The Online Encyclopedia and Dictionary






Margaret Mead

Margaret Mead

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

She was born in Philadelphia to 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. Boas felt that a study of the problems faced by adolescents in another culture would be illuminating.

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. When her study 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. Moreover, Mead concluded that the passage from childhood to adulthood was not full of emotional or psychological distress, anxiety, or confusion, but on the contrary rather easy.

As Boas and Mead expected, this book upset many Westerners. 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".

Five years after Mead died in 1983 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, however, that one of Freeman's interviewees gave her born-again faith as the reason for coming clean about her 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 or Chimbu) tribes of the South Sea islands, 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 claimed 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.


  • "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."


  • Coming of Age in Samoa (1928) ISBN 0688050336
  • Growing Up in New Guinea (1930) ISBN 0688178111
  • The Changing Culture of an Indian Tribe (1932)
  • Sex and Temperament in Three Primitive Societies (1935)
  • Male and Female (1949) ISBN 0688146767
  • New Lives for Old: Cultural Transformation in Manus, 1928-1953 (1956)
  • People and Places (1959; a book for young readers)
  • Continuities in Cultural Evolution (1964)
  • Culture and Commitment (1970)
  • Blackberry Winter (1972; a biographical account of her early years) ISBN 0317600656

Edited volumes

  • Cultural Patterns and Technical Change, ed. (1953)
  • An Anthropologist at Work, ed. (1959, repr. 1966; a volume of Ruth Benedict's writings)


  • Derek Freeman (1999). The Fateful Hoaxing of Margaret Mead: A Historical Analysis of Her Samoan Research. Boulder, Colorado: Westview Press. ISBN 0813336937.
  • Steven Pinker (2002). The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature. Viking Penguin.
  • Hiram Caton, Editor (1990). "The Samoa Reader: Anthropologists Take Stock". University Press of America. ISBN 0819177202.

The contents of this article are licensed from under the GNU Free Documentation License. How to see transparent copy