Margaret Mead

From Academic Kids

Margaret Mead
Margaret Mead

Margaret Mead (December 16, 1901November 15, 1978) was an American cultural anthropologist.

She was born in Philadelphia and raised in nearby Doylestown by a university professor father and a social activist mother. She graduated from Barnard College in 1923 and received her Ph.D. from Columbia University in 1929. She set out in 1925 to do her field work in Polynesia. In 1926 Mead joined the American Museum of Natural History, New York City, as assistant curator, eventually serving as its curator of ethnology from 1946 to 1969. In addition, she taught at Columbia University as adjunct professor starting in 1954. Following the example of her instructor Ruth Benedict, Mead concentrated her studies on problems of child rearing, personality, and culture. (Source: The Columbia Encyclopedia, Fifth Edition, 1993.)

There has been controversy surrounding her work, especially her premiere work, Coming of Age in Samoa (1928), based on research she conducted as a graduate student, but her position as a pioneering anthropologist--one who wrote clearly and vividly enough for the general public to read and learn from her works--remains firm.

She died in New York on 15 November 1978, aged 76.


Coming of Age in Samoa

In the foreword to the Coming of Age in Samoa, Mead's advisor, Franz Boas, wrote of its significance that

Courtesy, modesty, good manners, conformity to definite ethical standards are universal, but what constitutes courtesy, modesty, good manners, and definite ethical standards is not universal. It is instructive to know that standards differ in the most unexpected ways.

Boas went on to point out that at the time of publication, many Americans had begun to discuss the problems faced by young people (especially women) as they pass through adolescence as "unavoidable periods of adjustment." Boas felt that a study of the problems faced by adolescents in another culture would be illuminating.

And so, when Mead herself described the point of her research she wrote: "I have tried to answer the question which sent me to Samoa: Are the disturbances which vex our adolescents due to the nature of adolescence itself or to the civilisation? Under different conditions does adolescence present a different picture?" She found that it did. (See pp. 6-7, American Museum of Natural History edition of 1973.)

Mead conducted her study among a small group of Samoans -- 600 people -- in which she got to know, lived with, observed, and interviewed (through an interpreter) the sixty-eight young women between the ages of 9 and 20.

She concluded that the passage from childhood to adulthood--the period of "adolescence"--in Samoa was a smooth transition and not marked by the emotional or psychological distress, anxiety, or confusion seen in the United States. [See Perey (]

As Boas and Mead expected, this book upset many Westerners when it first appeared in 1928. Many American readers felt shocked by her observation that young Samoan women deferred marriage for many years while enjoying casual sex, but eventually married, settled down, and successfully reared their own children.

The book continues to have this effect on many readers, and the Intercollegiate Studies Institute (a politically conservative United States organization) recently declared Coming of Age in Samoa the "worst book of the 20th century".

In 1983, five years after Mead had died, Derek Freeman published Margaret Mead and Samoa: The Making and Unmaking of an Anthropological Myth, in which he challenged all of Mead's major findings. Freeman based his critique on his own four years of field experience in Samoa and on recent interviews with Mead's surviving informants. According to Freeman, these women denied having engaged in casual sex as young women, and claimed that they had lied to Mead.

After an initial flurry of discussion, most anthropologists concluded that the absolute truth would probably never be known. Many, however, find Freeman's critique highly questionable. First, these critics have speculated that he waited until Mead died before publishing his critique so that she would not be able to respond. Second, they pointed out that Mead's original informants were now old women, grandmothers, and had converted to Christianity. They further pointed out that Samoan culture had changed considerably in the decades following Mead's original research, that after intense missionary activity many Samoans had come to adopt the same puritanical sexual standards as the Americans who were once so shocked by Mead's book. They suggested that such women, in this new context, were unlikely to speak frankly about their adolescent behavior. (Note also that one of Freeman's interviewees gave her born-again faith as her reason for admitting to the past deception.) Finally, they suggested that these women would not be as forthright and honest about their sexuality when speaking to an elderly man, as they would have been speaking to a young woman. Many anthropologists also accuse Freeman of having the same ethnocentric sexual puritanism as the people Boas and Mead once shocked. In 1983, the American Anthropological Association passed a motion declaring Freeman's Margaret Mead and Samoa "poorly written, unscientific, irresponsible, and misleading." (Freeman 1999, cited by Pinker 2002, p. 115.)

Freeman continued to argue his case in the 1999 publication of The Fateful Hoaxing of Margaret Mead: A Historical Analysis of Her Samoan Research.

Mead's Research in Other Societies

Another extremely influential book by Mead was "Sex and Temperament in Three Primitive Societies." This became a major cornerstone of the women's liberation movement, since it claimed that females are dominant in the Tchambuli (sometimes spelled Chambri) tribe of Papua New Guinea (in the southern Pacific) without causing any special problems. The lack of male dominance may have been the result of the Australian administration's outlawing of warfare. According to contemporary research, males are dominant throughout Melanesia (although some believe that female witches have special powers). Others have argued that there is still much cultural variation throughout Melanesia, and especially in the large island of New Guinea. Moreover, male anthropologists often miss the significance of networks of political influence among females. The formal male-dominated institutions typical of some high-population density areas were not, for example, present in the same way in Oksapmin, West Sepik Province, a more sparsely populated area. Cultural patterns there, were different from say, Mt. Hagen. They were closer to those described by Mead.

Mead stated that the Arapesh people were pacifists, although she noted that they do on occasion engage in warfare. Meanwhile, her observations about the sharing of garden plots amongst the Arapesh, the egaliterian emphasis in child-rearing, and her documentation of predominantly peaceful relations among relatives hold up. These descriptions are very different from the "big-man" displays of dominance that were documented in more stratified New Guinea cultures--e.g. by Andrew Strathern. They are indeed, as she wrote, a cultural pattern.

When Margaret Mead described her own researches to her students at Columbia University, she put succinctly what her objectives and her conclusions were. A first hand account by an anthropologist who studied with Mead in the 60s and 70s provides this information:--

1. Mead tells of Sex and Temperament in Three Primitive Societies. "She explained that nobody knew the degree to which temperament is biologically determined by sex. So she hoped to see whether there were cultural or social factors that affected temperament. Were men inevitably aggressive? Were women inevitably "homebodies"? It turned out that the three cultures she lived with in New Guinea were almost a perfect laboratory--for each had the variables that we associate with masculine and feminine in an arrangement different from ours. She said this surprised her, and wasn't what she was trying to find. It was just there.

"Among the Arapesh, both men and women were peaceful in temperament and neither men nor women made war.

"Among the Mundugumor, the opposite was true: both men and women were warlike in temperament.

"And the Tchambuli were different from both. The men 'primped' and spent their time decorating themselves while the women worked and were the practical ones--the opposite of how it seemed in early 20th century America." [Perey. ( Reproduced by permission of the author.]

2. Mead tells of Growing Up in New Guinea. "Margaret Mead told us how she came to the research problem on which she based her Growing Up in New Guinea. She reasoned as follows: If primitive adults think in an animistic way, as Piaget says our children do, how do primitive children think?

"In her research on Manus Island of New Guinea, she discovered that 'primitive' children think in a very practical way and begin to think in terms of spirits etc. as they get older.

"Note: Animistic thinking gives feelings or personality to inanimate objects. For example, a child can say "Bad sidewalk!" if she falls and hurts herself on it--seeing the sidewalk as mean for causing her pain. The term animism comes from the Latin for soul, "anima." And tribal cultures often do have animistic concepts: Pueblos see the clouds as cloud people, who can be pleased or displeased by what man does--and give rain or drought." [Perey ( Reproduced by permission of the author.]


  • "Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed people can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has."
  • "As the traveler who has once been from home is wiser than he who has never left his own doorstep, so a knowledge of one other culture should sharpen our ability to scrutinize more steadily, to appreciate more lovingly, our own."
  • "Thanks to television, for the first time the young are seeing history made before it is censored by their elders."
  • "What people say, what people do, and what they say they do are entirely different things."
  • "At times it may be necessary temporarily to accept a lesser evil, but one must never label a necessary evil as good."
  • "Of all the peoples whom I have studied, from city dwellers to cliff dwellers, I always find that at least 50 percent would prefer to have at least one jungle between themselves and their mothers-in-law."
  • "I learned the value of hard work by working hard."
  • "I was brought up to believe that the only thing worth doing was to add to the sum of accurate information in the world."
  • "Always remember that you are absolutely unique. Just like everyone else."



The quote "Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed people can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has." is quoted at the beginning of Join Me by Danny Wallace.


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