First Learnings – Reading Margaret Mead

Margaret Mead, 1901-1978 (Image courtesy HiloBrow blog)
Margaret Mead, 1901-1978 (Image courtesy HiloBrow blog)

Anthropology from late 1940s to 1960s serves a useful starting point to understand how the growing breed of sociologists and anthropologists encountered experiences, people and cultures strikingly different from those which they came from. This could be true in any century, rather more so when the first Portuguese sailors arrived at the western coast of India or when the Dutch merchants disembarked on the eastern coast of India. But the post WW II period is particularly interesting and perhaps the phase when anthropology as a discipline began rising up the ladder of scientific importance and recognition.

The language used to put these cultural encounters into words, methods of observation, analytical understanding, which was largely comparative (us vs. them) – of the studies during this period reveal an exercise in building social understanding in a simple, progressive and incremental. This should be of interest now several decades later, because the current works in social sciences have left such approaches far behind discarding them as too simple.  A critique of methods in anthropology is a longer discussion. The intent here is to share the stunning clarity and analytical knife with which Mead works up her observations and experiences while studying the Pacific communities.  When in doubt about your sense of purpose in doing something, give Margaret Mead a chance to reignite the flickering flame of excitement and writing. One of her works I have immensely enjoyed reading is “Male and Female”. In First Learnings and the entire book she draws from the seven Pacific peoples she lived and worked with – the Samoans, Manus, Arapesh, Mundugumor, Tchambuli, Iatmul and Balinese. These folks in the pacific live by a completely different set of values, norms and practices. The contrast can be so strong that it can potentially throw your mental order and cognition so off balance that one may not find himself any different from those we sent to the mental asylums.

Here is an instance of her clarity as she begins to make sense of practices of the Pacific communities with that of her own – American society in 1950s. She writes,

Civilization depends on an orderly transformation of the primary experiences of childhood into the disciplined symbolism of adult life, in which walking-sticks are decorations of class or individuality, umbrellas keep the rain off, hand-bags contain everything one needs for the day, and the distinctions between food and not food are clear enough to make sword-swallowing an amusing vaudeville turn. Those who have not succeeded in making such transformations go mad, and fill our insane asylums.

She goes on to pen a masterful stroke of explanation of just what these artists, creative types, authoritarian leaders and similar types might be.

Those who keep an easy access to their own early memories but who have also talent and skill become our artists and our actors; those who can combine these early basically human experiences with vision and love of mankind become prophets; those who combine this ready access to early images with hate become dangerous demagogues – Hitlers and Mussolinis.

Mead concerns herself with the transformations that societies force upon themselves – a transformation of primary body experience into culturally approved elaborations. In less elegant words, this blog contest realities is an attempt to think and discuss such realities which seem to be conflicting yet in their own relative orders seem to be just the way the people who devised them want their social, cultural and perceptional order to be.

The paucity of ideas in the current practice in anthropology appears very confined to a few stock methods and approaches to studying society. A delightful passage in her book, looks like a fairly cool imagination of academic research in anthropology today:

Long ago in a New England village one of the villagers received a revelation from God that every one was to do exactly as he wished. Sadly, with exemplary rambunctiousness, the villagers took of their clothes and ran around on all fours like animals, making animal sounds. No one had a better idea.

The other front, on which Mead’s works score very high is the merit of her ideas about social transformation and civilizational trajectories with respect to the interaction between men and women. The problem graduate students today face is that the professors of social sciences and others which have an intersection with anthropology (like legal studies) seem to lack an appreciation for simple, logical and analytically limited methods of study. Papers not too loud on their methods get nothing better than a C or at best a B grade. This rather curious behaviour is making me read these early works with a closer eye. And I find that I can understand as well as appreciate the weight of their findings. Isn’t that an achievement of the author herself? By this I do not mean to cast early works as beyond doubt or criticism. Mead’s observations have been questioned a good deal and greater criticism was made of her inferences. While that goes on, one can at least learn from her style of writing, approach in studying Pacific communities and her extensive recording of field work.



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