Can anthropology solve big problems? Imagining Margaret Mead’s response to climate change

Climate change is the nightmare that keeps me up at night. The consensus seems to be that the world will be significantly different within my children’s lifetimes. Many places will be uninhabitable. Many if not most of the world’s great cities, which are built on waterfronts, will be flooded and destroyed by unpredictable weather events and rising oceans. The global refugee crisis will become much, much larger. The food supply will become uncertain. The American landscape and economy will be different in ways I cannot imagine, while India, where I conduct my research, will be a place exponentially more difficult for the millions of people already struggling to get by. There is a degree of uncertainty in these statements, albeit a hopeful uncertainty. Many of the predicted changes are already happening, faster than scientists had thought.

For me, climate change is a crisis so big it is hard to think about at all. Can anthropology help us think through a problem that leaves us feeling overwhelmed? I would argue that yes, anthropological thinking can tackle these thorny problems, and in fact, it’s one of the few approaches that can. The recent AAA Global Climate Change Task Force Report makes this clear, by pointing out anthropology’s unique view on historical and current adaptation. Here, I also want to look back and find some inspiration in the public anthropology of Margaret Mead, who did not hesitate to comment on thorny problems of her day.

Anthropology can be thought of as a form of mediation in many senses, as Dominic Boyer has argued. In the last post of this blog series, I suggest that Mead took on the role of a mediator in four ways, an approach that can serve us now when dealing with a problem as large and unwieldy as climate change.

First of all, Mead was a mediator between different groups. Of course, she mediated between the people she studied and the American public through her writing. While I am not sure whether she acted directly as an advocate for the interests of indigenous people, she certainly advocated for their humanity. Anthropologists have an important role in documenting and publicizing the effects of climate change, especially in marginal communities, and as climate change affects places where we work, we will be increasingly called upon to advocate. Many anthropologists—such as Kathleen Galvin, Ben Orlove, Shirley Fiske, other members of the AAA climate change task force, and myriad others including an increasing number of graduate students (see the Savage Minds series on climate change for a useful overview)—are doing this work already.

Mead was also a mediator between groups, including academics, policy makers, and the public. She participated in policy research groups and wrote columns in popular magazines. It must be remembered that Mead was primarily a curator at the American Museum of Natural History and was thus expected to talk to the public. However, it is risky for an academic anthropologist to delve into policy and popular media. Policy makers are not exactly asking for our opinions, but anthropologists could work as advisors, especially in terms of mitigating effects on poor and marginalized people. We are also good at understanding behavior through culture and perhaps persuading people to shift patterns. Further, development organizations and businesses are already using anthropological thinking. Many anthropologists have shown the international development system to be broken—at least in terms of making life better for people—and business goals most often exacerbate climate change. Yet there are many public-private initiatives that seek to address vulnerable populations and climate change. I do not suggest we stop critiquing these efforts, but what do we lose if we shut ourselves out of these conversations?

Second, Mead was a mediator between extreme views. In terms of her views on women’s changing roles in America, she was both liberal and conservative. A forthcoming article by Paul Shankman entitled “Margaret Mead and Public Anthropology: Redbook, Women’s Issues, and the 1960s” shows that she was an early advocate for abortion rights, no-fault divorce, and reducing family size. Yet Mead also felt that a woman’s role as a mother was more fundamental than her work outside the home. Importantly, though, her views changed over time. Early on in the 1960s she argued that women wanted to be married and raise children, while later in the decade she argued that women and men should have more similar roles in the household and working world, which would effectively value care work more. Here, she shows an ability to gauge her public and to change her mind as the times change, while finding common ground. As good listeners, anthropologists might be able to do the same for extreme debates about climate change.

Third, she mediated between the intimate and the enormous. From details of family life or gender roles in other places, she commented on the family or motherhood writ large in her books and columns. Larger still, she answered readers’ questions on a wide range of issues. Were she alive today, I believe she would try to understand globalization and climate change through the intimate details and context of cultural life. As Karen Ho argues, anthropology has the ability to discover a “vertical slice” of institutions, sites, or cultural forms, which allows a view in between the individual and the global. We can try to link the intimate and the macro in dealing with a problem of such enormous scale.

Finally, Mead was an important mediator between despair and optimism. In anthropology, I feel it is common to feel overwhelmed by the state of the world and the enormity of human suffering. As Sherry Ortner observes, the field has focused on “dark anthropology” of late and the parallel search for happiness or a good life. Mead found hope in the darkness. Today, the South Pacific islands where she worked are at great risk for disappearing altogether. How could she find optimism in that? Yet she strikes me as a practical soul. When asked what time in history she would most like to have lived, she replied:

“I am glad to be living today. In this period…every living person is given opportunities for significant action. We are faced with the need not only to preserve ourselves, our children, our country, and our values, but also to preserve the whole world from the threat of possible destruction.” (Mead 1979: 252)

There is work to be done. Anthropologists are curious and knowledgeable about humanity’s tendencies in crisis. Humanity does not have a good record. Margaret Atwood, who also understands this, writes here about how she believes climate change will play out. Perhaps we are insignificant in the face of such odds. Other global capitalist entities hold the power cards. However, if we wish to make this impending crisis less severe, I doubt we can do it alone. In response to the opening question, no, I do not think anthropology can solve big problems like climate change. However, mediating may be what anthropology has to offer.


Mead, Margaret. 1979. Margaret Mead: Some Personal Views. Rhoda Metraux, ed. New York: Walker and Company.

5 thoughts on “Can anthropology solve big problems? Imagining Margaret Mead’s response to climate change

  1. if we wish to make this impending crisis less severe, I doubt we can do it alone. In response to the opening question, no, I do not think anthropology can solve big problems like climate change. However, mediating may be what anthropology has to offer.

    Compare with the following statement by IDEO founder Tom Kelley in his Ten Faces of Innovation/

    The Anthropologist is rarely stationary. Rather, this is the person who ventures into the field to observe how people interact with products, services, and experiences in order to come up with new innovations. The Anthropologist is extremely good at reframing a problem in a new way, humanizing the scientific method to apply it to daily life. Anthropologists share such distinguishing characteristics as the wisdom to observe with a truly open mind; empathy; intuition; the ability to “see” things that have gone unnoticed; a tendency to keep running lists of innovative concepts worth emulating and problems that need solving; and a way of seeking inspiration in unusual places.

    Three questions.

    How do these two visions fit together?
    Where there is friction, how can it be resolved?
    How should training to be an anthropologist be changed to make us more effective mediators and/or sources of useful insight?

  2. John, this is certainly a related point, as anthropologists reframing issues may indeed be mediating ideas. Regarding the issue of friction, difficulties come when–for example–anthropologists bring up ideas powerful groups do not want to hear. Mediation implies a smooth melding of viewpoints but actually often has the characteristics of conflict, especially bringing to light the perspectives of people who have less power and thus challenging the status quo.

    Lee, you bring up an interesting point, and there is an element of elite self-righteousness to environmentalism. However, if the norm is climate fluctuation, this also will affect a lot of people regardless of whether it is caused by humans. My question is more, in the event of mass displacements or significant changes to our landscape and economic systems, is there (or should there be) a role for anthropology?

  3. My question is more, in the event of mass displacements or significant changes to our landscape and economic systems, is there (or should there be) a role for anthropology?

    There could be, and mediation may be a role worth considering. Consider my daughter. After growing up in Japan and graduating from an international school where her fellow students were from multiple countries, she later did a masters in public policy at the Kennedy School at Harvard. There her fellow students were from many different countries and when thrown together in project teams found it difficult to deal with cultural differences. Thanks to her international school experience, my daughter was comfortable in these situations and found herself leading teams because of her ability to mediate these differences. The leadership training she got at the U.S. Naval Academy was also, I suspect, an important factor.

    Suppose that we were to ask what anthropological training might add to the multicultural experience that my daughter and other “third culture kids” educated at international schools already bring to the marketplace and efforts to formulate public policy to address those mass displacements you mention.

  4. Apologies if I am man-splaining, but did you know that Mead was involved in some of the very early work on anthropogenic climate change? She was on LBJ’s science panel in 64 and 65 (see Jeffrey Howe’s “Behind the Curve” for details) and in 1975 was involved in a conference with Stephen Schneider…. I don’t know if she was the one who switched Gregory Bateson onto climate change, but he was warning about it by 1967 at the latest (at the Dialectics of Liberation conference)

    Nice blog, btw!

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