Book of the week: Margaret Mead: The Making of an American Icon

January 1, 2009

For an academic, the anthropologist Margaret Mead (1901-78) attracted a great deal of attention. She appeared on a US postage stamp, in cartoons, on TV, before Congress, in FBI files, in children's books, and as a character in the musical Hair. She was lobbied to stand for President, and variously described as "American icon", "public intellectual", "new woman", "supersister", "visible scientist" and "Mother of the Nation".

Always a prolific author, bridging the borderline between academic and popular discourse, she kept up with new technologies. Mead pioneered academic engagement with television in the 1950s by fronting documentaries and discussion programmes. She also served as an adviser on the first reality-TV show, An American Family, which she saw as a kind of popular public anthropology. With a talent for soundbites, she shocked a 1960s TV audience by referring to her "post-menopausal zest", and with this phrase became a champion for older women in a social agenda preoccupied with women as mothers and wives.

Yet it was through one book and one piece of research that Mead first grabbed public attention while still in her twenties, and for which she remains most famous today. In Coming of Age in Samoa, based on nine months of anthropological fieldwork, Mead claimed that Samoan teenage girls experienced neither the sexual restrictions nor the psychological problems of their Western counterparts. The claim was presented, and widely accepted, as significant evidence in the debate between biological determinism and cultural relativism. Published in 1928, the work has a claim to be one of the most influential academic books of the century.

It stimulated debate on the most controversial topics of the 20th century: adolescence and its crises, free love, feminism, sexual diversity, radical childrearing and libertarian education. (Mead influenced both Dr Spock and Bertrand Russell.)

Mead's work not only profoundly affected the subsequent direction of thought on the causes of human behaviour, it also caught the public and media imagination. It translated easily into good newspaper copy. Journalists pounced on photos of this plucky but vulnerable young female scientist with a bobbed hairdo living among licentious savages and talking to them about their sex lives. The racy cover of the book's first edition featured a half-naked couple frolicking hand in hand among palm trees. Crucial, too, was the extent of the conclusions Mead was prepared to draw. Following a last-minute suggestion by her publisher, she added concluding chapters discussing "what all this means to Americans". The result was an extraordinary contribution by this book to Western society's self-perception and to a revolution in its attitudes to sexuality.

The price of such influence is inevitable opposition, and it came in plenty and continues. To this day, the neoconservative Intercollegiate Studies Institute ranks Coming of Age in Samoa at number one in its intriguing list of "fifty worst books of the 20th century" ( Meanwhile, leftist critics recast Mead as a paternalist, interfering American, self-servingly using the peoples she befriended to further her own career and then sermonising on her return home.

Fellow academics accused her of having "ignored or downplayed data that did not conform to the cultural pattern she was interested in seeing". Most damningly and most famously of all, anthropologist Derek Freeman claimed after her death that her Samoan informants had been simply spinning her along, making up stories of sexual licence that the gullible young Mead had readily believed, when in fact their upbringing was as strict as any in the world. He had a sworn affidavit from one of them, the now-elderly Fa'apua'a Fa'amu, to prove it.

Activity of such quantity and controversy gives the writer about Mead a hard task indeed. A conventional biography would overwhelm the reader with detail, deterring all but the most determined Meadophile, and very likely losing the larger picture in the process, while an assessment of Mead's ideas - an "intellectual biography" - could easily slide into either hagiography or demonography. Nancy C. Lutkehaus has nimbly stepped between the two traps. Although the framework is loosely chronological, her book spares us a plodding progression through events. It is organised instead in thematic chapters around the various public faces of Mead, copiously supplementing discussion with photographs and illustrations, tucking the scholarly evidence away in 60 pages of notes at the back.

Most importantly, Lutkehaus avoids the temptation of simplistically branding Mead as "right" or "wrong". For despite Freeman's triumphalist indictment, there cannot be any final "proof" one way or the other on the issue of whether Fa'apua'a Fa'amu was lying 80 years ago. There are too many complicating factors. In any society, what we are prepared to say in private and public are seldom the same. What one young woman might be prepared to admit to another (Mead) may differ from what an elderly woman might tell an old man (Freeman), especially when she and her country have adopted Christian mores in the meantime. And if someone can lie once to be sensational, they can surely do it again. We will never know.

That Mead was predisposed to see things in a particular way, whatever the evidence, seems a reasonable charge. Yet although it has been seized upon with glee by relativists and biological determinists in turn, the controversy over Mead leaves the nature/nurture debate as unresolved as ever. Even if Mead's evidence was wrong, although it ceases to provide support for the relativist case, it does not undermine it either, any more than the Piltdown fraud (which faked a skull of the so-called missing link) disproves Darwin. Human behaviour is a complex interplay between inherited and acquired characteristics, in which the two cannot be easily separated, and the "answer" to the debate is a question of varying perspectives rather than hard fact.

What emerges powerfully from this book is that Mead's work has far more to tell us about Western culture than Samoa or any of the other "primitive" societies she worked in. She is more important for how she influenced events than for how she described them, and the ways in which her claims about coming of age in Samoa caught and inflamed ideas about coming of age in the West.

Among her soundbites, Mead is credited with "Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world" - although no one, not even Lutkehaus, can find its source. Mead shaped currents of popular and academic Western 20th-century thought, embodying the "observer's paradox" that bedevils anthropology: that the observation of an event is influenced by the observer's presence.

This book, however, rises above that conundrum as much as is humanly possible. Although, in Mead's own words, "observation is an act of love", and although the author was not only Mead's student but also her assistant, Lutkehaus provides a fair and fascinating account of her multifaceted subject, making this as intriguing and thought-provoking a biography as one could wish for.


Nancy Lutkehaus, who attended Barnard College and Columbia University, was inspired to go to Papua New Guinea for her dissertation research by Margaret Mead, for whom she was working at the American Museum of Natural History.

The Pacific Islands' "small-scale traditional societies" have remained a focus in her research. While on Manam Island, she was "a bit worried" to be living near a still-active volcano, keeping her notes in a metal box ready for a swift exit.

Lutkehaus is, she believes, the "last of a breed" of anthropologists who travel the world to find and study societies, but she argues that "the strength of anthropology is an interest in everything humans do."

With the birth of her son in 1998, fieldwork had to take a back seat, and she turned her attention to writing about Mead as a cultural icon instead. She plans future fieldwork on local adaptations to natural disasters.

She is learning to play the ukulele, although she says her talent runs only to "folk songs and She'll Be Coming Round the Mountain ... but I'm getting better.

Margaret Mead: The Making of an American Icon

By Nancy C. Lutkehaus

Princeton University Press 392pp, £17.95

ISBN 9780691009414

Published 13 November 2008Margaret Mead: The Making of an American Icon

By Nancy C. Lutkehaus

Princeton University Press 392pp, £17.95

ISBN 9780691009414

Published 13 November 2008

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