Thursday, April 7, 2016

Margaret Mead, Anthropologist

Taken between 1930 and 1950, Library of Congress Prints
And Photographs Division

Margaret Mead was a world-famous anthropologist and the first to introduce a holistic vision of the human species.

"Every time we liberate a woman, we liberate a man." ~ Margaret Mead

Margaret Mead was born on Philadelphia, Pennsylvania on December 16, 1901 into a family of thinkers. Margaret's father was Edward Mead, a professor at the Wharton School of Finance and Commerce and a founder of the University of Pennsylvania's evening school. Her mother, Emily Fogg Mead, was a sociologist and feminist.

It was Margaret's grandmother, Martha Ramsey Mead, who would teach her to watch the actions of others to determine their motivation, however, and to take notes during the process - a child psychologist, Margaret's grandmother played an active role in the lives of Margaret, her three sisters, and her brother.

Margaret's schooling was non-conventional and she did not attend classes full time, but her education was seen to by the number of educators in her family. At the age of 11 she was drawn to the Episcopal Church, following her love for tradition and ritual. She considered being a painter as a career, but then was drawn to study English.

While thriving on tradition in some aspects (like religion, which she kept a strong connection with her whole life), Margaret was unafraid to embrace change in other areas. In 1919 she transfered from Depauw University in Indiana, where she studied English, to Barnard College in New York to major in psychology.

It was during an anthropology class with Franz Boas in her senior year that Margaret decided to be an anthropologist.

She graduated from Barnard in 1923, got married to Luther Cressman, and entered the anthropology department at Columbia University. At that time, Columbia's department considered of Franz Boas, who taught every anthropology class, and Ruth Benedict, his assistant.

It was an exciting time to be in the behavioral sciences. The events of World War I and the displacement of people that followed impacted anthropology by raising certain questions - for example, how could what they knew about the nature of humankind explain the war and the trends that had followed?

At the same time, the ideas of Sigmund Freud were seeping into the culture. Due to these factors and others, those in the field of anthropology were beginning to look at humans and their behaviors from entirely different angles.

It was during this period that Margaret began a relationship with Ruth Benedict that would last a lifetime. Ruth was a brilliant anthropologist in her own right, and among other things, studied American Indians and how the personality of a culture defines its members.

Margaret would go on to meet and marry two more husbands over the course of her lifetime, but it was Ruth Benedict who always had her heart. The two exchanged many letters over the course of their lives, many of them deeply romantic and touching, such as "Beside the strength and permanence and all enduring feeling which I have for you, everything else is shifting sand" (Margaret, 1938).

In 1925 Margaret departed for the first of many field trips to the American Samoa in the South Seas, where she gathered material for her first book, Coming of Age in Samoa (published in 1928). As for all her works, Margaret's method of gathering data was through observation of a culture versus a reliance on statistics, something that would be challenged by later generations who would question the soundness of her conclusions.

Margaret's work focused on adolescent girls, and her book was the first to present the idea that one's experience of their own developmental stages is shaped by one's culture - so that one's adolescence might be more or less fraught and filled with challenges in one culture than another, depending on how that culture views adolescence.

Coming of Age in Samoa has been translated into many languages and remains a best-seller.

Mead with a Samoan mother and child, Library of Congress
In 1929 Margaret again set off for fieldwork, this time to Manus Island in New Guinea, accompanied by her second husband, Reo Fortune. There she studied play and demonstrations of imagination in children, and how they were shaped by different aspects of adult society.

She published her observations in Growing Up in New Guinea, a work that maintains that our "civilized" worlds have much to learn from those we classify as primitive, and that rejected the professionally held opinion of that time that "primitive" people are like children.

Mead was the first anthropologist to suggest that different cultures experience and transition between developmental stages in ways that are unique to that culture, and we should acknowledge as much in our study of them. This was the first time an anthropologist was to view human behavior from a cross-cultural perspective.

In 1930 Margaret and her husband Reo departed for the Sepik region of Papua New Guinea, where she would study for two years and produce groundbreaking work on the gender consciousness. Here, she sought to learn more about the extent to which temperamental differences between the sexes are learned, versus innate, and she would discuss her conclusions in Sex and Temperament in three Primative Societies (1935), then again in the later book Male and Female (1949).

Mead observed different displays of male and female behavior in each culture she studied, and all were different from the views we held at that time in the United States. For example, in the Arapesh community she noted a temperament in both males and females that was gentle and cooperative, while in the contrasting Mundugumor community (now called Biwat), both females and males were violent, aggressive, and power-seeking. In the Tchambuli community however (now called Chambri), male and female temperaments were more distinct and separate, with females displaying managerial, dominant, and impersonal traits and the males appearing relatively less responsible and showing more emotion.

Though recognized for its highly valuable contribution to the field, this work by Mead still fell under criticism for seeming to report only evidence that supported her theories, and it was suggested that she disregarded information that did not fit within her classifications.

In the later stages of this trip Margaret and Reo encountered British anthropologist Gregory Bateson, and the three began working together to develop an explanation for the relationship between culture and different personality types. It was during this time that Margaret and Bateson developed a strong intellectual bond, and she would later divorce Reo, and marry Gregory Bateson.

In all Margaret's studies, she held to the belief that all aspects of human life were interconnected and affected by our culture, so that the production and gathering of food cannot be separated from ritual and belief, for example, and politics cannot be separated from art, or how we raise our children. This holistic view of human development and adaptation would be one of Mead's greatest contributions to the field of anthropology.

After WWII when research funding to the South Pacific was cut off, Margaret and Ruth founded the Institute of Intercultural Studies and pioneered the study of contemporary culture by applying anthropological techniques.

In 1953, Margaret then returned to New Guinea to study the Manus Islanders she had visited in 1928, seeking to discover what changes had occurred over the 25-year span. She reported her findings in New Lives For Old and offers a basis for her belief that we can choose between possible futures, as we have the power to change and shape our future with the choices we make.

This was quite a statement in a world that was becoming pessimistic about the capacity for humans to change, yet Margaret held firm in her belief that society's cultural patterns of racism, warfare, and environmental destruction were learned, and could therefore by modified and changed, to create a different future.

Margaret taught at a number of different institutions, but was primarily based at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City. She wrote 23 books over the course of her life and coauthored just as many, all of which are now archived in the Library of Congress.

Margaret was very popular for her work during her lifetime and engaged in discussion on such wide-ranging topics as women's rights, morality, racism, drug abuse, population control, and world hunger. She received 28 honorary doctorates and was the president of both the American Anthropological Association and the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

Following her death in 1978, Margaret was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

Margaret had one child in her third marriage, Mary Catherine Bates. Her relationship with Ruth Benedict, her life-long love, would end in 1948 when Ruth died suddenly of a heart attack. Ruth had been named by Gregory and Margaret as the guardian of their daughter. In one of her final letters to Ruth, Margaret wrote, "Always I love you and realize what a desert life might have been without you."


Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it's the only thing that ever has.

I was brought up to believe that the only thing worth doing was to add to the sum of accurate information in the world.


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