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Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 678

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This is the grave of Margaret Mead.

Born in 1901 in Philadelphia, Mead grew up in a pretty wealthy family. Her father was a finance professor at the Wharton School at UPenn. She went to college for a year at DePauw before transferring to Barnard, where she finished her undergraduate degree in 1923. She then moved to Columbia to study anthropology under Franz Boas and Ruth Benedict. In 1925, she went to Samoa for her fieldwork and soon became one of the most famous anthropologists in history.

While in Samoa, Mead explored the rearing of children in those societies, which was published in 1928 as Coming of Age in Samoa. In it, she engaged in pioneering studies of gender and family. It was a huge sensation in the academic world, one of the first books of anthropology of its kind. Boas wrote of the significance of even studying a society without the blinders of a universal right guiding you:

Courtesy, modesty, good manners, conformity to definite ethical standards are universal, but what constitutes courtesy, modesty, very good manners, and definite ethical standards is not universal. It is instructive to know that standards differ in the most unexpected ways.

Oh, yes, this was also her dissertation. She received her Ph.D. after the book’s publication, in 1929. Part of what she wanted to get across in her work is that the so-called “civilized” world was no more advanced or better than the so-called “primitive” world and in fact there was lots that rich western nations could learn from tribal societies.

Her 1935 book Sex and Temperament in Three Primitive Societies, which is a book title that is obviously condescending and unusable by today’s standards but certainly not 85 years ago, was also a major work. In this, she studied peoples of the Sepik basin in Papua New Guinea and noted that having women in charge of society led to no actual problems that having men in charge did not. She noted in these people a sharing of garden plots, a lack of war as a centerpiece of culture, and both men and women sharing in the raising of children. This was hardly the case across the region, but her work was critical in finding a different way of living than most of human societies. Other books included Growing Up in New Guinea, published in 1930, in which she pushed back very hard on the western notion that people in tribal societies were like children and needed western paternalism; Balinese Character: A Photographic Analysis, from 1942; and Continuities in Cultural Evolution, from 1964.

Mead also led research intended to show that the popular belief that race and intelligence was intertwined was in fact racist and not based in science. She convinced the American Jewish Committee to do studies of shehtls in Europe by doing oral histories and interviews of people who had immigrated from them to New York City. During World War II, Mead headed the National Research Council’s Committee on Food Habits. She was also involved, as were many in her generation, in Cold War research, when she worked for RAND in the late 40s to study Russian cultural traditions around authority.

Between 1942 and 1969, she was first assistant curator and then curator of the American Museum of Natural History’s ethnology department. In fact, she had worked for the museum in various capacities going all the way back to 1926. She taught at The New School and Columbia for decades as an adjunct, not really needing a permanent position. From 1968-70, she took a job at Fordham University to start and then chair their new anthropology department. And then in 1970, she became a distinguished professor at a little school called the University of Rhode Island. In my nearly decade here, I had never heard of this. A lot of her later work was on children and child raising. She was president of the Society for Applied Anthropology in 1950 and the American Anthropological Association in 1960. She, along with other scholars, tried to create a universal graphic symbol language that would allow members of any culture to communicate, which to me seems like a sort of Tower of Babel attempt that could never work. She also coined the term “semiotics,” for which we can perhaps blame her for generations of opaque academic analysis and jargon-filled papers no one can understand.

Mead was highly influential on Benjamin Spock, who happened to be her pediatrician. He integrated her insights on child rearing in other cultures to his works on the issue that were so definitional in postwar education. There has been a lot of speculation about Mead’s sexuality. She was married three times but also had very close relationships with women that many have speculated were sexual. I am not particularly interested in this side of people’s lives, but figured I’d mention it. She did however suggest in her writings that people’s sexual identity could change through life. She was a constant media figure, even recording a couple of albums of her speaking. She fully embraced being a public intellectual at a time when that was not so common. That includes writing a 1971 book with James Baldwin, A Rap on Race. Other late life books include a biography of her teacher (and quite possibly lover) the pioneering anthropologist Ruth Benedict, from 1974; her autobiography titled Blackberry Winter, from 1972; and a selection of her letters from her early research days in Samoa, Letters from the Field, from 1977. In her later career, she remained involved in all sorts of issues, not only in her specialty, but on environmental issues, the anti-nuclear movement, and whatever else sparked her interest. Her motto, which is now a liberal bumper sticker cliche, was “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world.” True enough, contemporary cliche notwithstanding.

Sure, much of Mead’s research has come under criticism from later scholars, but who is this not the case for who was working so long ago. Yes, she was a cultural determinist and no, a lot of that may not hold up now. But really, there’s nothing too wrong with that. If only my work was relevant and good enough to be contested by scholars long after my death!

Margaret Mead died in 1978, at the age of 76, of pancreatic cancer. President Jimmy Carter awarded her a posthumous Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1979.

Margaret Mead is buried in Trinity Episcopal Church Cemetery, Buckingham, Pennsylvania.

This grave visit was sponsored by LGM readers. Many thanks! If you would like this series to visit more anthropologists, you can donate to cover the required expenses here. Ruth Benedict is in Norwich, New York and Franz Boas is in Ossining, New York. Previous posts in this series are archived here.

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