It is fair to say that Margaret Mead is one of the most influential cultural anthropologists of the century gone by. Although some of her inferences have been proven to be flawed, she is a pioneer in the field who opened new vistas within the field of anthropology. In the documentary videos about her life and work perused for this essay, one could witness the key developments in anthropological study that she initiated. One could see in the videos, that Mead contributed immensely to not just the study of cultural anthropology retrospectively, but she played a role in creating new trends and fashions in her own era. In this view, Mead was a key figure who ushered the cultural upheavals in the American society of the 1960s. The ‘Hippies’ culture of this period was inspired by thoughts of such intellectuals as Mead, who were able to present anthropology from a feminist perspective.
In her early field work in remote islands in the South Pacific and Southeast Asia, Mead had documented the significance of face-to-face interactions, especially the crucial role that adults play in the lives of children, simply by virtue of their presence. Mead’s work on gender roles and behaviour in a society has withstood the scrutiny of time. For example, in the case of development of boys, by having regular contact with various kinds of men (some abrasive, some gentle, some caring, some others playful, some serious, some sporty, some cerebral, etc) boys get a well-rounded and empowering notion of what is possible in their own lives when they grow up. This is in contrast with the Boy Scouts of America’s rather narrow definition of proper masculinity, which causes more harm than help boys realize their full potential. For example,
“misogyny and homophobia are characteristic of mid-century definitions of masculinity in part because those definitions are oppositional: a man is manly because he is not womanly, or feminine, or subject to the male gaze. Opening masculinity up to different modes of behavior, including traditionally “feminine” ones, helps to define men in the context of what they are, not what they are not. Moving away from abstractions, and allowing boys the flexibility that we currently as a society claim to want for our girls, can only be for the good.” (Lanclos, 2010, p.341)
Mead’s studies showed the impact of culture upon nature, at a time when the pre-eminence of nature was still holding forte. She followed the precedence set by Franz Boas (who had earlier conducted fieldwork in South Pacific) and pointed to the fact that attitudes and behavior related to sexual conduct differed greatly between the studied group and that of middle class Americans. This was a radical new idea at that time, as adolescence was seen as universally turbulent and conflicted. Mead’s insights into the role of ‘nurture’ in sexual conduct revolutionized Western notions of culture and interpersonal relations. For example, the culture of these people from distant lands created a “more permissive, guilt-free attitude towards sexual intercourse in teenage years, without any commitment to permanent relationships”. (Cravens, 2010, p.299) In general, sex was seen as a recreation and indulged in for fun. American readers of these studies were taken aback at first. But they soon warmed up to the allure of “exotic young maidens were having delightful sexual romps on exotic isles with a changing cast of young male companions was virtually irresistible to many literate Americans. Mead thus reached great fame and popularity in the United States.” (Cravens, 2010, p.299)
Margaret Mead’s path-breaking book Coming of Age in Samoa offered such a fresh perspective that in the foreword to the book, her mentor Franz Boas summarizes the core thesis thus: “Courtesy, modesty, good manners, conformity to definite ethical standards are universal, but what constitutes these is not universal. It is instructive to know that standards differ in the most unexpected ways”. (Boas as quoted in Shankman, 2001, p.49) Mead’s later work Sex and Temperament in Three Primitive Societies was equally influential. This book, though a work of general cultural anthropology, had a special impact on the gathering feminist movement of the time. It showed how females are the dominant group in the Tchambuli Lake region of Papua New Guinea. It is a recognition of the influence of Mead on modern cultural anthropology, that she was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Jimmy Carter in 1979 (albeit posthumously).
Documentary videos related to Margaret Mead, retrieved from <http://www.youtube.com/user/WOSCAnthropology#p/a> on 25th July, 2012
Cravens, Hamilton. “What’s New in Science and Race since the 1930s?: Anthropologists and Racial Essentialism.” The Historian 72.2 (2010): 299+.
Lanclos, Donna M. “Jay Mechling, Margaret Mead Masculinities, and Me.” Western Folklore 69.3/4 (2010): 341+.
Shankman, Paul. “Requiem for a Controversy: Whatever Happened to Margaret Mead?.” Skeptic 1 Jan. 2001: 48+.