Article abstract: Through her best-selling books, her public lecturing, and her column in Redbook magazine, Mead popularized anthropology in the United States. She also provided American women with a role model, encouraging them to pursue professions while simultaneously championing their roles as mothers.
Margaret Mead credited her parents, Emily Fogg and Edward Sherwood Mead, and her paternal grandmother, Martha Ramsay Mead, as her primary childhood influences. They were all educators; her mother was a teacher and sociologist who was pursuing graduate work when Margaret was born, her father was a professor of economics at the University of Pennsylvania, and her grandmother, who was primarily responsible for teaching Margaret, was a retired school principal. As a child, Margaret received only sporadic formal education, attending two years of kindergarten, one year of half days in fourth grade, and six years at a variety of high schools during which she was given supplemental instruction by her grandmother. Her inherent love of ritual found expression in religion when, at the age of eleven, Mead joined the Episcopalian church. She sustained her faith throughout her life.
Her mother and grandmother were the principal role models for Mead. Both were able women who had married and borne children but also had attended college and pursued careers. From them she learned to enjoy reading and to observe and record the world around her.
Mead anticipated finding a rich intellectual and social life in college. Instead, she suffered isolation during her freshman year at DePauw University in the Midwest, where she experienced the trauma of exclusion by college sororities. She was also profoundly affected by her discovery that “bright girls could do better than bright boys” but “would suffer for it.” She departed after one year, convinced that coeducation disadvantaged women, and subsequently entered Barnard College, where she found intellectual stimulation in the company of several intelligent young women. Her ordeal shaped her preference for her life’s work: She decided “not to compete with men in male fields, but instead to concentrate on the kinds of work that are better done by women.” In anthropology, Mead found such a niche investigating families and child-rearing practices.
Initially, Mead studied psychology, but in her senior year she was influenced by the Columbia University anthropologist Franz Boas and his graduate student Ruth Benedict, who inspired her by the urgency with which they pursued their work. Boas, the founder of modern American anthropology, recognized that cultures rapidly were being corrupted by world contact and was busily orchestrating the ethnographic description of as many cultures as possible with the limited number of field workers available to him. Both Boas and Benedict were responsible for convincing Mead that she could make a contribution in anthropology.
Margaret Mead first traveled to the field in 1925, when Boas dispatched her to American Samoa, where she was to observe adolescence as an aid in determining whether it was universally a time of stress. The science of anthropology was in its infancy when Mead departed for Samoa. Methods for gathering and deciphering information were yet to be defined, and Mead invented techniques while in the field. She lived with adolescent girls in a Samoan village, becoming the first American to use the participant observer method developed by the British anthropologist Stanislaw Malinowski.
Upon returning to the United States, Mead earned her Ph.D. and simultaneously achieved fame by publishing Coming of Age in Samoa (1928). In her work, she described a culture that was free of the Sturm und Drang of American adolescence and in which girls as well as boys were taught to value and cherish their sexuality.
Between 1925 and 1939, Mead zealously performed field work, observing seven Pacific cultures as well as the American Omaha Indians. After her initial trip to Samoa, she never again worked alone, choosing instead to collaborate with others, thereby making possible a more thorough analysis of cultures. She focused on women and children who were inaccessible to her male colleagues. Throughout her career, she was concerned with character formation and the influence of cultural and biological determinants of behavior.
During three months of intensive discussion among Mead, her husband and collaborator Reo Fortune, and the British anthropologist Gregory Bateson, with whom they lived in New Guinea, Mead developed her theories of character formation. In Sex and Temperament in Three Primitive Societies (1935), she formalized her inferences regarding the process by which cultures established behavioral norms for men and women. She also provided explanations for deviance. Mead observed among the Iatmul, Arapesh, and Mundugumor peoples widely diverging...