Margaret Mead–Bringing Anthropology to the Masses

Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.

Margaret Mead

I don’t recall the first time I heard Margaret Mead’s name, but it’s quite likely I read it on the pages of National Geographic magazine as a child in the early 1960s. I remember being glued to the television when Mead appeared on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson. Even at that young age, I recognized that she was different from the other ‘celebrities’ the show normally hosted.

Margaret Mead was an American cultural anthropologist who focused her research on problems of child rearing, personality, and culture. In both her personal and professional lives, Mead was a pioneering and controversial figure.

Her fame was based on her non-academic and easily accessible writing style as well as her desire to share her research in an effort to bring about what she believed would be positive changes in society. Mead’s desire to educate the public about the fundamentals of cultural development as well as her numerous public appearances gave her a platform for expressing her ideas.

Margaret Mead. Photo Credit: Library of Congress.

Mead as a cultural commentator

Mead’s early research was conducted in Polynesia and New Guinea, and was presented in her books “Coming of Age in Samoa” and “Sex and Temperament in Three Primitive Societies”. Both of these books were quite popular in the USA and discussed how sex and gender roles were established in societies. Her writing at this time also presented evidence that gender roles varied from one culture to another.

Mead, unlike many academics of her day, wasn’t merely writing for her peers. She was interested in public policy and was eager to apply her knowledge in these areas to American culture.

Mead’s research in the South Pacific just after WW2 led her to believe “that cultural patterns of racism, warfare, and environmental exploitation were learned, and that the members of a society could work together to modify their traditions and to construct new institutions.”

These ideas were seen as giving some measure of hope for humanity following two devastating world wars which had caused many world leaders and academics to question the ability of humanity to change its brutal ways.

According to our standards today, Mead would be labeled as a cultural disruptor or influencer. By utilizing the rapidly changing media landscape of her era, Mead’s name (along with that of her friend and daughter’s doctor, Benjamin Spock) became a household word, a first for an anthropologist.

She is often cited as influencing the free love movement of the 1960s as well as the feminist movement of the 1970s. Her views were often derided by conservative leaders of the time and she was even labeled a “a dirty old lady” by some due to her discussions concerning sexual expression at time when such topics were considered taboo in a public forum.

Mead’s first book “Coming of Age in Samoa” which became popular in the USA. Photo Credit: Wiki Photos.


However, in more recent years, her work has been considered ground breaking and she has been widely recognized as a maverick in her field.

In 1979, President Jimmy Carter awarded the Presidential Metal of Freedom posthumously to Mead. The citation read:

Margaret Mead was both a student of civilization and an exemplar of it. To a public of millions, she brought the central insight of cultural anthropology: that varying cultural patterns express an underlying human unity. She mastered her discipline, but she also transcended it. Intrepid, independent, plain spoken, fearless, she remains a model for the young and a teacher from whom all may learn.

The reach of Mead’s work
  • During World War 2, Mead served as executive secretary of the National Research Council’s Committee on Food Habits.
  • Mead, along with her mentor anthropologist Ruth Benedict, founded the Institute for Intercultural Studies in 1944.
  • She served as curator of ethnology at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City from 1946 to 1969.
  • She was elected a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1948, and also served terms as President of the American Anthropological Association (1960) and the American Association for the Advancement of Science (1970).

In 1998, Mead was honored by the US Postal Service based on her contributions to the field of anthropology. Photo Credit: Wiki Photos.

  • Mead taught at The New School and Columbia University, where she was an adjunct professor from 1954 to 1978 and was a professor of anthropology and chair of the Division of Social Sciences at Fordham University’s Lincoln Center campus from 1968 to 1970, founding their anthropology department.
  • In 1970, she joined the faculty of the University of Rhode Island as a Distinguished Professor of Sociology and Anthropology.
  • Mead authored twenty books and co-wrote an equal number as well as receiving twenty-eight honorary doctorates.
Final thoughts

In today’s overcrowded world of celebrity where everyone seems to be screaming ‘look at me’ at the top of their collective lungs, it’s perhaps difficult to imagine Mead, or any other academic in the social sciences, having much of an impact on society.

Revisiting Mead’s life reminds us of the importance of being open to examinations of our own culture as well as the value of learning from other cultures.

For a general overview of Mead’s life, here’s a link to an informative video produced by Clare McDonald.



Categories: CultureTags: , , , , ,


  1. I remember back in University reading a paper written by a researcher who had gone back to Samoa and New Guinea and had interviewed the natives 10 years after she had published her papers.

    He discovered the natives remembered Mead and they thought she was quite an eccentric person.

    Having a very unique sense of humour that Mead was apparently unable to grasp, they apparently told the anthropologist exactly what she wanted to hear.

    The researcher published a new paper pointing out Mead’s many errors.

    However since most of the social scientists from about 1920 on had dropped the empirical scientific method from their disciplines and tried to get facts to fit their preconceived theories about humanity and society rather than examining the actual facts and developing theories afterwards, the majority of those in academic social science disciplines ignored the second paper and only talked about Mead’s conclusions in their periodicals and journals and in lectures to their students.

    The end result was that Mead’s conclusions became the accepted anthropological orthodoxy for most of the 20th Century and even into the 21st.

    My best friend in my last year of High School and 4 years of University was Robert Harmsen who was a Political Science major while I was a History major (although I moved over to Philosophy as my major in my last year).

    Robert went on to win the Governor-General’s Award in our last year of University (awarded to the student with the highest marks in every discipline and faculty throughout the University) and then went on to earn his Master’s in Political Science at the Sorbonne in Paris, his Ph.D at the University of Manchester and a post-Doctoral fellowship at McGill University in Montreal.

    He went on to teach at Queen’s University, Belfast, the University of Dublin in the Republic of Ireland and last I heard, he was teaching at the University of Louvain in Belgium.

    Anyhow in our 3rd year of University, we were having a conversation and he remarked (I was still a History major then) that he actually admired historians more than political scientists.

    The reason?

    “Most historians do not think that their field is an objectively verifiable empirical science. They’re right. On the other hand, most political scientists do think that their field is an objectively verifiable empirical science. They’re wrong.”

    Robert went on to say that this attitude of the political scientists seemed to predominate among all fields of the social sciences such as economics, sociology, anthropology and even many branches of psychology.

    The primary example of this he noted was in the field of anthropology where Mead’s erroneous conclusions were accepted as anthropological orthodoxy by most of those working in the field of anthropology.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I’m really grateful for this thoughtful response, Dracul. I have been researching and writing about economics for the past couple years, and find that nearly all of economic scholarship and related policy-making is dominated by ideological, cognitive, and cultural, bias. That perspective isn’t just shared by the other social sciences, but as we all know, it seems to have become the ethos of our day. It’s always refreshing when point of view is expanded by thoughtful discourse, which is what you’ve done with your comment. Thanks! And thanks to you, Henry, for setting the stage for some worthwhile reading this morning!

      Liked by 1 person

      • I love being the catalyst for meaningful discussions. Thanks Kevin.


      • Thank you, Kevin.

        Yes, I’ve noticed in the field of economics, Milton Friedman’s disciples tend to only look at statistics that back up Friedman’s theories and ignore anything contrary while Karl Marx’s disciples in the field of economics likewise only look at statistics that back up Marx’s viewpoint and ignore anything contrary.


    • Hi Dracul,

      Yes, ive read about all the controversies concerning Mead’s “theories” on Samoan culture, but such a discussion would have been far too indepth for a short blog post. As s true with all the social sciences, studies of human behavior are so variable that it’s difficult to draw conclusions based on empirical evidence. I admire Mead for presenting cultural studies in terms that the masses could comprehend. I studied anthropology when i returned to university in 1999 and discovered a number of characters in that field that thrived on controversey. Thanks for much adding to the discussion. And as always, i believe it’s important to question everyone’s assumptions in our quest for meaning.

      Liked by 1 person

    • Hi Dracul,

      Im currently traveling in Peru and using a glitchy ipad mini so somehow my response to your in depth comments got shuffled down below. Thanks for sharing your insights!

      Liked by 1 person

  2. You know this was going straight to “Timeless Wisdoms,” right? I’m going to accompany the post with a reblog of a tribute piece to her — part of my “Infamous Wimmin” series. Ciao!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Great post, Henry. Your writing at its best. ike you, I remember her 60’s fame — I went to hear her when she came to speak at my college — the place was packed. But I really never knew more about here than her familiar quote “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.”


    • Thanks Kevin. Whatever Mead’s personal research motivations may have been, I credit her with educating Americans about the importance of comtemplating the value of anthropological studies and learning from other cultures.


  4. Your teacher’s comments about the two sciences are interesting Dracul. I question whether it’s true that “most political scientists do think that their fields is an objectively verifiable empirical science”. It seems to me that it would be counter intuitive for political scientists to make hard and fast assumptions. It’s my understanding that political science is all about generalizations and analysis which are then used to predict future behavior. You know, in my opinion its more like a big guessing game with a lot of research and expertise behind it – You have to start somewhere if you’re going to predict the future, right?

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Informative read Henry! I’ve always been a fan of Meads’, but will admit to not knowing very much about her as a person. Thanks for filling in my educational gaps.

    Liked by 1 person

    • This was meant to be just a skim across the surface of Mead’s life and my intention was to celebrate her aim to make the American public more aware of the importance of studying other cultures. Dracul has stirred the pot and I’m very grateful for his insightful comments and those of both you and Kevin.

      Liked by 1 person

  6. It was wonderful to read about her. Having only gone through the coming of age in Samoa.. I wanted to learn more about her.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Thanks for the reblog! 🙂


%d bloggers like this: