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'The Big View', November 2011 (Part One)

 …A pioneer and A visionary

Margaret Mead (December 16, 1901 - November 15, 1978)

By Diana Tussie, FLACSO


 “I was brought up to believe that the only thing worth doing was to add to the sum of accurate information in the world.”

“Our first and most pressing problem is how to do away with warfare as a method of solving conflicts between national groups within a society who have different views about how the society is to run.”

"Never doubt that a small group of committed people can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has."

The above adages mark the relevance of Margaret Mead for our time and in our global field. She was born in Philadelphia on December 16, 1901 and became a renown cultural anthropologist, but she was also a frequently a featured writer and speaker in the mass media in the 1960s and 1970s. She became both a populariser of the insights of anthropology into modern Western culture, and a respected also - if controversial - academic stretching out beyond her field to become a public intellectual. The civilized/primitive dichotomy was a chimera to her. She affirmed the possibility of learning from other groups and was able to apply the knowledge she brought back from the field to issues of modern life.

Societies and cultural patterns

Mead studied at Barnard College where she earned her Bachelor's degree in 1923. Then she studied with Professor Franz Boas and Dr. Ruth Benedict at Columbia University before earning her Master's in 1924. Mead set out in 1925 to do fieldwork in Polynesia. In 1926, she joined the American Museum of Natural History , New York City, as assistant curator. She received her Ph.D. from Columbia University in 1929. At a time when Freud and Maria Montessori where revolutionizing their fields, Mead focused her research on problems of child rearing, personality, and culture and stretched her insights into a view of the world she lived in.

Her first major work was "Coming of Age in Samoa." This became a best seller and brought Mead prominence. Here she presented the idea that the “civilized” world had something to learn from the “primitive.” In subsequent fieldwork, on mainland New Guinea, she demonstrated that gender roles differed from one society to another, depending at least as much on culture as on biology. Mead often used the Ancient Greek term plastikos (capable of being moulded) in referring to the capacities of humans to grow and change and adapt within (and sometimes beyond) the range of their biological and cultural inheritance. This holistic understanding of human adaptation allowed Mead to speak out on a very wide range of issues. She insisted that human diversity is a resource, not a handicap, that all human beings have the capacity to learn from and teach each other

Social scientist and public intellectual

Perhaps Mead's most important role was as an interpreter of world events and trends to the American people. As a scientist, she had a broad sense of the relevance of anthropology to social action. As a public figure, she spoke out on and wrote about race relations, gender roles, culture, environmental justice, education, health and nutrition, child rearing, and self-empowerment within communities.

She thrilled in crossing bridges. In her earlier career, before becoming a household word, Mead sometimes wrote two versions of the same materials, one for the academy and the other for the public. Her knack for the world of policy and politics allowed her to caution presidents about trying to implement campaign promises within the first hundred days of office Margaret Mead blended knowledge and action. During World War II, Mead served as executive secretary of the National Research Council's Committee on Food Habits. In the political realm, she served as a diplomat, without a portfolio, to many presidents in the areas of ecology and nutrition. She was always concerned about the role of science and technology in world politics.

Mead was very much aware of the threats to human life from abusing the environment and she was particularly active in relation to radioactive wastes and the atmosphere. Time magazine named her "Mother of the World" in 1969. When John McConnell came up with the idea of Earth Day, during the preparations for the Stockholm Conference on the Environment in 1972, Margaret Mead saw immediately that a celebration on the date of the equinox would transcend cultural and geographical barriers. She participated actively in establishing the International Earth Day tradition at the UN and campaigned against the effects of industrial activities on the environment. Mead pointed out the need to control carbon dioxide emissions allowances allocated to each nation, an anticipation of emissions trading and Kyoto Protocol.

Viewing the public roles of social science through Mead’s career offers focus on these issues, but it also provides an opportunity for introspection into some other aspects of what we do and how we chose to do it - the role of women in intellectual life and in the university; the gendering of the disciplines; the territoriality of academic careers, affected by moral choices, wars, uprisings and rebellions. Impossible to live in the 60s and 70s and not be touched by the struggles for civil liberties and the Cold War, to live in Argentina or Greece and not be touched by the ravages of debt and adjustment.

Her death on November 15, 1978 left an immeasurable legacy to the social sciences, highlighting the role of a social scientist committed to her time, immersed with policy issues and willing to plunge into them.