Margaret Mead: Biography and Contributions

Margaret Mead is one of the most prominent figures in American anthropology. Born on the sixteenth of December 1901, in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, Mead’s research on primitive societies in the islands of the South seas gained her recognition in the anthropology community. Anthropologists over the years have travelled across the globe, attempting to study societies for their cultures. Mead began her formal higher education at DePauw University in 1919 but transferred to Barnard College the following year. She attended Columbia University for her graduate studies. During her years at Columbia, she studied with anthropologists Franz Boas and Ruth Benedict, who greatly influenced her research in anthropology.

Margaret Mead: Biography and Contributions

Following her M.A. and PhD, Margaret Mead was greatly interested in studying primitive cultures. In order to diversify her research, she travelled to several countries that were home to indigenous tribes. Her work revolves around understanding primitive societies and their cultures that are vastly different from modern western civilisation. Her work revolved around visiting and residing with primitive societies in order to develop an understanding of the people in these societies. Her works include Growing Up in New Guinea (1930), Sex and Temperament in Three Primitive Societies (1935) Balinese Character: A Photographic Analysis (1942), Continuities in Cultural Evolution (1964). Two of the countries she visited to understand primitive cultures were Samoa and New Guinea. From her visits, she published her observations in her books. The following article looks at two of her works, Coming of Age in Samoa (1928) and, Sex and Temperament in Three Primitive Societies (1935), which are prominent contributions to anthropology. Mead’s explanation for the origins of civilisation is also looked at as it is a significant explanation for the formation of civilisations and cultures.

Coming of Age in Samoa (1928)

The research looked at studying young children reaching the age of adolescence, which were in the Samoan Islands. Mead’s research looked mainly at girls and the sexual life of an adolescent within the society. Her research looked at the influence of culture on psychosexual development, proposed by Austrian psychologist Sigmund Freud. Her research compared the problems and lives of adolescents in primitive cultures with those raised in primitive culture. She aimed at looking at the influence of cultural conditions on adolescence life. Her research was conducted in a small village on the Samoan island of Ta’u. With a population of around 600 people, Mead resided in the island for six months to observe, document and interview the young women in the village. Her research consisted of 68 women between the ages of 9 to 20. Her parameters of research were on aspects of the society, few of which were daily life, education and social structures.

Daily Life

Margaret Mead noted that the members of society ignored girls in society. The birth of a child is celebrated with rituals, but a female is only noticed upon reaching puberty. Children are taught to behave appropriately by punishing poor behaviour. Contrary to Mead’s American culture, the Samoans used physical punishment as a means of discipline. However, she also noted that both men and women in society do the upbringing of a child. Mead observed the enforcement of stereotypes despite the involvement of both sexes in child care; boys are taught to fish while girls are taught childcare. Samoans also used physical development to mark allotment of tasks as Samoans did not use age bound limitations for work.


The education imparted to Samoan children is essential tasks such as weaving and fishing. Girls are also encouraged to take on tasks such as weaving as this helped in finding them a husband as their status in society is dictated on their husbands. This dictates the virtue of work being held to greater importance to a woman in the Samoan society. Girls explore their sexuality in secrecy through sexual encounters.  Male adolescents are also subjected to tasks to ensure they are competitive and aggressive. Punishment and encouragement help to groom young men. Adolescent males are expected to show a balance between bravery while being humble. They are also offered jobs such as construction workers, fishermen, carpentry (carving wood). Adolescent males are also encouraged to explore their romanticism as it increases status.

Social Structures

The notion of an ingroup and outgroup are crucial in Samoan culture. Margaret Mead notes that the group formation is instilled in children from a young age where they for groups to play. The creation of a social circle helps build relationships and uphold the social structures in Samoa. The men form groups for tasks such as leadership, the designation of work, fishing. Women form groups to help each other with domestic work and raising children. These social structures help maintain stability in society. However, Mead also noted the enforcement of strict rules within these groups. This meant that aspects such as friendships, which in western cultures are made by similarities in interests and social circles, are viewed to be of no value by Samoan girls. Friendships for Samoan women are created through familial relationships where distant relatives are acquainted with the status of a “friend”.

Mead’s work in Samoa creates questions regarding impacts of society and culture on development. The influence of society creates room for discussing social structures such as gender, norms, and culture. Following the research in Samoa,  Mead was prompted to research another primitive culture in Papua New Guinea across three tribes, where the primary role was to understand the impacts of cultural and social values on gender expression.

Sex and Temperament in Three Primitive Societies (1935)

In her visit to Papua New Guinea, she aimed to study gender roles and expression amongst three primitive native tribes. Her research looked at three tribes, the Arapesh, the Mundugumor and the Tchambuli tribe. In order to develop depth in understanding cultural practices and society, Mead resided with each tribe for six months, similar to her prior research. Her recordings and observations on gender practices and variation in gender roles were published in her book Sex and Temperament in Three Primitive Societies. The following findings were observed from her research on each tribe.

The Arapesh Tribe

Members of the tribe embodied feminine traits such as harmony, nurture, sensitivity. The traits were encouraged in both male and female members of the tribe. However, masculine traits such as aggression and violence were discouraged for all members irrespective of gender.

The Mundugumor Tribe

Members of the Mundugumor displayed traits that were considered masculine, which was a drastic difference in comparison to the Arapesh tribe. Members of the tribe displayed masculine traits such as violence and aggression. The members of the tribe were encouraged to display aggression and violence irrespective of gender.

The Tchambuli Tribe

Unlike the Arapesh and the Mundugumor tribes, where all members o adhered to singular traits irrespective of their gender, The Tchambuli tribe acknowledged a variation in gender roles. However, they practised a reversal of traditional gender roles based on masculinity and femininity. The men were submissive, gentle and passive,  while women were the were breadwinners, aggressive and violent.

The reversal of gender roles along with singularity in gender roles, irrespective of gender attributed gender expression to conditioning and socialisation. Mead’s research promoted further research into the influence of socio-cultural factors on behaviour and proved that society’s beliefs could distort gender norms despite the influences of biological factors. Her research also proved the existence of masculinity and femininity despite traditional gender traits.

Mead on Origins of Civilisation

When asked by a student what she considered to be the first sign of civilization in a culture, the expected answer was about pots, tools for hunting, grinding-stones, or religious artefacts. However, Mead stated that the earliest sign of civilisation was the first evidence of civilisation was a fractured femur bone which had healed. As the femur is the longest bone in the body, a broken femur means the individual would be unable to walk hence die from starvation or being prey to wildlife. However, a recovered femur indicated that there was another individual that took care of the injured and helped the bone heal. As a  femur takes around six weeks to heal, the indication of another individual helping and caring for the injured marked civilisation. Hence, a healed femur indicated the beginning of civilisation.


Mead’s work as an anthropologist has been widely used to understand cultural differences across the globe. Her research has helped develop further research on understanding primitive societies for those that live in the modern world. Her work as an anthropologist has been widely acclaimed for she has been known to create an understanding of civilisations and cultures. Her research on sexuality and gender in the Southeast Asian and Pacific islands has been seen as a landmark as her research on the primitive cultures approach to sex influenced the sexual revolution amongst the modern western civilisations in the 1960s. She also theorised the origins of civilisation which is still widely known to be a prominent theory in understanding the development of civilisation.  Apart from her work as an anthropologist, Mead used her research to tackle modern civilisation issues such as women’s rights, and ethnic relationships.


Blumenfeld, R. (2020). How A 15,000-Year-Old Human Bone Could Help You Through The Corona Crisis. Retrieved 8 August 2020, from–coronavirus/#5ff77e4237e9

Mead, M. (1961). Coming of age in Samoa: A psychological study of primitive youth for Western civilisation. New York: Morrow.

Mead, M. (1970). Sex and temperament in three primitive societies. New York: Morrow.

The Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica. (2020). Margaret Mead | Biography, Theory, Books, & Facts. Retrieved 8 August 2020, from

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Shubha Arvind is currently pursuing a degree in Psychology with an Open Minor at FLAME University. Her passion for culture studies, sociology and film and she aims to focus her minor around them. She actively participates in discussions and hopes to make a change. Her hobbies include playing the violin, swimming and art.