Mead, Margaret (1901–1978)

Margaret Mead was born into an academic family in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, on December 16, 1901. She attended Barnard College and received her doctorate in cultural anthropology, working with Ruth Benedict and Franz Boas at Columbia University. Mead spent her entire professional career as a curator at the Museum of Natural History in New York City. Between 1924 and 1936, she did fieldwork in eight different cultures and wrote extensively about most of them for the rest of her life. From the start of World War II, Mead directed most of her work toward public affairs. Mead died in New York City on November 15, 1978.

While studying cultural anthropology with Boas, Mead went to Samoa to document the influence of culture on ADOLESCENCE. Coming of Age in Samoa (1928) became a classic for its news that adolescence is more a cultural preoccupation than a biological imperative:

The adolescent girl in Samoa differed from her sister who had not reached puberty in one chief respect, that in the older girl certain bodily changes were present in the older girl which were absent in the younger girl. There were no other great differences (p. 196).

Mead also reported that the young women of Samoa suffered much less constraint and neurosis in matters related to sex. Mead's book, with its open discussion of the SEXUALITY of adolescent girls and its conscious inversion of contemporary morals, became a major text of the mid-twentieth century. Coming of age would never be the same again.

Mead used much the same argument to take a stand on the gender issues of her time. She wrote that "we know of no culture that has said, articulately, that there is no difference between men and women except in the way they contribute to the creation of the next generation" (1949, p. 8). For Mead, there are biological differences between males and females, but how these differences make a difference is greatly dependent on the cultural environment in which they are staged, interpreted, and made consequential.

In subsequent fieldwork, Mead studied younger children in New Guinea and toddlers in Bali. In each case, she delivered a cultural analysis of the child-rearing process by documenting "those sequences in child-other behavior which carry the greatest communication weight and so are crucial for the development of each culturally regular character structure" (Mead and Macgregor, p. 27). Documented differences in crucial "sequences in child-other behavior" from other cultures challenged Western categories of child development, gender, and desire. Whether in popular magazines or on television shows, Mead used human variation to disrupt heartfelt American biases about what was natural and inherent.

Mead wrote more than twenty books, some technical, most not. As the public face of anthropology, she celebrated a comparative method based on intense fieldwork. For Mead, anthropology was a clearinghouse for moral affairs. She tried every available device for eliciting, recording, and representing patterns of interaction and interpretation among the people she studied. With Gregory Bateson, she pioneered the photographic documentation of life and learning in different cultures. Culture and character could be filmed because they are relentlessly worked on by persons teaching and learning together. From Bali, Mead offers a nice image:

Where the American mother attempts to get the child to parrot simple courtesy phrases, the Balinese mother simply recites them, glibly, in the first person, and the child finally slips into speech, as into an old garment, worn before, but fitted on by another hand. (Bateson and Mead, p. 13)

People fit into each other as into garments, with give- and-take leading to fragile but consistent outcomes. In nine photographs covering two minutes of a mother/son interaction, Bateson and Mead show how the Balinese practice "awayness," a give-and-take in which participants arrange ways to be together, but unengaged, to be in each other's presence–even touching–but unavailable. In her notes on the photographs, Mead points to a communicatively weighty sequence in child-other behavior in a "culturally regular character structure" marked by awayness: the mother calls the child to her, stimulates the child (photos 1–2), then attends elsewhere (photos 3–8), until both mother and child look out on the world, bored and away (photo 9).

Mead remains a source of celebration and controversy. Soon after her death, Derrick Freeman (1983) claimed the young Mead had been fooled by her Samoan informants: in Freeman's view she was naïve and driven to confirm Boas's position that culture, not biology, was primary in the organization of behavior. Where Mead saw sexual license, Freeman counted rape; where Mead saw generosity and detachment, Freeman found jealousy and aggression; where Mead saw cooperation, Freeman found hierarchy and ambivalence. The ensuing Freeman/Mead controversy has been resolved strongly in her favor. Lowell Holmes worked in Mead's village decades after she left Samoa and stated:

Despite the greater possibilities for error in a pioneering scientific study, her tender age (twenty-three), and her inexperience, I find that the validity of her Samoan research is remarkably high…. I confirm Mead'sconclusion that it was undoubtedly easier to come of age in Samoa than in the United States in 1925.

Late-twentieth- and early-twenty-first-century controversy attacks Mead less for the quality of her science than for her commitment to a science tied to Western colonialism and imperialism. Nonetheless, leading anthropologists, such as Clifford Geertz and James Boon, continue to praise her work, her methods, and her fierce effort to use anthropology to confront social problems from a new perspective.

See also: Sociology and Anthropology of Childhood.


Bateson, Gregory, and Margaret Mead. 1942. Balinese Character: A Photographic Analysis. New York: New York Academy of Sciences.

Bateson, Mary Catherine. 1984. With a Daughter's Eye. New York: William Morrow.

Freeman, Derrick. 1983. Margaret Mead and Samoa. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Holmes, Lowell. 1987. Quest for the Real Samoa. New York: Bergin and Garvey.

Mead, Margaret. 1928. Coming of Age in Samoa. New York: William Morrow.

Mead, Margaret. 1930. Growing Up in New Guinea. New York: William Morrow.

Mead, Margaret. 1949. Male and Female. New York: William Morrow.

Mead, Margaret. 1972. Blackberry Winter: My Earlier Years. New York: William Morrow.

Mead, Margaret. 1977. Letters from the Field. New York: Harper and Row.

Mead, Margaret and Francis Macgregor. 1951. Growth and Culture. New York: G.D. Putnam and Sons.

Sullivan, Gerald. 1998. Margaret Mead, Gregory Bateson, and Highland Bali: Fieldwork Photographs of Bayung Gedé. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.