Authors: Margaret Mead

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

American anthropologist

Author Works


Coming of Age in Samoa: A Psychological Study of Primitive Youth for Western Civilization, 1928

Social Organization of Manua, 1930

Growing Up in New Guinea: A Comparative Study of Primitive Education, 1930

The Changing Culture of an Indian Tribe, 1932

Sex and Temperament in Three Primitive Societies, 1935

Cooperation and Competition Among Primitive Societies, 1937

And Keep Your Powder Dry: An Anthropologist Looks at America, 1942

Balinese Character: A Photographic Analysis, 1942 (with Gregory Bateson)

Male and Female: A Study of the Sexes in a Changing World, 1949

Soviet Attitudes Toward Authority, 1951

The Golden Age of American Anthropology, 1960

Anthropology, A Human Science: Selected Papers, 1939-1960, 1964

Anthropologists and What They Do, 1965

Culture and Commitment: A Study of the Generation Gap, 1970

Letters from the Field, 1925-1975, 1977

Aspects of the Present, 1980 (with Rhoda Metraux)


Margaret Mead finished her undergraduate work at DePauw University and Barnard College and began graduate work at Columbia University in 1923. She was a student and lifelong friend of Ruth Benedict, another great American anthropologist. Even before finishing her Ph.D., Mead published what became a perennial best-seller, Coming of Age in Samoa: A Psychological Study of Primitive Youth for Western Civilization.{$I[AN]9810001705}{$I[A]Mead, Margaret}{$I[geo]WOMEN;Mead, Margaret}{$I[geo]UNITED STATES;Mead, Margaret}{$I[tim]1901;Mead, Margaret}

Margaret Mead

(Library of Congress)

Mead’s busy professional schedule and her absorption in her many projects left little time for family life. Her three marriages–one to a minister and two to fellow anthropologists–all ended in divorce.

Mead began her work among the primitive South Pacific societies as a graduate student. Her first field work, in Samoa from 1925 to 1926, was a study of the lives and development of adolescent girls. She enjoyed the encounter and continued to return to the South Pacific for other studies. She eventually became one of the world’s leading authorities on the peoples and cultures of Oceania. Her mastery of seven primitive languages made her welcome by most of the peoples of the South Pacific. Between 1928 and 1975 she engaged in ten long-term projects in New Guinea, her favored research area, and she included insights gained there in most of her publications and lectures.

Much of her most vibrant writing came from her research in the South Pacific islands. Her first and most popular book, Coming of Age in Samoa, was followed by Growing Up in New Guinea: A Comparative Study of Primitive Education and Sex and Temperament in Three Primitive Societies.

Mead taught and lectured at many prominent universities around the world. In the United States she taught at Stanford, the University of California, Harvard, Vassar, and Yale, to mention a few. To be accessible she used audience reactions to her lectures as a guide in formulating her views.

Mead’s varied activities and interests included a position as curator at the American Museum of Natural History from 1926 until she died. She was also active in many governmental and private projects in health and cultural affairs. Among her many awards was the Presidential Medal of Freedom, awarded posthumously.

Among anthropologists of her time, Mead was unusual because she was interested in all aspects of primitive cultures, including their relationship to the contemporary world. Some critics complained of her excursions outside anthropology into psychology and sociology, but her supporters argued that her attempts to supply a larger view made anthropology a more useful and exciting field of study.

Mead pioneered the use of photographs and films to record important aspects of behavior, and she used semiotics to analyze and interpret nonverbal communication, such as body movements and body signs. Her collaboration with Gregory Bateson, Balinese Character: A Photographic Analysis, is an excellent example of the use of photography for data collection. She also used ethnography to study Western culture for its anthropological values in an attempt to suggest solutions to pressing social and political problems. She lent the weight of her popularity to a variety of causes, including feminism and campaigns against alcoholism and world hunger. The essays collected in Aspects of the Present reflect her interest in controversial issues of her day.

Mead was always concerned with making her essays interesting and useful to the general reader. This tendency is evident in all her works. The popularity of Coming of Age in Samoa supports her claim that Americans could learn something about child-rearing from Samoan family practice. In Male and Female: A Study of the Sexes in a Changing World she applies her theories about primitive culture to contemporary American culture.

Mead was often at the center of controversy. Coming of Age in Samoa, while influential in promoting popular interest in cultural studies, at the same time aroused controversy for advocating a view of biological determinism as the foundation of culture. Another controversial area was her methodology of data collection and data analysis. Her meticulous observation and voluminous field notes are all subjective, intuitive, and, according to her critics, biased.

One of Mead’s harshest critics, Derek Freeman, has argued that because of faulty methodology Mead’s conclusions are necessarily unsound. Freeman charged that Mead’s conclusions were accepted because of her personality and persuasive writing skill. He maintained that Mead’s conclusions were neither soundly argued nor based on rigorous data collection and data analysis. Her supporters have pointed out, however, that Mead opened new ways of investigating cultures. She raised important questions that helped both scientists and the public think about important issues within complex psychological, social, and political contexts.

BibliographyBateson, Mary Catherine. With a Daughter’s Eye: A Memoir of Margaret Mead and Gregory Bateson. New York: HarperPerennial, 1994. Bateson looks back on her childhood and her anthropologist parents Margaret Mead and Gregory Bateson. This portrait sheds light on Mead’s achievements and stands alone as an important contribution for scholars of her work.Cassidy, Robert. Margaret Mead: A Voice of the Century. New York: Universe Books, 1992. Provides an understanding of the scope of Mead’s influence in the field of anthropology and elsewhere.Cote, James E. Adolescent Storm and Stress: An Evaluation of the Mead-Freeman Controversy. New York: L. Erlbaum Associates, 1994. A detailed account of the Mead-Freeman controversy.Foerstel, Lenora, and Angela Gilliam, eds. Confronting the Margaret Mead Legacy: Scholarship, Empire, and the South Pacific. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1992. This is a compilation of ten articles critiquing Mead’s anthropological achievements. Foerstel and Gilliam’s “Margaret Mead’s Contradictory Legacy” is particularly useful in its discussion of her entire career, including her long service in American intelligence agencies.Freeman, Derek. Margaret Mead and Samoa: The Making and Unmaking of an Anthropological Myth. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1983. An interesting aspect of Mead’s life is the controversies she generated. This work was written by her harshest critic.Holmes, Lowell Don. Quest for the Real Samoa: The Mead/Freeman Controversy and Beyond. Smith Hadley, Mass.: Bergin Garvey, 1987. A general discussion and analysis of the Mead-Freeman controversy.Howard, Jane. Margaret Mead: A Life. New York: Fawcett Columbine, 1990. A clear and comprehensive picture of Mead’s life.
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