An Animated Introduction to the Pioneering Anthropologist Margaret Mead

Mod­ern West­ern soci­eties haven’t solved the prob­lem of sex, but Samoa has the answer. Or at least it does accord­ing to the work of influ­en­tial anthro­pol­o­gist Mar­garet Mead, sub­ject of the ani­mat­ed intro­duc­tion from Alain de Bot­ton’s School of Life above. Her men­tor Franz Boas, the founder of anthro­pol­o­gy in the Unit­ed States, saw not a world pro­gress­ing “in a lin­ear fash­ion from bar­barism to sav­agery to civ­i­liza­tion” but “teem­ing with sep­a­rate cul­tures, each with their own unique per­spec­tives, insights, and effi­cien­cies.”

Though Mead­’s time liv­ing among the natives on the dis­tant islands of Samoa came at Boas’ sug­ges­tion, she already believed that “iso­lat­ed cul­tures could serve as lab­o­ra­to­ries that would reveal ways of liv­ing that the mod­ern world had for­got­ten about, but need­ed to remem­ber.” The result­ing book, 1928’s Com­ing of Age in Samoa, turned Mead into the most famous anthro­pol­o­gist in the world. In it she describes Samoan cul­ture as “far more open and com­fort­able with sex than the mod­ern Unit­ed States. Lit­tle chil­dren in Samoa knew all about mas­tur­ba­tion, and learned about inter­course and oth­er acts through first-hand obser­va­tion, but thought of it as no more scan­dalous or wor­thy of com­ment than death or birth.”

Mead also not­ed an accep­tance of not just homo­sex­u­al­i­ty but a nat­ur­al shift in sex­u­al ori­en­ta­tion over time — a con­di­tion bound to intrigue a seri­ous schol­ar who her­self led a rather uncon­ven­tion­al life, “simul­ta­ne­ous­ly involved with suc­ces­sive hus­bands and her ever-present female lover.” Her analy­sis of Samoa, which informed the world­views of such influ­en­tial fig­ures as chil­drea­r­ing guru Ben­jamin Spock, would take on an even broad­er appeal in the 1960s, when a ris­ing coun­ter­cul­ture sought inspi­ra­tion in its push to trans­form West­ern soci­ety. Pro­po­nents of the “sex­u­al rev­o­lu­tion” and its loos­en­ing of norms found a nat­ur­al ally in Mead, and traces of her life and work remain in frag­ments of the Sum­mer of Love up to and includ­ing Hair, one of whose minor char­ac­ters has her name.

Mead also comes up in Hunter Thomp­son’s 1971 epi­taph for the coun­ter­cul­ture, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. The scene is the Nation­al Dis­trict Attor­neys Asso­ci­a­tion’s Con­fer­ence on Nar­cotics and Dan­ger­ous Drugs, at which a par­tic­i­pant sug­gests that Mead par­takes in the sub­stance known as mar­i­jua­na. The “drug expert” onstage replies thus: “At her age, if she did smoke grass, she’d have one hell of a trip.” Though Mead pub­licly showed sym­pa­thy for addicts, whom she described as “casu­al­ties of a bad­ly orga­nized soci­ety,” her own expe­ri­ences with mind-alter­ing sub­stances are less well doc­u­ment­ed. But then, her time in Samoa may well have been the only con­scious­ness-expand­ing trip she need­ed.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Jack Ker­ouac, Allen Gins­berg & Mar­garet Mead Explain the Mean­ing of “Beat” in Rare 1950s Audio Clips

A Com­plete Dig­i­ti­za­tion of Eros Mag­a­zine: The Con­tro­ver­sial 1960s Mag­a­zine on the Sex­u­al Rev­o­lu­tion

The His­to­ry of West­ern Social The­o­ry, by Alan Mac­Far­lane, Cam­bridge Uni­ver­si­ty

Anthro­pol­o­gist Claude Lévi-Strauss Remem­bered

Based in Seoul, Col­in Mar­shall writes and broad­casts on cities, lan­guage, and cul­ture. His projects include the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall, on Face­book, or on Insta­gram.

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