Margaret Mead: Human Nature and the Power of Culture

“Learning to Live in One World” Technology and Social Change

Rumors Cost Us LivesWhen Mead and Bateson returned to the United States in 1939, she was pregnant with their daughter, Mary Catherine Bateson, who was born that December. In this period, the couple prepared their Balinese materials for publication and began using their professional skills to assist the Allied war effort in the U.S. They contributed their expertise as social scientists to groups that applied the behavioral sciences to such issues as problems of morale in wartime. Early in 1942, Mead went to Washington, D.C., to head the National Research Council's Committee on Food Habits. This committee applied anthropological methods to problems of food distribution and preparation in war-affected countries. Also as part of the war effort, in 1942 Mead published And Keep Your Powder Dry, a book on American national character.

During World War II, anthropologists used the techniques they had developed in small-scale societies to analyze the “national character” of so-called complex societies. By gathering information from immigrants to the United States, as well as from published sources and films, they studied culture “at a distance.” Such research was used to guide government and military policy, to further cooperation among wartime allies, and to plan for a postwar world. Similar studies continued after the war with the Research in Contemporary Cultures project, which was led by Mead after Ruth Benedict's death in 1948.

Menninger Schedule, December 1942

In 1942, Mead began a professional association with the Menninger Clinic—an innovative mental health facility in Topeka, Kansas—which lasted the rest of her career. This schedule shows the topics she was to address during her first visit: Balinese culture; character structure and international cooperation; and wartime food problems. Arranging her trip, Mead wrote:

“In planning a schedule for me please realise that the only thing I will resent is not being used. I want to fill the time as full as possible.”

Demanding a full schedule was characteristic of Mead, who planned trips to include a maximum number of events, including not only lectures, seminars, and interviews, but also visits with family and friends.

Schedule for Margaret Mead's December 10–13, 1942, visit to the Menninger Clinic. Typescript with handwritten notes by Dr. Karl Menninger. Manuscript Division, Library of Congress (221b)


During World War II, Mead also began consciously articulating influences on her intellectual development. In this appendix for the never-completed Learning to Live in One World, Mead sketched out intellectual “lines of descent,” which connect a variety of social scientists, including Mead's own parents and her then-husband Gregory Bateson, as well as Franz Boas, Ruth Benedict, Edward Sapir, Erich Fromm, John Dollard, and Geoffrey Gorer.

Mead sought to give an institutional basis to the research she and like-minded social scientists were doing. In the early 1940s, she formed organizations to facilitate the flow of intercultural research in order to promote international understanding. This work culminated in 1944 with her founding of the Institute for Intercultural Studies, dedicated to “advancing knowledge of the various peoples and nations of the world, with special attention to those peoples and those aspects of their life which are likely to affect intercultural and international relations.” Mead's book royalties and lecture fees went to fund the institute, as did Benedict's book royalties after her death.

Margaret Mead. “Appendix for Part Two,” page of notes from unpublished 1945 book manuscript, Learning to Live in One World. Typescript [carbon]. Manuscript Division, Library of Congress (239)

Input from Father

Even after she was an established writer and scholar, Mead still sought information and advice from her father, economist Edward Sherwood Mead (1874–1956). In this letter he appears to be answering a question that has arisen while she was writing And Keep Your Powder Dry. The subject he addresses concerns European craftsmen versus American mass production machinery and appears in his daughter's book.

Edward Sherwood Mead. Letter to Margaret Mead, August 4 [probably 1942]. Page 2. Holograph manuscript. . Manuscript Division, Library of Congress (229)

A Student's Comment

Mead's files contain this student essay from a class at American University, passed on by the pupil's instructor. The student has written that she does not identify with the America described in And Keep Your Powder Dry, but this inability is “due not entirely to the fact that I am a Negro and not just 'an American'.” She wanted Mead to explain the destructive aspects of American life, the “Frankenstein” American character which “thrives on power, greed, and prejudice apart from the host of American people.”

In 1946, this student, Fanny (McConnell) Buford, married the African American writer Ralph Ellison (1914–1994), author of the classic novel Invisible Man (1952).

Fanny Buford. “A Comment on Miss Mead's Book And Keep Your Powder Dry,” January 25, 1943. Typescript. Enclosed in letter from [Caroline] Ware, March 17, 1943. Typescript. Manuscript Division, Library of Congress (230)

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.

Valued Foods

At the request of Ruth Benedict, Margaret Mead came to Washington, D.C., early in 1942, to assume the role of Executive Secretary of the National Research Council's Committee on Food Habits. One aspect of the committee's work dealt with determining what foods were essential to the cultural habits of people from different national backgrounds. Among other things, ensuring that people had access to the foods most meaningful to them was important to maintaining morale. This document from 1942 summarizes some of the committee's findings on the value of particular foods to different national groups.

National Research Council Committee on Food Habits. “Food and Morale,” Appendix I, November 19, 1942. Page 2. Typescript. Manuscript Division, Library of Congress (244c)

Democracies and Dictators

This series of cards comes from a board game developed and marketed by Mead and Bateson as part of their work on national defense and morale. The game is premised on “the basic ideas that Democracies and Dictators play by different rules and work with different values.” The game was designed so that it could be played by both children and adults. “Ideally,” wrote Mead, “for propaganda purposes it should be played by the whole family with Papa explaining the points.” Despite Mead's efforts to sell the game to Parker Brothers, it was never commercially produced.

Margaret Mead and Gregory Bateson. “Disaster for Dictators: Crippled Industries,” “Danger for Democracies: Corruption in Industries,” “Danger for Democracies: Destruction of Food,” and “Disaster for Dictators: Food shortage,” playing cards for board game, ca. 1940. Manuscript Division, Library of Congress (247g-j)

Letter about Rumors

One of Mead's wartime concerns—related to her work on food habits—was managing rumors. In this letter to her brother-in-law Leo Rosten, Mead explores the subject of using rumor clinics to analyze and combat rumors, especially in rural areas. The letter, which refers to a previous conversation they had on the subject, is of a sensitive nature. Mead decided not to send the letter, marking it “Not sent—Keep. Destroy carbon.” Rosten, a social scientist and writer, did work for the Office of War Information during World War II.

Margaret Mead. Letter to Leo Rosten. October 14, 1942. Page 2. Typescript. Manuscript Division, Library of Congress (238a)

“Rumors Cost Us Lives”

One of the problems social scientists addressed during the war was how to manage rumors. Seemingly innocent conversations could, in wartime, provide damaging information to the enemy. In response to requests from women's groups, the War Department drafted a “Code of Wartime Conversation,” which reminded: “What it is not safe to print, it is not safe to say!”

This poster from the Library's collection was part of the American campaign to prevent careless talk.

Rumors Cost Us Lives. Offset lithograph, ca. 1941–1945. Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress (238b)

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“Learning to Live in One World” Technology and Social Change