Would Margaret Mead tweet? On anthropological questions, social media, and the public sphere

Savage Minds welcomes guest blogger Rachel C. Fleming

In my first introductory anthropology class of the year, I spoke a bit about the figures I consider “founding” to cultural anthropology, and asked if anyone had heard of them. Franz Boas, I inquired? After a pause, one woman tentatively asked, “Isn’t he the father of anthropology or something?” Yes, ok, close enough. She allowed that she had learned about Boas in another anthropology class. Bronislaw Malinowski? One hand went up in the back. A bearded young man said, “I’ve heard of him, but that’s probably because my girlfriend is an anthropology major.” Yes, that would explain it. And then I asked, Margaret Mead? Silence. I was frankly taken aback. I realize her popular appeal peaked from the 1920s through the 1960s, ancient history to this generation of students. However, she is consistently remembered in our field as possibly the most famous anthropologist to date. She wrote popular columns in national magazines about sexuality, gender, and childhood in the US. Coming of Age in Samoa was a massive bestseller and is still in print. The controversy over her research in Samoa was headline news in anthropology for years. The recent bestselling novel Euphoria fictionalizes her life.

Whatever you may think about Margaret Mead, we cannot dispute that she was a major early figure in what we now call public anthropology. With the efforts of anthropologists such as David Graeber, Barbara King, Tanya Luhrmann, Jonathan Marks, Carole McGranahan, and Paul Stoller, to name just a few, we have a growing voice in the public sphere, spurred along by social media. Yet I cannot help but feel nostalgic for a time when Mead was so well known that she was widely derided in the academy as a “popularizer.” Given the value of anthropological insight for current issues—a point we all strive to make in our classes and elsewhere—I suggest that we could learn from such a popularizer now. In this blog series I will thus reconsider Mead’s work on sexuality, childhood, gender, feminist anthropology, and public change by imagining what she might make of today’s world and the questions and crises we face. 

So, would Margaret Mead tweet? Of course she would! I like to think, at least, that she would take advantage of the platform social media provides, including blogs such as Savage Minds and other forums for general readers. She would probably also make short videos that could be watched on social media. Perhaps the more interesting question is: What would she tweet or blog about? I find that Mead’s questions were, for lack of a better word, fundamentally anthropological questions. She was curious about human social rules for raising children and for gender roles, and how these varied cross-culturally. She wanted to know about “deviance” from these rules—who tends to deviate and how? She was not shy in talking about sexuality, using other cultures as a way to talk about American attitudes. She wanted to prove a woman could be an anthropologist and also studied women, which was a novel subject for the time. She was a figure in the feminist movement and wrote about women, childcare, and work for widely read women’s magazines, in articles that would no doubt have gone viral had it been possible at the time. Further, she spoke on matters of public policy and on crises of the day, including the atomic age, Vietnam, and the Cold War. She was a voice in the counter-culture movement.

But what makes her questions useful for today’s anthropologists? Aren’t they just a bit old-fashioned, formed in an era before interpretive anthropology? Yes, of course, they lack the focus on interpretation that is so important to contemporary anthropology. Her approach was also often narrow, without the holistic approach that allows for new questions to arise in the field. For the most part, she did not incorporate globalization or colonial and imperial legacies into her work, except when looking back on American society. Given that these shifts in anthropology are more or less de rigueur today, how would Mead update her approach to human social life?

In essence, I think she would use the same clear, compassionate approach to today’s problems. The issues of today mirror those of the 1960s and 70s, if her columns in Redbook are any indication, although many have become more pressing. I also think she would try to understand globalization and inequality more as a matter of power imbalance than cultural contrast. She would also have to think more about colonial and imperial legacies in the globalized perspectives of people she studied. Yet the way she asked questions is productive: how can we use the anthropological idea of culture and the variation of human perspectives to reflect on issues in our own society that everyone cares about?

Can we become as widely read or influential as Mead was in her day? Now, because stories and commentary are spread across myriad news and social media platforms, it is hard to reach a consistent audience. However, we have the power to reach many more people through multiple platforms, if what we have to say resonates with a critical mass of people. In her research and public writing, notes William O. Beeman in his preface to a collection of some of Mead’s essays on Western societies, “She wanted both for the public to learn from her experience, and for future generations of anthropologists to learn how to educate the public” (Beeman 2004: x). Above all, Beeman argues that Mead believed the anthropological approach to understanding many different perspectives could yield better ways of coping with conflict.

I am not sure that it is possible for a public intellectual in the current United States to be regarded as a popular authority figure on matters of culture or social life, much less have influence on major policy issues. Perhaps I am overstating Mead’s influence, and certainly she did not make policy decisions. However, she and other anthropologists, for better or worse, were at the table when it came to matters of culture and national security. Mead was a figure that many Americans looked to for answers to the changes they saw around them.

There are pressing issues everywhere we turn, perhaps more than at any other time in recent memory, such as shifts in gender roles and the everyday economy in many places in the world, the globally uneven influence of technology, the growing flow of migrants and refugees, and climate change. Mead found a way to think about culture and change in a way that made sense to people, by starting with basic questions about human nature, looking at cultural perspectives that seemed very different from American culture, and turning the question around to critique popular American assumptions. We have something to say, as anthropologists, and we often take these conversations beyond national and academic borders. Varied as it may be, we all feel strongly about many issues—we would not be in this field if we did not. Speaking to popular issues is something we can do well, if from a different place than the exoticism of Mead’s day. We can ask questions about human nature and look to many different points of view to critique assumptions we see around us. We do this every day in our work.

One next step, as many anthropologists have already taken, is to take these ideas beyond the classroom and our own disciplinary publications, and into popular and social media. This need not completely flatten the subtlety of our research; as Angelique Haugerud observes, “Public anthropology is not about watering down or ‘thinning’ academic work; rather, it aims to translate complicated ideas into widely intelligible and engaging language” (Haugerud 2016: 586). Perhaps most importantly, we do not have to confine our writing or commentary to the specific issues we engage in our research. We can and should use our research and ideas to comment widely on many topics. It’s what I imagine Mead would do.

Haugerud, Angelique. 2016. “Public Anthropology in 2015: Charlie Hebdo, Black Lives Matter, Migrants, and More.” American Anthropologist 118(3): 585-601.

Mead, Margaret, and William O. Beeman. 2004. Studying contemporary Western society: method and theory. Vol. 5. New York: Berghahn Books.