Form and Content
Margaret Mead’s Letters from the Field, 1925-1975 is a selection of letters written by Mead while on anthropological field trips to provide “one record, a very personal record, of what it has meant to be a practicing anthropologist over the last fifty years.” She recognizes that fieldwork is only one aspect of the anthropologist’s work. She even admits the inevitable subjectivity to be found in any individual observer’s account. Yet she emphasizes that fieldwork—“immersing oneself in the ongoing life of another people, suspending for the time both one’s beliefs and disbeliefs, and of simultaneously attempting to understand mentally and physically this other version of reality”—has supplied the data on which anthropology rests.
Modern fieldwork was just starting when Mead entered anthropology in the mid-1920’s—invented by British anthropologist Bronislaw Malinowski and Columbia University’s Franz Boas. The methods of fieldwork were, and remain, grounded “in certain fundamental theoretical assumptions about the psychic unity of mankind and the scientists’ responsibility to respect all cultures, no matter how simple or exotic.” Letters written to associates, friends, and family from the field have a special role in the fieldwork experience. “One must somehow maintain,” Mead explains, “the delicate balance between empathic participation and self-awareness. . . . Letters can be a way of occasionally righting the balance as, for an hour or two, one relates oneself to people in one’s other world.”
Most of the recipients of the letters are, unfortunately, not named, but they appear to fall into two groups. Some letters are written to such respected mentors as Boas and Ruth Benedict of the Columbia Anthropology Department, sociologist William Fielding Ogburn, and Clark Wissler, the chair of the ethnography department of the American Museum of Natural History. Most of those written during the early years of Mead’s career, however, were intended to keep informed persons with whom she had a close personal relationship—such as members of her family and intimate friends. As time passed, however, the letters become more formal accounts, almost on the “record,” intended for a broader audience. Their chronological arrangement follows the trajectory of Mead’s professional life.