Margaret Mead Research Paper

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Margaret Mead, noted twentieth century American cultural anthropologist, was born December 16, 1901, in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, to Emily Fogg Mead, sociologist and social activist, and Edward Sherwood Mead, economist and professor at the Wharton School of Finance and Commerce at the University of Pennsylvania. She grew up in a household open to new ideas and social change. Her mother was an ardent proponent of woman’s suffrage; her grandmother, Martha Ramsay Mead, who lived with them, was, with her mother, interested in experimenting with the latest ideas in education. Her father, while somewhat progressive, also acted as devil’s advocate in lively debates over issues at mealtimes.

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Her education was a combination of home schooling and local schools. She attended Buckingham Friends School and graduated from Doylestown High School, both in Bucks County, outside of Philadelphia. She spent her first year of college at DePauw University in Indiana, but found herself an outsider there. She transferred to Barnard, a highly regarded women’s college in New York City, where she made life-long friends and from which she graduated in the spring of 1923.

In the fall of 1923 she married Luther Cressman, a young man she had met in Bucks County and been engaged to since leaving for DePauw. He was a college graduate and a graduate of General Theological Seminary in New York, which he attended while she was at Barnard. For both, the ideal marriage was an equal partnership.

They attended graduate school at Columbia University in New York City together, he in sociology, she receiving her Master’s degree in psychology, then her Ph.D. in anthropology. At Columbia, she was a student of Franz Boas, the preeminent anthropologist in the US, and part of a distinguished anthropological community that included Melville Herskovits, Ruth Bunzel, Esther Goldfrank, and Ruth Benedict, who began as a mentor, and through the graduate school years became a colleague, close friend, and lover. A bisexual, throughout her life Mead would develop relationships with both men and women. During this time she also met anthropologists from outside New York, of whom Edward Sapir would be the most important.

She defended her dissertation, a piece of library research titled, An Inquiry into the Question of Cultural Stability in Polynesia, in the spring of 1925 (published in 1928). After accepting a position as an assistant curator at the American Museum of Natural History in New York upon her return, that fall she set off for her first field trip, to American Samoa in the Pacific. She was gone altogether 9 months, while Luther studied in Europe. The result of that field trip was her book, Coming of Age in Samoa (1928), which showed Americans there could be a different system of morality in which premarital sex was accepted, and adolescence itself was not necessarily a time of ‘storm and stress.’ This book became a best-seller and began the process which, by the time of her death, would make her the best-known anthropologist in the US.

On the trip home, she met New Zealander Reo Fortune, on his way to Britain to study psychology. They fell in love and over the course of 2 years of internal struggle she and Luther decided to divorce. In 1928 she married Reo, who had changed his field of study to anthropology and had already taken his first field trip to the Dobu people in the Pacific, and they embarked on their first field trip together, to the Manus people of the Admiralty Islands in the Pacific. This resulted in her book, Growing Up in New Guinea (1930), a study of the socialization and education of Manus children.

Two other field trips with Reo, a summer trip to the American West and a return to the Pacific, this time the mainland of New Guinea, resulted in her books, The Changing Culture of an Indian Tribe (1932), which studied assimilation among the Omaha Indians, and Sex and Temperament in Three Primiti e Societies (1935), a comparative study of three New Guinea peoples, the Arapesh, Mundugumor, and Tchambuli, which gave evidence for the first time of the constructed nature of gender systems. Prior to this, gender had been viewed as biologically innate. Problems in the marriage came to a head on New Guinea, resulting in Mead’s and Reo’s divorce on their return from the field. She married British anthropologist Gregory Bateson, whom she had met in New Guinea, in 1936, and they set out for their first field trip to Bali in the Pacific, which resulted in their co-authored book, Balinese Character: A Photographic Analysis (1942). After this field trip their daughter and Mead’s only child, Mary Catherine Bateson, was born in 1939.

During World War II Mead served as Executive Secretary of the National Research Council’s Committee on Food Habits which did serious research on nutrition planning and cultural food problems, such as how to help people used to rice adopt wheat flour. She wrote a pioneering popular book, And Keep Your Powder Dry (1942), the first by an anthropologist to attempt to use anthropological insights and models to deal with a nonnative culture, that of the US as a whole.

After the war ended, she became involved with Ruth Benedict in a project studying nonnative cultures around the world titled Research in Contemporary Cultures, popularly known as National Character studies. When Benedict died in 1948, Mead took over as director of the project and brought it to a conclusion in 1952. In 1949, using information from the eight cultures she had done field work in, she wrote Male and Female: A Study of the Sexes in a Changing World. In 1950, she and Gregory Bateson divorced, the war having drawn them apart.

In the 1950s Mead decided to revisit the Manus in the Pacific, to see what a difference 25 years had made for them. The result was New Li es for Old: Cultural Transformation—Manus, 1928–1953. This began a pattern of revisiting old field-work sites that continued almost until her death and resulted in several other shorter publications.

In 1964, she wrote Continuities in Cultural E olution, which she considered one of her best works. Earlier, in 1961, she had agreed to write columns for Redbook Magazine, a popular woman’s magazine in the US. This, coupled with her many appearances on television talk shows and radio, along with her lectures throughout the world, made her a celebrity. She retired as a curator at the American Museum of Natural History in 1969.

In 1970, she published Culture and Commitment: A Study of the Generation Gap, and in 1971 published a conversation between herself and African–American author James Baldwin, titled A Rap on Race. Her autobiography, Blackberry Winter, appeared in 1972. She continued teaching classes on a visiting or adjunct status, as she had done throughout her career, as well as lecturing and writing. She developed pancreatic cancer and died in New York City, on November 15, 1978, at the age of 76.

During her lifetime, Mead, beyond her fieldwork, was most noted in the profession of anthropology for her pioneering use of audio-visual techniques in the field, for her continuing efforts to develop field training and techniques for use in the field, and predominantly as a founder and leader of the American ‘Culture and Personality’ school of anthropology, which, in the 1930s and 1940s tried to meld interdisciplinary, particularly psychological, ideas, and methodologies with those of anthropology. Mead pioneered the use of psychological testing among native populations, worked with psychologists and psychoanalysts to develop or test theories, and fostered a wide variety of interdisciplinary connections throughout her life. After World War II she also became known as an advocate of anthropological studies of nonnative peoples and was a founder of the Society for Applied Anthropology.

In American culture and the world at large, Mead was known for popularizing the ideas of anthropology and applying them to specific areas of life. She was noted as an expert on child-rearing, the family, education, ecology, community building, and women’s issues. She coined the phrase, ‘postmeno- pausal zest,’ for the renewal and refocusing of women’s energies after menopause. She was not afraid to be controversial, advocating trial marriage, the decriminalization of marijuana, and women’s rights in the 1960s.

But she had her critics, both during her lifetime and after. During her long career, Mead was criticized as well as lauded by other anthropologists for her popularizing efforts and for her interdisciplinary initiatives. Feminist Betty Friedan, in her 1963 book, The Feminine Mystique, accused Mead of falling into biological determinism in her book Male and Female, and retarding the cause of women’s rights through the 1950s. By the 1970s, educated New Guineans were beginning to look at her fieldwork critically as a product of colonial thinking. This was part of a general movement among former colonial peoples concerning anthropologists who had done field work in their countries.

Her anthropological fieldwork was not questioned seriously until after her death, and the controversy remains ongoing. In his book New Zealand anthropologist Freeman (1983) attacked Mead’s fieldwork in Coming of Age in Samoa, accusing her of total misunderstanding of Samoan culture, and of describing Samoan culture and customs inaccurately. He depicted her as a young, naive girl deceived by Samoans who lied to her, or made up stories. He suggested that, as a young woman eager to succeed in the eyes of her mentor, Franz Boas, she skewed her work to prove his theory of cultural determinism. While some defended him (e.g., Appell 1984), Freeman’s accusations were vigorously critiqued by other anthropologists. Holmes, who had restudied Ta’u, a village where Mead had worked in American Samoa, while he had his own critiques of her work, saw her study overall as generally sound for its time and place (Holmes 1987). Freeman’s own use of scientific method was questioned (e.g., Ember 1985, Patience and Smith 1986). Several researchers saw Samoan culture as containing elements of both Freeman’s and Mead’s studies (e.g., Shore 1983, Scheper-Hughes 1984, Feinberg 1988). Others felt that both had overgeneralized (e.g., Cote 1994, Orans 1996). Some noted the differences between Western Samoa, where Freeman had done his fieldwork in the 1940s and 1960s, and American Samoa, where Mead did hers in the 1920s, and the role of the ethnographer’s gender, age, and personality (e.g., Ember 1985, Holmes 1987, Cote 1994). Several also noted Freeman’s selective quoting from other anthropologists, other writers on Samoa, and Mead’s work, which misrepresented these people’s positions (e.g., Weiner 1983, Holmes 1987, Leacock 1988, Shankman 1996).

Freeman’s 1999 book focused on arguing that Mead was hoaxed in Samoa by two Samoan girls, who told her exaggerated and untrue stories of Samoan sexual practices (Freeman 1999). But information in a letter from Mead to a friend, Eleanor Steele, May 5, 1926, in the Margaret Mead Papers at the Library of Congress, Washington, DC, shows that Mead did not rely on these girls for her knowledge of sexual practices.

Arguments continue because Freeman’s accusations tapped into deeper questions anthropologists continue to wrestle with, and writing about Mead’s work has become a way to focus on them. One of these was a reevaluation of the roles of biology and culture going on in the 1980s and 1990s, as Freeman was seen as championing biology and attacking Boas and Mead as cultural determinists (e.g., Weiner 1983, Leacock 1988). Another was the question whether anthropology was indeed a science or belonged instead in the humanities. Freeman’s definitions of science and objectivity as he questioned Mead’s work gave others an opportunity to reflect on the nature of science, of objectivity, of ethnographic authority, and the nature of anthropology (e.g., Ember 1985, Marshall 1993). Freeman saw no room for a relative view of fieldwork. He believed there could only be one truth, not many, and his was the correct vision, which led other writers to reflect on the nature of truth. Freeman tied Mead’s supposed inadequacies in the field to her gender, which provoked a strong response (Nardi 1984).

The overall consensus at the turn of the twenty-first century is that both Mead’s and Freeman’s work contain truths, as both are products of different time periods in Samoan history, the different statuses allowed to the two fieldworkers within the culture of those times due to age and gender, and the different geographical areas studied. Neither contains the whole truth because they are products of one person’s viewpoint and one person cannot see everything.

In the 1990s, as the study of colonialism and imperialism gained emphasis, Mead’s work, like that of other anthropologists, was seriously critiqued by both native scholars and Western scholars for its proWestern stance and representations of native people (e.g., Iamo 1992, Newman 1999).

During her lifetime, Mead played a leadership role in anthropology and science. She was elected to membership in the National Academy of Sciences in 1975, and that same year became president of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. She had been president of the Society for Applied Anthropology (1940), the World Federation of Mental Health (1956–57), and the American Anthropological Association (1960). She received over 40 awards during her lifetime, including the Viking Medal in general anthropology and, after her death, the Presidential Medal of Freedom. But her work has become a matter of history to most contemporary anthropologists.

Within American culture as a whole, Mead’s lasting legacy will be both the model of her life as scholar and activist and her promotion of broad ideas: the idea of the relativity of sexual mores that differ from culture to culture; the relative shape of the family, ranging from the nuclear, to widely extended by blood and adoption; the idea of the cultural construction of gender, of masculinity and femininity, as categories of human identity; and the connection between childrearing practices and the shape of a culture.


  1. Appell G N 1984 Freeman’s refutation of Mead’s coming of age in Samoa: The implications for anthropological inquiry. Eastern Anthropologist 37: 183–214
  2. Bateson M C 1984 With a Daughter’s Eye: A Memoir of Margaret Mead and Gregory Bateson. Morrow, New York
  3. Cassidy R 1982 Margaret Mead: A Voice for the Century. Universe Books, New York
  4. Cote J E 1994 Adolescent Storm and Stress: An E aluation of the Mead–Freeman Contro ersy. Erlbaum, Hillsdale, NJ
  5. Ember M 1985 Evidence and science in ethnography: Reflections on the Freeman–Mead controversy. American Anthropologist 87: 906–10
  6. Feinberg R 1988 Margaret Mead and Samoa: Coming of age in fact and fiction. American Anthropologist 90: 656–63
  7. Freeman D 1983 Margaret Mead and Samoa: The Making and Unmaking of an Anthropological Myth. Harvard University Press, Cambridge, MA
  8. Freeman D 1999 The Fateful Hoaxing of Margaret Mead: A Historical Analysis of her Samoan Research. Westview Press, Boulder, CO
  9. Foerstel L, Gilliam A (eds.) 1992 Confronting the Margaret Mead Legacy: Scholarship, Empire, and the South Pacific. Temple University Press, Philadelphia, PA
  10. Gordan J (ed.) 1976 Margaret Mead: The Complete Bibliography, 1925–75. Mouton, The Hague
  11. Grinager P 1999 Uncommon Li es: My Lifelong Friendship with Margaret Mead. Rowman and Littlefield, Lanham, MD
  12. Holmes L D 1987 Quest for the Real Samoa: The Mead Freeman Contro ersy and Beyond. Bergin and Garvey, South Hadley, MA
  13. Howard J 1984 Margaret Mead: A Life. Simon and Schuster, New York
  14. Iamo W 1992 The stigma of New Guinea: Reflections on anthropology and anthropologists. In: Foerstal L, Gilliam A (eds.) Confronting the Margaret Mead Legacy: Scholarship, Empire, and the South Pacific. Temple University Press, Philadelphia, PA
  15. Lapsley H 1999 Margaret Mead and Ruth Benedict: The Kinship of Women. University of Massachusetts Press, Amherst, MA
  16. Leacock E 1988 Anthropologists in search of a culture: Margaret Mead, Derek Freeman, and all the rest of us. Central Issues in Anthropology 8: 3–23
  17. Marshall M 1993 Wizard from Oz meets the wicked witch of the East: Freeman, Mead, and ethnographic authority. American Ethnologist 20: 604–17
  18. Nardi B 1984 The height of her powers: Margaret Mead’s Samoa. Feminist Studies 10: 323–37
  19. Newman L M 1999 White Women’s Rights: The Racial Origins of Feminism in the United States. Oxford University Press, New York
  20. Olmsted D L 1980 In memoriam Margaret Mead. American Anthropologist 82(2): 262–373
  21. Orans M 1996 Not E en Wrong: Margaret Mead, Derek Freeman, and the Samoans. Chandler and Sharp, Novato, CA Patience A, Smith J W 1986 Derek Freeman and Samoa: The making and unmaking of a behavioral myth. American Anthropologist 88: 157–62
  22. Saler B 1984 Ethnographies and refutations. Eastern Anthro- pologist 37: 215–25
  23. Scheper-Hughes N 1984 The Margaret Mead controversy: Culture, biology and anthropological inquiry. Human Organization: Journal of the Society for Applied Anthropology 43: 85–93
  24. Shankman P 1996 The history of Samoan sexual conduct and the Mead–Freeman controversy. American Anthropologist 98: 555–67
  25. Shore B 1983 Paradox regained: Freeman’s Margaret Mead and Samoa. American Anthropologist 85: 935–44
  26. Weiner A B 1983 Ethnographic determinism: Samoa and the Margaret Mead controversy. American Anthropologist 85: 909–19
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