Margaret Mead vs. Tony Soprano
Mead's early anthropological work reflected both developing British and American concerns: She did careful kinship and social organizational research in Samoa and New Guinea, and studied what she construed to be varying cultural temperaments--characteristic psychological states--and their connections to sex roles and life cycles. But by 1935, when she published the widely read Sex and Temperament in Three Primitive Societies, her analytic twig was permanently bent in the Americanist psychological, "culture and personality" direction. Sex and Temperament, rather than Coming of Age, is the work in which Mead makes her clearest arguments concerning the plasticity of human sex role arrangements: "Many, if not all, of the personality traits that we have called masculine or feminine are as lightly linked to sex as are the clothing, the manners, and the form of head-dress that a society at a given period assigns to either sex.... We are forced to conclude that human nature is almost unbelievably malleable."
This is the modal Mead, the ur-popular culture anthropologist who was rediscovered by Second Wave feminists, assigned all over the academy and read aloud in consciousness-raising groups in the 1970s. It is important to remember, though, that every generation reads selectively. Mead's "gender malleability" statements are, in fact, lodged inside a larger argument against women's equal rights as represented by the contemporary Soviet Union. Mead saw in the opening of all occupations to women there a "sacrifice in complexity" of culture: "The removal of all legal and economic barriers against women's participating in the world on an equal footing with men may be in itself a standardizing move towards the wholesale stamping-out of the diversity of attitudes that is such a dearly bought product of civilization."
Ironically, the very popular troping of anthropology for political purposes has contributed to the discipline's unpolitical reputation. Explicitly political statements in anthropological texts vanish in the course of reading, the discipline's pioneering anti-racism and near-implosion over Vietnam have succumbed to the culture of forgetting, and the long-vital left tradition in anthropology worldwide is popularly and often even professionally invisible. When I gave an early talk on Mead for a group of women's studies professors, a senior political scientist exclaimed afterward that she was surprised to learn that Mead "had any politics." All God's anthropologists got politics, most especially the very public Margaret Mead.
Those politics varied considerably over the long decades of Depression, war, decolonization and cold war, and the 1960s and 1970s conjuncture of Vietnam, civil rights, the Second Wave of feminism and associated gay rights organizing. The one common thread across the decades, though, was Mead's adherence to Progressive social engineering, and thus her profound commitment to the notion of disinterested science and the rule of experts. In terms of gender, from the 1930s until the early 1970s, when she did take on a liberal feminist stance, Mead embraced the conservative Freudian notion of the universal "constructive receptivity of the female and the vigorous outgoing constructive activity of the male." While Mead continued to argue against isolated, narrow nuclear families, and for careers for better-off women as long as they were "womanly" both at home and at work, it is no wonder that Betty Friedan in 1961 spent almost an entire chapter of her celebrated book attacking Mead's pernicious "super saleswomanship" of the Feminine Mystique. It is equally unsurprising that Second Wave feminists, in rediscovering both Friedan and Mead for their own purposes, read Friedan as selectively as they (we) did Mead.
Similarly, Mead's war work for the American government extended into both her very successful postwar advocacy of federal funding for anthropological research and her cold warrior stance against, among other actions, antinuclear and anti-Vietnam War protests. (The latter issue led to a huge fight at the 1971 American Anthropological Association meetings, during which Mead was hissed by an antiwar audience of 700.) These political actions were overwhelmed, in popular culture, by Mead's highly public approbation of "questing youth" from the mid-1960s forward, and the liberal feminist alliances of her last years. She even had her own character in the first stage version of Hair, who celebrated male "long hair and other flamboyant affectations," and whose song ended in the recitative, "Kids, be whatever you are, do whatever you do, just so long as you don't hurt anybody."
Hair's sendup of Mead followed her thinly disguised appearance as a famous older female anthropologist in Irving Wallace's sleazy 1963 potboiler, The Three Sirens: "She thought of the place: the temperate trade winds, the tall, sinewy, bronze people, the oral legends, the orgiastic rites." The sexual imputations in both texts return us to consideration of my morning journalist and Tony Soprano. Like all occupational groups, anthropologists have traditions of internal self-reference, but ours have intersected in particularly damaging ways with the changing Zeitgeist. From Clyde Kluckhohn's 1940s boast that we were all "eccentrics" "interested in bizarre things," to Clifford Geertz's 1984 reference to anthropologists as "merchants of astonishment," many of us have enjoyed exoticizing ourselves, playing, as I have written, the court jesters of academe. While some of this self-exoticization has always arisen from identification with oppressed populations, the overall effect of the court jester construction is dire. Anthropologists have become the American public's "exotics at home," identified with our demonized, trivialized subjects, or rather, those who are presumed to be our sole subjects--non-Westerners around the globe, the poor, the nonwhite, and sexual minorities in every country. And, of course, in double irony, the numbers of nonwhite, non-Western and/or gay anthropologists, never insignificant, grow larger every year. By a process of infinite recursion, the stigmatized figurings of subjects and researchers repeatedly rub off on one another, denying dignity, history and human rights to domestic and foreign "exotics," and stripping anthropologists of the intellectual authority with which to contribute to progressive politics.
Ironically, the "exotics at home" complex also reifies the discipline's long historical game of peekaboo with Americanist research. Mead's own master's thesis concerned the link between exposure to English and IQ test results among Italian-American schoolchildren in New Jersey (Tony and Carmela's grandparents!), and significant numbers of anthropologists have done United States fieldwork in every decade since. All of the Barnard conference senior panelists, for example, are engaged in Americanist research. But in the grand adaptive radiation of disciplinary institutionalization as American universities grew over the twentieth century, anthropology was defined in contradistinction to sociology as the study of non-Westerners (and based on ethnographic rather than quantitative methodology), perpetrating falsehoods about actual work being done in both fields. Since at least the 1940s, anthropologists and middlebrow media have repeatedly "discovered" that anthropology is "just now coming home." In 1974 Time declared that
the gimmick is that anthropologists, after decades of following Margaret Mead to Samoa and Bronislaw Malinowski to the Trobriand Islands, have staked out new territory.... U.S. anthropology, it seems, must recognize that the primary tribe to study is the Americans.
But then, fifteen years later, the New York Times Book Review declared:
Pity the poor anthropologist. She has trekked the highlands, machetied the jungles, sifted the sands for new tribes to study. But the Ik have been exposed, the Tasaday tallied. What's left? Increasingly, today's would-be Meads and Benedicts are turning in their bush jackets for tweeds, for some easy poking around in their own backyards--where, lo and behold, they unearth practices as alien to Western norms as any found in the heart of New Guinea.