A Web, Not a Road: The Anthropology of Margaret Mead

There is hardly a name in science more encrusted with bad faith generalizations and well-meaning but ahistorical hagiography than that of anthropologist Margaret Mead. In her time, she was to anthropology what Carl Sagan was to astronomy – a brilliant and irreverent popularizer who inspired a new generation of scientists even as she earned the undying enmity of the passing one. Praised as the most innovative voice of the century, and damned as an under-rigorous glory hound, the truth about Margaret Mead is as complicated as that of the native people she strove to explain.

Born in 1901 to a somehow perpetually bankrupt economics professor father and a women’s rights activist mother, Margaret had the advantage of a familial background congenial to radical ideas and personal growth. She felt pulled initially to writing, but upon arrival at first DePauw University and then, the girls there being, like, way mean, a hasty transfer to Barnard College, she discovered what so many aspiring writers do: there are lots of people who want to be writers, and most of them are better at it than you.

And so, she turned with the coaxing of friend and future anthropology superstar Ruth Benedict to the work of Franz Boas at Columbia University. A lot of writers about Mead credit Boas with being the first to introduce cultural relativism to the study of world cultures and, while he was certainly a pivotal figure in the development of American anthropology, the origins of cultural relativism were laid a good century and a half before his time in the groundbreaking work of unsung hero Johann Gottfried Herder (1744-1803). It was Herder’s revolutionary idea that other cultures not be studied in terms of how they measured up to Western principles and benchmarks, but on their own terms from the perspective of their own notions of happiness and success.

That idea, representing a lone voice in the academic wilderness of 18th Century Germany, was taken by Boas and made into a full-grown institutional principle during his time at Columbia, and became the central guiding force of Mead’s work in the half century of her anthropological career. Mead’s first chance to apply the notion came with her trip to Samoa in 1925. Her goal was to study the nature of female adolescence among the native tribes with an eye towards comparing it with the experience of American girls. A devoted relativist, she realized that, if girls in another culture went through adolescence in a relatively calm and untroubled way, it would go far to discrediting the notion that the intensity of American adolescence was biologically determined.

Though she was in Samoa for nine months, her actual field work amounted to about four, which later critics contended was not enough time to have accurately assessed the situation among the few villages she studied. Be that as it may, the book she wrote upon returning to New York, Coming of Age in Samoa, is one of the foundational works of modern anthropology and was a smashing best-seller, the first work of pure anthropology to crack into the popular imagination. Nine decades later, it is still in print, a kind fate not given to most works of early twentieth century social science.

Reading it now, there are bits on the cringe-worthy side. Because of her culture-first approach, she regarded homosexual behavior as something that was societally created, a “perversion” that could be “rendered harmless” through a loosening of Victorian sexual practice. That said, the cases of casual homosexual behavior she encountered on Samoa she reports factually and without condemnation, and her general tone towards Samoan sexual permissiveness is a positive one.

Overall, the book is a marvelous picture of a world with familial expectations thoroughly foreign to Western practice. The children Mead presents us with are not tied to any particular household, but are free to move in with whatever relatives they choose, when they choose. Therefore, the immense psychological weight that we experience as a matter of course in our desperately close relations with our parents in the West is not in evidence in Samoan culture. This basic structural fact pervades everything else the Samoans do. Without the pressure of parents who have invested all of their psychic energy in their upbringing, the children appear to feel the burden of transition and choice much less intensely than their Western counterparts. The Sturm und Drang histrionics of the American teenager are nowhere to be found amongst a generation which only has to move the next hut over when things get rough at home. The Samoans, then, were tailor made to press forward Mead’s point about the importance of culture over biological determinism.

Mead took the success from her first book and pressed on, writing over 1500 books and articles in her fifty year career. In the Twenties and Thirties, she and Ruth Benedict developed the personality approach to culture, which looked to find a prevailing personality type that expressed each culture’s priorities and behavior, and which therefore could be used to define social deviance in that culture. The main work of this school, her 1935 Sex and Temperament in Three Primitive Societies, showed the approach at its best and worst. The good came from how Mead analyzed social exclusion and positioning from the perspective of what each culture believed its ideals to be, rather than what she, as a Western observer, felt those ideals objectively ought to have been. The flip side of that concentration on dominant ideal personality types is that it flattened out the diversities of the populations she studied in order to make for a neater analytic case. From this work on, the hue and cry of “Overgeneralization” would haunt every critical analysis of Mead’s work.

Mead, c. 1967.

In the meantime, Mead had a movement to run. Anthropology, previously the wall-flower of American social sciences, was evolving thanks to Mead’s ability as a writer and publicist into an organized and professional field. Mead spent her earnings from her speaking engagements and publishing career on helping other anthropologists finance their fieldwork, and in almost single-handedly keeping the American Anthropological Association financially solvent. When Mead went to Samoa, it was without any sense of what she might need to live and work in the field. Thanks to her efforts and funding, future anthropologists would have the observational equipment and professional advice they would need to enter the field prepared.

Throughout her career, Mead was known equally as a portrayer of foreign cultures and critic of her own. In works like 1970’s Culture and Commitment: A Study of the Generation Gap, Mead turned her experience of generational relations to the exploding youth movement in America. Her thoughts on the structure of cross-generation conflict in a technology-dependent civilization remain furiously relevant. She pointed out that, for civilizations like the Samoans or the Manus, or in fact European civilization for most of its history, the relatively slow pace of change meant that the possession of crucial survival knowledge was firmly in the hands of the older generation, and that it was up to the younger generation to learn at their feet. When to plant, where to build, how to craft – these were all wrapped up in a time-tested mass of tradition that took a lifetime to learn, and therefore the parents carried the weight of societal knowledge.

In modern technological societies, however, the children quickly and necessarily outstrip the adults in knowledge. As much as we like to romanticize that Montgomery Scott “This old engineer still has a few tricks up his sleeve” spirit, the fact is that know-how has a definite shelf-life and that parents are increasingly dependent on their children to see them through the evolving microcomplexities of everyday existence. Having healthy and vigorous adults already stumbling towards obsolescence, then, set up a new power structure that bred resentment and resistance we still wrestle with.

Mead also revisited the sites of her previous work to investigate how the influence of Western society impacted native cultures. In New Lives for Old, she tells about revisiting the Manus, the subject of her second book, Growing Up in New Guinea, and about the vast changes sweeping that population as a result of the presence of Western armies during the Second World War. In a mere two decades, the Manus had gone from, “A people without history, without any theory of how they came to be, without any belief in a permanent future life, without any knowledge of geography, without writing, without political forms sufficient to unite more than two or three hundred people” to people, “with ideas of boundaries in time and space, responsibility to God, enthusiasm for law, and committed to trying to build a democratic community, educate their children, police and landscape their village, care for the old and the sick…”

Whereas it’s dubious whether most of these changes were improvements (Mead was, somewhat unfathomably, a devoted Episcopalian her whole life, which colored some of her notions of “progress”), it is definitely true that the Manus had gone through a good half-millennium of cultural development in about twenty five years, which Mead saw as proof again of the influence of society and circumstance over biology in determining the practices and behaviors of humans.

Personally, Mead was a complex individual. She quite frankly loved the glitter of attention and holding forth in conversation. Fame, and the ability to help others that fame brought, was central to her life, leading her to fling out articles and books at a rapid rate that, if we’re being totally honest, tended to affect quality control. She had a quick temper and was not loathe to unleash it on her beleaguered staff, who dreaded her return to the office and the continual tongue-lashings that followed. She told her first husband that she would stay with him until she found someone she liked better, which she promptly did in the porn-name-ready fellow anthropologist Reo Fortune, whom she also left, though with better cause, when Gregory Bateson happened along. Absolutely devoted to her own independence, she yet shied away from the overt feminism that her mother had championed.

In terms of influence, however, and inspiration, she was the central figure of Twentieth Century anthropology. Though not the originator of cultural relativism, she was the person who brought it most vividly before the world public. If today we are comfortable with the idea of history as a complex and branching web of possibilities instead of a linear progression through pre-determined, Western defined, check points, it is because of the work that Mead did in Samoa, New Guinea, and the Admiralty Islands.

REO FORTUNE, ladies and gentlemen! For one night only!

And if, further, we are discovering beneath the layer of cultural difference a still more fundamental layer of cognitive structures that render Mead’s discoveries of societal variations into matters of biochemical strategy rather than qualitative difference, that does not diminish the value of what she did. Because of her, we can meaningfully ask those deeper questions about how neurochemical motivation manifests itself socially that would have only offered up blithe mono-dimensionality in a pre-Mead context. She has changed how we think about the necessity of our social and familial arrangements, given us evidence of the accidental nature of our deepest traditions, and thereby provided us with a richer appreciation of where we came from and where we might go when the tensions that have made us so successful threaten to tear us apart.




Coming of Age in Samoa is still a great read, and is available all over the place. There are some contradictions in it that result from her desire to tell a particular story (for example, the onset of adolescence is portrayed at first as bringing about a fundamental re-ordering of friendship associations and life responsibilities, and then later as being only a matter of Being A Bit Taller than you were, with no other shocks or life changes such as scar us in the West during those years) but if you make allowance for the occasional generalization, it will make you rethink assumptions you didn’t even know you had about what parents are and might be.


For biographies, Prometheus Books recently put out Margaret Mead: A Biography by Mary Bowman-Kruhm, which is a nice, quick introduction to her work and life that has the benefit of perspective that more contemporaneous biographies lack. Sure, it doesn’t mention Herder and thereby perpetuates the Boas-Mead origin story for cultural relativism. Yes, at one point it somehow calculates that, “A complete bibliography [of Mead’s works] would list about 1,500 entries, or an average of 150 books and articles a year over Mead’s half century career” when 1500 divided by 50 is more traditionally 30. But it is a balanced accounting of a controversial life that for fifty years specialized in producing extremities of response, and that is something to be valued.

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  1. She also reported the conditions on Indian reservations to FDR, and how they were the direct result of the failures (or, dare I say, successes?) of previous generations of Indian policy, which led to a paradigm shift wrt: how the government treated Indians.

  2. We are discovering how to turn “societal variations into matters of biochemical strategy”? That is a bold claim. Can you point to a few studies in that direction? Aren’t you putting neurochemical patterns before a causal horse? If you are displaced from one region to a poorer, neighbouring region and don’t develop a culture that helps you thrive there, you are going to be poorer and hungrier than your group was in the past. I can see neurochemistry changing as a result of a causal sequence. Who is suggesting it goes the other way round?

  3. Entirely true, a culture needs to adapt wherever it goes, but what allows humans to adapt so well is the ability to mirror each other’s actions and intentions neurally, to gain satisfaction from status and belonging (granted, we share this to some extent with bonobos, but it’s still a snazzy chemical trick), and to evaluate options using our unique comparative processing power. Different cultures find different ways to exploit those capacities in a given social and environmental context, and there is certainly some reciprocity, as you hint at, that we’re getting some whiff of with recent internationally based fMRI studies. But I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that beneath the difference there is a relatively standard set of neural structural and chemical tricks that we’ve patiently uncovered since Mead’s time, and that go a good ways to uncovering commonalities within the seeming difference. For the structure of neural evaluative mechanisms, I’d go to the work of Read Montague, for the role and development of chemical motive structures to Jaak Panksepp, and of course for the significance of mirroring one need look further than previous Women In Science feature, Tania Singer. I think it’s thoroughly possible that we’ll find another sub-stratum of difference once all of the work has been done on comparative neural structures, but for right now that it’s probably all right to admit at least having gone one level deeper than 1926 was able to offer, and that that doesn’t detract from Mead’s significance at all.

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