Margaret Mead: Shaping the Field of Anthropology

Margaret Mead was a pioneering anthropologist born in Philadelphia in 1901. She completed her Ph.D. at Columbia University, studying under renowned anthropologists Franz Boas and Ruth Benedict.

Mead’s significant fieldwork in Samoa and New Guinea contributed novel insights into human behavior, adolescence, gender roles, and cultural evolution, challenging the existing norms and theories.

Margaret Mead Cover

Despite facing controversy and criticism over the accuracy of her work, Mead’s contributions to anthropology, her public engagement, and her work on important social issues have left a lasting legacy. In recognition of her work, she was posthumously awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1979.

Margaret Mead was a trailblazer in anthropology, challenging preconceived notions of human behavior, gender, and culture. Her pioneering fieldwork and engaging communication style brought anthropology into the mainstream, making it more accessible and relevant.

Despite controversies and critiques, Mead’s contributions to anthropology and her impact on public understanding of diverse cultures are undeniably profound.

Margaret Mead Quotes

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“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.”

Famous Quotes Hall of Fame

This first quote from Margaret made our Hall of Fame. It has resonated with nearly everyone in a time of intense public debate as to how and what our children should be taught in school.

“Children must be taught how to think not what to think.”

margaret mead
margaret mead

“Always remember that you are absolutely unique. Just like everyone else.”

Early Life and Education

Margaret Mead, one of the most influential anthropologists of the 20th century, was born on December 16, 1901, in Philadelphia. Her early experiences would ultimately shape her passion for studying human cultures and societies.

Raised in a family of academics, Mead was exposed to intellectual conversations and progressive ideas from an early age. Her grandmother, a prominent advocate for women’s rights, instilled in Mead a sense of gender equality and social justice that would later influence her work.

Mead attended Barnard College, earning a bachelor’s degree in 1923. She subsequently attended Columbia University where she studied anthropology under the tutelage of renowned anthropologist Franz Boas and his student, Ruth Benedict, who became a lifelong friend and collaborator. Mead graduated from Columbia with her Ph.D. in 1929.

Fieldwork and Major Contributions

Margaret Mead’s pioneering fieldwork, primarily in the South Pacific and Southeast Asia, transformed the way we understand culture and societal structures. Her first fieldwork was conducted in Samoa, where she studied the behaviors and attitudes of adolescent girls. The research resulted in her first book, “Coming of Age in Samoa” (1928), in which she theorized that adolescence need not be a time of stress and turmoil, as it was often described in Western societies.

In “Sex and Temperament in Three Primitive Societies” (1935), Mead explored gender roles in three New Guinea cultures. She found that societal norms and expectations, rather than biological determinism, played a larger role in shaping behaviors and roles in these societies.

Mead’s extensive research in the 1940s focused on the effects of rapid societal change on island cultures in the Pacific. Her findings highlighted the adaptive capacities of societies, providing important insights into the understanding of cultural evolution.

Impact and Controversy

Mead’s contributions to anthropology extended beyond academia. She was instrumental in popularizing anthropology, making complex ideas about culture and society accessible to a general audience. She wrote for popular magazines, delivered numerous lectures, and appeared on radio and television programs.

However, Mead’s work has not been without controversy. Critics have challenged the accuracy of her research, most notably Derek Freeman in his book “Margaret Mead and Samoa: The Making and Unmaking of an Anthropological Myth” (1983). Despite the criticisms, Mead’s influence on anthropology and her efforts to bridge the gap between academia and the public remain widely recognized.


Margaret Mead passed away on November 15, 1978, but her legacy continues to shape the field of anthropology. Her work has influenced generations of anthropologists, and her insights into human behavior and cultural diversity continue to be relevant.

Mead’s dedication to public service and her work on issues like environmental conservation, world hunger, and racial prejudice, demonstrated her belief in the application of anthropology to solve real-world problems.

In an era when many women faced significant barriers in their professional lives, Mead broke through gender barriers, carving out a successful career in a male-dominated field. She was posthumously awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1979, honoring her significant contributions to anthropology and society.

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