressman, ca. 1917–18. Gelatin silver print. Manuscript Division, Library of Congress (14a)

Choosing a Career

After a largely disappointing year at DePauw University in Indiana, Mead transferred to the all-women's Barnard College in New York City in 1920. Mead began as an English major but decided to study psychology instead. After taking classes in anthropology with Franz Boas (1858–1942), often considered the “father of modern American anthropology,” and his teaching assistant, Ruth Benedict (1887–1948), she decided to become an anthropologist. Mead was impressed by Boas's brilliance and taken by the urgency of the task Boas and Benedict set out for her—to document cultures before they disappeared in the face of contact with the modern world. Benedict, who began as Mead's mentor, would become a longtime colleague, intimate friend, and confidante.

Franz Boas, Founder of Modern Anthropology

Franz Boas (1858–1942), the German-born “father of modern American anthropology” and Mead's mentor, challenged the prevailing nineteenth-century race-based, evolutionary approach to culture, which considered white Western industrialized societies the pinnacle of human progress. Boas separated race from cultural factors in his theories and laid the groundwork for cultural relativism, which requires that a culture be understood on its own terms, without a hierarchy ranking some cultures as better or more advanced than others.

Franz Boas in Ruth Benedict's living room, undated. Gelatin silver print. Manuscript Division, Library of Congress (36)

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.

“Our cup is broken”

In this letter to her grandmother, Mead reveals her emerging passion for anthropology and hints at Ruth Benedict's growing importance in her life. Benedict sought to popularize the ideas of anthropology, a path Mead would also follow. Both shared an interest in explaining each culture through an essential pattern. In this letter, Mead quoted from a Benedict essay in which one of the author's Native American informants says, “In the beginning there was given to every people a cup of clay. And from this cup they drank their life. Our cup is broken.” Mead found the cup of clay metaphor “a quaint and poetic way of characterizing the whole culture of the Indians, or any other people for that matter.”

Margaret Mead. Letter to Martha Ramsey Mead, March 11, 1923. Page 2. Typescript [signed]. Manuscript Division, Library of Congress (38)

Ruth Fulton Benedict, Colleague and Friend

Ruth Benedict (1887–1948), Boas's teaching assistant, convinced Mead to focus on anthropology, saying: “Professor Boas and I have nothing to offer but an opportunity to do work that matters.” Mead was attracted by the urgency of documenting vanishing cultures (a practice referred to as “salvage anthropology”). Mead and Benedict soon became colleagues and developed an intimate and enduring friendship. They exchanged ideas and read all of each other's writings until Benedict's death in 1948.

Ruth Benedict at Lake Winnipesaukee, New Hampshire, probably ca. 1920s. Gelatin silver print. Manuscript Division, Library of Congress (34a)

Boas Seminar Notes

Franz Boas was a very demanding professor but had become a more paternal figure to his students by the 1920s. This generation of his students, mostly women, referred to him as “Papa Franz.” Mead took these notes during a seminar with Boas in the spring of 1924. Mead has recorded an exchange of ideas between Boas (“F.B.”) and Benedict (“R.F.B.”) on the interrelation of social organization and relationship systems in culture.

Margaret Mead. Anthropology seminar notes, March 19, 1924. Page 2. Holograph manuscript. Manuscript Division, Library of Congress (39)

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Poets and Anthropologists

While Mead was best-known as an anthropologist, poetry was her earliest published work. Mead, Benedict, and their colleague Edward Sapir (1884–1939), a famous linguist, all shared a love of poetry, reading and critiquing each others' verse. Sapir found Mead's poem “Traveler's Faith” to be “delicate” and advised her to “cultivate that very charming simplicity you have latent in you. Your verse will be your own.”

Margaret Mead. “Traveler's Faith,” in Song of Five Springs. Hand-bound volume, probably compiled for Ruth Benedict, ca. 1927. Manuscript Division, Library of Congress (44)

Mead's Ph.D. Dissertation

This is the published form of Margaret Mead's doctoral dissertation, a study of relative stability in certain elements of culture. It focuses on canoe building, house building, and tattooing in five Polynesian cultures, including Samoa. Mead completed the basic study in 1925, before going to Samoa, then revised it upon her return from the field. It was for this work that Mead received her Ph.D. in 1929.

Margaret Mead. An Inquiry into the Question of Cultural Stability in Polynesia. New York: Columbia University Press, 1928. Table of Contents. Page 2. Manuscript Division, Library of Congress (46)

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