The Institute for Intercultural Studies

MARGARET MEAD (1901-1978)
An Anthropology of Human Freedom

Biography | Bibliography | 2001 Centennial

Margaret and her brother, Richard, Nantucket1911. (Mead Archives, Library of Congress.)

When Margaret Mead died in 1978, she was the most famous anthropologist in the world. Indeed, it was through her work that many people learned about anthropology and its holistic vision of the human species.

Mead was born in Philadelphia on December 16, 1901 in a household of social scientists with roots in the Midwest. Her major at Barnard was psychology, but she went on to earn a doctorate at Columbia, studying with Franz Boas and Ruth Benedict. For her, anthropology was an urgent calling, a way to bring new understandings of human behavior to bear on the future. In 1925 she set out for American Samoa, where she did her first field work, focusing on adolescent girls, and in 1929 she went, accompanied by her second husband, Reo Fortune, to Manus Island in New Guinea, where she studied the play and imaginations of younger children and the way they were shaped by adult society.

With a Samoan woman, 1925-6. (Mead Archives, Library of Congress.)

The Samoan work, published as Coming of Age in Samoa, became a best seller and has been translated into many languages. This work presented to the public for the first time the idea that the individual experience of developmental stages could be shaped by cultural demands and expectations, so that adolescence might be more or less stormy and sexual development more or less problematic in different cultures. It was addressed above all to educators, affirming that the “civilized” world had something to learn from the “primitive.” The Manus work, published as Growing Up in New Guinea, effectively refuted the notion that “primitive” peoples are “like children.” Different developmental stages, and the relationships between them, need to be studied in every culture. Mead was thus the first anthropologist to look at human development in a cross-cultural perspective.

In subsequent field work, on mainland New Guinea, she demonstrated that gender roles differed from one society to another, depending at least as much on culture as on biology, and in her work in Bali with her third husband, Gregory Bateson, she explored new ways of documenting the connection between childrearing and adult culture, and the way in which these are symbolically interwoven. She and Gregory Bateson had one child, Mary Catherine Bateson.

Mead and husband Gregory Bateson doing field research in Papua, New Guinea, in 1938. (Mead Archives, Library of Congress.)

As an anthropologist, Mead had been trained to think in terms of the interconnection of all aspects of human life. The production of food cannot be separated from ritual and belief, and politics cannot be separated from childrearing or art. This holistic understanding of human adaptation allowed Mead to speak out on a very wide range of issues. She affirmed the possibility of learning from other groups, above all by applying the knowledge she brought back from the field to issues of modern life. Thus, she insisted that human diversity is a resource, not a handicap, that all human beings have the capacity to learn from and teach each other. Her delight in learning from others showed in the way she was able to address the public with affection and respect.

When World War II cut off field research in the South Pacific, Mead and Benedict pioneered the application of anthropological techniques to the study of contemporary cultures, founding the Institute for Intercultural Studies. Then, in her most sustained post-war field work, Mead returned to Manus in 1953 to study the dramatic changes made in response to exposure to a wider world. Reported in New Lives for Old, this research offered a new basis for her insistence on the possibility of choosing among possible futures. In a society becoming increasingly pessimistic about the human capacity to change, she insisted on the importance of enhancing and supporting that capacity. She believed that cultural patterns of racism, warfare, and environmental exploitation were learned, and that the members of a society could work together to modify their traditions and to construct new institutions. This conviction drew her into discussions of the process of change, expressed in the slogan, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world.”

Field trip to Manus, Papua New Guinea,1953-4. (Mead Archives, Library of Congress.)

Mead taught at a number of institutions, but her long term professional base was at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City. She authored some twenty books and coauthored an equal number. She was much honored in her lifetime, serving as president of major scientific associations, including the American Anthropological Association and the American Association for the Advancement of Science, and she received 28 honorary doctorates. She was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom following her death in 1978. Her voluminous archives are now housed in the Library of Congress.

For more on the life and writings of Margaret Mead, see our Resources page for a list of books and films by and about Mead and her work.

MARGARET MEAD: Biography | Bibliography | 2001 Centennial
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Thank you for your interest in the Institute for Intercultural Studies . We encourage you to use this website to connect to the many resources available to answer your inquiry about Margaret Mead, Gregory Bateson and their intellectual legacy.  However, The Institute for Intercultural Studies, founded by Margaret Mead in 1944, has closed its doors as of December 31, 2009; no further contact information is available.  For contact about permissions please see the Publishing Permission or Literary Rights section of the website.

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All rights reserved. Mead/Bateson photo ©Fred Roll.