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.

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

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

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

("this has been part of my own working life for forty-five years"2) the splendid Peoples of the Pacific Hall. op. Thomas. documentor. but hardly retired. 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. H. Finally. apparently by sheer insistence. It is a record. and exhibition designer she took extremely seriously.332 BIOGRAPHICAL MEMOIRS East Indies. . and nearly twenty altogether). p. cit. not insignificantly. contributed) funds. Although it took Columbia University until 1954 to bring itself to make her an adjunct professor. As early as 1926 she was appointed assistant curator of ethnology of the American Museum of Natural History in New York. like Malinowski's monograph Fleuve or Frazer's galactic compilation. an excellent review of this rather little known aspect of Mead's career. 357. in the South Pacific—and wrote substantial books (and numerous articles) about all of them. "Margaret Mead as a Museum Anthropologist. conservator. in 1969) until her death. which opened there in 1971. made hundreds of photographs and a number of films. all save the Omaha. Not that she was otherwise idle while accomplishing this. raised (and. she also taught: at 2 D. which emerged in 1956 as New Lives for Old: Cultural Transformation—Manus 1928-1953. she conducted a six-month restudy of Manus. neolithic. She added upwards of three thousand items to the Museum's inventory.. in 1953. and finally created. planned several dioramas. Bateson and Mead (1942). the essay in Balinese Character: A Photographic Analysis. Various short revisits to her sites aside (she made at least a half-dozen of them between 1964 and 1975 alone. and whose obligations as collector. unlikely to be broken. and curator emerita." American Anthropologist. producing perhaps her finest single study. a position she maintained (advancing to associate curator in 1942. curator in 1964.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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. most of it controversial. But all in all she probably wrote more on marriage. point of view. lifelong friendships with a number of extraordinarily talented professional and artistic women. family. 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. . childhood. and her granddaughter. gender roles. in her long-term. 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. She escapes most categories and mocks the rest. gender. THE PERSON Trying to sum up Margaret Mead in a few considered and professional pages is. to each his or her own. a bit like trying to inscribe the Bible—or perhaps the Odyssey—on the head of a pin. in her college-formed. As for the complex of issues centering around the family. if not intimately at least live and in color. with its vive la difference. her grandmother. socialization. for someone who knew her. all of it heartfelt. her daughter. sexuality. and the status of women.MARGARET MEAD 339 experiments and reflections have had upon research practice in general are hardly to be denied. deeply intimate relationship with Ruth Benedict. the marital dominance of Tchambuli women. her sisters. an ennemie amicale for many years.'" Professionally. Yet she was derided by others as a "Queen Bee" and an "Aunt Tom" who (as Betty Friedan. and the emotional inconstancy of Balinese mothers. in her earliest investigations into the erotic freedom of Samoan girls. told Joan Howard) "played a considerable role in getting us all so preoccupied with 'fulfillment.

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

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

Edwin R. (The American Museum of Natural History Guide Leaflet Series. The primitive child. 669-86. 65—67. Apollo Editions. Worcester. 9. New York: Random House. 1928 Coming of Age in Samoa: A Psychological Study of Primitive Youth for Western Civilization. (Columbia University Contributions to Anthropology. New York: Dell. pp. New York: Dell. Seligman and Alvin Johnson. 76.) Social organization of Manu'a. New York: New American Library.: Clark University Press. Am.) The Maoris and Their Arts. New York: AMS Press.. vol. ed.. pp. Blue Ribbon Books. New York: Macmillan. 6.342 BIOGRAPHICAL MEMOIRS SELECTED BIBLIOGRAPHY 1926 The methodology of racial testing: its significance for sociology.) New York: Columbia University Press. Mass. 1968.) 1931 Family primitive. New York: Morrow. Editions for the Armed Services No. 1961 (with new preface). Modern Library Books. (Reissued 1969. Council on Books in Wartime. Laurel Editions. (Reprinted in paperback 1969. 1930 Growing Up in New Guinea: A Comparative Study of Primitive Educa- tion. ed. New York: New American Library. New York: Doubleday. Laurel Editions. J. No. Bull.) New York: The American Museum of Natural History. 1943. New York: Morrow. New York: Doubleday. In: Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences. Mentor. 31(5): 657-67. Bernice P. Sociol. 1949. 1953. . A. vol. (Reprinted in paperback: 1933. 1953.) An Inquiry into the Question of Cultural Stability in Polynesia. 1968. 71. (Reprinted in paperback: 1932. New York: Morrow. New York: Morrow. Carl Murchison. Apollo Editions. Mentor. 1962 (with new preface). Blue Ribbon Books. 826. In: A Handbook of Child Psychology. Bishop Mus.

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66—87. pp. (Special publications of the New York Academy of Sciences. (Reprinted in paperback 1970. In: World Order: Its Intellectual and Cultural Foundations. Second Symposium.: Natural History Press. 61-81..) 1942 With Gregory Bateson. Human differences and world order. Philosophy and Religion in Their Relation to the Democratic Way of Life. Ruth Nanda Anshen.Y. Anthropol. 1945 How religion has fared in the melting pot. In: Religion in the PostWar World. Cambridge: Harvard University Press. Lyman Bryson and Louis Finkelstein.) And Keep Your Powder Dry: An Anthropologist Looks at America. N. J. Philosophy and Religion.Y. New York: Harper. In: The Encyclopedia of Psy- . pp. 1971. ed. Arts and Supernaturalism. Ernest Johnson. New York: Conference on Science. III: Religion and Our Racial Tensions. Apollo Editions. 2. Part 3: 319-451. New York: Morrow. ed. ed. New York: Harcourt. In: Beyond Victory. Willard L. Am. Personality. ed. Our educational emphases in primitive perspective. Am. In: Science. Supernaturalism. pp. Pap. Mus. American Museum Science Books B 19b. Sperry. (Reprinted in paperback 1965 (with new chapter).) New York: New York Academy of Sciences. N. 1943 The family in the future. 48:633-39.: Libraries Press. 40-51. 37.344 BIOGRAPHICAL MEMOIRS 1940 The mountain Arapesh. Garden City. Freeport. 1946 The American people. In: The World's Peoples and How They Live. the cultural approach to. F. pp. (Reissued 1962. Balinese Character: A Photographic Analysis. pp. Sociol. Hist.) The comparative study of culture and the purposive cultivation of democratic values. Nat. 143—63. 56 — 69. II. as The Mountain Arapesh II. Brace. New York: Morrow. London: Odhams Press..

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