In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Margaret Mead

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Overviews of Mead’s Intellectual Contributions
  • Bibliographies
  • Mead as Public Intellectual, American Icon, and Political Figure
  • The Generations and Evolutionary Change
  • Films and Photographs Relating to Children
  • Controversies about and Criticisms of Mead’s Work
  • Mead’s Place within Childhood Studies

Childhood Studies Margaret Mead
Virginia Yans, Ji-Hye Shin
  • LAST MODIFIED: 24 June 2020
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199791231-0231


Margaret Mead (b. 1901–d. 1978), one of the 20th century’s most accomplished and controversial anthropologists, pioneered modern childhood studies. Her ethnographies and popular writings established child socialization as a centerpiece for the transmission of human culture. Mead understood human behavior as a product of complex interactions between biology and the ways in which various human cultures shaped and embellished biological inheritance beginning at birth. When Mead began her career in the 1920s, anthropology’s unique fieldwork methodology and the impending disappearance of “whole cultures” required female scientists: most small pre-literate societies in remote areas of the world would not accept male “participant observers” of women’s daily activities which, of course, included child rearing. Mead’s early 1920s and 1930s fieldwork in Samoa, New Guinea, and Bali emphasized different cultural patterns of child rearing practices and child behavior. Her controversial finding that Samoan adolescent girls moved through adolescence without turmoil initiated her fame. As a young woman cultural anthropologist specializing in child behavior, Mead both engaged and disputed established Western scientific notions of universal, “normal” developmental stages including Freud’s psychosexual stages and Piaget’s innate cognitive development models. The early Samoa and New Guinea fieldwork initiated Mead’s trademark practice of using anthropological knowledge as a social reform tool. Returning to the developed Western world with her field research, for example, she encouraged lay audiences to examine their own child rearing practices. During the 1930s and 1940s, Mead joined the “culture and personality” and “national character” schools of anthropology, two early iterations of today’s psychological anthropology. As an example, her Balinese field studies conducted with her third husband Gregory Bateson (a trained biologist and ethnographer) worked within a neo-Freudian framework emphasizing parent-child interaction and cultural influences. The Balinese field work method involving both hundreds of unstaged, but carefully photographed and filmed, parent-child interactions and accompanying detailed field notes followed her earlier use of projective testing of New Guinea children, all now recognized as innovations. In the post–World War II era Mead’s interests turned to evolutionary change but she retained her interest in youth recognizing that the children of the 1960s faced an unprecedented historical change colloquially known as the “generation gap.” Mead presciently predicted a reversal of thousands of years of generational roles: 20th-century children, she correctly foresaw, would be teaching their less experienced elders how to navigate and survive in a world of rapid social and technological change into which the young were born.

General Overviews

Margaret Mead was an extraordinarily prolific writer, the author of twenty-five books, hundreds of articles, and an editor or co-editor of eighteen books. She was a highly energetic, active public figure who participated as a leader in international and national organizations, made countless radio and television appearances, and delivered hundreds of lectures to lay and professional audiences. One of the 20th century’s most famous women, she managed this career as scholar and public intellectual along with motherhood, marriage, and a decade working in the field. As yet, other than what the anthropologist has written about herself no existing publication captures the depth and range of her work and her life. See works in Overviews of Mead’s Intellectual Contributions and Mead 1974 and Mead 1995 in Autobiographies. A Library of Congress exhibit, Margaret Mead: Human Nature and the Power of Culture, and two documentary films—Peck 2010 and Yans 2012—provide the best and most accessible syntheses of the anthropologist’s life and work. Given Mead’s innovations in the use of film and photography and her popularity with film, television, and popular print media, the exhibit and documentary film formats are essential for arriving at a full understanding of Mead as scholar and public figure.

  • Francis, Patricia (curator), and Mary Wolfskill (co-curator). Margaret Mead: Human Nature and the Power of Culture. Library of Congress.

    This is an online version of an exhibition, held 30 November 2001 to 31 May 2002, based upon photographs and writings from Mead’s extensive Library of Congress collections. It offers a succinct, accessible introduction to the anthropologist’s life, her work, and criticisms of her work. Recommended for general audiences and for classroom use.

  • Peck, Ann, dir./prod. Margaret Mead: Taking Note. DVD. Watertown, MA: Documentary Educational Resources, 2010.

    Originally produced 1981. This is a good introduction to Mead’s life and work enhanced by interviews. The film was produced before Mead’s extensive documentary film and archival collections were available to filmmakers and researchers. Suitable for public library audiences and classroom use.

  • Yans, Virginia. Margaret Mead: An Observer Observed. DVD Filmakers Library, 2012.

    Originally produced 1996. This award winning eighty-five-minute PBS special utilizes the long-awaited opening of Mead’s Library of Congress collections of film, photographs, video, sound recordings, letters, and manuscripts. Interviews with experts and short dramatic scenes portray turning points in Mead’s life and work. The production highlights Mead’s field films and still photography documenting her work with children. Suitable for public library audiences, scholarly and class room use.

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