Margaret Mead
Guy Lochhead, 11/09/10
American cultural anthropologist. Mead was a significant and recognisable figure in academia. She wore a distinctive cape and carried a tall, forked walking stick. She wrote about sexuality in South Pacific and Southeast Asian traditional cultures, which informed the ’60s sexual revolution and feminist movements. She used her studies and research to suggest different ways of life in her home country – championing a broader attitude towards sex and sexuality, gender equality and childrearing. She was married three times to male anthropologists, and allegedly had a sexual relationship with Rhoda Metraux, also an anthropologist. She was an Anglican Christian, and was involved in drafting the 1979 American Episcopal Book of Common Prayer. I think I disagree with Mead’s attitudes towards the majority of things she wrote about and did. She has come under criticism from modern anthropologists for stereotyping, bias and incomplete research, and this criticism is largely well-founded, but two of her books are undoubtedly significant. I wondered about including these books as sort-of progressive fictions; serving an important and rare role in presenting female members of communities as dominant over their male counterparts (‘Sex And Temperament: In Three Primitive Societies’) and the merits of a ‘free love’ society (‘Coming Of Age In Samoa’), but I realise now that the damage this book caused anthropology’s reputation as a science excludes it. She was a snob and, in some people’s (particularly Samoans’) opinion, a liar (though she herself was lied to by many of her sources). She viewed anthropologists as superior and able to understand ‘primitive’ cultures in ‘a few months’. Her and her work damaged a lot of things.

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