Thursday, November 15, 2018

Comings and goings

Margaret Mead, one of the US’s most widely known 20th century anthropologists, died 30 years ago today. Her studies of traditional cultures in the Pacific and Southeast Asia led her, early on, to develop the idea that civilised nations might have something to learn from more traditional societies, and, more specifically, that a society’s culture played a significant role in the psychosexual development of its young people. She was a firm believer in detailed observation of traditional social life, a way of study which led her, on one occasion, to include a diary as part of an academic paper. As a child, also, she is known to have started many a journal, though none lasted very long.

Mead was born in 1901 in Philadelphia, the first of five children, but raised in nearby Doylestown, Pennsylvania. Her father was a professor of finance, at the University of Pennsylvania, and her mother was a sociologist. The family moved often, so Mead’s early education was provided by her grandmother; but from 1912 to 1926 the family lived at Longland, now also known as the Margaret Mead Farmstead. She studied anthropology at Barnard College, a private women’s liberal arts college in Manhattan, receiving her degree in 1923. She transferred to Columba University for her postgraduate studies, travelling to Samoa in 1925 for fieldwork, and received her PhD in 1929. From 1926, though, she was employed by American Museum of Natural History, New York City, as assistant curator. Thereafter, her work often took her back to Southeast Asia and the Pacific.

In 1928, Mead published the first of more than 20 books - Coming of Age in Samoa - which details the sexual life of teenagers in Samoan society, providing a stark contrast to those in the United States. From her observations, she theorised that culture has a leading influence on psychosexual development, and she challenged educators to consider that the ‘civilized’ world might have something to learn from the ‘primitive’. Encyclopaedia Britannica says the book is a perennial best seller, and ‘a characteristic example of her reliance on observation rather than statistics for data’. However, EB also says that it clearly indicates her belief in cultural determinism, ‘a position that caused some later 20th-century anthropologists to question both the accuracy of her observations and the soundness of her conclusions’. Other books followed including, Growing Up in New Guinea, Sex and Temperament in Three Primitive Societies.

In 1942, Mead was promoted, at the American Museum of Natural History, to associate curator, becoming curator of ethnology in 1964 and curator emeritus in 1969. She was married three times, lastly, from 1936, to the British anthropologist Gregory Bateson, with whom she had a daughter, Mary, who also went on to become an anthropologist. In 1942, she published, with her husband, Balinese Character: A Photographic Analysis. However, the couple separated in 1947, and were divorced in 1950. She also had long-term relationships with women, notably Ruth Benedict and, for the last decades of her life, Rhoda Metraux, both of whom were also anthropologists.

Over the years, Mead became something a celebrity, and was notable for her political stances on, among other things, women’s rights, child rearing, population control, sexual morality, and world hunger. She continued publishing: Anthropology: A Human Science (1964), and Culture and Commitment (1970) for example. In 1972, she published Blackberry Winter, an autobiography of her early years. The following year, she was elected to the presidency of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. She died on 15 November 1978, and a year later later was posthumously awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the US’s highest civilian honour. Further information is available also from Wikipedia, The Philosophers’ Mail, The Institute for Intercultural Studies, or the Encyclopedia of World Biography.

The Library of Congress has an online exhibition entitled Margaret Mead: Human Nature and the Power of Culture. There are several references to diaries kept by Mead but also by her mother. On learning the she was pregnant, Mead’s mother began keeping a diary of her state of mind and daily experiences, believing these factors would affect her baby’s development. She continued the note-taking after Margaret’s birth, eventually filling thirteen notebooks with observations on minute details of Margaret’s behavior and development. The site provides an image of one page, titled Characteristics at 6 Years. The LoC website also notes that Mead, herself, started several journals as a child but did not keep any of them consistently. It provides images of pages from two such journals: one with a record of her sister’s language development, and the other of a first page in a new journal started when she was nine:

11 July 1911
‘My name is Margaret Meade. I am spending the summer on the island of Nantucket, Mass. It is boiling weather here. I went in bathing this morning, early, and I did not feel one bit cooler for it eather. Yesterday, Alace Chapmion and me decided that each of us shood write a diary, and Alace came over and showed me a book she had goten for the diary, and I have goten the same kind. I got up at six o’clock in the morning, and got dressed, then I came down and played with my little sister whose name is Elizabeth . . .’

Elsewhere, there is evidence that, as an adult, Mead kept a diary on field trips as well as personal diaries. For example, Mary Bowman-Kruhm says in her book Margaret Mead: A Biography that as an adult Mead returned to ‘making diary entries and in fact was a copious and methodical notetaker for the rest of her life.’ Also, in at least one of her academic papers (the one mentioned below) she quotes briefly from what she calls her ‘personal diary’. Furthermore, the Library of Congress, which holds her archive - Margaret Mead papers and South Pacific Ethnographic Archives, 1838-1996 - says that her field expeditions to American Samoa, Bali, and Papua New Guinea ‘are well documented by correspondence, diaries and notebooks, notes, catalogs, indexes, and other items’.

However, with one exception, none of her diaries have been published. The exception is, essentially, a scientific record of one of her anthropological projects between January and August 1932: The mountain Arapesh - IV. Diary of Events in Alitoa (Anthropological Papers of the American Museum of Natural History, Volume 40). The diary is part of a much longer paper, in which Mead’s observations are minutely analysed, and discussed. The paper can be freely downloaded from the museum’s website. Here is one extract from the diary part.

12 February 1932
‘The day was full of comings and goings. It began early in the morning with a temper tantrum of Amus’ because her father had refused to take her with him to work. Both her mother and her mother’s co-wife Alaijo were away. He finally took both the little girls with him to work sago.

Early in the morning Taumulimen washed; she and Alis set off for their bush hamlet. Since she had responded to the castor oil, there had been no more talk of her having been sorcerized, although Alis had talked a good deal about his own sorcery state, and tried to get various kinds of medicine from me.

Kule now planned that all of them should return to their bush hamlet to hunt for Balidu’s feast. He sent Soatsalamo and Mausi and the baby ahead. He, Ilautoa, and Naguel stayed, it was said, to get firewood and follow the next day. Then Kule got the idea of turning his ground house around so that the smoke of cooking would not blow into the faces of the visitors seated on Balidu’s plaza. This ground house would be needed during the feast days. He pulled it down and set up the framework again during the day.

Ombomb went to work sago early in the morning, but came back before noon and
shouted for Miduain to come up and get some yams for her family. She came up. Sinaba’i and his wife and child came soon after. Duboma-gau had joined our shoot boys at dawn.

Two young men from Boinam, the sons of Balidu’s gift friend in Boinam, appeared. After shouts, Badui came up from the garden to receive them. Maigi and Badui’s young wife who cooked for the visitors accompanied him.

Early in the morning Ombomb had seen Wabe, who at Bischu’s request had joined him in going to the Plains with the Waginara man on a sorcery investigation. It was publicly said that Wabe and Bischu had gone to the Plains to look for dogs to mark. They were planning to go by Bonaheitum, to Biligil and Kairiru, and return by Dunigi, sleeping there the next night with Ombomb’s affinal relatives (February 13) where they would be met by Ombomb and his wife who would return with them.

Ulaba’i’s brother-in-law from Numidipiheim came to see him. Whasimai, the Numidipiheim wife, stayed about all day. Ibanyos went to get pepper leaves for the visitor.’

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