Cultural Anthropology

The Accomplishments of Franz Boas and Margaret Mead



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Franz Boas and Margaret Mead are the parents of American Anthropology. Dedicating their entire lives to the study of other cultures, the two developed methods of study, lived in harsh conditions, and faced heavy criticism in their lifetimes.

Franz Boas is considered to be "the founding father of American Anthropology." In 1883, Boaz went to the Canadian Arctic as a geographer to map the coastline and to study the Inuit (Eskimo). He wanted to gain the knowledge of the routes the Inuit used to travel. Boaz was intrigued by the Inuit's knowledge of geography. They were exceptional map makers and drew maps in the snow of the terrain that could easily be recognized. The Inuit knew the distances between places by the days it took to travel there. One of the key anthropological issues was what affected the culture of the Inuit. Boaz realized that the Inuit culture was not restricted by its environment.

Boaz and his colleague, George Hunt, stayed with the Kwakiutl and studied their culture. After publishing papers on the Kwakiutl, he got a job as Curator of the Museum of Natural History in New York while he was also a professor at Columbia University. He collected artifacts from different tribes. Since he lived among these people, he was able to explain exactly what each artifact was. He also realized that the language of the people was also part of their culture.

Boaz was appointed to a project by the government to study immigrants coming into the United States. He studied different races to see if "racial characteristics place limitations on your human potential." He concluded that race was a very small factor in the biology of humans. Just before he died at a supper in Paris, his last words were that he had a new theory about race.

Margaret Mead was a student of Franz Boas at Barnard College in New York City. Boas was caught in the middle of the nature versus nurture debate. She was interested in adolescence and if it was as stressful for children of other cultures as with was for Americans and Europeans. She convinced Boas to get funding for her to study in American Samoa on Tau island to complete her graduate studies.

Her most interesting work took place in Samoa, children were very care free. They had fun and did not have many pressures. A girl may even have multiple sex partners before choosing a partner. Mead did not get too involved in the village. She lived there for only six months in 1925 and chose to live with an American family in Samoa. Also, because there was a Christian mission on the island, several of the girls she interviewed spoke English. Her first book was entitled "Coming of Age in Samoa." She took a new perspective with the book, writing for the average reader rather than using fancy terms only an anthropologist would know.

She returned to the United States where she became Assistant Curator at the Museum of Natural History in New York. She also divorced her first husband Luther Cressman and married Reo Fortune. Together with her new husband, she went to study in New Guinea.

Off the northern coast of New Guinea, they studied the people of the Manus Island. At that time, the people of the island actually lived in the sea. There was not land but the little island of Manus a half of a mile away. They lived in homes built on stilts. Mead and Fortune had a home built especially for them, to study the people. Again, she studied children, but this time studied their imagination. She collected thousands of children's drawings. She wanted to see if children could raised differently than their parents. This study at Pere Village would influence her life forever. In 1935, She published "Sex and Temperament." She concluded that sex and temperament was influenced by the culture.

Her next study led her to Bali in 1936, after she had divorced Fortune and married Gregory Bateson. Her and her new husband chose to study child development. She wanted to see how the personality of a child was affected by the culture. They took a different approach at studying the people on Bali. They did field observations but also documented everything using photography.

When they returned from Bali in 1939, Mead's only child, Mary Catherine Bateson, was born. Her pediatrician was the famous Dr. Benjamin Spock. Mary's childhood was followed very closely. Dr. Spock would go on to write a book from his research with Mary which would influence the childhood of many baby boomers.

During World War II, Mead was recruited to study the differences between American soldiers and British girls. She went to London to investigate the problem of why each group considered the other immoral, a key anthropological issue of the time.

After World War II, Mead divorced Bateson. She also returned to Manus Island, 25 years later to study the effects of the war on the people. The people no longer lived on the water. They moved their homes to the island. Americans had occupied the island during World War II and they affected the society greatly. They began to wear Western clothing, listened to Western music, and attended universities. Over the next 50 years, she went there 7 times, leaving for good in 1975. Mead died in 1978 of Cancer. There is now a community center dedicated to her.

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