Anthropologist, Margaret Mead, expanded cultural awareness in American society. Her cross-cultural studies provided a greater international understanding of human complexities in age and gender. She set an
example for women and changed the ideals of traditional Western society.
Mead traveled to the South Seas to study adolescence, mainly female, in the primitive culture. The goal was to discover weather or not emotional turmoil in adolescence was caused by inborn characteristics, or experiential influences. Scientifically proving correlations and differences would help better understand human behavior.
Beginning her journey, she ventured off to Samoa. To become more involved in the scientific process, she created a new system of gathering information, which consisted of her participating in the group as a Somoan adolescent. She ate native meals, dressed in their clothing, slept on thin pads in huts, became informed of and spoke their language, acted with their manners, and participated in their customs as an adolescent girl in that society would have. By doing this, she became the first person to know a primitive culture intimately.
She discovered that Somoan adolescence was a time of comfort, which was strikingly opposite compared to that of the teenagers in American societies. The primitive culture raised their children as a collective extended family, which in result, lessened the stresses of individual hopes of parents, reduced attachment issues, and broadened the availability of affection. The developing youngsters also had no shame in their sexual lives; they were gaining experience, not looking for love. On the other hand, the United States mainly consisted of nuclear families. In comparison, these small families produced more anxieties and pressures on teenagers. Also, Americans were frowned upon if they had sexual relations prior to marriage.
Her findings, from the attitudes of teenagers, expanded her research. She broadened her analysis to gender and disposition in adults. Americans, during that time, classified females as passive and males as aggressive. To find out if these generalizations of the sexes were universal or caused by upbringing, she traveled to New Guinea to study more primitive cultures. Which, in turn, lead to the book she wrote, “Sex and Temperament in Three Primitive Societies.”
Starting out, she studied the mountain tribe of Arapesh. Both of the sexes were predominately, according to western tradition, feminine. It was a culture whose focus was on growth, that of crops, and that of children. The men hunted as a crew, working together for the good of the entire tribe. Hostility was unacceptable in their traditions and they promoted peace in their society. The only gender difference they practiced was secluding woman during their menstrual cycles.
From there, she came across the river tribe of Mundugumor, whose people were a complete polar opposite of that of the Arapesh. Both sexes of their society were ruled by the masculine forces, which excluded all softness of character. Women were vulgar in their natures, treating their children crudely, and their lovers violently. Men had several wives and traded their daughters to other families in exchange for other women. This practice caused rivalry between fathers and sons, who would fight for the new bride. Their system of creating new generations was the cause of their violent temperaments.
Next, Mead found a tribe, the Tchambuli, whose customs were reverse compared to Americans. The males in this culture were found mainly in their homes decorating for ceremonies. Females on the other hand, banded together to make nets to trade for other goods. The men were the homemakers and the women were the workers.
The wide diversity that the Arapesh, Mundugumor, and Tchambuli cultures exhibited in attitudes, answered the question of nature vs. nurture. These three villages proved that their systems of society, or cultural conditionings, were the causes of their temperaments, not their inborn characteristic. The theory that masculine and feminine roles were innate and unchangeable, was disproved.
After bringing this information back to Western society, a change was set in motion and doors were opened, for both women, and men. Gender based roles in America began to redirect courses. Feminism sprouted with women who voiced their opinions on their rights to work and to share duties with men. Other issues, such as, child care facilities, birth control, and abortion were brought into thought. On the contrary, men found themselves beginning to take on house hold chores and child care responsibilities. This produced a quest for balance in relationships.
Marriage and living arrangements also made turn in direction. Prior to the knowledge of variance in cultures, men and women couples were only accepted in American society. That progressed to homosexuals and lesbians, who began to date and live with one another, no longer in secret. Heterosexual lovers also started sharing homes, and having children without getting married.
Mead’s contributions to the United States opened new doors of thought and ways of viewing contemporary society. Her studies in primitive areas around the world provided insight to the fields of psychology and anthropology, and also, brought solutions to unanswered questions. She became a profound figure in women’s rights and was respected for her diverse views of civilization as a whole.