Margaret Mead, Anthropologist: Theories & Overview

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  • 0:01 Early Life
  • 1:01 Educational Journey
  • 1:58 Society's Influence on…
  • 2:44 Gender Consciousness &…
  • 3:36 Personal & Professional Life
  • 4:57 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Diane Davis
Study the life and work of the anthropologist Margaret Mead, and learn how her observations and theories have influenced the areas of anthropology, psychology, and women's rights.

Early Life

Margaret Mead was born in Philadelphia on December 16, 1901, and grew up in a household that included three generations of educators. She was the oldest of five children. Her parents were social scientists who placed great emphasis on education and social issues. Her mother was a well-educated social reformer, and her father was an economist and a professor at the Wharton School of Finance and Commerce at the University of Pennsylvania.

Margaret was home-schooled by her grandmother for much of her childhood. She was observed by her mother and grandmother and was encouraged to observe and record the development of her younger siblings. Margaret learned early to be a keen observer of the world around her. The family moved frequently, so at a young age, Margaret had to adjust to many changes in surroundings and people. She learned that it was necessary to write things down, keeping track of neighbors' names and addresses and the medical histories of herself and her siblings.

Educational Journey

Margaret attended the all-women's Barnard College in New York City in 1920. After taking classes in anthropology with Franz Boas (1858-1942), often considered the father of modern American anthropology, and his teaching assistant, Ruth Benedict (1887-1948), she decided to become an anthropologist. An anthropologist studies all types of cultures.

Margaret earned her PhD from Columbia University in 1929. Boas and Benedict gave her a goal to document cultures before they disappeared. Mead and Benedict soon became colleagues and developed a lasting friendship. They exchanged ideas and read all of each other's writings until Benedict's death in 1948.

As an anthropologist, Margaret sought to apply the principles of anthropology and the social sciences to social problems and issues, such as world hunger, childhood education, and mental health. She was constantly observing and gathering information in all kinds of settings.

Society's Influence on Gender Roles

As a graduate student, fieldwork sent Margaret to Samoa, where she was able to observe and compare Samoan adolescent girls to American adolescent girls. She made the observation that society dictates personality more than genetics or biology. Samoan women spent time dating and participating in casual sex before they settled down to raise families, without any consequence on their future.

Margaret published her first book when she returned from her studies. The book was titled Coming of Age in Samoa, and in it she theorized that gender roles are created by societal influences and not anything biological. These theories helped influence the way that women behave today in a variety of situations, such as in dating and in relationships with men.

Gender Consciousness and Imprinting

During her research among three tribes in New Guinea, Margaret did pioneering work on gender consciousness. She sought to discover to what extent temperamental differences between the sexes were culturally determined rather than innate. Mead found a different pattern of male and female behavior in each of the cultures she studied, all different from gender role expectations in the United States at that time.

In addition, Margaret Mead was the first anthropologist to study child-rearing practices and learning theory within social groups. Based on her observations, she proposed that children learned through imprinting. Imprinting is when children learn by watching adult behavior.

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