Mead the Positivist

Via a link left by Rex in my recent post on Margaret Mead, I discovered this article entitled “Margaret Mead vs. Tony Soprano” by Micaela di Leonardo, one of the few anthropologists who has taken trying to be a public intellectual seriously, writing regular articles for The Nation.

She argues that the early Mead of Coming of Age in Samoa was not the romantic antimodernist “Technician of the Sacred” she is portrayed as being, but instead was an empiricist whose Samoa is “‘human experiment’ under ‘controlled conditions.'” She argues that it was Mead’s later book, Sex and Temperament in Three Primitive Societies, that established her place as a commentator on American sexual politics, but (contrary to how she is remembered) in a fundamentally conservative way:

Mead’s “gender malleability” statements are, in fact, lodged inside a larger argument against women’s equal rights as represented by the contemporary Soviet Union. Mead saw in the opening of all occupations to women there a “sacrifice in complexity” of culture: “The removal of all legal and economic barriers against women’s participating in the world on an equal footing with men may be in itself a standardizing move towards the wholesale stamping-out of the diversity of attitudes that is such a dearly bought product of civilization.”

She points out that “Betty Friedan in 1961 spent almost an entire chapter of her celebrated book attacking Mead’s pernicious ‘super saleswomanship’ of the Feminine Mystique” and that much of her political activity was in support of “progressive social engineering, and thus her profound commitment to the notion of disinterested science and the rule of experts”

Similarly, Mead’s war work for the American government extended into both her very successful postwar advocacy of federal funding for anthropological research and her cold warrior stance against, among other actions, antinuclear and anti-Vietnam War protests. (The latter issue led to a huge fight at the 1971 American Anthropological Association meetings, during which Mead was hissed by an antiwar audience of 700.) These political actions were overwhelmed, in popular culture, by Mead’s highly public approbation of “questing youth” from the mid-1960s forward, and the liberal feminist alliances of her last years. She even had her own character in the first stage version of Hair, who celebrated male “long hair and other flamboyant affectations,” and whose song ended in the recitative, “Kids, be whatever you are, do whatever you do, just so long as you don’t hurt anybody.”

She goes on to discuss Mead’s legacy in establishing certain kinds of stereotypes for (feminist) anthropologists in the public sphere, and the difficulties those pose for constructing a truly progressive public anthropology.

While reading this article I was tempted to do an entirely separate post on the various “Halloween costumes” di Leonardo describes: popular culture stereotypes of anthropologists. Maybe at the end of this month …

One thought on “Mead the Positivist

  1. Sometimes I wonder if we haven’t reverted back to some state before feminism. It’s like a pre-post-feminism.
    If you have Halloween costumes, include pictures, a la paper dolls. Dress up your favorite anthropologist with new adventures and disguises! Fun for the whole family!

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