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social sciences

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Mead, Margaret (1901-1978)  
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One of the most prominent American anthropologists of her generation, Margaret Mead was respected within the profession and well known to the general public through her popularizing writings.

Early Life and Education

In her work Mead observed and analyzed the structures of various societies, giving particular attention to the family, child-rearing practices, and the roles of men and women. Ironically, her own family life was rather unorthodox, and this very public commentator about the lives and practices of others kept her own bisexuality a closely guarded secret.

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Mead came from a family in which education was valued. Her parents, Edward Mead and Emily Fogg Mead, were both college graduates. Edward Mead became a professor of economics at the Wharton School of Commerce of the University of Pennsylvania.

Margaret Mead, the oldest of the couple's five children, was born in Philadelphia on December 16, 1901. With the strong encouragement of her family, especially her mother and her grandmother Martha Mead, she became an excellent student. She hoped to attend Wellesley College as her mother had, but due to financial considerations she enrolled instead at DePauw University, her father's alma mater, in 1919.

After a year she was able to transfer to Barnard College in New York City. There she took a course with the eminent anthropologist Franz Boas and also encountered Ruth Benedict, then Boas's teaching assistant, who would achieve prominence in the field herself. Benedict was a mentor to Mead. The two women also became devoted lifelong friends.

When Mead proposed to go to the South Pacific to do fieldwork, Boas tried to dissuade her, citing the arduousness and potential danger of such a project, especially for a woman. Supported by Benedict, Mead prevailed and set off for Samoa in 1925.

Coming of Age in Samoa

Her research, published as Coming of Age in Samoa (1928), was groundbreaking in that it focused on women, specifically young women making the transition to adulthood. The best-selling book helped to establish Mead's reputation and quickly became a standard work in the emerging field of anthropology.

After Mead's death Derek Freeman attacked the book--and Mead--in Margaret Mead and Samoa: The Making and Unmaking of an Anthropological Myth (1983). Freeman made a splash in the popular press and on the talk-show circuit with his intemperate charges that Mead was duped by informants who gave her incorrect information when she interviewed them, and that her depiction of and conclusions about Samoan society were inaccurate.

While the debate continues, most anthropologists continue to view Coming of Age in Samoa as a classic, while acknowledging that it has some flaws, primarily caused by Mead's youth and inexperience. Several have also made the point that it is important to consider the book as a product of its time and to view it in the context of the history of anthropology, especially as a product of the Boas school of anthropology.

Marriages and Career

Mead had married Luther Cressman, an Episcopal minister who later became an archeologist, in 1923. In defiance of convention Mead retained her own surname. The marriage seems to have been based more on shared humanitarian ideals than on love or sexual attraction.

During a sea voyage to Europe after her year in Samoa, Mead met and fell in love with Reo Fortune, a psychologist from New Zealand, whom she married in 1928 after divorcing Cressman. The second marriage was at times tumultuous and foundered when Mead met anthropologist Gregory Bateson, whom she married in 1935 after her second divorce. Although the marriage to Bateson was the happiest of the three, it also ended in divorce, in 1950.

Mead's career was an active one. She made numerous fieldwork trips to New Guinea and also studied the society of Bali. She stressed the need for objectivity when observing other cultures in order to avoid imposing the views and values of one's own society upon the people being studied. She challenged readers to consider different cultural patterns and to realize that other models may be as valid as the more familiar ones.

Stephen O. Murray credits Mead as "a pioneer in team ethnography and in the use of photography." One of her books, Balinese Character: A Photographic Analysis (1942), co-authored with Bateson, reflects both of these interests.

Mead joined the staff of the American Museum of Natural History in New York as an assistant curator in 1926 and remained with the museum for the rest of her life, rising to associate curator and curator of ethnology and being named curator emeritus upon her retirement. Over the years she also held visiting lecturerships at many universities throughout the United States and in England and Australia.

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