Margaret Mead
Exploring and Learning about other People
Photo Credit: Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division LC-USZ62-20226

"I have spent most of my life studying the lives of other peoples—faraway peoples—so Americans might better understand themselves."

Margaret Mead traveled to such places as Samoa, New Guinea, Bali, and other South Pacific lands. As an anthropologist, she wanted to study people who were as far away in culture as they were in distance.

Anthropologists study the way groups of people share beliefs, values, customs, language, and material goods. Margaret was not a scientist who talked only to other scientists. Through her writing, teaching, and public speaking, Margaret helped generations of Americans to better understand what it is to be human. She spoke out on race, gender roles, the environment, schooling, health, and child-rearing.

She also studied the act of growing up. From experience, she knew the turmoil American girls go through in their teen-age years. So, at age 23, Margaret traveled to the island of Samoa. She wanted to see if girls living in a different culture went through the same turmoil. They didn't. Samoan girls went from childhood to adulthood more easily. Their adolescent stage was much less stormy.

Margaret concluded that society causes much of the emotional crisis American girls go through. The people we grow up with, the ideas we hear, the things we learn put pressure on girls to meet certain expectations. When girls cannot meet them—or don't want to—they can go through some difficult times.

In New Guinea, Margaret found that gender roles—what's expected of men and women—differ from one society to the next. These roles depend as much on the society's culture as on biology. That is, men and women behave as they do because that's what their culture expects from them. It's not because of the differences in their bodies. The differences between the sexes, Margaret said, shouldn't be used to keep women from developing their talents.

Because she proposed many new and radical ideas, Margaret had her critics. But when she died, Margaret Mead was the world's most famous anthropologist.

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