Margaret Mead

By: Victoria Yates
Margaret Mead was born in Philadelphia on the 16th of December, 1901, the first of five children born into a Quaker family. Mead was the daughter of Edward Mead, a finance professor at the University of Pennsylvania, and Emily, a sociologist who studied Italian immigrants. Because her family moved frequently Mead's early schooling varied between home schooling and attending traditional classes. She majored in psychology at DePauw University in 1919 before transferring to Barnard College. Mead completed a Masters at Columbia University in 1924. This was followed by a year of fieldwork in Samoa in which she studied adolescent girls. On her return, Mead took a post as assistant curator at New York's American Museum of Natural History.

Her most famous work was with the youth population of Samoa. She sought to answer, as she herself phrased, "Are the disturbances which vex our adolescents due to the nature of adolescence itself or to the civilization? Under different conditions does adolescence present a different picture?" There was much discussion in America at the time around the emerging idea of "teenagers" - for example in issues of sex and relationships. Her findings were that the process of "adjustment" from childhood to adulthood was neither marred by psychological distress nor by anxiety as was suggested in the United States. Samoan girls were free to have sex with whomever they choose and were not held to a firm, enforced set of rules. This more liberal thinking from Mead caused a stir in the West at its time of publication, as her summation was both radical and unconventional. Mead's findings were questioned after her death, with informants claiming to have lied about the relationships in which they engaged. Despite this controversy, Mead's work was ideal to philosophically inform and indeed in some ways to encourage the "sexual revolution" of the sixties.

Her other influential book was "Sex and temperament in three primitive societies" in which she showed the dominance of women in the Tchambuli Lake region of Papua New Guinea and the minimal problems resulting from this inversion of traditional male-female power. Her observations showed a society in which the men spent their time decorating themselves and tending to appearance whilst the women were the pragmatic workers - an opposite to her view of America at that time. Mead's work of course spanned beyond the two works mentioned and her influence was great. For example, she helped the evolution of Dr. Benjamin Spock's ideas about treating children as individuals and working to their timetable rather than creating rigid parental laws(Spock was her pediatrician). Even after her death in 1978 she has continued to be seen as a seminal anthropologist in the area of women's liberation. She is also seen as one of the first to turn anthropological study into a critical viewing of western society. Clearly, her research and approach made her a thought leader well beyond her academic discipline.