ANG 160 Fall 2005
(by Dominique Hétu)
Margaret Mead, a citizen of the world, an accomplished anthropologist and scientist, played an important role in the development of American society by doing various studies on Aboriginal nations from all around the world. Indeed, the ambitious and hard-working woman travelled the planet and merged science with humanism so that “Americans might better understand themselves”(AMNH). While exploring primitive cultures such as Arapesh, Mundugumor and Tchambuli, she vouched for the malleability of human nature and openly looked at the world, giving answers to universal problems. As a result, Mead enabled us to understand how complex human beings are.
Born in 1901, Mead grew up in Philadelphia with intellectual parents who
introduced her to the concept of cross-cultural communication and awoke in her a
great interest in cultural differences. Consequently, she opted for a career in
anthropology and became a very influential activist in education, ecology,
environment and women’s movement. Soon she was able to use science for a
social and humanist purpose and became a grandmotherly figure for many Americans.
In other words, what made her work so available was her capacity to generalize
the scientific information she obtained from her studies. Margaret Mead
therefore played an important role in the evolution of many Americans’
intercultural competence with concepts such as the “national character”:
characteristics, traits and beliefs of a people that are distinctly theirs.
Although Mead published many best-sellers about America’s culture,
primitive societies and youth development within various third-world countries,
she was very criticized. For example, her first bestseller Coming of Age in
Samoa, published in 1928, described her study of adolescence and sex in the
Samoan primitive society, an aboriginal people living in New Guinea. As a result,
she was despised and harshly blamed for supposedly writing a sex book. Still,
Mead never really cared about critics and answered back to them with books and
articles that compared cultures from around the world to better explain and
understand the American behaviour. But as a teacher, a lecturer, a writer, a
mother, grandmother and wife, Mead’s life experiences added to her credibility
as an American woman and anthropologist working in a male dominant field.
Doubtlessly, she proved how important it was to fight for one’s individual
rights and, equally important, for gender equality.
As previously mentioned, Mead worked on the problem of gender. In 1963, after studying intelligence and race, she proved that “the most powerful influence on man’s mental achievement appears to be his culture.”(Cassidy) These studies were a response to those who claimed superiority according to their sex and whiteness of skin. Mead said that arbitrary characteristics such as skin colour or physique were at the center of the meaning of prejudice and that it was through the process of learning that racism would be overcome. She also had opinions on various moral issues. For instance, she wrote about sexual mores, the right to die, civil disobedience, the importance and meaning of the family as an institution, abortion and legalization of drugs. In fact, this leading anthropologist never missed an occasion to shake people up when speaking of such important social matters. She felt it was a necessity and a duty to develop and innovate the “national character” and one’s intercultural competence.
Finally, an eternal optimist, Mead worked until a few days before her death, in 1975. Besides her unconditional devotion to her family, friends and fans from all over the planet, her numerous writings have helped to shape the American family, identity and role in the world. As a talented anthropologist, scientist, philosopher, mother and woman, Margaret Mead made social progress a possible thing in America despite the horrible events and historical disasters she had witnessed.
Cassidy, Robert. Margaret Mead: A Voice for the Century. New-York: Universe Books, 1982.
“Margaret Mead.” American Museum of National History. 5 October 2005. 8 October 2005
Mead, Margaret. Coming of Age in Samoa: A Psychologycal Study of Primitive Youth for Western Civilization. New-York: New American Library, 1949.