Mead was raised near Doylestown, Pennsylvania by her university professor
father and social-activist mother. She studied at DePauw University
and graduated from Barnard College in 1923. She received her Ph.D. from
Columbia University in 1929. Mead set out in 1925 to do fieldwork in
Polynesia. In 1926 she joined the American Museum of Natural History,
New York City, as assistant curator, eventually serving as curator of
ethnology from 1946 to 1969. During World War II Mead served as executive
secretary of the National Research Council's Committee on Food Habits.
In addition, she taught at Columbia University as adjunct professor
starting in 1954. Following the example of her instructor Ruth Benedict,
Mead concentrated her studies on problems of child rearing, personality,
and culture. (Source: The Columbia Encyclopedia, Fifth Edition, 1993.)
She held various positions in the American Association for the Advancement
of Science, notably president in 1975 and chair of the executive committee
of the board of directors in 1976.
a pioneering anthropologist by some, there has been academic disagreement
with certain findings in her first book, Coming of Age in Samoa (1928),
based on research she conducted as a graduate student, and with her
published works based on time with the Sepik and on Manus Island. In
some instances, literate people from the cultures she described have
challenged certain of her observations.
Margaret Mead was
married three times; first to Luther Cressman (a theological student
during his marriage to Mead; later an anthropologist himself), and then
to two fellow anthropologists, Reo Fortune and Gregory Bateson, with
whom she had a daughter, also an anthropologist, Mary Catherine Bateson.
Her granddaughter, Sevanne Margaret Kassarjian, is a stage and television
actress who works professionally under the name Sevanne Martin. Mead
readily acknowledged that she had been devastated when Bateson left
her and that she remained in love with him to her life's end, keeping
his photograph by her bedside wherever she traveled.
Mead also had an
exceptionally close relationship with Ruth Benedict. Mead's daughter
Catherine, in her memoir of her parents With a Daughter's Eye, implies
that the relationship between Benedict and Mead may have contained an
erotic element (see also Lapsley 1999). While Margaret Mead never identified
herself as lesbian, the details of her relationship with Benedict have
led others to identify her thus; in her writings she proposed that it
is to be expected that individuals' sexual orientation may change throughout
 Coming of Age in Samoa and the Mead-Freeman controversy
Main article: Coming of Age in Samoa
In the foreword to Coming of Age in Samoa, Mead's advisor, Franz Boas,
wrote of its significance that:
good manners, conformity to definite ethical standards are universal,
but what constitutes courtesy, modesty, very good manners, and definite
ethical standards is not universal. It is instructive to know that standards
differ in the most unexpected ways.
Boas went on to point out that at the time of publication, many Americans
had begun to discuss the problems faced by young people (particularly
women) as they pass through adolescence as "unavoidable periods
of adjustment." Boas felt that a study of the problems faced by
adolescents in another culture would be illuminating.
And so, as Mead
herself described the goal of her research: "I have tried to answer
the question which sent me to Samoa: Are the disturbances which vex
our adolescents due to the nature of adolescence itself or to the civilization?
Under different conditions does adolescence present a different picture?"
To answer this question, she conducted her study among a small group
of Samoans — a village of 600 people on the island of Ta‘u
— in which she got to know, lived with, observed, and interviewed
(through an interpreter) sixty-eight young women between the ages of
9 and 20. She concluded that the passage from childhood to adulthood
(adolescence) in Samoa was a smooth transition and not marked by the
emotional or psychological distress, anxiety, or confusion seen in the
United States. (Perey).
As Boas and Mead
expected, this book upset many Westerners when it first appeared in
1928. Many American readers felt shocked by her observation that young
Samoan women deferred marriage for many years while enjoying casual
sex, but eventually married, settled down, and successfully reared their
In 1983, five years
after Mead had died, Derek Freeman published Margaret Mead and Samoa:
The Making and Unmaking of an Anthropological Myth, in which he challenged
all of Mead's major findings. Freeman based his critique on his own
four years of field experience in Samoa and on recent interviews with
Mead's surviving informants. The argument hinged on the place of the
taupou system in Samoan society. According to Mead, the taupou system
is one of institutionalized virginity for young women of high rank,
but is exclusive to women of high rank. According to Freeman, all Samoan
women emulated the taupou system and Mead's informants denied having
engaged in casual sex as young women, and claimed that they had lied
to Mead (see Freeman 1983).
After an initial
flurry of discussion, most anthropologists concluded that the truth
would probably never be known.
The Mead partisans
have asserted that Freeman's critique is highly questionable.
First, these critics
have speculated that he waited until Mead died before publishing his
critique so that she would not be able to respond. However, when Freeman
died in 2001, his obituary in the New York Times pointed out that Freeman
tried to publish his criticism of Mead as early as 1971, but that American
publishers rejected his manuscript. In 1978, Freeman sent a revised
manuscript to Mead. But Mead, who was ill and died a few months later,
did not respond.
critics allege that Mead's original informants were now old women, grandmothers,
and had converted to Christianity. They further allege that Samoan culture
had changed considerably in the decades following Mead's original research,
that after intense missionary activity many Samoans had come to adopt
the same sexual standards as the Americans who were once so shocked
by Mead's book. They suggested that such women, in this new context,
were unlikely to speak frankly about their adolescent behavior. (Note
also that one of Freeman's interviewees gave her born-again faith as
her reason for admitting to the past deception.) Further, they suggested
that these women would not be as forthright and honest about their sexuality
when speaking to an elderly man, as they would have been speaking to
a young woman.
also criticized Freeman on methodological and empirical grounds. For
example, they claimed that Freeman had conflated publicly articulated
ideals with behavioral norms — that is, while many Samoan women
would admit in public that it is ideal to remain a virgin, in practice
they engaged in high levels of premarital sex and boasted about their
sexual affairs amongst themselves (see Shore 1982: 229-230). Freeman's
own data documented the existence of premarital sexual activity in Samoa.
In a western Samoan village he documented that 20% of 15 year-olds,
30% of 16 year-olds, and 40% of 17 year-olds had engaged in premarital
sex (1983: 238-240). In 1983, the American Anthropological Association
passed a motion declaring Freeman's Margaret Mead and Samoa "poorly
written, unscientific, irresponsible and misleading." In the years
that followed, anthropologists vigorously debated these issues but generally
supported the critique of Freeman's work (see Appell 1984, Brady 1991,
Feinberg 1988, Leacock 1988, Levy 1984, Marshall 1993, Nardi 1984, Patience
and Smith 1986, Paxman 1988, Scheper-Hughes 1984, Shankman 1996, and
Young and Juan 1985).
to argue his case in the 1999 publication of The Fateful Hoaxing of
Margaret Mead: A Historical Analysis of Her Samoan Research, introducing
new information in support of his arguments.
After Freeman died,
the New York Times concluded that "many anthropologists have agreed
to disagree over the findings of one of the science's founding mothers,
acknowledging both Mead's pioneering research and the fact that she
may have been mistaken on details."
Margaret and her
brother, Richard, Nantucket1911. (Mead Archives, Library of Congress.)
When Margaret Mead died in 1978, she was the most famous anthropologist
in the world. Indeed, it was through her work that many people learned
about anthropology and its holistic vision of the human species.
Mead was born in
Philadelphia on December 16, 1901 in a household of social scientists
with roots in the Midwest. Her major at Barnard was psychology, but
she went on to earn a doctorate at Columbia, studying with Franz Boas
and Ruth Benedict. For her, anthropology was an urgent calling, a way
to bring new understandings of human behavior to bear on the future.
In 1925 she set out for American Samoa, where she did her first field
work, focusing on adolescent girls, and in 1929 she went, accompanied
by her second husband, Reo Fortune, to Manus Island in New Guinea, where
she studied the play and imaginations of younger children and the way
they were shaped by adult society.
With a Samoan woman,
1925-6. (Mead Archives, Library of Congress.)
The Samoan work,
published as Coming of Age in Samoa, became a best seller and has been
translated into many languages. This work presented to the public for
the first time the idea that the individual experience of developmental
stages could be shaped by cultural demands and expectations, so that
adolescence might be more or less stormy and sexual development more
or less problematic in different cultures. It was addressed above all
to educators, affirming that the “civilized” world had something
to learn from the “primitive.” The Manus work, published
as Growing Up in New Guinea, effectively refuted the notion that “primitive”
peoples are “like children.” Different developmental stages,
and the relationships between them, need to be studied in every culture.
Mead was thus the first anthropologist to look at human development
in a cross-cultural perspective.
In subsequent field
work, on mainland New Guinea, she demonstrated that gender roles differed
from one society to another, depending at least as much on culture as
on biology, and in her work in Bali with her third husband, Gregory
Bateson, she explored new ways of documenting the connection between
childrearing and adult culture, and the way in which these are symbolically
interwoven. She and Gregory Bateson had one child, Mary Catherine Bateson.
Mead and husband
Gregory Bateson doing field research in Papua, New Guinea, in 1938.
(Mead Archives, Library of Congress.)
As an anthropologist,
Mead had been trained to think in terms of the interconnection of all
aspects of human life. The production of food cannot be separated from
ritual and belief, and politics cannot be separated from childrearing
or art. This holistic understanding of human adaptation allowed Mead
to speak out on a very wide range of issues. She affirmed the possibility
of learning from other groups, above all by applying the knowledge she
brought back from the field to issues of modern life. Thus, she insisted
that human diversity is a resource, not a handicap, that all human beings
have the capacity to learn from and teach each other. Her delight in
learning from others showed in the way she was able to address the public
with affection and respect.
When World War II
cut off field research in the South Pacific, Mead and Benedict pioneered
the application of anthropological techniques to the study of contemporary
cultures, founding the Institute for Intercultural Studies. Then, in
her most sustained post-war field work, Mead returned to Manus in 1953
to study the dramatic changes made in response to exposure to a wider
world. Reported in New Lives for Old, this research offered a new basis
for her insistence on the possibility of choosing among possible futures.
In a society becoming increasingly pessimistic about the human capacity
to change, she insisted on the importance of enhancing and supporting
that capacity. She believed that cultural patterns of racism, warfare,
and environmental exploitation were learned, and that the members of
a society could work together to modify their traditions and to construct
new institutions. This conviction drew her into discussions of the process
of change, expressed in the slogan, “Never doubt that a small
group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world.”
Field trip to Manus,
Papua New Guinea,1953-4. (Mead Archives, Library of Congress.)
Mead taught at a
number of institutions, but her long term professional base was at the
American Museum of Natural History in New York City. She authored some
twenty books and coauthored an equal number. She was much honored in
her lifetime, serving as president of major scientific associations,
including the American Anthropological Association and the American
Association for the Advancement of Science, and she received 28 honorary
doctorates. She was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom following
her death in 1978. Her voluminous archives are now housed in the Library
Anthropologist Margaret Mead became well known forher work on cultural
issues. She studied a widevariety of cultures, and linked child rearingpractices
to social patterns.
"I have spent
most of my life studying the lives of other peoples -- faraway peoples
-- so that Americans might better understand themselves."
was a world renowned
anthropologist who offered much to the scientific knowledge of how human
cultures develop. Her 44 books and thousands of articles have been well
cataloged and documented so that we may continue to learn from her.
Mead was born in
Philadelphia in 1901 in a Quaker family. Her father was an economics
professor. Her mother, Emily Fogg Mead was a sociologist. Margaret began
her studies at DePauw University but after a year transferred in order
to study what was then a new science, anthropology, at Barnard University
under Franz Boaz and his student, Ruth Benedict. She received her undergraduate
degree from Barnard in 1923. She ultimately acquired a PhD from Columbia
University in 1929.
Her first marriage
was to Luther Cressman, a minister and archaeologist. That marriage
ended in 1928 and she married Dr. Reo Fortune the same year. Together
they wrote, "Growing Up In New Guinea", published in 1930.
Mead worked with her third husband, British born Gregory Batesman, on
a book called "Balanese Character" that was published in 1942.
At the age of 23,
Dr. Mead undertook a field study in Samoa in the South Pacific, against
Boaz's advice. The experience resulted in her writing of her highly
popular book, "Coming Of Age In Samoa", published in 1928.
This book remains a best seller. As a result of her Samoan studies she
came to believe that adolescence need not be a time of upheaval, and
that our society creates problems when we deny sexuality and try to
hide it. She studied many southern Pacific native cultures and is largely
responsible for the contents of the American Museum of Natural History's
Pacific Peoples exhibit. Nonetheless she occasionally had difficulty
observing native practices including cannibalism, infanticide and incest.
Mead took a woman's
perspective into the field of anthropology. She was the first person
to study child rearing practices and their effects on societies. Her
theory of imprinting, a method through which she believed children learn,
continues to be researched and studied today. She believed that the
study of children was essential to understanding ourselves and to improving
She combined psychological sciences with anthropological field studies
for the first time. She believed it was important to create a link between
anthropology and other fields of science. She had a great deal to do
with making this information available to the general public through
her writings, lectures, radio interviews and television appearances,
including a number of appearances on the Tonight Show with Johnny Carson.
She was the first to use photography in anthropological field work.
Mead was an energetic
spokesperson regarding human rights and social issues including women's
rights, child development and education. She often testified before
Congress and other government agencies regarding issues she believed
to be important.
Her interests and
writings spread across a vast range of topics, from spirituality to
overpopulation. She worked in the Department of Anthropology at the
American Museum of Natural History from 1926 through the end of her
life, initially as assistant curator, then as associate curator and
finally as curator. She was a professor of anthropology at Columbia
starting in the year 1954, working with her old associate, Ruth Benedict.
She wrote a book entitled "An Anthropologist At Work" about
Benedict. It was published in 1959.
died in 1978. She
is a member of the National Women's Hall of Fame and received numerous
other honors during her life time. She was depicted in the "Celebrate
The Century" stamp set released by the Post Office in the 1920s.
Since her death some of her conclusions have been called into question,
but there is no doubt about her contributions to the science of anthropology
and human understanding.