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Margaret Mead: biography of this anthropologist and researcher of the genre

Margaret Mead: biography of this anthropologist and researcher of the genre

July 14, 2024

Margaret Mead was one of the pioneers of cultural anthropology and American feminism in the second half of the 20th century. Among other things, he studied how social norms about sexuality, childhood and adolescence differ among different cultures; which served to question the biologicist perspectives that dominated the understanding of human development.

In this article we will see the biography of Margaret Mead , some of her contributions to American anthropological thought, as well as the works with which she was recognized as one of the most representative exponents of contemporary social sciences.

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Margaret Mead: biography of a pioneer in anthropology and gender

Margaret Mead (1901-1978) was a cultural anthropologist who maintained an important gender perspective in her studies, which is why she is also considered as one of the forerunners of the American feminist movement .


She was born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania and was the oldest of 4 brothers. Although his parents were also social scientists, which had inspired his professional career, Mead he defined his paternal grandmother as his most decisive influence , whom I recognized as a very empowered woman.

In the year 1923, Margaret Mead graduated from Barnard College, which was a school for women affiliated with Columbia University. He had studied most of his subjects in Psychology, a career that interested him a lot and that motivated him to study children's development.

Later he trained with Franz Boas, a professor of anthropology at Columbia, and finally he was convinced to study and practice this discipline. He obtained his doctorate degree in anthropology in the year 1929, from Columbia University.


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The academic world and the private life of Margaret Mead

One of Margaret Mead's convictions was that cultural conditions are more determinant than genetic characteristics in human behavior; which quickly moved to the analysis of gender roles and human development.

From this he compared several cultures that were considered "primitive" with the North American culture. Given the current cultural conditions in the American West, his thinking was very innovative, but at the same time he obtained negative responses.

In general terms, Mead had a very liberal perspective on sexuality, which was visible not only in his academic work, but in his relational experiences. That is, his academic and private perspective was very close to cultural relativism and moral relativism about sexuality, which also placed him at the center of many moralistic criticisms and controversies in the academic world.


Despite this, her academic rigor soon became a prestigious woman. She joined the American Museum of Natural History in New York as a curator, as well as teaching at Columbia University, New York University, Emory University, Yale University, and the University of Cincinnati. Finally he founded the department of anthropology at Fordham University .

She also became president of the American Anthropological Association, among other well-known institutes of applied anthropology. Among other things, he promoted the creation of a national archive of ethnographic films that would serve to preserve the important work and anthropological legacy.

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Human development and gender roles in New Guinea

During his work, Mead refuted the idea of ​​"primitive" societies, where the inhabitants were considered as children, or as if they were genetically determined to develop "less advanced" psychological states. She argued that human development depends on the social environment.

From there, Mead observed that gender roles were very different between different societies, which led to the conclusion that these roles depend much more on culture than on biology.

It made visible, for example, that women were dominant in some tribes of Papua New Guinea , without causing any social problem. There were tribes where women and men were more pacifists and lived in more cooperative societies than the United States, for example in Arapesh.

In other tribes, as in Tchambuli, men and women had differentiated roles, but very different from Western ones. Men were closer to the plane of the sensible, and women directed public activities.

The opposite was found in societies such as Mundugumor , where he saw that men and women had developed more explosive and conflicting temperaments, with which children were also educated harder.

By purchasing studies among these societies, Mead came to the conclusion that culture molds human behavior. Hence one of his most famous phrases: "human nature is malleable".

Gender Perspective

For Mead, masculinity and femininity reflect cultural conditions , and gender differences are not entirely determined by biology. His perspective on gender roles was very radical for his time and helped to break down many taboos surrounding the sexuality of the mid-twentieth century in American society.

Although she did not call herself a "feminist", her theoretical developments not only impacted the academy, but she was quickly recognized as an activist and pioneer of the feminist movement.

He defended the freedom of sexual practices, criticized traditional family structures , the upbringing based on dysmetric gender models, and finally, promoted the transformation of moral values ​​related to sexuality.

Main works

Some of his main works are Coming of Age in Samoa (Adolescence in Samoa), book of 1928 that resulted from his PhD thesis where studied mainly adolescent girls from the Polynesian islands in relation to the rules on sexuality that circulated there. In addition, he established some comparisons on the transition to adulthood with American culture and the emotional effects on young people.

With this work, Mead was positioned as one of the great influences of the anthropology of his time. Later he continued to study the relationship between childhood, adolescence and American families, emphasizing the value of comparative and interdisciplinary work.

Other of his important works are Growing Up in New Guinea: A Comparative Study of Primitive Education (Growing up in New Guinea: A Comparative Study on Early Education); and the film Trance and Dance in Bali, Learning to Dance in Bali, and Karba's First Years. Likewise, Margaret Mead participated in other film productions that addressed the issue of different practices on care and nurturing in different cultures.

Bibliographic references:

  • Bowman-Kruhm, M. (2003). Margaret Mead, a biography. Greenwood Press: London.
  • New World Encyclopedia. (2014). Margaret Mead. New World Encyclopedia. Retrieved May 16, 2018. Available at //www.newworldencyclopedia.org/entry/Margaret_Mead.
  • Streeter, L. (2016). Margaret Mead. Cultural Equality. Retrieved May 16, 2018. Available at //www.culturalequity.org/alanlomax/ce_alanlomax_profile_margaret_mead.php.

CHELLAY: What is Anthropology? (July 2024).


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