Margaret Mead: Sex and Temperament in three primitive societies

Abstract: This paper reviews the work Margaret Mead undertook by summarizing the key observations she made in her world-famous book, Sex and Temperament in three primitive societies. This paper helps us to understand how the conventional sexual division of labour based on gender roles is entirely modelled by the society we live in today and has no basis in biology. It also includes a review of her work done by other scholars and the inferences they made. 


Margaret Mead, a cultural anthropologist, writer and curator of 20th century America, was considered to be the “first woman of science.” She managed to bring in ground-breaking work by being one of the first individuals to establish the importance of distinct cultures and their impact on individual behaviours and temperaments. She inter-linked these aspects with gender and authored as many as twenty books based on her research. (“Margaret Mead Biography”, 2014) (Shankman, 2015)

Her novel, Sex and Temperament in Three Primitive Societies, released in 1935, studies three tribes in different parts of New Guinea. Mead decided to explore the lives of these three tribes- Arapesh, Mundugumor and Tchambuli- all the way from their infancy to childhood to adulthood.

Mead’s novel challenges the conventional notions regarding ‘femininity’ and ‘masculinity’ by identifying the variation in sex roles found across all cultures in the world. Her work brings about the classic discussion on ‘nature vs nurture’ and the interplay between the two in determining the differences between men and women.

In this paper I will summarize the observations made by Mead in her novel, Sex and Temperament in Three Primitive Societies while simultaneously analysing her work by providing my own reflections and a scholarly critique.


  1. The Arapesh

For the Arapesh tribe, the observations that Mead made conclude that the individuals belonging to this tribe were peace-lovers, with no awareness about concepts such as ‘war’ and the usage of ‘warfare.’ This inclination towards peace and absence of warfare directly led to a state where no individuals where required to attain leadership positions. They enjoyed many recreational activities such as gardening, hunting and some maternal-oriented activities such as raising children and taking care of them. This tribe placed a significant emphasis on ‘mildness’ and viewed it as an attractive, desirable quality. The most distinctive feature of this tribe was the involvement and role of both sexes-male and female- in so called ‘maternal roles’ such as the rearing of the child. These children then grew up to be passive, content individuals with high sense of comfort and emotional security. The tribe depicted a sense of equality in the division of labour between men and women. As mentioned above, rearing of child was a task both mother and father, performed dutifully and gave equal importance to. Therefore, Mead concluded that, “ Arapesh are predominantly maternal in their paternal aspects and feminine in their social aspects.” (Mead, 1935) (Sex and Gender Classic, n.d.)

  1. The Mundugumor

This tribe had a sharp distinction with the Arapesh because of the qualities they posses and value. The captivating feature of this tribe is the system of ‘trade’ that carries on within the family social structures. This meant that the men of the family, be it father or son, had the right to trade women in their family in exchange of another ‘wife’. Thus, the father could his trade the daughter or sister and the son could trade the sister in exchange of a wife. As a result of this, there was a sense of competition and hostility that prevailed between the father and the son. Moreover, mothers often viewed their daughters as a “sexual rival” and inhabited feelings of jealousy towards their own daughters.

In this family structure, the daughters were seen as allies to their father and the sons were seen as allies to their mother. This depicted a sort of divide in the family wherein feelings of hostility, suspicion and brutality, shared equally by both men and women, further worsened this divide. The announcement of pregnancy within the family, led to a “spousal conflict” since the birth of child (be it male or female) implied the commencement of a rivalry.

For the children in the Mundugumor tribe, the journey of life begins with negativity due to the hostile environment that they grow in. This negative experience continues for the entire life-span of the child, all the way up to adulthood.

The strong, hostile and brutal personalities of these individuals translated into their occupation as well, which made them a “head hunting tribe.” (Mead, 1935) (Sex and Gender Classic, n.d.)

  1. The Tchambuli

The Tchambulis or “lake-dwelling people” had characteristics and features that contrasted highly with that of the Arapesh and Mundugumor. In fact, they posses such unique features that they can be placed at one end of a continuum and the modern 20th century America (the time at which this book was written), at the other end.

Their tribe depicted a reversal in the roles performed by men and women, that is, the conventional sexual roles of men and women were interchanged in this society. If we were to apply the concept of instrumental and expressive roles put forward by Talcott Parsons, we can conclude that the women in this tribe performed the instrumental as well as the expressive roles. They were seen as the bread-winners and performed activities like trading, weaving and fishing to sustain the livelihoods of themselves and their families. They were also seen as providers of emotionality and nurtures wherein they not only looked after their children but also treated their husbands as little boys and not their counterparts. On the other hand, the men in this tribe took to more recreational or leisure-providing activities such as adorning and dressing up, immersing themselves in different art forms and making arrangements for different ceremonial festivals.

The dwellings that were created by these tribal people were called “houses of women” wherein women cooked, worked and enjoyed each other’s company. Men, on the other hand, resided in the “ceremonial houses.” (Mead, 1935) (Sex and Gender Classic, n.d.)

An observation can be made about how, even though, the authority is in the hands of the women, they still emerge as the primary parents and seek to balance their domestic life and professional life.


Therefore, Margaret Mead stated that, “While every culture has in some way institutionalized the roles of men and women, it has not necessarily been in terms of contrasts between the prescribed personalities of the two sexes, nor in terms of dominance or submission.” (Mead, 1935) (Sex and Gender Classic, n.d.)

Her study on these three tribes helped us in understanding how the gender roles vary on several factors such as geography, culture and conditioning. She made four conclusions from her study. First, there is no basis or foundation for “sex-linked masculine or feminine behaviour.” Second, the differences in the sexual roles of the men and women in these three tribes served as a corroboration to prove that the cultural and social conditioning of individuals had a larger impact on their behaviour as compared to their biology. Third, different cultures lead to the formation of different personalities (nurture) Fourth, the nurture of an individual was more important than the nature. (Mead, 1935)

Scholarly Critique

It is known that Mead’s autobiography, Blackberry Winter, stated the purpose for working on this book was not just to identify the stereotypical gender roles but to also observe and analyse a culture wherein the emotions varied starkly from those in the West. (Lipset, D. 2003).

Sex and Temperament served as an important historical instrument that inspired and motivated the feminist theory and movement, as well as the concept of culture.

The book receives appreciation for the constructivist view that it presents on the stereotypes associated with gender and gender roles but it has also received criticism for its “rigid cultural determinism.”

When the question of cultural or societal deviants comes into the picture, it is understood that Mead turns to a more psychological explanation acknowledging how rebels are present in every culture and how society is not always successful in “enforcing its definitions.” These individuals showcase a disparity between what the society expects from them and their innate tendencies and dispositions. (Reuter, E., 1936).

Mead’s work was praised because it depicted how sociological principles can be deduced by studying smaller, primitive societies and then can be applied to more complex, modern societies in order to get a more comprehensive understanding of them. It is claimed that her work has equal appeal amongst the sociologists and anthropologists due to the intersecting elements of society, culture and gender. (E. N. F., 1936).


Through Margaret Mead’s paper we can understand how the beliefs about the sexual division of labour in society being based on the biology of men and women is a baseless argument. It is, therefore, dangerous for the society to state the definite characteristics that women and men must posses due to their gender. It is incorrect to ascribe certain specific characters as ‘feminine’ and others as ‘masculine.’

In order to counter this problem, there is a need for acceptance of ‘feminine’ and ‘masculine’ traits in men and women both. The very categorization of traits into these brackets is the foundation of the problem. We must focus on recognizing the individual and the variety of traits they may possess, which often includes an overlap between these two categories and the culture they live in.

Mead’s work depicts an intersection between sex, gender and culture. It is pertinent even today because of the contributions it makes towards the feminist movement. Her work adds to the ideology of the liberal feminist movement which states that the humanity of individuals exceeds the differences in their biology.

Thus, after reading her work and analysing the different texts reviewing her work, we can conclude that the gender roles assigned to individuals are not innate, instead, they are shaped and modelled by the society we live in.


  1. N. F. (1936). Science Progress (1933- ), 31(121), 197-197. Retrieved from

Margaret Mead Biography. (2014). Retrieved 11 September 2019, from

Mead, M. (1935). Sex and temperament in three primitive societies (1st ed.). New York.

Lipset, D. (2003). Rereading “Sex and Temperament”: Margaret Mead’s Sepik Triptych and Its Ethnographic Critics. Anthropological Quarterly, 76(4), 693-713. Retrieved from

Reuter, E. (1936). American Journal of Sociology, 41(4), 523-525. Retrieved from

Sex and Gender Classic. [Ebook] (p. 37).

Shankman, P. (2015). Margaret Mead – Anthropology – Oxford Bibliographies – obo. Retrieved 11 September 2019, from

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Stuti Banga is a sociology and psychology student, with a keen interest in exploring the different concepts and facets of these two subjects and their intersecting areas. She is passionate about writing and researching on various topics related to sociological and psychological phenomena. She has undertaken on-field research and engaged in several volunteering programs. She wishes to inspire individuals through her work and bring a revolution in the study of social sciences in India.