Pioneer in Cultural Anthropology
Mead was born on December 16, 1901, in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, to a family that encouraged her to pursue an education and to retain her independence and identity after marriage. From her paternal grandmother, a pioneer child psychologist, she learned to observe children’s behavior when she herself was still a child. She graduated from Barnard College in 1923 and earned her Ph.D. in anthropology from Columbia University in 1929.
In 1928 she published Coming of Age in Samoa, which was based on observations of Samoan culture conducted during a 1925 research visit. In the book, she set forth the theory of cultural determinism, which states that people’s personalities and values are formed largely by the ideologies of their culture. The book was a controversial best seller: critics attacked her data gathering techniques and her conclusions. Most anthropologists of the time believed that biology represented the basis of cultural differences among groups of people.
In 1926 Mead was appointed assistant curator at the American Museum of Natural History, in New York City, beginning a lifelong association with that institution. She became associate curator in 1942, curator in 1964, and emeritus curator in 1969. She also lectured at Columbia University, Vassar College, New York University, and Fordham University.
Mead studied firsthand the indigenous cultures of North America and islands of the western Pacific including New Guinea, Bali, and the Admiralty Islands. She focused on women, children, adolescence, and sexuality, used photography to document her visits to these areas, and pioneered innovative methods of gathering anthropological data. She wrote 23 widely read books, most of which, like her first book, provoked controversy. Her works covered analyses of child development, psychoanalytic theory, and ethnography (a branch of anthropology concerned with the observation and description of traditional cultures); one of her more popular books was Sex and Temperament in Three Primitive Societies, published in 1935.
Mead was involved, often in an executive capacity, in professional and scientific organizations throughout her life. She also participated in public debates surrounding social issues such as child rearing, female sexuality, race relations, population control, environmental degradation, and nuclear proliferation. She died on November 15, 1978, in New York City.
Margaret Mead’s Legacy
Mead was an influential force in academic circles, contributing to the evolution of cultural theories that occurred during the second half of the twentieth century.
The aftermath of Mead’s first book set the tone for her whole career; her critics continued to question her nontraditional approach and revolutionary ideas.
Although Mead remains a controversial figure in academic circles, many historians concede that she founded the modern field of cultural anthropology. Her work turned others toward the comparative study of native societies and was responsible for the spread of cultural determinism to other academic disciplines, such as literature, history, psychology, and sociology: She initiated anthropological study of women and children in non literate societies, topics her predecessors had largely ignored.
Many of Mead’s books were successfully aimed at the general reader, and she thus opened the field of cultural anthropology to non scholars. Her writings contributed to a wider understanding of other contemporary cultures, which led people in Western societies to take a critical look at their own assumptions and culturally manifested values. Her involvement in controversial social issues, coupled with her authoritative status, shaped popular opinion and helped initiate progressive social movements such as environmentalism and feminism.
Margaret Mead – 1901-1978