Mead off

Does anybody read Margaret Mead anymore?

I’m just asking because I read this short entry by Matt at Savage Minds.

So perhaps Mead hasnt aged well. But you know who has? Jane Goodall. Whereas Meads culture and personality work has become passe (I dont recall even reading her in grad school, Benedict yes, but not Mead), Goodalls discovery of tool use among chimps in Gombe contributed to a rethinking of the culture concept in the 1970s and her conservation efforts have only grown more important.

I had to think back to my training. I did read Margaret Mead extensively (in part because of trying to understand Gregory Bateson), but I don’t think Mead was ever required reading – not even a “High Points”-type excerpt. By way of contrast, I still remember a Ruth Benedict discussion from my core cultural theory class – I was thinking about it a couple of weeks ago when Don Draper read The Chrysanthemum and the Sword. Awesome episode, by the way.

And you thought it was just a coincidence that Betty Draper was an anthropology major.

The comments on the Savage Minds post include some more thoughts, including this from Barbara Piper:

Your mention of Benedict is telling, though many readers will take it as non sequitur. Our habit of prestige citation leads us to ignore older work by anthropologists who seem out of date, but who often made the same point we now reference through a more cutting-edge anthropologist (or political scientist).
I didnt read Margaret Mead in graduate school, but I didnt read Jane Goodall either. But 30 years later I also realize that what I did read was a highly selected thin slice of anthropology designed to promote a form of anthropology that was hot at the time. Many of the people we did not read turned out to be interesting and important.

It’s worth knowing which parts of the “cutting edge” actually are a hundred years old. I find myself pointing this out all the time. But I’ve found this is more often because earlier workers knew the same problems and framed them usefully, not because they solved any of them.

Physics students may no longer read Helmholtz, but they learn what problems he solved!