Margaret Mead and the Origins of Modern Cultural Anthropology

By Jaime Seltzer

“Never believe that a few caring people cannot change the world. For, indeed, that’s all who ever have.” – Margaret Mead

A little background is necessary in order to show just how incredible and mind-blowing Margaret Mead’s work was when she exploded onto the anthro scene in 1928. Anthropology was in its infancy when Margaret Mead was born in 1901. Ethnocentrism, the view of one’s own culture as the ideal and of other cultures as deviations from that ideal, was the prevalent attitude. Even many anthropologists maintained the idea that individuals from ‘primitive’ cultures – and by ‘primitive’, they meant non-Europeans – were like children. The suggestion that someone from another culture could have anything in common with a Westerner would have been considered insulting and degrading.

In the 1920s, Social Darwinism was also a very popularly-held view. Social Darwinism stated that those who were talented and clever would naturally rise to high positions in the world, and that those who ended up at the bottom of the heap belonged there, due to an inherent lack of intellect, drive, and talent. The theory handwaved class distinctions as well as racist and sexist attitudes that could contribute to others’ lack of success in the modern world. This theory could be (and was!) expanded to other cultures; clearly, if a culture hadn’t developed indoor plumbing and running water, this meant that they were an inferior sort of people whose problems were due to their lack of the virtues necessary to solve their problems. At the same time, there remained a (somewhat) competing view of the ‘noble savage’: the idea that, although civilizations outside of Western influence created untutored, child-like men, there was a certain wisdom in that innocence. What linked the two, disparate ideas is the firm placement of people of another culture as fundamentally different from the educated, Western observer.

Mead’s conversations with the Ta’u girls, and her pictures of she and the girls socializing, along with her refusal to write the girls as stereotypical ‘natives’ created a new tradition in anthropology that encouraged the public to respect other cultures and consider their practices at least as valid as their own.

Margaret’s parents were both social scientists, and her mother took copious notes about her own pregnancy and Margaret’s development, once she was born. Margaret herself took notes on her little sister, cataloguing her use of language and the new skills as she mastered them, a veritable little field anthropologist in elementary school.

In the 1920s, Margaret earned her degree in psychology at Barnard, where she studied under Franz Boas, who was fundamentally against eugenics and Social Darwinism.1 Then, Margaret earned her doctorate from Columbia University.

Here’s where it gets interesting. Margaret and Boas had decided that Margaret’s research would focus on the tumultuous teen years. In Western society, the teenaged years are fraught with angst and sorrow and the rending of the garments – you know how it goes. Mead wondered if that was a societal thing, or if the horror that is being thirteen was the same everywhere. She decided to do her study on the Samoans as a culture very distinct from her own and, in 1925, headed off to the island of Ta’u to do her research.

Mead studied sixty-eight girls from age nine into their twenties, and discussed what it was like to grow up as a young woman on Ta’u. What she learned was not particularly surprising to her liberal mind, but it would certainly be a shocker to the folks back home.

Mead found that the people of Ta’u had a far less sexually-repressed society than the Western World. She contended that this lack of shame made the adolescence of young ladies less stressful and less traumatic, producing happier, more well-balanced adults. She published her findings in a still-famous book called Coming of Age in Samoa, one of the first (if not the first) cross-cultural studies ever published.

Margaret Mead

Margaret Mead and her card in the Women in Science game.

Many anthropologists at the time believed that there were certain attitudes and behaviors that were simply ‘natural’ to all societies everywhere, and Mead’s research was able to show that this was incorrect. For example, Mead was able to argue that gender roles were less clear-cut than popularly believed. What was considered ‘masculine’ or ‘feminine’ behavior was very different for the Ta’u; that implied that the Western ideal of masculinity and femininity was, in part, a construct of Western society.

Mead’s conversations with the Ta’u girls, and her pictures of she and the girls socializing, along with her refusal to write the girls as stereotypical ‘natives’ created a new tradition in anthropology that encouraged the public to respect other cultures and consider their practices at least as valid as their own. The book was received with incredible popular success, and read by members of the public as well as by social scientists.

In 1940, Mead wrote Warfare is Only an Invention – Not a Biological Necessity, which debated the idea that war is a natural consequence of society. She was able to demonstrate, through the comparison of multiple cultures, that war is not directly related to the density of the population or to the presence of many cultures in one location, or to a lack of resources; nor was it directly related to a lack of any violence in the culture. Mead argued that war is a cultural construct that must be invented, and that becomes entrenched in a culture as a tradition over time. The prevalent view at the time was that men were such inherently violent creatures that their impulses exploded outwards into warfare on occasion.

After Mead’s death in 1975, Derek Freeman, a rival of her theories, set out to discredit Mead’s work in book called The Fateful Hoaxing of Margaret Mead. In the book, he stated that two Ta’u girls had pulled the wool over a credible Margaret’s eyes, teasing her by swearing that they were more sexually free than their Western counterparts. This created a storm of controversy regarding Mead’s work – a controversy that is interesting in and of itself, since Margaret could be viewed as something of a critic of Western culture. It might have been quite a relief to hear that her indictment of the ‘natural’ view of war, racism and sexism was all so much bunk!

However, even presuming Freeman’s own research was meticulous and correct, in order to counter what Mead had discovered, he, too, would have to have spoken to the same group of people Margaret did. He never spoke to those on Ta’u, where Mead did her research, focusing instead on other subcultures of Samoa. He spoke to them three decades apart from Mead; and, most glaringly, he spoke to male elders, who might have had a very different view of how young women behaved and felt than the young women themselves. Finally, to presume that two young women had tricked Mead when she interviewed over sixty of them would require that Mead ignore sixty-six of her interviews to focus exclusively on two. Mead is still viewed by some as a controversial figure, though it is safe to say that Freeman’s critique of her work was debunked.

Margaret Mead had a dramatic impact on how Europeans and those from the United States viewed their own culture and the cultures of others. She raised incredibly important questions that others had taken as verboten in the past: is war natural? Are male and female roles? Is it valid to identify ourselves as a ‘good’ culture and others as less worthy? She was a pioneer in cross-cultural studies, examining the impact that contact with the wider world had on previously isolated societies. Despite her contact with a great deal of darkness and violence over the course of her work, she remained a humanist, convinced that people are basically good, and believing strongly in the potential of one person’s ability to produce positive change in the world.

Dreger, A. (2013, February 15). Sex, Lies, and Separating Science from Ideology. The Atlantic. Retrieved from
Horgan, J. (2010, October 25). Margaret Mead’s bashers owe her an apology. Scientific American – Blogs. Retrieved from
Horgan, J. (2010, November 8). Margaret Mead’s war theory kicks butt of neo-Darwinian and Malthusian models. Scientific American – Blogs. Retrieved from
Margaret Mead (1901-1978) – An Anthropology of Human Freedom. (2009). In The Institute for Intercultural Studies. Retrieved from
Margaret Mead: Human Nature and the Power of Culture. (n.d.). In The Library of Congress – Exhibitions. Retrieved from
Mead/Bateson Resources. (2009). In The Institute for Intercultural Studies. Retrieved from

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