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Margaret Mead

Margaret Mead

Margaret Mead’s Coming of Age in Samoa, published in 1928, and her subsequentSex and Temperament in Three Primitive Societies (1935) revealed the ethnocentrism of previous thinking, and allied increasingly influential feminist theorising with the Standard Social Science Model. In both Britain and America, women had just won the vote, beginning the struggle for greater opportunity and equality which was to be one of the most important features of the 20th century. Margaret Mead was amongst the first of the newly emancipated to take advantage of the new possibilities opened up to women in education and employment. A doctoral student at Columbia, one of America’s most prestigious universities, subsequently a professor at the New School in New York’s bohemian Greenwich Village, and later married to Gregory Bateson – one of the founders of systemic therapy, Mead had a tremendously influential career. Her detailed ethnographic studies of three different tribal communities in Borneo and New Guinea became anthropological classics, read by undergraduates around the work and the subject of academic debates which continue to this day.

What then were her findings? Simply put, they were that among the Arapesh, both men and women were peaceful in temperament and neither men nor women made war. Among the Mundugumor, the opposite was true: both men and women were warlike in temperament. The Tchambuli were different from both. The men ‘primped’ and spent their time decorating themselves while the women worked and were the practical ones – the opposite of how it seemed in early 20th century America.

Mead’s work argued that sex and gender identity were quite distinct. Sex was a matter of biology, whilst gender was a function of socialisation – and could therefore vary tremendously between human societies. Men and women were innately little different. It was cultural experience that played a much more significant role, conditioning individual males and females into socially appropriate gender behaviour. It was a short step from this position to the argument that sexuality too was largely ‘socially constructed’. The social science orthodoxy for most of the 20th century was that, en masse, men and women were essentially bisexual, and that a combination of parenting, peer pressure and the ‘mass institutions of socialisation’ – education and the media produced individuals who experienced themselves as heterosexual. This inspired a view of those who didn’t fit into this model as deviant – whether this was to be condemned as a perversion, forgiven as a tragic personal failing, or celebrated as an act of rebellion. No accident then that is within this frame of reference that we can find fundamentalist Christian denunciations of homosexuality as a sinful ‘lifestyle choice’, allegedly psychodynamic attempts to cure it through reparative therapy, and militant liberationist sloganizing that ‘Every woman can be a lesbian’.

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