national academy of sciences

margaret mead


A Biographical Memoir by
clifford geertz

Any opinions expressed in this memoir are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Academy of Sciences.

Biographical Memoir Copyright 1989
national aCademy of sCienCes washington d.C.

She was the subject of a special memorial issue of the American Anthropologist in June 1980. in which eight of her students and coworkers contribARGARET MEAD 329 . Even death. she left no one who came into contact with her or her works indifferent to either. published fifty-five years earlier. Author of more than fifteen hundred books. which came from pancreatic cancer in the winter of 1978. both popular and professional. 1901-November 15. and possessed of a seemingly endless fund of opinions on every subject under the sun that she was all too willing to share with anyone who asked. a tireless public speaker traveling the world to instruct and persuade. and occasional pieces. a hyperactive organizer of projects. Coming of Age in Samoa. whose end is still not in sight. and careers. programs. conferences. began yet another round of intense and often bitter discussion. 1978 BY CLIFFORD GEERTZ M was probably the most famous anthropologist of her time. articles.MARGARET MEAD December 16. and even more probably the most controversial. a field researcher of extraordinarily extensive and varied experience. and many who did not. a month shy of her seventy-seventh birthday. films. The appearance in 1983 of the New Zealand/Australian anthropologist Derek Freeman's highly publicized wholesale attack on her first book. did not still the debates that circulated about her person and her work.

who lived with the family during Mead's childhood. as had been her paternal grandmother. For a sensitive appreciation from outside anthropology. Martha Ramsay Mead. Her father was a professor of economics at the Wharton School of Finance of the University of Pennsylvania. 1 1979). the fullest is that by Alden Whitman of The New York Times. for they are very vivid—with certain remembrances of my own. willed and implacable. herself an anthropologist. 82. she may have been. the first of five children. .1 THE CAREER For all the complexity of her person and the variety of her interests. also in 1984. factcrammed popular biography by Jane Howard. 1984). to Emily Fogg and Edward Sherwood Mead. missing only the last few years. improvisitory. for once she found her path—in the early 1920s—she never diverged from it. With a Daughter's Eye (New York: Morrow. in 1984. 1978. 1972). For a full bibliography.330 BIOGRAPHICAL MEMOIRS uted assessments of various aspects of her work. "Margaret Mead. Her mother had been a schoolteacher before marriage (and subsequently did some work toward a master's degree in sociology). It should also be remarked that the inordinate delay in the appearance of this memoir is a result of the fact that I was asked to write it only after the person to whom it was originally assigned failed at length to produce it. November 16. 1976). Margaret Mead. She was born in Philadelphia in December 1901. supplemented—even colored." International Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences (New York: T h e Free Press. A Life (New York: Simon and Schuster. and of a mammoth. Of the numerous newspaper obituaries. ed. but she led a directed life. Mead's biography is fairly simply told. The following memoir is heavily dependent upon these latter works. (The Hague: Mouton. Jane Howard. Joan Gordan. perhaps. Mead's own account of her early life is available as Blackberry Winter: My Earlier Years (New York: Morrow. Mary Catherine Bateson.2 (1980):261-373. peripatetic. Impulsive. Mary Catherine Bateson. see Margaret Mead: The Complete Bibliography 1925-1975. After a Quaker elementary school education in Philadelphia American Anthropologist. 1984). and with an introduction by Mead on her writings. see Renee Fox. of an affecting memoir by her daughter. as well as socially unorthodox.

schematic. From March 1936 to March 1938. After a summer's work among the Omaha Indians in Nebraska in 1930 (from which a study. For her doctoral work she moved. Indiana. the Mundugumor (or Biwat). ultimately writing a master's essay on intelligence testing of Italian and American children. She actively disliked DePauw and left after a year to transfer to Barnard College. from which came the popular Growing Up in New Guinea (1930) and the technical Kinship in the Admiralty Islands (1934). She majored in psychology at Barnard. tendentious. detached. Greencastle. In 1925—despite the misgivings of her teachers and most of her friends—she travelled. and the Arapesh—between December 1931 and spring 1933. In 1928-1929 Mead worked in Manus in the Admiralty Islands off the north coast of New Guinea for eight months. two works—one popular. and generally neglected—resulted from this nine-month field study: Coming of Age in Samoa (1928) and The Social Organization of Manu'a (1930). Mead attended DePauw University. in 1923. public or professional). plus another six weeks in 1939. argumentative and controversial. systematic and not much noticed. to Samoa for her first field trip. one technical. and over-discussed. alone and enervated. Mead worked in Bali. writing a library theis on cultural stability in Polynesia. The Changing Culture of an Indian Tribe [1932] resulted with the usual immediacy. detailed. though in this case with rather little impact.MARGARET MEAD 331 and public high school in nearby Doylestown. Again. and one for the trade. The Netherlands . Sex and Temperament in Three Primitive Societies (1935). Mead journeyed to New Guinea. two major works resulted: one for the world. In a pattern that she was to repeat several times and indeed never wholly abandon. The Mountain Arapesh (1938-1949). into anthropology at Columbia University under Franz Boas and Ruth Benedict. where she worked among three different groups—the Tchambuli (or Chambri). aged twentythree.

but hardly retired.332 BIOGRAPHICAL MEMOIRS East Indies. cit. in 1953. planned several dioramas. Bateson and Mead (1942). made hundreds of photographs and a number of films. and exhibition designer she took extremely seriously. in the South Pacific—and wrote substantial books (and numerous articles) about all of them. she conducted a six-month restudy of Manus. and whose obligations as collector. an excellent review of this rather little known aspect of Mead's career. she also taught: at 2 D. a position she maintained (advancing to associate curator in 1942. ("this has been part of my own working life for forty-five years"2) the splendid Peoples of the Pacific Hall. unlikely to be broken. Not that she was otherwise idle while accomplishing this.. She added upwards of three thousand items to the Museum's inventory. p." American Anthropologist. "Margaret Mead as a Museum Anthropologist. Finally. It is a record. Mead thus carried out nearly six years of extensive field research in no less than seven cultures—all of them except Bali and the transformed Manus. which opened there in 1971. documentor. not insignificantly. raised (and. H. curator in 1964. which emerged in 1956 as New Lives for Old: Cultural Transformation—Manus 1928-1953. . Thomas. producing perhaps her finest single study. Although it took Columbia University until 1954 to bring itself to make her an adjunct professor. in 1969) until her death. contributed) funds. and finally created. As early as 1926 she was appointed assistant curator of ethnology of the American Museum of Natural History in New York. neolithic. 357. apparently by sheer insistence. all save the Omaha. and curator emerita. like Malinowski's monograph Fleuve or Frazer's galactic compilation. the essay in Balinese Character: A Photographic Analysis. op. conservator. and nearly twenty altogether). Various short revisits to her sites aside (she made at least a half-dozen of them between 1964 and 1975 alone.

Ernest Jones Lecturer. Society for Psychical Research. president of The Society for Applied . Mason Lecturer. and from 1954 to 1978. Graduate School of Education. at various points. and professional organizations she addressed will probably never be known.MARGARET MEAD 333 Vassar in 1939-1940. and The Association for Social Anthropology in Eastern Oceania. at Fordham University from 1968 to 1970. How many student groups. from Parents Without Partners. Harvard University (1950). She was. National Council for Negro Women. in 1952-1953. British Psychoanalytic Society (1957). The list of her "memberships" in a curriculum vitae apparently prepared a year or so before her death ("Full material is provided so that each one can select the particular items relevant for his or her purpose") runs to eighty-four items. at Wellesley in 1944. and at the University of Rhode Island in 1970-1971. 1940-1941. Jacob Gimbel Lecturer in the Psychology of Sex. 1945-1946. University of Birmingham. women's clubs. England (1949). at New York University in 1940. and Dwight Terry Lecturer on Religion in the Light of Science and Philosophy. She served no less than twentysix of these groups in some sort of executive capacity. World Federation for Mental Health. curating. Mead was a tireless organizer and director of an astonishing variety of intellectual and social enterprises. and teaching. at Stanford University and the University of California (1946). at Columbia from 1947 to 1951. and from 1965 to 1967. Spirit of Stockholm Foundation. Yale University (1957). She was. and General Board of Examining Chaplains of the Episcopal Church to Anthropological Film Research Institute. alumni associations. inter a great many alia. During the Second World War she lectured at the Office of War Information and afterwards at UNESCO and the National Institute of Mental Health. Beyond field research. at The Menninger Foundation in 1959. Inglis Lecturer.

to Luther Cressman. In 1979 she was posthumously awarded The Presidential Medal of Freedom. with whom she worked in Bali and New Guinea. and one of her sisters. In 1977 she was admitted to the American Philosophical Society. and from which a number of her own "national character" studies. emerged.334 BIOGRAPHICAL MEMOIRS Anthropology (1949). Martha Wolfenstein. including Ruth Benedict. Nathan Leites. Geoffrey Gorer. in 1923. When she died. a theological student. to the English anthropologist Gregory Bateson. Lincoln. All three of her husbands survived her. and from whom she was divorced in 1935. as did her daughter. the Viking Medal in Anthropology (1957-1958). notably Soviet Attitudes Toward Authority (1951) and (with Metraux) Themes in French Culture (1954). and Rhoda Metraux. among the Omaha. The American Anthropological Association (1960). participated. in 1975 (rather late. in 1936. and on New Guinea. she was covered with honors. in 1928. and third. Mead was married three times: first. . Elizabeth Mead Steig. dean of social sciences at Reza Shah Civar University in Iran.). By the time she was finished. . second. Women's Medical College of Pennsylvania . at the time of her mother's death. and. with whom she worked in Manus. she thought. to the New Zealand anthropologist Reo Fortune. and from whom she was divorced in 1950. and The American Association for the Advancement of Science (1975). from whom she was divorced in 1928. the people of Manus rested seven days in mourning and planted a coconut tree. as did a great many others) fellowship in The National Academy of Sciences. She was the moving force in the Research in Contemporary Cultures program at Columbia from 1948 to 1950. a granddaughter. Kalamazoo. Sevanne Kassarjian. . Harvard. in which more than 120 people. including twenty-eight honorary degrees (Delhi. Mary Catherine Bateson Kassarjian.

for she had a way of making everyone from nutritionists to cinematographers feel that their interest was at the very center of her concern. ever has read or ever will read everything. but any anthropologist. illconsidered. revolutionary when written and revolutionary still. and casually argued. Psychological anthropology was a major theme in her work from her first full-scale field study—of the Samoans in the mid-1920s. a categorization she would have found. child socialization.MARGARET MEAD 335 THE WORK As with any scholar who produces so vast and varied an output. even irresponsible. constrictive. Some of it was professional. She started a great many hares and she caught a number of them. careful. in any way serious. Even an attempt to demarcate the major areas. four areas seem to be those upon which the durability of her reputation will ultimately rest: psychological anthropology. concerned as it was with undermining the Sturm und Drang conception of adolescence—to her last. save perhaps she herself. and the family. in which Mead made her main contributions is likely to prove controversial. And some of it was extraordinarily fine. ethnographic method. applied anthropology. she wrote (certainly. momentarily useful at best. from a detached perspective. Some of it was clearly hasty. has read and for some time to come will read some of it. the . and toward the end of her life increasingly did find. no simple verdict is possible concerning the overall quality of Mead's work. even everything professional. beyond Oceanic ethnography as such. It is doubtful that any anthropologist. Some of it was routine. which now would perhaps be called women's studies. and a complex of concerns centering around gender roles. before all others. a modest but genuine addition to knowledge. I have not). page-filling at worst. banal. Nevertheless.

that represented by Growing Up in New Guinea. and the subject of one of her very last papers. optimistic). 88—139. The second area. It took her into a large number of government-related "policy science" activities. with its attack on fixed stages of cognitive growth (the children were "realists. once unconscious of their role. reserved. now fully aware of it" (New Lives for Old. in which particular cultural mechanisms (teasing." the adults "animists"). G. and American studies. "The Evocation of Psychologically Relevant Responses in Ethnological Field Work" (in ed. especially in the Manus. in which proposed universalities of psychological functioning were up-ended by particular counter-cases. the second from a rather mechanical conception of the relation between child socialization and adult character. If the first of these suffered from a tendency toward thesis driving. Balinese. in which entire societies (Russian. suppressed rage). American) were characterized in psychological terms (paranoid. Berkeley: University of California Press).336 BIOGRAPHICAL MEMOIRS return to Manus in the mid-1960s. a retrospective summary piece published posthumously in 1979. usually referred to as "culture and personality" research. Spindler. and the third from a certain over-ambitiousness. as well as by the Samoan study. taken together they established. usually referred to as "national character" work. where the subject was "[the] strange emergence of a group of erstwhile savages twice upon the world stage. The Making of Psychological Anthropology. There were essentially three overlapping phases of this work: first. the foundations for virtually all subsequent work in this area. French. the second. determined as she was to make her science serve human needs. pp. 186). including the direction. and the third. applied anthropology. was in many ways Mead's dominant concern. swaddling) were sought out to account for particular psychological traits (affectlessness. as executive secretary. of The Committee .

pure and simple. education. aging. . American foreign policy." Mead was totally committed (as her other mentor. for example. Her practical interests pervade all her work and determine its fundamental direction. Her concern continued after the war and contributed to the enactment of the Child Nutrition Act of 1978.MARGARET MEAD 337 on Food Habits of the National Research Council during World War II. entirely passionate. Mead's concern with methodological matters was with her from the beginning." and. just like the others. as she became prominent. . intellectual daughter of Franz Boas that she was. was not) to the view that anthropology was or ought to be a science. in 1944. child care. women's rights. to "stimulate . Her foundation." "intuitive. . as "impressionistic. . the generation gap. but it was powerfully stimulated by attacks on her. Most of her methodological discussions and enterprises came in reaction to accusations that it. . and nuclear disarmament all came— and repeatedly—under her gaze. technological development of Third World countries. xvi). she had useful things. or anyway . is only the clearest expression of the centrality of the applied dimension in Mead's conception of what she was about: "building a new world . to say about all of them. most likely to affect intercultural and international relations. halfmoralist. research ." and to which she dedicated the greater part of her sizeable income. Five days before her death she sent a "Dear Jimmy" telegram to President Carter from her hospital bed urging him to sign it. drug abuse. of The Institute of Intercultural Studies. marital relations. nicely provocative. novel and challenging." "subjective. "unscientific. mental health. half-ethnographic. through a disciplined science of human relations" (Balinese Character. environmentalism. And (some rather too quotable remarks aside). to her the most painful cut of all. . Race conflict. Ruth Benedict.

a half-million items in all—probably constitute the fullest and most open record of an ethnographer's work practices extant). was anything less than thoroughly objective. timed observations ("There are two sorts of anthropologists." she once said. At various points she experimented with several forms of psychological testing—projective. film analysis. to me. and projective testing is not much now in fashion. Her search for new and better methods was relentless. with modes of language learning and language use. pointedly. and literary study that she called "culture at a distance. expatriate interviewing.338 BIOGRAPHICAL MEMOIRS she. "'they' use it to show that I'm not to be trusted. and perhaps most extensively with photography and with that original combination of documentary research. "'talking' anthropologists and 'looking' anthropologists: I'm a 'looking' anthropologist. IQ. Even Gregory Bateson was. Piagetian." she once complained to me.") With a candor and bravery not otherwise matched in social anthropology—and certainly not by her whitecoated critics."). logically rigorous. ("Each time I write something about 'how I really do it'. But the vigor with which she pursued the most intractable problems of ethnographic method and the great impact her . who tend to shoot at her from behind oneway mirrors— Mead continuously exposed her field procedures to full view and evaluation (her papers deposited in the Library of Congress—letters. or so at least he said to me." Some of these efforts were more successful than others. resolutely empirical. field notes. unconvinced of some of Mead's claims for the probative value of their photographic work. with the analysis of children's play and children's paintings. Even a sympathetic observer must cock a quizzical eye at the oddly phrased claim (in her vita) that "she has had to learn to use seven primitive languages". manuscripts. with life-history recording. with hyper-behaviorist.

and her granddaughter. As for the complex of issues centering around the family. sexuality. if not intimately at least live and in color. gender. family. gender roles. lifelong friendships with a number of extraordinarily talented professional and artistic women. her sisters. socialization. deeply intimate relationship with Ruth Benedict. the marital dominance of Tchambuli women. in her college-formed. all of it heartfelt.'" Professionally. her daughter. childhood. they were more deeply rooted in Mead's unusually complex personal life than any other aspect of her work: in her relation to her mother. But all in all she probably wrote more on marriage. for someone who knew her. . most of it controversial. and the emotional inconstancy of Balinese mothers. with its vive la difference. She escapes most categories and mocks the rest. in her long-term. and the status of women.MARGARET MEAD 339 experiments and reflections have had upon research practice in general are hardly to be denied. to each his or her own. THE PERSON Trying to sum up Margaret Mead in a few considered and professional pages is. told Joan Howard) "played a considerable role in getting us all so preoccupied with 'fulfillment. point of view. Finally—in her ambiguous relations in the last years of her life with the reborn feminist movement in the United States—Mead was acclaimed by some as a heroine who had made it in a man's world on her own terms. and child-raising than on any other set of issues—much of it influential. the culmination of this concern was her 1949 Male and Female. a bit like trying to inscribe the Bible—or perhaps the Odyssey—on the head of a pin. her grandmother. in her earliest investigations into the erotic freedom of Samoan girls. an ennemie amicale for many years. Yet she was derided by others as a "Queen Bee" and an "Aunt Tom" who (as Betty Friedan.

project outlines. My wife and I. The first is of going with my then wife. extolling its possibilities for free spirits such as we imagined ourselves to be. She was en route to India for some sort of World Conference on some . we then went up to her. young women she collected about her in the tower as aides of allwork. hundreds of people half-shrouded in heat and dust. leaning authoritatively on a stick. to see her in 1950. We left commanded. and there standing." I didn't even approach her but went to find my wife ("Come and look. photographs. Hildred Geertz. Although she did not know of us before (the appointment had been arranged by one of those. suddenly parts. she spent the entire afternoon showing us her notes. The other memory is from seven years later. journeymen now. this is the way it will happen—hallucinating Margaret. I am down toward the burning ground a half mile away where it will end. in a desperate attempt to "cover" it—the enormous. I thought: "If an anthropologist goes mad in the field. are in a very small village on the Balinese coast. when she was at the height of her celebrity. is Margaret Mead. as in a deMille movie. tumbling crowd. and practically commanding us to enter it. At the climax of this extravaganza—my wife is up by the palace where the procession will begin. telling us about the field (and some of the leading personalities in it!). You're not going to believe this") so as to have a reality check on what I thought I was seeing. We have been there for a week or so observing a gigantic cremation being held by some relatives of the family with whom we were living. who happened to be a friend of ours). also famous. Reassured it was indeed she.340 BIOGRAPHICAL MEMOIRS My own most vivid memories are two. so remote it cannot be reached by automobile. in the famous tower in the American Museum to ask whether a philosophy major and an English major from a small Ohio college where the subject was not even taught ought to become anthropologists.

the field should be. the art dealer even more quietly answering. She departed. in the island capital. by the then deserted Sanur beach (Sukarno was about to throw the Dutch out and virtually all Europeans had left the island). too. we silently listening. I am absolutely astonished (and wildly grateful) that she ever existed in the first place. The cliche with which memorials of this sort used ritually to end was. and. had gone to where we were permanently staying. She apologized: She knew anthropologists don't like other anthropologists to intrude into their field sites. We accepted. whom she had known for years and whom it would be good for us to meet. where there was a local Javanese art dealer married to a Balinese. Margaret quietly asking. three days hence. strange and beautiful. found out where we had gone.MARGARET MEAD 341 sort of World Problem. She had come only to invite us to dinner." For my part. hobbling back to the main road where her car was waiting. "We shall not look upon her like again. . had walked in on her notoriously bad ankles in the mid-day heat to find us. So. The dinner was as useful as promised.

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