Margaret Mead: Human Nature and the Power of Culture
Papua New Guinea: Sex and Temperament
After a field trip to Nebraska in 1930 to study the Omaha Native Americans, she and her husband, Reo Fortune, next headed to the Sepik region of Papua New Guinea for two years. While there Mead did pioneering work on gender consciousness. She sought to discover to what extent temperamental differences between the sexes were culturally determined rather than innate. She described her findings in Sex and Temperament in Three Primitive Societies (1935) and explored the subject more deeply in the next decade with Male and Female (1949).
Mead found a different pattern of male and female behavior in each of the cultures she studied, all different from gender role expectations in the United States at that time. She found among the Arapesh a temperament for both males and females that was gentle, responsive, and cooperative. Among the Mundugumor (now Biwat), both males and females were violent and aggressive, seeking power and position. For the Tchambuli (now Chambri), male and female temperaments were distinct from each other, the woman being dominant, impersonal, and managerial and the male less responsible and more emotionally dependent. While Mead's contribution in separating biologically-based sex from socially-constructed gender was groundbreaking, she was criticized for reporting findings that seemed custom-made for her theory. For Mead, each culture represented a different type within her theory, and she downplayed or disregarded information that may have made her simple classifications untenable.
In the later stages of the Sepik trip, Mead and Fortune encountered British anthropologist Gregory Bateson, who was studying the Iatmul people. The three worked to develop a systematic explanation of the relationships between cultures and personality types. Mead discovered such an intellectual bond and temperamental affinity with Bateson that she eventually divorced Fortune and married Bateson.
Culture and Personality Studies is a school of psychological anthropology that focuses on the interaction of culture and individual personality. What part of one's personality comes from his or her culture and what part from the individual's psychological makeup? Margaret Mead and Ruth Benedict were two of the most prominent anthropologists associated with an approach in culture and personality studies that conceives of culture as a set of patterns similar to the organization of an individual personality.
This July 1933 photo shows [left to right] anthropologist Gregory Bateson with Margaret Mead and Reo Fortune, all of whom had just arrived in Sydney, Australia, from their New Guinea fieldwork. Mead and Fortune met up with Bateson just before Christmas of 1932. They did their next fieldwork near him in the Middle Sepik, resulting in an intense exchange of information and ideas.
While their collaboration in the field advanced their anthropological work, it also had personal repercussions. Mead and Fortune's marriage was effectively over at the time this photograph was taken. She filed for divorce from Fortune two years later and married Bateson in 1936.
“Group of Anthropologists Who Arrived on Macdhui.” July 1933. Gelatin silver print. Manuscript Division, Library of Congress (139a)
Early Formulation of Culture and Personality Theory
While they were together in New Guinea, Mead, Fortune, and Bateson read a draft manuscript of Ruth Benedict's classic book Patterns of Culture (1934). In that book Benedict describes cultures as integrated wholes, embodiments of personality types. Reading the manuscript led Mead, Fortune, and Bateson to discuss ways of systematically classifying people and cultures in terms of temperament. This document is probably Mead's earliest written summary of her thoughts on this topic. Fortune's name was included on the original document, but he ultimately disclaimed any responsibility for the ideas, writing in the top right corner: “I have nothing to do with this.”
Margaret Mead [and Reo Fortune]. “Summary Statement on the Problem of Personality and Culture.” Tchambuli, 1933. Page 2. Additional handwritten notes by Reo Fortune, probably June—July 1935. Typescript photocopy. Manuscript Division, Library of Congress (142)
From the discussions she had with Bateson and Fortune along the Sepik, Mead attempted, ultimately unsuccessfully, to articulate a unified theory of culture and personality. She referred to this as the theory of “squares.” It was based on a fourfold system, with “compass points” labelled North (“caring possessive”), South (“careful responsive”) , East (“careful possessive”), and West (“caring responsive”).
This is an early attempt by Mead to diagram the squares. Note that she has included the names of some of her friends on the diagram, and the names of cultures. She has put herself at the southern point, along with sociologist Helen Lynd (1894–1982). At the North she has listed Franz Boas; to the northwest, Ruth Benedict; to the northeast, Karen Horney. Tchambuli men are to the southwest and women to the northeast. Mundugumor are northern and Arapesh southern.
Tchambuli (Chambri) Lake
Mead and Fortune settled among the lake-dwelling Tchambuli (now Chambri) in early 1933. They were led there by Gregory Bateson, who studied the nearby Middle Sepik culture of Iatmul. Mead wrote of the lake: “on its black polished surface, thousands of pink and white lotuses and blue water lilies are spread, and in the early morning white osprey and blue herons stand in the shallows.”
Language Memorizing Book
While Mead was not known for her linguistic abilities, her papers include notes she kept as she studied various languages in the field, as well as language notes made by others. This is a small notebook Mead used for recording vocabulary among the Tchambuli. Mead wrote to anthropologist Clark Wissler (1870–1947), her department chairman at the American Museum of Natural History: “The language is the most difficult one we have struck.” The Tchambuli at this time numbered about 500 people, and their language was not understood outside the group.
Margaret Mead. “Tchambuli Language Memorizing Book,” ca. 1933. Holograph Manuscript. Manuscript Division, Library of Congress (178)
Tchambuli Woman Holding Baby
In contrast to her studies of the Arapesh and Mundugumor cultures, which standardized the same personality for males and females, Mead found expectations of contrasting personalities for male and female among the Tchambuli, with the woman being dominant and the man responsive. At the time Mead and Fortune studied the Tchambuli, however, many of the men were away, which may have distorted Mead's conclusions. Pictured here is a Tchambuli woman holding a baby.
Response to a Reader
Mead received a considerable amount of mail from members of the public who had read her work or heard her speak. She often responded to these letters personally, especially in earlier years. Here she answers a woman from Washington, D.C., who claimed that Mead attributes all differences between male and female personalities to environment. Mead replied that differences among people as individuals must be understood before understanding differences based on sex. She writes: “I nowhere say that there are no primary, i.e. biologically determined sex differences. I think there probably are.”
Margaret Mead. Letter to Maurine D. Burgess, August 26, 1937. Typescript carbon. Manuscript Division, Library of Congress (175)
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Gender roles are separate patterns of personality traits, mannerisms, interests, attitudes, and behaviors that are regarded as either "male" or "female" by one's culture. Gender roles are largely a product of the way in which one was raised and may not be in conformance with one's gender identity. Research shows that both genetics and environment influence the development of gender roles. As society changes, its gender roles often also change to meet the needs of the society. To this end, it has been suggested that androgynous gender roles in which both females and males are expected to display either expressive (emotion-oriented) or instrumental (goal-oriented) behaviors as called for by the situation may be better for both the individual and the society in many ways. However, this is not to say that traditional roles, reversed roles, or anything in between are inherently bad. More research is needed to better understand the influences of genetics and environment on the acquisition of gender roles and the ways in which different types of gender roles support the stability and growth of society.
Keywords Androgyny; Culture; Dyad; Gender; Gender Identity; Gender Role; Gender Stereotype; Norms; Sex; Socialization; Society; Subject; Twin Study
Gender roles have changed in many ways throughout history as well as within recent memory. In the 1950s, for example, little girls were said to be made of "sugar and spice and everything nice" and wore pastel organdy dresses and gloves to church. In the 1960s and 1970s, however, this all changed for many women; bras were discarded, and patched jeans became de rigueur. In fact, each succeeding generation has brought with it differing expectations for how men and women should act within society. Despite these changes, however, the truth is that modern society still has expectations for how men and women are to act. Although we may be more open to exceptions than were past generations, there still are expected norms of behavior for women and men in society.
Gender vs. Sex
In biosocial terms, gender is not the same as sex. Gender refers to the psychological, social, cultural, and behavioral characteristics associated with being female or male. Gender is defined by one's gender identity and learned gender role. Sex, on the other hand, refers in this context to the biological aspects of being either female or male. Genetically, females are identified by having two X chromosomes and males by having an X and a Y chromosome. In addition, sex can typically be determined from either primary or secondary sexual characteristics. Primary sexual characteristics comprise the female or male reproductive organs (i.e., the vagina, ovaries, and uterus for females and the penis, testes, and scrotum for males). Secondary sexual characteristics comprise the superficial differences between the sexes that occur with puberty (e.g., breast development and hip broadening for women and facial hair and voice deepening for men).
Biology as Gender Role Determinant
It is relatively easy to see that biology has an impact on gender and the subsequent actions and behaviors that are thought to be more relevant to either females or males. For example, no matter how much a man might want to experience giving birth, the simple fact is that he cannot, except as an observer. From this fact it is easy (if not necessarily logical) to assume that biology is destiny and, therefore, women and men have certain unalterable roles in society—for example, that women are the keepers of home and hearth because of their reproductive role, while men are the protectors and providers because of their relatively greater size and strength. However, before concluding that biology is destiny in terms of gender roles, it is important to understand that not only do gender roles differ from culture to culture, they also change over time within the same culture. Early 20th-century American culture emphasized that a woman's role was in the home. As a result, many women did not have high school educations and never held jobs; instead, they quite happily raised families and supported their husbands by keeping their households running smoothly. Nearly a century later, this gender role is no longer the norm (or at least not the only acceptable norm) and sounds quite constricting to our more educated, career-oriented 21st-century ears. If biology were the sole determinant of gender roles, such changes would not be possible.
Culture as Gender Role Determinant
In 21st-century United States culture, gender roles continue to be in a state of flux to some extent, although traditional gender roles still apply in many quarters. For example, boys are often encouraged to become strong, fast, aggressive, dominant, and achieving, while traditional roles for girls are to be sensitive, intuitive, passive, emotional, and interested in the things of home and family. However, these gender roles are culturally bound. For example, in the Tchambuli culture of New Guinea, gender roles for women include doing the fishing and manufacturing as well as controlling the power and economic life of the community. Tchambuli women also take the lead in initiating sexual relations. Tchambuli men, on the other hand, are dependent, flirtatious, and concerned with their appearance, often adorning themselves with flowers and jewelry. In the Tchambuli culture, men's interests revolve around such activities as art, games, and theatrics (Coon, 2001). If gender roles were completely biologically determined, the wide disparity between American and Tchambuli gender roles would not be possible. Therefore, it must be assumed that culture and socialization also play a part in gender role acquisition.
Society as Gender Role Determinant
Socialization is the process by which individuals learn to differentiate between what society regards as acceptable and unacceptable behavior and act in a manner that is appropriate for the needs of the society. The socialization process for teaching gender roles begins almost immediately after birth, when infant girls are typically held more gently and treated more tenderly than are infant boys, and continues as the child grows, with both mothers and fathers usually playing more roughly with their male children than with their female children. As the child continues to grow and mature, little boys are typically allowed to roam a wider territory without permission than are little girls. Similarly, boys are typically expected to run errands earlier than are girls. Whereas sons are told that "real boys don't cry" and are encouraged to control their softer emotions, girls are taught not to fight and not to show anger or aggression. In general, girls are taught to engage in expressive, or emotion-oriented, behaviors, while boys are taught to engage in instrumental, or goal-oriented, behaviors. When the disparity between the way they teach and treat their daughters and sons is pointed out to many parents, they often respond that the sexes are naturally different not only biologically but behaviorally as well.
The teaching of gender roles does not only come through obvious verbal teaching from parents and other elders in society; it also occurs in more subtle ways as well. Many people have observed that children's toys are strongly gender-typed. Girls are often given "girl" toys such as dolls, play kitchens, and similar toys that teach them traditional, socially approved gender roles for when they grow up. Boys, on the other hand, are often given sports equipment, tools, and toy trucks, all of which help prepare them to act within traditional male gender roles. Even if nothing is ever said to children about the gender-appropriateness of these toys, research has shown that by the time they reach school age, many children have already come to believe that professions such as physician, pilot, and athlete are the domain of men, while women are supposed to have careers as nurses, secretaries, or mothers (Coon, 2001).
To investigate the influence of gender-specific toys on the development of gender roles, Caldera and...