Margaret Mead was one of the pioneers of American cultural anthropology and feminism in the second half of the 20th century. Among other things, he studied how social norms about sexuality, childhood and adolescence differ between different cultures; which has served to challenge the biological perspectives that have dominated the understanding of human development.
In this article we will see the biography of Margaret Mead, Some of his contributions to American anthropological thought, as well as the work with which he has been recognized as one of the most representative representatives of contemporary social sciences.
Margaret Mead: biography of a pioneer of anthropology and gender
Margaret Mead (1901-1978) was a cultural anthropologist who maintained an important gender perspective in her studies, so she is also considered one of the forerunners of the American feminist movement.
She was born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania and was the oldest of 4 siblings. Although his parents were also social scientists, they had greatly inspired his professional career, Mead defined as his most decisive influence his paternal grandmother, Whom he recognized as a very autonomous woman.
In 1923, Margaret Mead graduated from Barnard College, a women’s school affiliated with Columbia University. He had studied most of his subjects in psychology, a career which interested him greatly and which prompted him to study child development.
He then trained with Franz Boas, professor of anthropology at Columbia, and was eventually convinced to study and practice this discipline. He received his doctorate in anthropology in 1929 from Columbia University.
The Academic World and the Private Life of Margaret Mead
One of Margaret Mead’s beliefs was that cultural conditions are more determining than genetic characteristics in human behavior; which quickly led to the analysis of gender roles and human development.
From there, he compared various cultures considered “primitive” with American culture. Considering the current cultural conditions in the American West, his thinking was very innovative, although at the same time he received negative responses.
In general terms, Mead had a very liberal outlook on sexuality, which was visible not only in his academic work, but in his relationship experiences. In other words, her academic and private perspective was very close to cultural relativism and moral relativism on sexuality, which also placed her at the center of many moralistic critiques and controversies in academia.
Despite this, her academic rigor quickly made her a prestigious woman. She joined the American Museum of Natural History in New York as a curator, and taught at Columbia University, New York University, Emory University, Yale University and the University of Cincinnati. He eventually founded the Department of Anthropology at Fordham University.
She also became president of the American Anthropological Association, among other well-known institutes of applied anthropology. Among other things, he promoted the creation of a national archive of ethnographic films that would serve to preserve the important work and anthropological heritage.
Human development and gender roles in New Guinea
During his work, Mead refuted the idea of ”primitive” societies, where people were seen as children, or as if they were genetically determined to develop “less advanced” psychological states. She argued that human development depends on the social environment.
From there, Mead observed that gender roles were very different between different societies, leading to the conclusion that these roles depend much more on culture than on biology.
He made it visible, for example, that women were dominant in some tribes of Papua New Guinea, Without causing social problems. There were tribes where women and men were more pacifist and lived in more cooperative societies than American society, for example in Arapesh.
In other tribes, such as the Tchambuli, men and women had different, but vastly different roles from Westerners. Men were closer to the realm of the sane, and women ran public activities.
The opposite has been found in companies like Mundugumor, Where he saw that men and women had developed more explosive and confrontational temperaments, so that children were also being educated harder.
By purchasing studies among these companies, Mead came to the conclusion that culture shapes human behavior. Hence one of his most famous phrases: “human nature is malleable”.
For Mead, masculinity and femininity reflect cultural conditionsAnd the differences between the sexes are not entirely determined by biology. Her take on gender roles was very radical for her time and helped break down many taboos around mid-20th century sexuality in American society.
Although she did not call herself a “feminist,” her theoretical developments not only impacted academia, but she was quickly recognized as an activist and pioneer of the feminist movement.
He defended the freedom of sexual practices, criticize traditional family structures, Parenting based on asymmetric gender models, and finally, pushed for the transformation of sexual values linked to sexuality.
Some of his main works are Coming of Age in Samoa, a 1928 book that resulted from his doctoral thesis where mainly studied adolescent girls from the Polynesian islands in relation to the rules on sexuality circulating here. Additionally, he drew comparisons on coming of age with American culture and the emotional effects on young people.
With this work, Mead is positioned as one of the great influences of anthropology of his time. He then studied the relationship between childhood, adolescence and American families, emphasizing the value of comparative and interdisciplinary work.
Other important works include Growing Up in New Guinea: A Comparative Study of Early Education; and the film Trance and Dance in Bali, Learning to Dance in Bali and The Early Years of Karba. Margaret Mead has also been involved in other film productions which addressed the theme of different caring and parenting practices in different cultures.
- Bowman-Kruhm, M. (2003). Margaret Mead, a biography. Greenwood Press: London.
- New World Encyclopedia. (2014). Margaret Mead. New World Encyclopedia. Accessed May 16, 2018. Available at http://www.newworldencyclopedia.org/entry/Margaret_Mead.
- Streeter, L. (2016). Margaret Mead. Cultural equality. Accessed May 16, 2018. Available at http://www.culturalequity.org/alanlomax/ce_alanlomax_profile_margaret_mead.php.