Margaret Mead, 1901-1978: She Influenced Understanding of Native Cultures

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Welcome to PEOPLE IN AMERICA from VOA Special English.  Today, Sarah Long and Rich Kleinfeldt tell about one of the most influential social scientists of the last century -- the anthropologist Margaret Mead.

People around the world mourned when Margaret Mead died in nineteen seventy-eight.  The president of the United States at the time, Jimmy Carter, honored the social scientist with America's highest award for civilians.  Another honor came from a village in New Guinea.  The people there planted a coconut tree in her memory.  Margaret Mead would have liked that.  As a young woman, she had studied the life and traditions of the village.

Ms. Mead received such honors because she added greatly to public knowledge of cultures and traditions in developing areas. Many people consider her the most famous social-science researcher of the Twentieth Century.  Yet some experts say her research was not scientific.  They say she depended too much on observation and local stories.  They say she did not spend enough time on comparative studies.  They believe her fame resulted as much from her colorful personality as from her research.


Margaret Mead was often the object of heated dispute.  She shared her strong opinions about social issues.  She denounced the spread of nuclear bombs.  She spoke against racial injustice. She strongly supported women's rights.  Throughout her life she enjoyed taking a risk.  Ms. Mead began her studies of cultures in an unusual way for a woman of her time.  She chose to perform her research in the developing world.

She went to an island village in the Pacific Ocean.  She went alone.  The year was nineteen twenty-five.  At that time, young American women did not travel far away from home by themselves.  They did not ask personal questions of strangers.  They did not observe births and deaths unless they were involved in medical work.  Margaret Mead did all those things.

Margaret Mead was born in December, nineteen-oh-one, in the city of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.  Her parents were educators.   Few  women attended college in those days.  However, Ms. Mead began her studies in nineteen nineteen at De Pauw University in the middle western town of Greencastle, Indiana.  She soon decided that living in a small town did not improve one's mind. So she moved to New York City to study at Barnard College.  There she studied English and psychology.  She graduated in nineteen twenty-three.

Margaret next decided to study anthropology at Columbia University in New York.  She wanted to examine the activities and traditions of different societies.  She sought to add to knowledge of human civilization.   At the same time, she got married.  Her husband, Luther Cressman, planned to be a clergyman.  Together, they began the life of graduate students.

Ms. Mead studied with two famous anthropologists: Franz Boas and Ruth Benedict.  Mr. Boas believed that the environment people grow up in -- not family genes -- was the cause of most cultural differences among people.  This belief also influenced his young student.  Mr. Boas was not pleased when Margaret Mead asked to do research in Samoa.  He was concerned for her safety.   Still, he let her go.  Franz Boas told her to learn about the ways in which the young women of Samoa were raised.

Margaret's husband went to Europe to continue his studies.  She went -- alone -- to Samoa, in the Pacific Ocean. She worked among the people of Tau Island.  The people spoke a difficult language.  Their language had never been written. Luckily, she learned languages easily.

Ms. Mead investigated the life of Samoan girls.  She was not much older than the girls she questioned.  She said their life was free of the anger and rebellion found among young people in other societies.  She also said Samoan girls had sexual relations with anyone they wanted.  She said their society did not urge them to love just one man.  And she said their society did not condemn sex before marriage.

Margaret Mead said she reached these beliefs after nine months of observation on Samoa.  They helped make her book about Samoa one of the best-selling books of the time.  Ms. Mead was just twenty-five years old when this happened.

Several social scientists later disputed her findings.  In a recent book, Derek Freeman says Ms. Mead made her observations from just a few talks with two friendly young women.  He says they wanted to tell interesting stories to a foreign visitor. However, he says their stories were not necessarily true.  Mr. Freeman says Samoan society valued a young woman who had not had sexual relations.  He says Tau Island men refused to marry women who had had sex.

After nine months among the Samoans, Ms. Mead returned to the United States.  She met a psychology student from New Zealand, Reo Fortune, on the long trip home.  Her marriage to Luther Cressman ended.  She married Mr. Fortune in nineteen twenty-seven.  Ms. Mead and her second husband went to New Guinea to work together.  It would be the first of seven trips that she would make to the area in the next forty-seven years.

The two observed the people of Manus Island, one of the Admiralty Islands, near mainland New Guinea.  They thought the people were pleasant.  After a while, though, she and her husband had no more tobacco to trade.  Then the people of Manus Island stopped giving them fish.

Later the two studied the Mundugumor people of New Guinea.  Ms. Mead reported that both the men and women were expected to be aggressive.  Only a few years before, tribe members had given up head-hunting.  Traditionally they had cut off the heads of their enemies.  Mundugumor parents also seemed to be cruel to their children. They carried their babies in stiff baskets.  They did not answer the needs of the babies when they cried.  Instead, they hit the baskets with sticks until the babies stopped crying.

Not long after the New Guinea trip ended, Margaret Mead's marriage to Reo Fortune also ended.  In nineteen thirty-six, she married for the third time.  Her new husband was Gregory Bateson, a British biologist.  Mr. Bateson and Ms. Mead decided to work together on the island of Bali, near Java in Indonesia.  The people of Bali proudly shared their rich culture and traditions with the visitors.  Ms. Mead observed and recorded their activities. Mr. Bateson took photographs.  The Batesons had a daughter.  They seemed like a fine team.  Yet their marriage ended in the late nineteen forties.

As time went on, Margaret Mead's fame continued to grow.  Her books sold very well.  She also wrote for popular magazines. She appeared on radio and television programs.   She spoke before many groups.  Americans loved to hear about her work in faraway places.  Ms. Mead continued to go to those places and report about the people who lived there.

After her trips, Margaret Mead always returned to the American Museum of Natural History in New York City.   She worked there more than fifty years.  She examined the research of others.  She guided and advised a number of anthropology students.  Ms. Mead worked in an office filled with ceremonial baskets and other objects from her studies and travels.  People said she ruled the museum like a queen.  They said Margaret Mead knew what she wanted from the work of others and knew how to get it.

Other scientists paid her a high honor when she was seventy-two years old.  They elected her president of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.  A few years later, she developed cancer.  But she continued to travel, speak and study almost to the end of her life.  One friend said: "Margaret Mead was not going to let a little thing like death stop her."  Margaret Mead died more than twenty years ago.  Yet people continue to discuss and debate her studies of people and cultures around the world.

This program was written by Jerilyn Watson and produced by Paul Thompson. The announcers were Sarah Long and Rich Kleinfeldt.  I'm Faith Lapidus.  Listen again next week for PEOPLE IN AMERICA, from VOA Special English.