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10.5: Margaret Mead's Gender Studies

[ "article:topic", "authorname:lumen", "Margaret Mead" ]
  • Page ID
    5630
  • Coming of Age in Samoa (1928)

    In the foreword to Coming of Age in Samoa, Mead’s advisor, Franz Boas, wrote of its significance:

    Courtesy, modesty, good manners, conformity to definite ethical standards are universal, but what constitutes courtesy, modesty, very good manners, and definite ethical standards is not universal. It is instructive to know that standards differ in the most unexpected ways.[1]

    Mead’s findings suggested that the community ignores both boys and girls until they are about 15 or 16. Before then, children have no social standing within the community. Mead also found that marriage is regarded as a social and economic arrangement where wealth, rank, and job skills of the husband and wife are taken into consideration.

    150px-Samoan_taupou_girl_1896.jpg

    Figure \(\PageIndex{1}\) - Samoan girl, c. 1896

    Sex and Temperament in Three Primitive Societies (1935)

    Another influential book by Mead was Sex and Temperament in Three Primitive Societies.[2] This became a major cornerstone of the feminist movement, since it claimed that females are dominant in the Tchambuli (now spelled Chambri) Lake region of the Sepik basin of Papua New Guinea (in the western Pacific) without causing any special problems. The lack of male dominance may have been the result of the Australian administration’s outlawing of warfare. According to contemporary research, males are dominant throughout Melanesia (although some believe that female witches have special powers). Others have argued that there is still much cultural variation throughout Melanesia, and especially in the large island of New Guinea. Moreover, anthropologists often overlook the significance of networks of political influence among females. The formal male-dominated institutions typical of some areas of high population density were not, for example, present in the same way in Oksapmin, West Sepik Province, a more sparsely populated area. Cultural patterns there were different from, say, Mt. Hagen. They were closer to those described by Mead.

    Mead stated that the Arapesh people, also in the Sepik, were pacifists, although she noted that they do on occasion engage in warfare. Her observations about the sharing of garden plots among the Arapesh, the egalitarian emphasis in child rearing, and her documentation of predominantly peaceful relations among relatives are very different from the “big man” displays of dominance that were documented in more stratified New Guinea cultures – e.g. by Andrew Strathern. They are a different cultural pattern.

    In brief, her comparative study revealed a full range of contrasting gender roles:

    • “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.
    • “And 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.”

    References

    1. Franz Boas, “Preface” in Margaret Mead, Coming of Age in Samoa
    2. Mead, Margaret (2003). Sex and Temperament in Three Primitive Societies (1st Perennial ed.). New York: Perennial an impr. of HarperCollins Publ. ISBN 978-0060934958.