Mead: A Humanist's Legacy


I REMEMBER Margaret Mead. In ninth grade she addressed a school assembly. More than her words, her image stuck in my mind--a solid figure holding a forked stick. It is the same sort of picture that appeared two weeks ago in newspapers and magazines when, at 76, she succumbed to a year-long struggle with cancer. Accompanying the pictures was a lot of praise.

Margaret Mead accomplished what few anthropologists have ever attained--public fame. She helped popularize what for most Americans was an obscure field dealing with foreign cultures in far-flung places. Not only was she one of the first anthropologists to write for the general public but in her fieldwork in Samoa, New Guinea, Bali and even South Dakota she also attempted to integrate psychology and anthropology into a more all-inclusive social science.

Mead had a penchant for looking at an institution, be it childbirth or birth control, from a new and different angle, applying new concepts and precepts gleaned from a life of continuous observation. Because she was far more willing and even anxious to experiment than most of her more conservative co-workers, many of them criticized her.

In 1925, with degrees in sociology and anthropology from Barnard, Mead wanted to study social change in another culture. Franz Boaz, the dean of American anthropology and Mead's teacher, directed her to look at adolescence and sex roles in Samoa instead. Out of the Samoa experience emerged Growing Up in Samoa, a bestseller. But along with instant success came instant criticism that was to dog her throughout her career. Mead, many anthropologists argued, over-simplified, over-generalized, drew conclusions from sketchy evidence and interjected herself and her psychological interpretations too often and too much.

The public loved it, though. After Samoa Mead continued to travel and write, occasionally turning out technical monographs to placate her vociferous peers, but more often than not producing books for popular consumption. True to Boaz, she examined sex roles in different cultures, rejecting the idea that one predetermined set of universal roles can be applied to all cultures indiscriminately. However, she did not limit herself to discussing sex roles or exotic cultures. She voiced opinions and passed judgments on any number of things in Western society, from marijuana to marriage, and her outspokenness drew more fire from critics who thought she should stick to anthropology.

On all levels, the criticism from anthropologists and non-anthropologists alike is not entirely unfounded, though the reasoning behind it is unfair. the "science" Mead sought to popularize is the study of man. Unlike physics or calculus or other hard sciences there is no justification for anthropology confining itself to scrutiny by a specialized elite. It concerns itself with examining something tangible--humans--by means of a very common human device--observation. Mead had no practical training before venturing into the field. Basically she did little more than what all of us are capable of doing if we set our minds to it: she kept her eyes and ears open. Yet her results were as refreshing, as interesting and as variable as any offered by other anthropologists.

In contending that Mead interprets too freely, critics ignore the fact that anthropology can never be a science. Mead's conclusions can stand because anthropological interpretations are always theoretical. No experiments can prove them right or wrong, since observed systems and institutions can easily be distorted to fit any proposed paradigm. Nor does anthropology deal with predictable data because man is an essentially is an unpredictable organism. Finally, anthropology isn't objective. It involves an observer interacting directly with other humans. Try as the anthropologist might to analyze and objectify what he sees, some amount of subjectivity is bound to seep into his work.

Accusing Mead of over-simplifying and over-generalizing also involves an oversight. If anthropology is to be of any value, then it must extend beyond elitist technical jargon. It must apply itself to the real world by reaching out and teaching the public. Mead succeeded better than anyone else at doing just that, and simplification and generalization were only minor sacrifices she made to accomplish the greater good.

THAT GREATER GOOD, to Mead, involved more than just elucidating anthropology. It involved elucidating everything. Recognized as an authority on anthropology, her reputation threw wight behind all her views, whether they dealt with the Arapesh in New Guinea or the divorce rate in America. What her critics should have pointed out was not that she had too many opinions but that people tended to view her as an expert on human nature, and what was happening to man, as well as an expert on a few specific societies. Too many people were too willing to listen and then agree because the speaker was Margaret Mead.

But this Mead-worship was no faulty of Mead's Instead, it is a peculiar anomaly in men; once someone is proved competent in one field they are assumed knowledgeable in others. It is the same kind of curious trait one imagines Mead herself untangling.

As an anthropologist, though, Mead accomplished more than untangling. She reached beyond interpreting dry facts. In doing so she left us more than a few treatises and bestsellers. We have a legacy that is also a challenge. It involves understanding other cultures and portraying them honestly, without culture-bound value judgments. It also calls for a humanitarian examination, rather than clinical scientific analysis of man.

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