Margaret Mead
Margaret Mead; drawing by David Levine

Is anthropology an art or a science? Eighteenth-century anthropologists studied the physical differences between all the races of man in the spirit of Linnaeus, so linking their subject with biology. A century later, the focus of anthropology shifted to society. It became the avocation of British colonial officers and Indian civil servants, and was valued by the English for explaining why other people acted in such irrationally un-English ways, so making them easier to live with, and rule. Only in the present century has the subject moved nearer to home and given a central place to “culture”: as participant-observers, anthropologists by now study the culture of a high-energy accelerator laboratory or a leather bar as readily as they will that of the Ndembu. As a result, the subject is now more humanistic. Lévi-Strauss, for instance, treats cultural forms as texts for structural analysis, and Clifford Geertz presents ethnographic description as a high form of investigative reporting.

From the 1930s on, nobody in America thought harder about the aims of anthropology than Margaret Mead and Gregory Bateson. In addition, between 1936 and the late 1940s, Bateson and Mead were married, linked (World War II apart) in what Bateson called “professional endogamy.” Their collaboration is a lesson in how ideas and personalities meet, interact, and diverge; the two biographies under review throw very different kinds of light on their relations.

Jane Howard’s life of Margaret Mead is an outsider’s report. Not professionally trained in any of the fields that Mead worked in so vigorously, she has assembled the facts of Mead’s career, together with stories of the personal quirks that made “M.M.” lovable to some, insufferable to others. But she does not succeed in conveying the ideas and intellectual interests that were the main preoccupation of Mead’s life. She never met Mead, and her picture of her is assembled from the testimony of other people, so she speaks mainly about her public activities—always energetic, sometimes ruthless—while speculating about her emotional life from the sidelines.

Mary Catherine Bateson’s memoir is stronger intellectually, since the author worked as a colleague of both her parents, and more convincing about Mead’s personal qualities. She puts in proportion the issues about Margaret Mead’s private life that Howard’s book leaves hanging for the reader’s imagination, for example her amitié amoureuse with Ruth Benedict. So we come to see the turbulence of Mead’s emotional attachments as one feature of a much larger portrait.

No doubt we should expect Mead’s daughter to have a clearer sense of her mother than Jane Howard could have. But Howard’s emphasis on the aggressive, tyrannical aspects of Mead’s personal and professional life, and on the problems and pains of her three marriages, is reminiscent of People magazine. And too often her prose, with its many barbarisms (“Viceroy Lord George Curzon,” etc.) and its accumulation of irrelevant detail, recalls the reporting in Time. Being told that the Sepik River in Papua New Guinea used to be called the “Kaisereine Auguste Fleuve,” or that Mead’s second husband’s family lived in a New Zealand town whose name meant “scrapings of an oven” does not enrich our picture of Mead’s life and mind; it only distracts.

Jane Howard’s book is based on interviews with some three hundred of Margaret Mead’s friends and colleagues. Their testimony, however, while often revealing, reaches us only in scraps after being taken to bits and reassembled in a way that destroys much of their firsthand character. Since Howard apparently had much rich raw material, one might wish that she had followed the example of Jean Stein and George Plimpton’s Edie, where the letters and reports of those who knew Edie Sedgwick in person “spoke for themselves.” Mary Catherine Bateson’s firsthand memoir of Mead and Bateson successfully provides such an account. Her book is a close-up view by one who observed Mead in many different moods and activities. It gives a picture of a woman whose ideas, ideals, loves, hates, ambitions, and fears were all of a piece. The picture is, of course, a partial one, in both senses of that word; but we can happily overlook the imbalance, since the portrait itself is free of resentment, and carries conviction as no outsider’s account could do.

Gregory Bateson and Margaret Mead were striking and dominating people in very different ways. At heart, Bateson was always a theoretical scientist. His strong physical presence—his great height and eagle profile—and the blend of intellectual confidence and personal diffidence that he inherited from the Cambridge tradition of natural science (his father, William Bateson, was a founder of modern genetics) gave him the personal and intellectual power to move in quietly on virtually any debate and reshape it according to his own perspective. With his biological background, he was fully aware of current scientific orthodoxy, but he treated it as a theme on which to compose personal variations, and these, while sometimes eccentric, illuminated whatever they touched.


By contrast, Margaret Mead was both a practitioner and a prophet. She always gave the impression of having immense energy and determination. In later years, her short stature, bustling manner, and organizing temperament made her resemble Mrs. Tiggy-Winkle. For her, the study of culture was intellectually self-contained but morally open-ended. She was trained in academic anthropology by Franz Boas and Ruth Benedict, but she soon found a more hortatory public voice than theirs. The intellectual task she absorbed from her teachers was to show how the elements of any contemporary culture form “patterns,” which meant setting aside outside factors arising from biology or history, and concentrating on the internal links within the culture. But as both authors see, the deeper purpose of Mead’s work was moral: her mission was to put her knowledge “at the service of humankind.” 1 From the start, as Howard writes, “she took pains to connect what she had seen abroad with what she found at home in America.”2 By diagnosing, and prescribing for, cultural failings which few of her fellow countrymen yet recognized—still less complained about—she placed herself within a longstanding tradition of American writing, that of self-improvement.

Mead’s eye for cross-cultural connections was a source of her early celebrity. On her first field trip she studied the sex lives of adolescent girls on a Pacific island, and her book, Coming of Age in Samoa, published in 1928, became a classic of twentieth-century American sexual enlightenment, a book that was set alongside the works of Freud and Havelock Ellis. It was well timed. Its descriptions of the sexual development of Samoan girls responded to dreams of Arcadian simplicity and “getting away from it all,” and it helped to give those who were moving away from sexual prudishness and prurience, and toward greater freedom, the courage of their beliefs. Both factors helped to make Margaret Mead popular with the press. She was soon in a position in which her comments on public issues of sexual and family morality were sought after.

She relished this fame, and made the most of it but, her reputation as a champion of sexual liberation and candor was misleading. Despite her outspoken opinions and matrimonial misadventures—she was not yet thirty-five when she married Bateson, her third husband, in March 1936—her concern with social and personal problems went far beyond sexual morals. Her approach was, also, serious and responsible. She never accepted the shallow and complacent relativism that uses cultural diversity as an excuse to “do your own thing.” Instead, she saw it as a challenge, which requires us to ask how other peoples’ ways of life reflect on the worth of our own. Catherine Bateson quotes a characteristic passage from a draft manuscript of 1972, in which she wrote that “enjoined active sexuality may be as stressful as enjoined chastity,” and recommended “a willingness to let children and young people develop as slowly as they wished.”3

The public might see Mead as a preacher of permissiveness, but her colleagues knew her as a critic of thoughtless conformity wherever it existed. After Mary Catherine Bateson was born, Mead, who worked with Benjamin Spock when he was a young pediatrician, convinced him of the virtues of “feeding on demand”; and Catherine grew up not just in the middle of a continuing seminar on social theory, but in a household where practice was experimental, and nothing was ever done just because it was the conventionally done thing.

Mead and Bateson did not confine their work to constructing theories: if they were to be effective they had to work with practical details. Nor were large political and ideological schemes to their taste. Like William Blake, they believed that “He who would do good to another, must do it in Minute Particulars / General Good is the plea of the scoundrel hypocrite & flatterer.”4 True, Bateson was, as his daughter writes, “generally skeptical about doing good at all,” especially by political means. But Mead’s “combination of boundless energy and activist temperament” drove her, as time went on, into one effort at social improvement after another and carried her ever further away from the purely academic side of anthropology. She spoke in May 1941 at the opening meeting of a new Society for Applied Anthropology at Harvard; in fact, she had been treating anthropology as an “applied science” all along.

Given this temperament, Mead came fully into her own only during World War II, when she was invited to run the Committee on Food Habits of the National Research Council in Washington, DC. She leaped at the chance,and used it to pursue a dozen other activities and campaigns. This was the formal start of a second career, in public service, through councils and committees, and it continued with no less vigor after 1945. Subjects as varied as famine, mental health, disarmament, and the reform of the Episcopal liturgy could preoccupy her as much as issues of child rearing and family life. She was prominent in the “parallel government” of experts and intellectuals that did much constructive work in public service, both in the United States and internationally for the first twenty-five years after World War II. She remarked that her collaborators “realized that the older sciences of history, political science and economics needed to be supplemented by the newer disciplines of anthropology, sociology, psychology and psychiatry.”5


These were social scientists who had a constructive vision of the ways in which their studies could help in solving political and social problems. Rather than see social issues reduced to the technical pseudo-clarity of an “exact discipline,” like monetarist economics, or to Machiavellian calculation, they insisted that policy makers should view economic, social, and political issues in the light of their qualitative and comparative implications. It did no good to discuss Central American problems (say) as only a matter of global confrontation: it was essential to take account, also, of the cultural individuality of the Salvadoran Indians, the social traditions of the indigenous Amazonians, or the impact of Western technology on farming practices in the Andean altiplano. Margaret Mead reminds us just how reactionary the contemporary neoconservatives really are. A State Department whose policy-planning staff knows something about the ideas of Leo Strauss but does not understand Russian, let alone appreciate the cultural diversity of the peoples whose lives are affected by its plans, deserves a contemporary Margaret Mead to castigate its parochialism.

Jane Howard seriously underrates the power of Margaret Mead’s political commitment. Somewhat misleadingly, she says of Mead, “The only presidential candidate she ever supported was Jimmy Carter.”6 Mead did not always publicly endorse candidates, but she remained a lifelong middle-of-the-road Democrat. Three years after the election of 1968 (I recall) she was still arguing against those who had “undermined” Hubert Humphrey’s chances by backing Robert Kennedy and Eugene McCarthy.

Her political inclinations had a long history. The “cultural determinism” that Mead absorbed from Franz Boas in the 1920s was never purely academic. During the debate leading to the Immigration Bill of 1923, Americans of North European origin prided themselves on being a “superior stock,” and deplored the adulteration of the nation’s population by the admission of “inferior” immigrants from the Mediterranean countries. Advocates of racist theories of eugenics had support in Congress. To Boas, these attitudes of racial superiority were anathema, showing appalling ignorance about the influence of culture; so he actively supported those who fought illiberal restrictions on immigration.

Coming to Columbia at just this time, Margaret Mead quickly learned that anthropological heresies could do serious political damage; and, long afterward, she still did not like to hear questions about the genetic determinants of intelligence even raised. In this, she differed from Gregory Bateson, who had grown up among geneticists familiar with Francis Galton’s work; he found it hard to ignore the genetic aspects of intelligence entirely. Catherine Bateson reports a conversation between Bateson and Mead after World War II that elegantly illustrates their contrasting attitudes to the anthropological enterprise:7

Gregory contended that it went against any kind of reasonable scientific open-mindedness to assume for a species, such as the human species, with considerable variation in different populations all still capable of interbreeding, that among the different types of variation there were no cognitive differences. Margaret argued with passion that as long as people tend to move so quickly from concepts of diversity to concepts of superiority, and as long as mental variation is treated in terms of such a crude and culturally biased aggregate quantity as I.Q., this question cannot and should not be studied.

In addition, Mead accepted a “progressivist” view of history, in which the cultural patterns of peoples in different epochs are successive “levels of achievement.”8 That view of history rested in turn on the cosmology which she owed to her “rationalistic, agnostic, Spencer-reading, New England Puritan” family.9 Like many other American anthropologists, she thus inherited Spencer’s evolutionistic view of social progress; and this drew her, later on, toward a liberal Episcopalian theology.

Herbert Spencer saw himself as a loyal Darwinist, and passed that belief on to many later social scientists. But this was a sad misunderstanding. Spencer used the term “evolution” for the increased efficiency that he saw as characterizing the successive phases in “Human Progress.” But the nearest biological analogue to Spencer’s idea that evolution necessarily involves advances—and that these are associated with a progressive “differentiation of functions”—is not Darwin’s neutral mechanism of evolutionary change. Rather, it is the kind of historicism that we find in the theories of Herder and Lamarck, in which successive stages of development follow a scheme endorsed by providence.

This ambiguity over the word “evolution” had consequences both for anthropology as a whole, and for Mead and Bateson personally. The fact that they were “evolutionists” in such different senses gave a slant both to their ideas and to the styles of their work. Gregory Bateson’s background was pure Darwin. By studying remote peoples he could bring to light the mechanisms of individual and social development, as he also did in his later observations on paralinguistics and schizophrenia. Ethnography helped refine our ideas about human thought and adaptation; but like other subjects that are “evolutionary” in a Darwinian sense, it left wide-open all larger and more momentous questions about history and progress.

In 1935, Gregory told his mother that his fiancée had a “good sound plain intelligent—almost female Darwin face.”10 But Margaret was no Darwin either physically or intellectually. Darwins have usually had something of the recluse about them and something of the detached skeptic. Given her own rationalist, agnostic, Spencer-reading ancestry she looked to anthropology for a gospel of a kind that Gregory Bateson, trained in the scientific study of human nature, could never fully share. For Margaret Mead, anthropology was thus what ethics had been for Aristotle: a field less for theorizing about abstract issues than for practical wisdom in dealing with concrete problems.

It was not, however, intellectual disagreements that drove Mead and Bateson apart after World War II. Their problem lay deeper, in a clash between two very different personalities. Margaret carried on her activities with a blunt vigor that caused her professional as well as personal problems. She never confined herself to the professional in-groups of anthropology. Her natural audience was much larger, and the orthodox procedures of the academic life were too leisurely for her.

Among “hard” scientists, going public with your ideas before colleagues have evaluated them is unprofessional; scientifically minded anthropologists expect the same restraint in a young field researcher. When Margaret Mead began her career by publishing Coming of Age in Samoa, her established colleagues were irritated. For instance, A.C. Haddon, who did pioneer work on the psychology of Australian and New Guinea natives as early as 1898, commented sniffily on the romantic tone of the Samoa book—“I see that I should have taken out not a team of psychologists but a lady novelist.”11

Nor was the antagonism Mead aroused restricted to academics with excessively tidy minds. That would be too simple. The lack of clear institutional organization in anthropology played into her hands; but, even on professional occasions, she could use her presence and powers of persuasion with more force than delicacy. Some colleagues who were friendly to her told Jane Howard of her skill in building up “cliques” or “networks” of people with the capacity to develop new lines of thought and action.12 Given the state of anthropology in the 1940s and 1950s, creating new research programs was a valuable activity, and no one can fault Mead’s energetic pursuit of new ideas and approaches.

Seeing herself as a “catalyst” and acting as one were basic to her character;13 but how she set about it rubbed many people the wrong way. In professional as much as political matters, she valued loyalty most of all. When I questioned her suggestion that the 1968 Kennedy and McCarthy Democrats were either fools or knaves, her response was not to address the point, but to ask, “Stephen, why are you being so hostile?” She liked her professional colleagues, also, to show support by accepting her own ways of formulating whatever questions happened to be at issue. She enjoyed a good intellectual game, but she preferred to decide what game was to be played. Once a question was stated as she wished, she could sit back and let the argument take its course: she did not impose answers on her fellow discussants, but she did like to control the terms of debate. If Margaret Mead was involved in a debate, she liked to be in charge.

The habit of control was also a feature of her private life. Jane Howard’s witnesses seem puzzled about two questions in particular: whether she had an exceptional “creative drive” or whether she was the victim of an exceptionally driven personality. Yet from their testimony emerges the picture of a personality of a kind the classical Greeks were quite familiar with—a person with a daemon—and, in such cases, as the Greeks well knew, the question whether she was “driving or driven” poses a false antithesis. Anyone with Mead’s unremitting energy simply cannot stop pursuing her “chosen” mission: that mission is rooted in her personality so deeply that we could say, with equal sense, that she chose her own mission, or that the mission chose her.14

Does this mean that Mead’s daemon should be given a “depth psychological” explanation? Several of Howard’s witnesses raise this as their second question: In view of her interest in psychoanalytic thought, and her collaboration with so many analysts, why did she so consistently avoid going into analysis herself? As they see it, her reasons for evading analysis, despite all the pains and vicissitudes of her private life, rested on a deep determination to deny personal frailty. Those who were close to her saw this clearly and were happy to live with it. Yet once again, though Mead’s life contains plenty of material of interest to psychoanalysts, it is not clear what such an explanation would achieve. Certainly, recurrent patterns can be seen in her ways of dealing with her personal problems; but, one may ask, would these have had the same significance in a person with a less energetic and demanding daemon?

From the moment she arrived at Barnard as a student, for instance, one such pattern made its appearance. A group of admiring friends and co-workers—composed mainly of less aggressive younger women who accepted her as a leader and the shaper of their lives—became bound together by loyalties centering on Mead. The pattern is that of an ideal family, with Margaret herself as the eternal older sister; and it repeated itself with many different groups, both personal and professional.

“I know you have always resented the fact that I haven’t cared about my family on the purely accidental count of blood relationship,” Mead wrote to her mother in 1927. “Unfortunately, I fail to see that blood relationship entitles anyone to special affection”15 From her days at Barnard on, we see Mead instead always looking for colleagues, students, and associates who, by loyally accepting her leadership, can prove that they at least are “entitled to special affection.”

This was a good way to build up a network of devoted friends in all parts of the world, although for Mead it meant she dealt largely with people who were ready to be her younger siblings. It was not so good a way to bolster her professional position; colleagues in the same discipline prefer one another on an equal footing. As time went on, Mead became a go-between or marriage broker among the various human sciences. She gave much thought to ways of doing this, her daughter recalls, writing a book on the uses of “conferences, transient clusters, and about the use of groups for research.” In meetings of the Conference on Science, Philosophy and Religion or of the Council for Intercultural Relations, at conference centers or retreat houses like Burg Wartenstein and Emmaus House, she was free to re-create her “ideal family” without transgressing the chilly conventions and procedural taboos of the Academy proper. She “used to say that a really successful conference is one in which the intensity is so great that you feel as if you are falling in love.”

Margaret Mead’s daemon also made her dominating ways hard for some to take. Howard remarks how divided were the attitudes of those who had dealings with her. There were many people who quite simply loved her, while others could not abide her and would “wince…at the sound of her voice or the sight of her face.”16 The fact is that we are not accustomed to dealing with people with daemons: once Mead exchanged her status as an academic for that of a prophet, everything depended on how one felt about her public performance. Some found it stirring, and were happy to be cast in minor roles: their affections were rewarded a hundredfold, by being accepted into Margaret’s ideal family. Others did not care to play second fiddle, and found her patronizing.

Unfortunately, this same pattern recurred in her marriages. She valued the admiration and support of men, but her feelings of love for a person she considered an equal were apparently reserved for her teacher and bosom friend, Ruth Benedict. Letters written to others by her second husband, and quoted all too lengthily in Howard’s biography,17 are painful to read even now, as the reader follows the change from admiring devotion to embittered resentment. Catherine Bateson does not criticize Margaret Mead’s behavior before her third divorce; but the way she reportedly hijacked the class Gregory was asked to teach at the New School in 1946 would have estranged any man with less good will and commitment.18

Mead used psychoanalytic themes and notions in interpreting ethnographic and cultural material; she was a frequent collaborator with Erik Erikson and other psychoanalytic writers; and she never hesitated to send troubled friends off to the analyst’s couch. But she faced her own problems unaided: “For the upper ten percent of the upper ten percent,” she rationalized, “there is no analyst.”19 Her brother-in-law, Leo Rosten, said of her,

[She] was a highly trained diagnostician herself, but she had a really shaky ego structure. She needed defenses and reinforcement against knowing herself. With the greatest affection, analysts and I would indulge Margaret in her fantasy that she didn’t need to be analyzed. 20

This hesitancy was not uncommon among her generation. Freud’s earliest English-speaking admirers often treated his theories as interesting subjects for conversation without allowing the troubling force of his methods to affect their own lives. Virginia Woolf was in touch with British psychoanalytic circles through her brother, Adrian Stephen, and her own Hogarth Press published James Strachey’s translations of Freud; yet her diaries and Leonard Woolf’s memoirs suggest she never turned to psychoanalysis as a way of handling her own mental afflictions. Margaret Mead’s own “shaky ego structure” was much less fragile. She was, as they say, “well within the normal limits of pathology”; and it cost her little to use Freud’s ideas as intellectual tools while holding them at arm’s length emotionally.

Howard goes in for some psychobiography herself, plausibly connecting Margaret Mead’s need to remain “in control”—as in her chosen role of “elder sister”—to the birth of her sister Katherine. As the first child of New England Puritans, Margaret had high standards to meet; when Katherine came, “it was Margaret who named her and Margaret who particularly loved her”; yet, despite her best efforts, Katherine died at the age of nine months. No child as conscientious as Margaret Mead could fail to feel some responsibility for Katherine’s death, or deny the pressing need to make up for that failure.21

Even at Barnard, “she began to have recurrent dreams about a murdered baby, for whose death she was somehow responsible…—a style of dream that makes me think, ‘What do I think I ought to have done and haven’t done?”‘22 And from that early time there seems to have begun that lifelong craving for recognition, and a nagging preoccupation with things that she ought to do, that were among the most familiar aspects of Mead’s creative daemon.

Margaret Mead’s daemon survived her, to dominate the bizarre controversy that was provoked, in 1983, by the criticism of her work in the book Margaret Mead and Samoa: The Making and Unmaking of an Anthropological Myth, by Derek Freeman, an Australian scholar. Howard treats this book as nothing more than a personal attack. All of her passing allusions to Freeman embody Time-like epithets. He attacks Mead “vociferously” (p. 89); is her “most vehement critic” (p. 170) and her “most vehement detractor” (p. 218); he is “storing up data to discredit” (p. 323) Mead’s account of adolescence in the Samoa of the 1920s. What could be his deeper motive? It may be, she guesses, that he was a colleague and partisan of Margaret’s embittered second husband.

Catherine Bateson is more discreet. She answers Freeman’s objections on their merits, conceding that Mead’s interpretation of her Samoan material does not stand up to criticism today as Mead herself was also quite ready to do. But she, too, treats the dispute largely as a personal one.23 Still, both writers’ accounts indicate that this public controversy was never a genuine academic discussion: rather it was made into an event by the press and television. Derek Freeman is an anthropologist with distinctive virtues: he has a special feeling for the uses of intellectual history within the anthropological tradition, and he has written particularly well about the confusions that Herbert Spencer introduced into the subject. His professional standing in no way depended on his “discrediting” Margaret Mead. No doubt, he was annoyed to have the results of his own work on Samoa eclipsed by Mead’s much earlier book; and this annoyance showed. But his worst mistake was that he let Harvard University Press sensationalize his book in advance. As a result, he was sucked into a promotional campaign on the very terrain of public opinion where Margaret Mead’s influence was most powerful and his own at its weakest.

When the storm broke, he was seen by many as blaspheming one of America’s sacred figures. Ironically, few of those who rose to Mead’s support defended her originally as a scholar: rather, they underlined her effectiveness as an advocate for anthropology and the other human sciences. A letter that the Columbia anthropologist Marvin Harris wrote to Jane Howard, for instance, includes a double-edged tribute:

She was supremely successful in almost everything she attempted. She knew how to manipulate people, how to develop and exploit networks of admirers, and how to use the media for image building…24

Her main achievement (Harris goes on) was to make people more aware of the significance of cultural differences. “Bringing the word about culture was Mead’s mission. One might even say that it was…part of her religion.”

Still, that success had great historical effect. If the public in America today is less parochial and ethnocentric than it was when the Immigration Act was passed, sixty years ago; if Americans are now more self-critical about their prejudices and practices—and one has to say “if” because it is not yet certain that the changes are irreversible—we owe those improvements to Margaret Mead’s efforts more than to anything else.

For her ideas Mead relied largely on teachers and colleagues like Franz Boas, Ruth Benedict, and Gregory Bateson. Historians will not celebrate her for any important new conceptions of her own. She never did as much for the improvement of the human sciences as she did for their advancement; and that, after all, is what she herself had aimed for. She was the Bacon of anthropology, not its Newton. As a public speaker, as an active participant in the AAAS, as an impresario of countless stimulating public conferences, she threw herself into the task of opening America’s eyes to the diversity of cultures, and everything else that followed from that momentous fact.

Mead invested her energy in this mission to bring the human sciences to the American consciousness. Those who were repelled by the manipulative aspects of her daemon often saw her work for the advancement of science as self-advancement. Yet this was a price she was ready to pay. If some people saw her that way, that was their problem, not hers. Those who could see past her prickly, managing surface knew her to be an affectionate and well-intentioned person, who found a worthy vocation, and gave herself to it unstintingly.

This Issue

December 6, 1984