American anthropologist whose work emphasized the relationship between culture and personality formation.
Margaret Mead was born in Philadelphia to a family of educators. In her youth, her main influences were her mother and maternal grandmother, both of whom had raised families and also pursued careers. Mead's formal education before entering college was sporadic, and she was mainly educated at home by her grandmother. An unhappy year at DePauw University turned Mead against coeducation, and she subsequently transferred to Barnard College. She first concentrated in English and psychology but became interested in anthropology under the influence of Columbia University anthropologists Franz Boas (1858-1942) and Ruth Benedict (1887-1948). Boas was urgently organizing ethnographic investigations of primitive cultures throughout the world before eventual contact with modern society, and he convinced Mead that she could make a contribution to this burgeoning field. After receiving her M.A. in psychology in 1924, she conducted her first field work in American Samoa, where she observed adolescent girls to determine if the turmoil associated with adolescence in the West is universal. Living with her research subjects in a Samoan village, Mead was the first American to use the participant-observer method developed by British anthropologist Bronislaw Malinowski (1884-1942). Upon her return to the United States, she received her Ph.D. in anthropology in 1929 and published Coming of Age in Samoa (1928), in which she presented a portrait of Samoan culture as free from the sturm und drang of the teen years in Western societies because preparation for adulthood is a continuous process that begins early in life rather than a series of stages, which create a more stressful transition process.
Mead did extensive field work throughout the 1920s and 1930s. After her initial trip, she was always joined by a collaborator. These included her second husband, New Zealand psychologist Reo Fortune, and her third husband, the British anthropologist Gregory Bateson, whom she married in 1935. Mead and Bateson conducted two years of intensive field work together in Bali, pursuing their different research interests. They pioneered the use of film as a resource for anthropological research, shooting some 22,000 feet of film as well as thousands of still photographs. Besides the Balinese, groups studied by Mead included the Manus people of the Admiralty Islands, and the Arapesh, Mundugumor, Tchambuli, and Iatmul of New Guinea. A tireless investigator, she made many repeat visits to her research sites; over a 47-year period, she observed the Manus people seven times. Having studied seven different Pacific cultures as well as the Omaha tribe of North America, Mead became convinced of the importance of culture as a determinant of personality, following in the footsteps of Alfred Adler in the field of psychology and Ruth Benedict in anthropology. Mead detailed her theories of character formation and culture in Sex and Temperament in Three Primitive Societies (1935) and expanded further on the role of culture in gender formation in her 1949 work, Male and Female: A Study of the Sexes in a Changing World. (Although Mead's stature as an anthropologist is unquestioned, there has been some speculation that her subjects may have systematically lied to her during her investigations.) In contrast to Sigmund Freud's dictum, "anatomy is destiny," Mead found gender roles to be culturally determined rather than innate, noting that behavior regarded as masculine in one culture could be considered feminine in another.
Mead's professional skills were enlisted by the United States government during World War II to analyze the cultural characteristics of its wartime adversaries, the
Germans and Japanese, and facilitate relations with its allies, especially the British. From 1926 to 1964, Mead was associated with the American Museum of Natural History in New York City as a curator of ethnology, eventually attaining the status of curator emeritus. She became an adjunct professor at Columbia in 1954 and also held a number of visiting professorships elsewhere. Mead was also the chairperson of the Social Sciences division of Fordham University beginning in 1968. She served as president of the World Federation of Mental Health (1956-57), the American Anthropological Association (1960), and the American Association for the Advancement of Science (1975). Beginning in the 1960s, Mead's influence expanded to include a wider audience, as she agreed to write a monthly column for Redbook magazine, in which she discussed topics she had concentrated on for much of her career—child-rearing practices and the family. In turn, she used her readers' letters to learn more about the concerns of American women. Mead was posthumously awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom. Her other books include Growing Up in New Guinea (1930), Balinese Character (with Gregory Bateson, 1942), Soviet Attitudes Toward Authority (1951), Childhood in Contemporary Societies (1955),
Anthropology: A Human Science (1964), Blackberry Winter (1972), an autobiographical account of her early life, and Letters from the Field, 1925-1975 (1977).
See also Child development; Conditioning; Sexuality
Bateson, Mary Catherine. With a Daughter's Eye: A Memoir of Margaret Mead and Gregory Bateson. New York: William Morrow, 1984.
Foerstel, Lenora, and Angela Gilliam, eds. Confronting the Margaret Mead Legacy: Scholarship, Empire, and the South Pacific. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1992.
Holmes, Lowell D. Quest for the Real Samoa: The Mead/Freeman Controversy and Beyond. South Hadley, MA: Bergin & Garvey, 1987.
Rice, Edward. Margaret Mead: A Portrait. New York: Harper & Row, 1979.