Margaret Mead was the most renowned anthropologist of the twentieth century who was born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania on December 16, 1901. She grew up there in a liberal intellectual atmosphere. Her father, Edward Sherwood Mead, was a professor in the Wharton School of Finance and Commerce and the founder of the University of Pennsylvania’s evening school and extension program. Her mother, Emily Fogg Mead, was a sociologist and an early advocate of woman’s rights.
Writer and sociologist Mary Pipher, in her book Another Country: Navigating the Emotional Terrain of Our Elders (Riverhead Books, 1999) says, “Margaret Mead defined an ideal community as one that has a place for every human gift. An ideal community would somehow keep the best of the old ways and add the best of the new. We would have a mixing of races, generations, and viewpoints. We could enjoy the intellectual and cultural stimulation of cities and the safety of friendly neighborhoods. We would have privacy and potluck dinners, freedom and civic responsibility. All the adults would take responsibility to help all the children. We would have connection without clannishness, accountability without autocratic control. The ideal community would support individual growth and development and foster loyalty and commitment to the common good.” Definitely, mead brought a revolution in American society and peoples perspectives in various fields. She gained fame and respect from all the sociologists of the world.
She majored in psychology in Barnard College. In her senior year, she had a course in anthropology with Franz Boas, which she later described as the most influential event in her life, since it was then that she decided to become an anthropologist. Later, Margaret Mead began her career as an anthropologist with a shift from psychology. Mead became a founder of the culture and personality school of anthropology. She was deeply committed to making anthropological knowledge matter, especially in a world of rapid scientific and technological change.
After graduating from the Barnard College in 1923, she married Luther Cressman and entered the anthropology department of Columbia University. At the same time, the catastrophe of World War I and its results had their impact on the developing discipline of anthropology. Anthropologists began to ask how their knowledge of the nature of humankind might be used to illuminate contemporary problems. At the same time, the influence of Sigmund Freud was beginning to be felt in all the behavioral sciences. The atmosphere in the Columbia department was charged with intellectual excitement, and completely new perspectives for anthropology.
She published her first book Coming of Age in Samoa in 1928 at the age of twenty-three. The book emphasized the role of social convention rather than biology in shaping human behavior. In later writings, she described how the behavior of men and women differed from one culture to another and thereby challenged the notion that all gender differences were innate. The book was the result of her study of adolescent girls, and whether the emotional strains of adolescence were uniform across cultures or varied depending on socialization and experience. The book gave many readers their first awareness that their assumptions about human behavior might not always apply. Although this book was caricatured and attacked by the anthropologist Derek Freeman in 1983, twenty years of debate has affirmed her descriptions, showing that Freeman’s insistence on the biological determination of variations observed fifty years after Mead’s work in other areas of Samoa supplemented but could not counter Mead’s basic emphasis on learnedand therefore potentially variable behavior. During her study, she learned the native language, and lived in a Samoan household as one of their family members. She found that young Samoan girls experience none of the tensions that American and European adolescents suffer from, and she demonstrated the kind of social arrangements that make this easy transition to adulthood possible.
Mead’s subsequent fieldwork up until World War II took her to four different New Guinea societies and to the Omaha tribe of Nebraska with her second husband, Reo Fortune, and then to Bali and another New Guinea society, the Iatmul, with her third husband, the anthropologist and ecological thinker Gregory Bateson. She focused primarily on child rearing and personality development and secondarily on gender differences during this time, where she pioneered the comparative study of gender roles.
Her work appeared both in further trade books such as Sex and Temperament in Three Primitive Societies (1935) and in detailed technical monographs such as The Mountain Arapesh (published in three parts, 19381949), establishing the pattern of applying her findings in the field to the dilemmas of industrialized society, and writing in several genres for different audiences. She also innovated in methodology, beginning the use of projective tests in fieldwork and, with Bateson, invented a new technique of visual anthropology exemplified in Balinese Character (1942).
The effects of World War II led Mead and other social scientists to focus on industrialized nations as part of the war effort. Mead collaborated with Benedict in developing the application of anthropology to contemporary cultures made inaccessible by war and political conflict, mainly through the Columbia University Research in Contemporary Cultures project. This methodology, described in The Study of Culture at a Distance (1953), which led to multiple publications by many authors, involved the creation of interdisciplinary and intercultural teams not unlike contemporary focus groups, and the analysis of literary and artistic materials in ways that anticipated contemporary cultural studies.
One of her primary achievements was to found the Institute for Inter-cultural Studies in New York in 1944 to house these projects and a variety of later activities.
The war had precipitated rapid and often devastating culture change, and Mead’s postwar focus was on change, particularly the possibilities of purposive culture change. She returned to Pere in 1953, a Manus village in a part of Papua New Guinea. She had studied with Fortune, to analyze the effects of the war on a community with little previous outside contact.
She found while she was in Manus that a charismatic leader had promoted the choice of integration into the outside world and the villagers were positive about change rather than demoralized by it; that rapid change is sometimes preferable to gradual change; and that children could play a key transforming role (Mead 1956).
Mead introduced the concept of “culture” into the thinking of readers, with profound intellectual and ethical results. Her emphasis on purposive culture change reaffirmed ethical issues avoided by some cultural relativists, and she insisted that many human institutions, such as those of warfare and racism, should be seen as human inventions that could be modified or replaced, rather than as “natural” and unavoidable. Her understanding of the role of individuals and groups in the remaking of Manus society was key to her book Continuities in Cultural Evolution (1964), best summarized in her often quoted phrase, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful committed citizens can change the world.”
Mead believed that the understanding of cultural diversity offered a new kind of freedom to human societies, and she worked tirelessly and skillfully to disseminate anthropological ideas, lectured widely, published profusely, and was quick to understand the possibilities of new media. Unlike many academics, she saw communicating to the public as a professional obligation of comparable intellectual integrity to her more narrow professional writing.
She also taught for many years at Columbia University and the New School for Social Research. At the same time, Mead worked with colleagues in other fields who kept her close to new developments in biology and neurology. She was an active member of the Macy Conferences on Cybernetics and on Group Process in the postwar period and of the World Federation for Mental Health. She was associated for more than fifty years with the American Museum of Natural History, serving in her later years as its Curator of Ethnology. She served as president of the American Association for the Advancement of Science and the American Anthropological Association, and was a founder of the Scientists’ Institute for Public Information.