- Margaret Mead was a cultural anthropologist best known for her studies of people on the remote islands of Oceania, including Samoa, Papua New Guinea, and Bali.
- Mead used extremely systematic and advanced methodologies in her fieldwork studies. Her work on The Study of Culture at Distance (1953) laid the foundation for decades of anthropological work to follow.
- Mead used her studies of these cultures to challenge western views on sex, family structure, and gender roles in the 60s and 70s. Her case studies also contributed to the ongoing battle over the importance of “nature versus nurture.”
- Mead faced criticism for her work, especially from anthropologist Derek Freeman who challenged the accuracy of the findings of her famous book Coming of Age in Samoa (1928).
In This Article
Who was Margaret Mead?
Margaret Mead was an American cultural anthropologist who spent her life studying people on remote islands in the Pacific. Mead was born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, in 1901 to a family of educators.
She earned her bachelor’s degree at Barnard College of Columbia University and her M.A. and Ph.D. degrees from Columbia in the field of anthropology (Metraux, 1980).
In Samoa, Bali, and New Guinea, Mead studied how people lived — particularly those with little contact with Western civilization.
Through her work, Mead challenged western cultural views and was often controversial as an academic. This included Mead’s challenging of American views on sex, family structure, and the way in which they raised their children (Mark, 1999).
Mead was a prolific author, and during the 1960s and 1970s, she was a frequent speaker in mass media. Mead commented on a wide range of societal issues in her research, such as women’s rights, race relations, environmental pollution, and world hunger.
Contributions to the Study of Cultures
Through her decades of anthropological research, Mead preferred to learn about cultures by traveling to remote places of interest and living amongst the people she was studying through fieldwork.
Edited by Margaret Mead, The Study of Culture at Distance (TSCD) was published in 1953 as a book of anthropological methodologies or — as she referred to it as — a “research manual.” This book represented the birth of a few new trends in anthropology that have continued today.
Firstly, the TSCD shifted the focus in anthropology from so-called primitive societies to western societies. It also outlined pragmatic methodologies of how to conduct group research, and it suggested anthropologists should study film, literature, and popular culture as part of their investigations (Mead et al., 2000).
Interestingly, the TSCD was also deeply rooted in developmental psychology. With this in mind, Mead was especially adamant that this book not just be written for anthropologists. Instead, the TSCD was designed so multiple disciplines, including psychologists and linguists, could work together in investigating different cultures.
Mead herself was one of the earliest American anthropologists to apply psychological techniques to understanding culture. Mead was especially interested in how cultures shape and standardize personalities and what happens when people are at odds with the behavior expected of them in their society.
Following this research manual, Mead’s overall approach to her anthropological research was standard scientific methodology.
In an exploratory stage, she would develop her hypothesis; in a confirmatory stage, she would test her hypothesis; in the quantification stage, she would use sampling methods to establish reliable relationships. And in the experimental verification stage, she would perform change experiments with the hypothesis which have been reliably sampled. (Mead et al., 2000).
As the TSDC manual shows, Mead’s methodology was incredibly organized and systematic. She also used advanced fieldwork methods such as photographs, film, and psychological testing, as well as teams of both male and female researchers. As a result, Mead’s studies pioneered fieldwork on topics such as childhood, adolescence, and gender, and she was a founding figure in culture and psychological studies.
Study in Samoa
In 1925, when Mead was twenty-three years old, she set out on her first field trip to Samoa. Over the next fourteen years, Mead would go on to study seven cultures in the South Pacific and Indonesia.
In Samoa, Mead sought to explore whether adolescence was a universally stressful experience due to biology or if it was the result of one’s culture and environment. For nine months, Mead interviewed Samoans and administered psychological tests.
By the end of her initial studies in Samoa, Mead concluded that adolescence was not a stressful time for Samoan girls due to the difference in cultural patterns of Samoa in contrast to those of the United States.
Mead published her findings in Coming of Age in Samoa (1923). This multi-chapter book included descriptive accounts of a day in Samoa, the education of a Samoan child, the Samoan household, and the role of the girl in the community, sexual relations, and maturity (Mead et al., 1973). Coming of Age in Samoa was tremendously popular and made Mead famous. It has since been reprinted in a variety of languages and has dozens of new editions.
Study in New Guinea and Bali
In 1930, Mead journeyed to the Sepik region of Papua New Guinea for two years. While there, Mead was especially interested in studying gender consciousness. In other words, Mead sought to investigate what makes up gender roles and if temperamental differences between the sexes are a result of innate nature or cultural and environmental nurture.
Mead recorded her findings in Sex and Temperament in Three Primitive Societies (1935) (Mead, 1963).
In her research, Mead found a different pattern of male and female behavior for each culture she studied.
Initially, she argued that the Arapesh men and women were gentle, the Mundugumor men and women were violent, and the Tchambuli exhibited gender role differences with women being dominant and men dependent. She concluded that this data demonstrated cultural determinism and that gender differences are determined by social factors. This supports the view that gender role is influenced by nurture.
Interestingly, these patterns of behavior were also all different from the gender role expectations of the United States at the time.
This included findings of cultural groups in which both males and females were gentle and cooperative, where they were both violent and aggressive, and where the women were dominant and impersonal, while men were less responsible and emotionally dependent (Mead, 1963).
In her studies in Bali in 1936, Mead turned her attention to the study of personality. Specifically, Mead sought to understand the role of culture in shaping personality formation. In Bali, Mead also explored parent-child interaction, ritualistic ceremonies, and artistry.
Furthermore, Mead’s innovative use of photography and film in Bali was extremely powerful in converting her research into the culture. Among her creative, anthropological works from her research in Bali include the film Trance and Dance in Bali (1952) and the book Balinese Character: A Photographic Analysis (1942).
What did Margaret Mead conclude from her studies?
From her decades of fieldwork and research, Margaret Mead was incredibly influential in contributing to the anthropological as well as the psychological community.
Firstly, Mead’s pioneering work on gender showed how society shapes the construction of gender roles through varying cultural expectations.
In Male and Female (1949), Mead continued to shape the nature vs. nurture debate by arguing that motherhood serves to reinforce both male and female roles in society and that children learn by watching adult behavior.
Furthermore, Mead’s research in Samoa found that adolescence was not biologically destined to be a time of extreme stress and anxiety. Instead, the adolescent experience was said to be shaped by the culture in which children grew up.
Finally, Mead also contributed to influential research on the study of personality, finding that cultures emphasize certain aspects of human potential at the expense of others.
Why was Margaret Mead a controversial figure?
Despite her popularity and fame as a researcher, Mead was also seen as a rather controversial figure on multiple fronts. This included American conservatives, fellow anthropologists, and the very people whose cultures she studied.
For instance, Coming of Age in Samoa received varying degrees of criticism. Specifically, some critics accuse Mead of romanticizing Somoan life or choosing evidence that only supported her hypotheses.
Additionally, many Somoans object to Mead’s characterization of them as “sexually loose” and found her depiction of Samoan adolescent sexuality offensive (Shankman, 2013).
Anthropologist Derek Freeman was one of Mead’s biggest critics. He asserted that Mead’s findings of Samoan sexual life were a result of a “prank” and that Mead’s female informants had “hoaxed” her (Shankman, 2013). Freeman’s Margaret Mead and Samoa: The Making and Unmaking of an Anthropological Myth (1983) received widespread attention for its critique of Mead.
Freeman raised concerns over apparent anomalies in Mead’s research and claimed she did not give enough emphasis to the role of biology on behavior. He also argued Mead did not spend enough time in Samoa and that she was not familiar enough with the language (Freeman, 1983).
Finally, Mead’s “new way thinking” was often seen as a threat to American conservatives. Her reports detailing the attitudes towards sex in South Pacific and Southeast Asian traditional cultures were even said to have influenced the 1960s sexual revolution — a cultural movement against which conservatives were strongly against.
To Mead’s conservative critics, she contributed to the moral degradation of America, and to her liberal supporters, she was a feminist icon. However, as anthropologist professor Shankman has written, it’s likely both sides misunderstood her (Shankman, 2009).
And so, in 1978, after 50 years in the throes of American opinion, it is safe to say Margaret Mead died with a profound if controversial, legacy and has irrevocably impacted the field of anthropology.
Freeman, D. (1983). Margaret Mead and Samoa: The making and unmaking of an anthropological myth. Australian National University Press.
Mark, J. (1999). Margaret Mead: coming of age in America. Oxford University Press.
Mead, M., & Métraux, R. (Eds.). (2000). The study of culture at a distance (Vol. 1). Berghahn Books.
Mead, M. (1969). Social organization of Manu”a. Honolulu, HI: Bishop Museum Press.
Mead, M., Sieben, A., & Straub, J. (1973). Coming of age in Samoa. London: Penguin.
Mead, M. (1963). Sex and temperament in three primitive societies (Vol. 370). New York: Morrow.
Mead, M. (1949). Male and female: a study of the sexes in a changing world.
Metraux, R. (1980). Margaret Mead: A biographical sketch. American Anthropologist, 82(2), 261-269.
Shankman, P. (2009). The trashing of Margaret Mead: Anatomy of an anthropological controversy. Univ of Wisconsin Press.
Shankman, P. (2013). The “fateful hoaxing” of Margaret Mead: A cautionary tale. Current Anthropology, 54(1), 51-70.