Margaret Mead (1901-1978)

Margaret Mead

Margaret Mead was a 20th century anthropologist whose work in indigenous and developing societies made her one of the most famous anthropologists in the world. 

Professional Life

Margaret Mead was born on December 16, 1901 in Philadelphia. Her father was an economics professor at the Wharton School of Business and her mother was a sociologist. Mead was primarily homeschooled, and her progressive parents encouraged her to befriend children of all backgrounds and pursue her own profession. She began her undergraduate education at DePauw University in Indiana before transferring to Barnard College in New York City; she earned her BA in 1923. Mead continued her education at Columbia University, earning her master’s degree in 1924 and her PhD in 1929.

Mead began her professional career in 1926 as an assistant curator of ethnology at the American Museum of Natural History and she continued to work at the museum for decades; in 1942, Mead moved into the associate curator position, and she became curator in 1964. Mead also taught at Columbia University, beginning in 1954 and Fordham University, beginning in 1968.

Throughout her career, Mead traveled frequently to the South Pacific to conduct field research into biological and cultural influences on behavior in indigenous societies, including those of Samoa, New Guinea, and Bali. She also observed the Omaha tribe of Nebraska. Mead was named Mother of the Year in 1969 by TIME magazine; she was elected to serve as president of the American Academy for the Advancement of Science at age 72; and she was posthumously awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1979.

Mead was married three times, and she had one child with her third husband, Gregory Bateson in 1939. Mead and Bateson divorced in 1950, and Mead lived with Rhoda Metraux from 1955 until her death in 1978. Metraux and Mead were romantic partners, and they coauthored an advice column in Redbook from 1961–1978. 

Contribution to Psychology

Mead studied the psychological and physical behaviors of adolescents in Samoa. She believed that the difficult transition from childhood to adulthood experienced by westerners was unique to that culture.  She published her findings in her 1928 book, Coming of Age in Samoa, arguing that developmental stages are not hard-wired and that children develop differently depending on cultural demands. Her observations in Samoa indicated that adolescence was not a stressful or rebellious time for Samoan teenagers.

Mead also wrote Sex and Temperament in Three Primitive Societies in 1935 based on her observations of the Arapesh, Mundugumor, and Tchambuli societies of New Guinea. The book highlighted feminine roles in regions of New Guinea and became a significant piece of literature in the advancement of feminism. She compared differences in sex roles, sexual relationships, and philosophy among three different societies. The Arapesh, for example, were generally peaceful, which Mead argued was the product of egalitarianism and a cultural desire for community and peaceful relationships. In the Mundugmor society, by contrast, aggression was valued in both sexes. Perhaps most interesting to gender scholars, Mead reported that in the Tchambuli culture, it was men—and not women—who prized their appearance and spent time with cosmetic pursuits.

Mead was a prolific writer, and in the 1960s, she wrote on a number of controversial topics of the day, including overpopulation and the environmental crisis. While she was a feminist, Mead was also critical of the movement when it was anti-male. Mead was an outspoken advocate for the right to die, access to birth control, and the repeal of anti-abortion laws. Her work continues to influence feminism, sociology, and even religion.

Selected works of Margaret Mead:

  • Social Organization of Manua, 1930
  • Growing Up in New Guinea, 1930
  • The Changing Culture of an Indian Tribe, 1932
  • Kinship in the Admiralty Islands, 1934
  • And Keep Your Powder Dry: An Anthropologist Looks at America, Morrow, 1942
  • Balinese Character: A Photographic Analysis, (with Gregory Bateson) 1942
  • Male and Female, 1949
  • Soviet Attitudes toward Authority, McGraw, 1951
  • The School in American Culture, Harvard University Press, 1951
  • New Lives for Old, 1956
  • Continuities in Cultural Evolution, Yale University Press, 1964
  • Anthropologists and What They Do, F. Watts, 1965
  • Culture and Commitment: A Study of the Generation Gap, Natural History Press, 1970
  • Blackberry Winter: My Earlier Years (memoirs), 1972

References:

  1. Barry, Naomi M. (1996). Margaret Mead: Overview. Feminist Writers. Retrieved from http://www.gale.cengage.com/InContext/bio.htm
  2. Margaret Mead. (2000). Notable Women Scientists. Retrieved from http://www.gale.cengage.com/InContext/bio.htm
  3. Margaret Mead. (2003). Contemporary Authors Online. Retrieved from http://www.gale.cengage.com/InContext/bio.htm

Last Update: 07-06-2015

Advanced Search
Subscribe to GoodTherapy.org's Email Newsletter

Free Student Membership

Are you a college or university student? Sign up here for a free student membership with GoodTherapy.org

Register