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date: 29 May 2020

Mead, Margaretfree

(16 December 1901–15 November 1978)
  • Virginia Yans-McLaughlin

Margaret Mead.

Gelatin silver print, c. 1928-29, by Unidentified Artist.

National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution.

Mead, Margaret (16 December 1901–15 November 1978), anthropologist, was born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, the daughter of Edward Sherwood Mead, a University of Pennsylvania economist, and Emily Fogg, a sociologist and social reformer. Mead’s unconventional education provided her with the tools and social attitudes that governed her later career. Before high school, her paternal grandmother, Martha Ramsey Mead, a schoolteacher well versed in progressive educational theory of the day, and her mother, a social scientist, directed her education at home. Young Margaret’s education included collecting data for observation and recording; anything from the structure of leaves to the language patterns and personality differences of her younger siblings could be noted as data. Before Margaret Mead reached her teens, she accompanied her mother on field trips to Hammonton, New Jersey, where Emily Mead was engaged in sociological research among Italian immigrants. The mother—a feminist, suffragist, leader in the cooperative household movement, and staunch opponent of nativist and racist attitudes—made it a point to expose her child to other ethnic groups and to instill in her awareness of and respect for human equality and differences. Margaret Mead’s M.A. thesis in psychology, in which she argued that linguistic and cultural differences explained lower intelligence-test scores of Italian immigrant children, grew from these early training experiences with her mother.

Edward Mead, a specialist in banking and business, assumed a less active role in his daughter’s education, but his discussions of his work instilled in Margaret an understanding of the social scientist’s use of case studies as a basis for generalization. The adults in the Mead household were agnostics, but at the age of eleven, the strong-willed Margaret joined the Episcopal church. She remained a devout member of this church for life, finding no conflict between her scientific attitudes and her faith. Although she never directly stated the point, her religious faith seems to have supported her optimism and belief in human potential. In 1923 she married Luther S. Cressman, an Episcopal priest who later became an archaeologist. She and Cressman were divorced in 1928, having had no children.

Mead’s early scientific training helps explain why she became one of the outstanding women scientists of her time. “Most of the experiences which young people meet for the first time in college,” she once wrote, “I had had by the time I was five. They were part of my whole self” (History of Psychology, vol. 4, p. 301). Mead’s career can be roughly divided into two periods—before World War II, when she earned her graduate degrees and conducted more than twenty field trips in the South Pacific, and after the war, when she became more and more the public scientist.

Mead earned her B.A. in psychology from Barnard College in 1923; she earned both her M.A. in psychology (1925) and her Ph.D. in anthropology from Columbia University (1929). Her choice of anthropology as a career made sense for a woman of her talents. She had an interest in literature and wrote poetry but realized that she did not have the “superlative” talent needed for a successful career in the arts. “Science,” she noted modestly, in retrospect, “is an activity in which there is room for many degrees of giftedness” (Blackberry Winter, p. 111). Then there was the sheer excitement of participating in a relatively new academic discipline that had only just begun to explore the meaning of “culture”—the central object of its study—and to establish its unique research method—fieldwork among fast-disappearing primitive cultures of the world. Franz Boas, the dean of American cultural anthropology and a formidable intellect, was willing to train women fieldworkers, including Ruth Benedict, who was to become Mead’s lifelong confidante and intellectual collaborator. Women anthropologists were a necessity if the lives of primitive women and children in small primitive communities were to be studied, a fact that Mead quickly realized and turned to her advantage.

Boasian anthropology attacked the concept that there was a racial hierarchy based on innate capacities. Instead Boasians argued that culture, or learned behavior, explained differences among human groups. Such a hypothesis is almost a taken-for-granted truth today, but in the 1920s the idea of culture was as revolutionary as Sigmund Freud’s concept of the unconscious mind. By the time Mead came under Boas’s tutelage, he was directing his students toward a new analysis of the cultural patterning of the individual’s relationship to his or her society. Mead and Benedict, however, are credited as leaders in establishing the culture-and-personality school. Unlike psychologists and Freudians, who were interested in the unfolding of determined biological processes in the individual or in internal cognitive, affective, and conative processes, the culture-and-personality theorists were interested in the cultural patterning of personality. Mead’s special contribution was to illuminate the process of how the young are taught to conform to cultural norms. Early in her career she also challenged the ideas of important thinkers such as Freud, Jean Piaget, Lucien Lévy-Bruhl, and other social scientists who described the primitive mind as a childlike version of civilized man’s. Mead’s early fieldwork in New Guinea in 1928–1929 supported with data culled from psychological tests and children’s drawings enabled her to question this position. She pointed out that whatever these famous scientists said about primitive cultures was based on speculation, not anthropological fieldwork such as she had conducted in the South Pacific.

Mead’s earliest bestseller, Coming of Age in Samoa: A Psychological Study of Primitive Youth for Western Civilization (1928), a study of adolescence, catapulted her to fame. Her novelistic writing style and the book’s subject matter made it accessible both to lay audiences and to professionals interested in problems of adolescence. Coming of Age in Samoa popularized the idea of culture. In it, Mead pointed out that if it were possible to find one society where adolescence did not throw teenagers into a state of crisis, then something other than biology, namely, cultural patterning of behavior, contributes to the course of human development. Growing Up in New Guinea (1930), Mead’s next popular book, focused on the early period of child development. She discovered anthropology’s public-education potential from the popularity of these two early books and began to develop her role as the self-appointed educator of Americans concerning the anthropological approach to culture. This public role became increasingly dominant in her later years.

In 1926, on her return from Samoa, Mead became a curator of ethnology at the American Museum of Natural History, a position she maintained throughout her life. She understood herself to be working as an individual researcher using the museum as her base. To achieve her goal as a leading figure in academic anthropology, she had to address the work of ethnographers working in Great Britain. British anthropologists, who looked to natural science as a model for anthropology, rejected vague ideas of “pattern” and favored notions of social systems and the study of comparative social systems such as kinship. During Mead’s second childless marriage (1928–1935)—to Reo Fortune, who had studied in Britain under W. H. R. Rivers and A. R. Radcliffe-Brown—she wrote the technical study Kinship in the Admiralty Islands (1934), which proved her conversant with the British social anthropologists. This book also represented her practice of publishing a scholarly monograph alongside a popular work, in this case Growing Up in New Guinea.

Sex and Temperament in Three Primitive Societies (1935), based on Mead’s comparative fieldwork (1931–1933) among New Guinea’s Arapesh, Mundugumor, and Tchambuli people, was grounded in Benedict’s notions of cultural patterning of behavior and, less directly, in Mead’s and Benedict’s reading of Carl Jung’s ideas on psychological types. Each culture, Benedict claimed, chose a standard personality from among a wide variety of possible human temperaments. In Sex and Temperament Mead argued that each culture also chose different kinds of personality traits to assign to males and females. Within a few miles of each other, Mead found one New Guinea group where everyone—male and female—behaved in what North Americans would call a “feminine,” maternal way, another where men and women behaved in a “masculine,” aggressive way, and, finally, a tribe where men behaved like “women” and women behaved like “men.” Thus, in the Boasian tradition, Mead’s study of sex roles, like her study of adolescence, called into question simple biological determinism of human behavior. Because her field research confirmed that the variations in sex roles were possible, Mead concluded that masculinity and femininity were cultural constructions, not biological givens. Moreover, she understood temperamental differences, whether they resided in males or females, to be as significant as biological sex. In the book Mead made a plea for respect and encouragement of human differences as a means to develop a fully enriched society and fully realized individuals. Published in the mid-1930s, after Hitler’s rise to power, the book can be seen as Mead’s public statement against totalitarianism and the racism that accompanied it.

Sex and Temperament, Mead later pointed out, was her most misunderstood book. Although she meant to explore differences between males and females (she consistently understood that innate differences exist between humans and between males and females), she ended up emphasizing temperament and arguing for the importance of cultural stylization of sex roles. Her feeling was that in the context of the 1930s scientists could defer their study of the controversial issue of innate biological determinants of human behavior and concentrate instead on the exploration of culture. Later, when she published Male and Female: A Study of the Sexes in a Changing World (1949), Mead felt it acceptable to explore the biological determinants of sex-role behavior. This resulted in criticism from American feminists such as Betty Friedan, who in The Feminine Mystique (1963) attacked Mead and most of social science for lending support to the “motherhood trap” of postwar America. A half-century after her publications concerning gender, many would argue that Mead, along with the psychoanalyst Karen Horney, who was herself influenced by Mead in her cultural critique of Freud’s biological notions of feminine development, was the originator of the social constructivist position on gender. That is, Mead used her evidence of cultural variations in gender roles to argue that sex roles were not universal, “natural” outcomes of biological development but variable cultural creations.

Mead’s next major field trip to Bali and New Guinea (1936–1939) was a joint endeavor with her third husband, the British anthropologist Gregory Bateson, to whom she was married between 1936 and 1950. They had one child, Mary Catherine Bateson Kassarjian, who became an anthropologist and writer. Work done with Bateson, the son of one of England’s most distinguished families of natural scientists, enhanced Mead’s methodological sophistication and scientific rigor. Their objective was to relate childhood and infancy to broad cultural patterns. Mead used her field observations of Balinese ritual, dance, visual art, trance, and child rearing to round out her work on culture and personality. Bateson studied more abstract problems of social interaction and learning, a continuation of his work on circular feedback systems and the epistemological issues in fieldwork observation, which he described in Naven: A Survey … of the Culture of a New Guinea Tribe … (1936).

Each had a profound influence on the other’s work. Bateson’s consciousness of the observational process, Mead’s desire to make her work more scientific in response to critics who found it “impressionistic,” and her openness to the possibilities of technological innovations in fieldwork made them pioneers in visual anthropology. They set out to create a visual record that would allow others to examine and verify their findings. They produced thousands of feet of still and moving images taken in Bali and New Guinea. Along with this visual evidence, they produced detailed annotations to describe the action and the fieldworkers’ responses to it. Although others had used cameras in the field, nothing so inclusive and systematic had ever before been attempted. One outcome was their jointly authored book Balinese Character, a Photographic Analysis (1942). Mead and Bateson later produced several films on Bali and New Guinea that emphasized themes such as child rearing and character formation. Professional anthropologists, filmmakers, and the lay public still acknowledge Mead’s influence on ethnographic filmmaking at the annual American Museum of Natural History Margaret Mead Film Festival, which draws contributors from all over the world.

World War II strongly affected Mead’s notion of how the discipline of anthropology and she herself should relate to government and to social policy. The war brought a temporary halt to her Pacific fieldwork and stimulated her development as an applied anthropologist, first in government service, then as a private commentator on domestic and international affairs. During the early war years, Mead made several attempts to convince government officials of the significance of anthropology for the war effort. After Pearl Harbor, she worked for the Committee on Food Habits (1942–1945), an arm of the National Research Council, advising on the anthropology of nutrition, rationing, and other home-front morale issues. She took this opportunity to inject anthropology into government programs. True to the anthropological notion of looking at an entire culture in order to understand its parts, she understood food habits as only one aspect of the American national character, a subject she documented fully in And Keep Your Powder Dry (1942). She wrote this book, a wartime morale booster, hoping that awareness of their national character would prepare Americans for war.

Restricted from Pacific fieldwork under wartime conditions, Mead developed “culture at a distance” studies together with anthropologists Benedict, Geoffrey Gorer, and others. Later, the culture at a distance studies were taken up by Mead and others, including her longtime collaborator Rhoda Metraux, at the Columbia University Institute for Contemporary Cultures, which Mead directed between 1948 and 1952. Because these studies relied on interviews, films, and expatriate informants, not on direct field observation, they were frequently criticized by anthropologists. On the other hand, Benedict’s bestselling Chrysanthemum and the Sword (1946), which introduced Americans to the culture of the defeated Japanese, seemed to underscore the practical educational value of this work.

Mead entered the war era with her characteristic missionary zeal for anthropology as a tool for social change. In the war’s aftermath her awareness of government’s misuse of scientific information, exemplified by the atomic bomb and covert practices, led Mead to create a public role for herself as one of a handful of American science celebrities who used radio, television, and other news media as platforms. Without any formal institutional support or financial backing, she became a self-appointed scientific expert on everything from the nuclear family to nuclear war. She gained the attention of national and international leaders in politics, urban planning, demography, nutrition, child development, race relations, education, psychiatry, economic development, communications, and the environment.

All of Mead’s war and postwar work was based on principles of Boasian anthropology, culture, and personality field research and her belief that anthropology, properly applied, could improve the human condition. The variety of organizations with which she worked testifies to her energy. She was president of several scientific organizations, including the World Federation of Mental Health (1956–1957), the American Anthropological Association (1960), the World Society of Ekistics (1969–1971), the Scientist’s Institute for Public Information (1972), and the American Association for the Advancement of Science (1975). She received more than forty awards for science and citizenship, including the Kalinga Prize for the popularization of science and, posthumously, the Presidential Medal of Freedom. Twenty-eight honorary degrees in the humanities, science, and law were conferred on her.

Academic appointments came to Mead late in life, well after she had achieved a distinguished publication record. She became an adjunct lecturer at Columbia University beginning in 1954, was a visiting professor at the University of Cincinnati’s Department of Psychiatry in the late 1950s, and served as Sloan Professor at the Menninger Foundation (1959). She also was chair of the Department of Social Sciences and professor of anthropology at Fordham University (1968–1970).

Believing that the atomic bomb and the rate of change that was occurring in the postwar world had marked a turning point in human history, Mead returned to Papua New Guinea in 1953 to the village she had studied in 1928–1929. Her New Lives for Old: Cultural Transformation—Manus (1956) documented the impact of rapid change on a Stone Age people who had adapted readily to it and who, she believed, could be a model for the rest of the world.

Mead popularized the term “generation gap.” She used the term to refer to generational differences in historical experience between individuals who were born before and after World War II. In her book Culture and Commitment: A Study of the Generation Gap (1970), she proposed that the young, accustomed to living in a world of change, were better equipped to understand a changing world than their parents. This and other opinions, including her opposition to the Vietnam War, endeared her to the younger generation.

Upon her death in New York City, several obituaries warmly referred to her as “grandmother to the world,” an image she cultivated in her later years with her familiar ample figure and costume of round spectacles, unfashionably cut hair, flaring cape, and four-foot walking stick. When asked what she would like to have as an epitaph, she replied: “She lived long enough to do some good.”

Mead was known primarily for her studies of culture and personality, child socialization, gender, generational difference, cultural change, and “applied anthropology,” the practice of bringing anthropological insights to practical issues such as nutrition, psychiatry, law, family life, adolescent conflict, population control, and even space travel. Her publishing activity was extraordinary, consisting of more than thirty-five books, hundreds of articles, films, records, and tapes; her work was and is cited both within and outside of anthropology. Psychiatrists, psychologists, population experts, religious groups, and international agencies along with journalists, magazine publishers, and the radio and television media sought her advice and knowledge. She energetically participated in public dissemination of anthropological ideas because she believed scientific knowledge could assist an enlightened citizenry to achieve the highest development of human potential. This enthusiasm distinguished her from other anthropologists who concentrated on purely academic issues. Some academic anthropologists disdain Mead’s willingness to engage the general public in discussions of anthropological concepts, while others consider her early field research in Samoa and New Guinea to be oversimplified. Despite these criticisms, Mead remains America’s best-known anthropologist.

Her scientific achievements and her active participation in public life also earned Mead the unusual distinction of being one of the best-known women of the twentieth century. An unusual educational and family background, her own determined and energetic personality, the state of anthropology when she entered the discipline, and the events of the twentieth century, most notably World War II and the social changes following it, explain her unique achievements.


Margaret Mead’s papers are at the Library of Congress. A bibliography of her work is Joan Gordon, ed., Margaret Mead: The Complete Bibliography (1976). Works by Mead not mentioned in the text include Cooperation and Competition among Primitive Peoples (1937); with Rhoda Metraux, The Study of Culture at a Distance (1953); Continuities in Cultural Evolution (1964); with T. Dobzhansky et al., Science and the Concept of Race (1968); with James Baldwin, A Rap on Race (1971); her autobiography, Blackberry Winter: My Earlier Years (1972); Twentieth Century Faith (1973); Letters from the Field, 1925–1975 (1977); two works on Ruth Benedict, An Anthropologist at Work: Writings of Ruth Benedict (1959) and Ruth Benedict (1974). Two useful autobiographical accounts are “Retrospects and Prospects” in her Anthropology and Human Behavior (1962), pp. 115–49, “Margaret Mead,” in her History of Psychology in Autobiography, vol. 4 (1974), pp. 295–325. See also her daughter Mary Catherine Bateson’s memoir, With a Daughter’s Eye: A Memoir of Margaret Mead and Gregory Bateson (1984), and E. Rice, Margaret Mead: A Portrait (1979). Virginia Yans-McLaughlin, “Science, Democracy, and Ethics: Mobilizing Culture and Personality for World War II,” History of Anthropology 4 (1987): 184–217, details Mead’s work as an applied anthropologist during the war years. Jane Howard, Margaret Mead: A Life (1984), is a journalistic account of Mead’s life. For an obituary, see the New York Times, 16 Nov. 1978.