December 16 – One Woman’s Mead

Today’s factismal: Margaret Mead’s doctoral dissertation was the best selling anthropology book for 40 years.

Back on December 16, 1901, Margaret Mead joined the population of Philadelphia in the usual way. As is common among children, she was bright, curious, and always trying to learn. But how her parents dealt with her natural traits was unusual: they encouraged her. They made certain that she was given every opportunity to learn and to explore. She was sent to college with the understanding that she’d earn a degree, and she did. First a bachelor’s in psychology from Barnard in 1923. Then a Master’s degree in anthropology followed just a year later. And then, most unusually for a woman of the time, she went on to get her PhD in Anthropology in 1929. But perhaps the most unusual thing about Mead and her education was how she became a doctor: she went into the field to study how other people lived.

And not just any “other people”; she went to one of the most remote and isolated regions of the world, a place known as Samoa. This group of islands is located in the middle of the Pacific ocean, halfway between Hawaii and New Zealand. The islanders arrived there about 3,000 years ago in outrigger canoes. Thanks to their isolation, the islanders developed many rituals and customs that are unique to the island (though some, like tattooing, have since been adopted by other regions). And they managed to maintain many of those customs even after being “discovered” by the Europeans in 1722. So Mead decided to go to the Samoan islands to learn how these isolated people lived – and to see if the decidedly non-isolated Americans could learn anything from them.

What Mead discovered was that the Samoans had a social structure very different from the ones practiced in America. Where American adolescents did (and do) go through a period of isolation, anxiety, and general anti-social behavior, those in Samoa appeared to grow into adults gently and easily. And where American boys took the lead in social matters such as dating and marriage, in Samoa it was the young women who held the reins. Most shockingly of all, Samoans didn’t seem to have a “battle of the sexes”; both sides had a negotiated peace that worked surprisingly well.

Given those amazing differences, it is no wonder that Mead’s dissertation soon became a best-selling book in 1928. What is amazing is that it remained the most popular anthropology text for the next 40 years. Part of that was because Mead’s work helped highlight what remains one of the most important questions in anthropology today: How much of what we do is created by our genes (our nature) and how much is created by our society (our nurture)? Before Mead, most anthropologists thought that nature was the dominant force and all societies would be very similar; after Mead, the role of nurture was increasingly recognized.

Of course, anthropology still hasn’t settled that question, nor any of dozens of others. And that’s because anthropology, like any good science, is always testing its ideas and developing new ones. If you’d like to take part in that, then why not join the Open Anthropology Group? You can ask questions, take part in discussions, and even help design new experiments. Who knows – you may become the Margaret Mead of the internet!

One thought on “December 16 – One Woman’s Mead

  1. Pingback: March 8 – A Woman’s Work | Little facts about science

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