Letters from the Field, 1925-1975 Analysis

Margaret Mead

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.


In the post-World War II years, Margaret Mead was popularly regarded as America’s—indeed, the world’s—foremost anthropologist. When the women’s movement revived in the late 1960’s, she was accordingly regarded by many younger feminists as a role model for their own aspirations for personal autonomy and professional achievement, Her argument—most fully articulated in Sex and Temperament—that gender-role behavior was culturally rather than biologically determined became a cardinal article of the feminist creed.

In The Feminine Mystique (1963), however, Betty Friedan complained that Mead, despite her “revolutionary vision” of what women might achieve, had increasingly become guilty of glorifying women’s childbearing role, and Mead had ambivalent feelings about the new women’s movement. Her biographer Jane Howard relates that Mead thought word formation such as “chairperson” silly, was scornful of middle-aged women who complained about discrimination when they had never even tried anything except marriage and children, and was offended by the “which side are you on?” mentality of many feminists.


Foerstel, Lenora, and Angela Gilliam, eds. Confronting the Margaret Mead Legacy: Scholarship, Empire, and the South Pacific. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1992. This collection of papers reassessing from a left-wing perspective the treatment of South Pacific peoples by Western anthropologists faults Mead and her followers for promoting a sensationalized image of the Pacific peoples as oversexed primitives.

Freeman, Derek. Margaret Mead and Samoa: The Making and Unmaking of an Anthropological Myth. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1983. An Australian anthropologist with extensive fieldwork experience in Samoa, Freeman provoked a major controversy when he accused Coming of Age of misinterpreting not only adolescence in Samoa but also the larger Samoan culture. Although exonerating Mead of deliberately falsifying data, Freeman charges that her ideological commitment to cultural determinism led her to distort what she saw and heard.

Friedan, Betty. The Feminine Mystique. New York: W. W. Norton, 1963. The chapter “The Functional Freeze, the Feminine Protest, and Margaret Mead” complains that Mead’s increasing “glorification of women in the female role—as defined by their sexual biological function” (most strikingly in her 1970 book Male and Female: A Study of the Sexes in a Changing World)—had become “a cornerstone of the feminine mystique” that keeps women subordinate.

Grosskurth, Phyllis. Margaret Mead. London: Penguin Books, 1988. A brief interpretative synthesis that takes a debunking view of Mead, emphasizing her egotism, her pretentiousness and self-certitude (her “being sure she was right about everything”), and her publicity-seeking and hunger for adulation.

Howard, Jane. Margaret Mead: A Life. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1984. The fullest and most thorough biography available. Howard interviewed a host of Mead’s associates, friends, and family relations and did extensive research in manuscript collections, including Mead’s papers in the Library of Congress. Although she is not uncritical, Howard is sympathetically admiring.

Rosenberg, Rosalind. Beyond Separate Spheres: Intellectual Roots of Modern Feminism. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1982. Includes a perceptive analysis of Mead’s contribution in promoting a cultural deterministic approach to male-female differences that emphasized the crucial importance of social conditioning in shaping sex roles and downgraded the significance of biological differences.