Margaret Mead was a United States Anthropologist and pioneer for the social science discipline. She “was arguably the most renowned anthropologist of all time, contributing to the development of the discipline” (University of Southern Florida Anthropology Department, 2006) and conducting meaningful ethnographic studies of indigenous populations of which most in the developed world would and could only dream. As anyone in the spotlight for their achievements, Margaret Mead has taken criticism as well as praise for her research. Despite opinions of her work, for better or worse, the woman and her bountiful legacy remain cherished by Americans and those who have read and have been a part of her work.
Mead was born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania on December 16, 1901 (University of Southern Florida Anthropology Department, 2006). “Margaret benefited from being her parents’ firstborn child, as well as having been born a girl” (Lutkehaus, 2008, p. 32). Her knack for knowledge and aptitude for intelligence started quite early. Not surprisingly, “both of parents were educators” (Flaherty, 2006). She graduated high school in 1918 at the age of 17 and went straight to college (Flaherty, 2006).
“Mead earned her Bachelors of Arts degree in Sociology at Barnard College in new York” (Flaherty, 2006). Her vigorous education eventually led her to obtain her PhD in 1929 from Columbia, also in New York. “Following that she earned many honorary degrees and was a member of the American Academy on Arts and Letters.” (Flaherty, 2006). “Mead, along with [her] mentor Franz Boas [at Columbia was] illustrating the importance of culture in shaping and influencing human behavior” (Scupin, 2012, p. 235). This work that was being conducted by Mead, Boas, and fellow researcher Ruth Benedict, was undoubtedly quite influential to social scientists that would follow.
Much of Mead’s work was “focused on fairly isolated, small-scale societies” (Scupin, 2012, p. 234). By far her best known work is her first ethnographic report, entitled Coming of Age in Samoa, published in 1928. “Her mentor, Franz Boas…wanted her to investigate…adolescent development…in Samoa” (Scupin, 2012, p. 234). Her publication focused “largely on her interviews with two young Samoan women” (Rising, 2000) with a great emphasis on “sex, a taboo topic in Samoa” (Rising, 2000) and “child-rearing and personality” (University of Southern Florida Anthropology Department, 2006).
“The central research question” of Mead’s work in Samoa was “To what extent are adolescent problems the product of physiological changes occurring at puberty or the result of cultural factors?” (Scupin, 2012, p. 234). It should be said that the work of Charles Darwin’s cousin, Francis Galton, was extremely influential during his studies of hereditary that would later become known as “nature vs. nurture” in the early 1900s (Psychology – Macalester College, 2013). Because Mead’s research ultimately yielded results that showed “the wild stories of the young women [of Samoa]” (Rising, 2000), young men and women began to question that of their own sexual behaviors, in particular constraints. The results of Mead’s flagship work in Samoa resulted in a sexual revolution of sorts amongst adolescents in Western culture.
The influence on human behavior that culture has is reflected in just about every social science and the work that Mead was a part of helped to sculpt our very ideas about these concepts. She “was one of the most influential contributors to the field of culture and personality” (Scupin, 2012, p. 234). Today, more than ever, the seeds sown by Mead are beginning to flower as these fields of study become increasingly important in modern thought.
“The anthropological community” to which she was a part of found her research quite well and it even was widely adopted as a university text in anthropology” (Rising, 2000). Her contributions are well numbered in the fields of social science, especially anthropology. Many of the works conducted by Mead were valuable to a country largely geographically isolated, America, despite our “isolationis[t]…polic[ies that]…reigned supreme” (Colander, 2011, p. 376). During the 20th century, Margaret Mead was able to bring forth accounts of people from all over the world essentially on a silver platter for the American public. She went on to become a most “prolific writer, she produced 44 books and more than 1,000 articles” (University of Southern Florida Anthropology Department, 2006).
Mead’s other works include ethnographic research in Bali, New Guinea, and many other corners of the world. She was also very important in that she incorporated the use of photography like few in anthropology had done before (University of Southern Florida Anthropology Department, 2006). The power of photographs is incredible to any form of study, but perhaps particularly in this case, as much of the subject matter was so distant, it was largely inconceivable to its intended audiences. Photos being a form of presenting reality and an accurate means of recording information, was particularly effective for Mead’s advancement as a prominent force in social science and helped her to achieve new heights in her work.
The work that Mead did on the island of Samoa began to come under fire from an anthropologist by the name of Derek Freeman in what ultimately became known as “The Freeman-Mead Controversy”. His book was titled Margaret Mead and Samoa: The Making and Unmaking of an Anthropological Myth. Freeman’s own findings in Samoa contradicted that of Mead’s work. Thus, he argued that her work was altogether a farce. Ultimately, both Freeman and Mead took considerable heat from the anthropological community via academic juries and paradigms in respect and thought. Many anthropologists criticized Freeman the worst, saying he “studied Samoa years and even decades after Mead did” (Scupin, 2012, p. 236).
Anthropology itself was a fairly young discipline during Margaret Mead’s early days at Columbia University (O’neil, 2012). The world knew little about cultural practices of the world compared to knowledge accumulated and accessible today’s global community, let alone the predicament of adolescents in Samoa. While there is much debate as to whether Freeman was correct in his assumptions about the nature of Mead’s work, the small island that he had apparently come to know in ethnographies of his own was strikingly different. After much debate and an equally long amount of time, solutions to the inconsistencies of Mead’s work began to present themselves. “Unfortunately for Freeman’s critics,” one of the Samoan girls that the young anthropologist had spent so much time interviewing “remained alive and in a 1991 interview the elderly grandmother confirmed everything that Freeman had said” (Rising, 2000). “”Samoan girls,” she confessed, “are terrific liars when it comes to joking. But Margaret accepted our trumped-up stories as though they were true. Yes, we just fibbed and fibbed to her.”” (Rising, 2000). While a great number of Mead’s findings in Samoa were valid and very much important in terms of information, the realization that the two local informants she’d been working so closely with were putting her on, so to speak, shed dismal light on her anthropological work. The reality is that the young Samoan girls knew very little of why Mead was so curious about them and of course, meant no harm in what they had done. Fortunately for the legacy of Mead and the discipline of anthropology, the social scientific community has learned a great deal from this scenario in Samoa and thinks less of the ordeal as problematic for the scientist and even our understanding of the island’s peoples.
Criticisms of her work have extended to other areas as well. Modern criticisms of Mead’s work in Bali with Gregory Bateson in the late 1930s haven’t been quite as harsh as Freeman’s words, but they’re harsh nonetheless. “Although they wrote relatively little about their work in this place,” a scholar writes, “they did leave behind a…photographic record of their time there” (Sullivan, 1999). Other followers of Mead’s work with Bateson and their photographic excursion to be essential to “subsequent generations of anthropology and film students who continue to be intrigued by the aesthetics of the film” (Lutkehaus, 2008, p. 178). Certainly the body of work was influential to the use of cameras in this line of work; an aspect of society and anthropology that is now virtually indispensible.
“In 1978, Mead died of cancer” (Flaherty, 2006). Being that she was “born in 1901…her life spanned the greater part of the period Henry Luce first referred to as “the American century”” (Lutkehaus, 2008, p. 1). Indeed her influence was great on the world she called home. “Time [Magazine]…named her ‘mother of the world’ in 1969” (Flaherty, 2006). Future generations of social scientists, ethnologists, and anthropologists owe a great deal of respect to the work of Margaret Mead. Particularly long lasting is her inspiring passion for the work she did amongst the diverse people of the world. Undoubtedly, without her, we would still be waiting for Margaret Mead.
Colander, D. (2011). Social Science: an Introduction to the Study of Society. Boston: Pearson.
Flaherty, T. (2006, November 17). Margaret Mead. Retrieved from Webster University Psych: Women’s Intellectual Contributions to the Study of Mind and Society: http://www2.webster.edu/~woolflm/margaretmead.html
Lutkehaus, N. C. (2008). Margaret Mead: Making of an American Icon. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
O’neil, D. (2012, November 19). What is Anthropology: Overview. Retrieved January 17, 2013, from http://anthro.palomar.edu/intro/overview.htm
Psychology – Macalester College. (2013, January 17). Neuroscience of Intelligence. Retrieved from Behavioral Science Web Ring Macalester College: http://www.macalester.edu/academics/psychology/whathap/ubnrp/intelligence05/rheredity.html
Rising, G. (2000, June 23). Margaret Mead. Retrieved January 17, 2013, from http://www.acsu.buffalo.edu/~insrisg/nature/nw97/mead.html
Scupin, R. (2012). Anthropology: A Global Perspective. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson.
Sullivan, G. (1999). Margaret Mead, Gregory Bateson, and Highland Bali: Fieldwork Photographs of Bayung Gede, 1936-1939. Retrieved from University of Chicago Press Books: http://www.press.uchicago.edu/ucp/books/book/chicago/M/bo3632000.html
University of Southern Florida Anthropology Department. (2006, September 5). Margaret Mead. Retrieved January 16, 2013, from http://anthropology.usf.edu/women/mead/margaret_mead.htm