The Ultimate Study: Margaret Mead as a Mother

Mary Catherine Bateson, daughter of the pioneering anthropologist, tells how her mother's research helped change marriage customs in America.

Nirit Ben Ari
Nirit Ben-Ari
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Nirit Ben Ari
Nirit Ben-Ari

Mary Catherine Bateson is American aristocracy. She is the daughter of Margaret Mead, arguably the best-known American anthropologist, and Gregory Bateson, an esteemed anthropologist, philosopher and linguist. Bateson is also an anthropologist and culture researcher, professor emeritus at George Mason University near Washington, D.C. She is the author of more than 10 books covering a range of subjects including AIDS, old age and human knowledge. Among her books is a biography of her famous mother. As we would expect of the daughter of parents whose lives were devoted to thought and research, Bateson herself seems to be a model of tolerance, restraint and broad-mindedness – as well as political correctness.

Bateson is visiting Israel as a guest of the second annual Anthropological Film Festival, which is being held next week and has been organized by the Department of Sociology and Anthropology of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem in cooperation with the Jerusalem Cinematheque.

The festival will be featuring three of the six films made by Bateson’s parents in the 1930s in Indonesia, which provide a rare glimpse into the way children were raised in certain societies before their cultures were exposed to Western influence. In their work, Mead and Gregory Bateson sought to show the impact of children’s upbringing on the formation of their personality. As the festival’s special guest, their daughter, who has herself done research in Indonesia, will be giving talks after the screenings.

My conversation with Bateson, 72, took place via Skype from her home in New Hampshire the day after the U.S. election. Her research on Indonesia helped us analyze the personality of President Barack Obama.

“I was quite worried,” she said. “I think we have not made as much progress as we should have in the direction of tolerance and interdependence. It’s always rather shocking in elections to find out that people conceive of the political process as a win-lose process, rather than visualizing a win-win process.”

Possibly only in Bateson’s America -- she lives in a remote rural region of Democratic New Hampshire - could one express the naive and heartwarming thought that following an election, there should be “a reasonable expectation of working together cooperatively.” But there is not a dollop of irony in Bateson’s remark. Indeed, she adds, “I think Obama has a very strong commitment to avoid confrontation. In order to make him a viable political candidate, people had to push him toward confrontation. His whole personal philosophy is a search for cooperation and a willingness to talk.”

I asked if she thinks this approach is related to the fact that Obama’s father was a Kenyan. The Kenyan culture, like others in Africa, is one in which direct speech and deliberate confrontation are considered brazen, while persuasion by peaceful means and indirect speech are the dominant forms of discourse and dialogue. But, according to Bateson, “this personality structure is due to the fact that Obama grew up in Indonesia, with his stepfather.” Indonesian culture, which is a fusion of Islamic culture and the pre-Islamic cultures in the islands, she adds, is one of avoidance of confrontation and emphasizes collaboration.

Cultural relativism

From a young age, Bateson, who was probably the very first baby raised according to the doctrine of Dr. Benjamin Spock, the enormously influential pediatrician and author who was also a friend of her mother’s, imbibed the idea that every culture, like every infant, has its own pace and its own reasons for selecting particular practices.

“Cultural relativism is widely misunderstood as saying anything that anybody does is okay,” Bateson says. “Before you judge a form of behavior, you have to ask: How does this behavior fit into the culture where it is learned? Why is it sometimes useful? You can still think that a particular custom is bad. You still might say you think behavior should change. For example, I think the custom known as head-hunting in New Guinea, in which young males are expected to kill someone in order to prove their masculinity, and which also exists in some big-city gangs, is not a really useful component of culture.

“At the same time,” she adds, “I am careful not to criticize another culture prematurely. Very often criticism is made before you understand how things fit together. One of the things that anthropologists can do to alleviate conflict is to explain how things fit together, how a particular behavior makes sense in context.”

Margaret Mead’s seminal book, “Coming of Age in Samoa,” published in 1928, when the author was 27; the few months of fieldwork on which it is based was conducted in the Pacific islands five years earlier. The book was written under the guidance of Mead’s adviser, Franz Boas, the father of modern anthropology and a pioneer in the study of cultures. Still, the book has been subjected to severe criticism in recent decades.

Of Mead’s study, Bateson says: “She wanted to examine whether the turbulence of adolescence is universal and due to hormones, or whether it is due to cultural expectations or some mixture of the two, which is of course is the answer. She found that the behavior of the Samoan girls, which was different from the behavior of adolescents in the contemporary United States, was a mixture of culture and biology.”

Mead observed teenage girls on an isolated island and documented their sexual behavior on the basis of conversations with them in their native language, despite the fact that she was not altogether fluent in it after only a few weeks of practice. The anthropologist’s immediate conclusion was that in contrast to adolescent girls in the United States, who experienced turbulent emotions and other difficulties during their sexual maturation owing to societal expectations that they preserve their virginity and refrain from sexual relations, the Samoan adolescents did not mature under similar pressures. Indeed, they allowed themselves greater sexual freedom, with the result that their “coming of age” crisis was less fraught.

The influence of “Coming of Age in Samoa” extended beyond academic circles. It contributed to a change in the puritanical culture that was dominant in the United States, leading to the sexual revolution of the 1960s.

However, in 1983, five years after Mead’s death, a New Zealand anthropologist, Derek Freeman, published “Margaret Mead and Samoa: The Making and Unmaking of an Anthropological Myth,” in which he debunked Mead’s key findings.

For his part, Freeman visited Samoa and claimed to have found the women Mead had interviewed in the 1920s, now in their eighth and ninth decade of life. He filmed Mead’s primary subject, a woman then in her eighties, quoting her as saying that she and her friends wanted to amuse themselves with the white woman by telling her concocted tales about imaginary sexual adventures.

Freeman argued that the stories of licentiousness were not feasible because of the patriarchal imperative of traditional Samoan culture, which held that all young brides had to be virgins. Indeed, their virginity was examined for all to see on their wedding day. According to Freeman’s long-term research, the Samoan women went along with this principle, and it is unreasonable to think that the girls in the period of Mead’s visit were sexually active.

Freeman’s book, and a documentary film of the same title that was released a few years later, sparked a firestorm in the world of anthropology. Scholars who defended Mead argued that the testimony the elderly women gave Freeman was unreliable, because they wanted to protect their reputation.

In 1998, Freeman published yet another book on the controversy: Here, again, he claimed that the young women had tricked Mead and that their sexual behavior was hormone-driven and no different from that of other adolescents elsewhere. Mary Catherine Bateson was interviewed for that book and also helped Freeman with his research materials.

How did you feel when the controversy with Freeman erupted? After all, you collaborated with him, even though he was out to tarnish your mother’s reputation as a scholar.

“I was no longer a child when Freeman’s first book appeared,” Bateson replies unemotionally. “I already had a PhD and years of teaching experience. I felt that the conflict was framed between Freeman’s approach – he argued narrowly that adolescence is biologically determined and not influenced by culture – and the approach of Mead, who maintained that, yes, the biology is there but is powerfully influenced by the cultural patterns amid which one grows up, so we are not fully determined by our biology. In other words, Freeman’s position was biological determinism; Mead’s position was human flexibility.”

Bateson objects to the theory of biological determinism, as it can “very easily shift into racism.” She says, “Racism is a form of biological determinism. And in terms of social policy, if you think that the way a child will behave as an adult is determined by the genes, why bother to have good schools? Why bother to improve the environment in which this child grows up?

“Let me give you an example. In the United States, African Americans get lower scores in IQ tests than white people. This is a fact. So we face the question: Do they get lower scores because they are genetically inferior? In other words, are the scores biologically determined or because they are culturally disadvantaged, having grown up in poor environments and gone to bad schools. If you believe that the poor average performance on the IQ tests is biologically determined, you may shrug your shoulders and say, ‘That’s the way it is.’ But if you believe it’s determined by experience and environment, then you might say we have a duty to improve that experience and enrich that environment. That is the reason I got involved in the Mead-Freeman debate: not to defend my mother, but because her ideas that behavior is culture-dependent and not genetically determined constitute important philosophical principles for our society.”

'Extended family' upbringing

The research in Samoa not only influenced Mead’s world view, but also affected her daughter, whose life embodied her mother’s research conclusions.

“One of the ideas my mother got from Samoa,” she says, when asked about the concepts that shaped her childhood, “was that the way people were connected to each other was primarily based on kinship. That meant that children had a place in many households and a lot of adults were involved in the life of every child. So in raising me, my mother very deliberately created an extended family. I spent time in many households and learned different attitudes toward the world, and the rules were different. Her approach is reflected in an African proverb which is often quoted in the United States: ‘It takes a village to raise a child.’ My mother created a village for me to grow up with, and it was the existence of that village that allowed her to pursue her career and come and go and feel that I was not abandoned.”

One of the homes in that “village” was in Israel. “My mother was invited to Israel in 1956 by the Van Leer Jerusalem Institute to give a series of lectures on immigrant absorption. I was 16 years old and I came with her,” Bateson recalls. “Two days before we were supposed to leave I announced to my mother that I wanted to stay. I stayed for about a year. The condition was that I write to colleges in the States to see if they would accept an Israeli matriculation certificate, and also that if a war broke out I would go home.Someone at Van Leer found a family for me to stay with.

“The year had a huge influence on me. It was probably the greatest intellectual challenge I ever faced, to learn Hebrew quickly enough to enter a regular high-school class and take the exams. My family is not Jewish and I had no prior connection to Hebrew.”

What prompted you to make such a brave decision?

“I was bored with my own high school in the United States, and I was at odds with my own generation. Those were the Eisenhower years, a period of great complacency in the United States and concern about the Cold War. I found Israeli young people at that time very idealistic, so I was inspired by that idealism. In my high-school class almost everyone belonged to a youth movement and planned to do their service in Nahal [a paramilitary brigade oriented at the time toward land settlement]. I admired the cooperation among the Israeli young people, in contrast to the competitiveness in the United States.”

Finally, do you think your mother contributed to a process in Western culture that brought about freedom of choice for people?

“Definitely,” says Bateson, who has been married to Dr. Barkev Kassarjian for over 50 years and has a daughter and two grandsons. “People nowadays lead their lives and make their choices in a complex pluralistic society, where they are not walking into a premade set of expectations. For example, the guests at several weddings I attended recently were the children of the couple getting married. I think the change that has occurred in marriage customs in the United States is due to the fact that we are no longer putting an emphasis on the nuclear family. As a society, we stepped back and told young people it’s all right to marry the person you fall in love with and it’s all right to pull out of the relationship if you are not happy. We are not invested in the survival of their relationships.

“My mother had a role in that conceptual shift. Historically, she was part of that movement, and she herself was divorced several times because she believed that a relationship had to be filled with vitality. But she was also in favor of people making their own decisions. That can give rise to dilemmas. For example, many women are delaying motherhood until a late age. We now have a very substantial number of women approaching 40 wanting to get pregnant and finding that it is not easy. In terms of ease of conception and likelihood of an uncomplicated pregnancy and delivery, the best time is around 20. But in terms of having the resources and the knowledge and the social choices to decide how you want to raise your child, it’s advantageous to have a child later.”

Margaret Mead in 1975. Culture and biology work together.Credit: AP
Haaretz Archive Samoan teenagers. Did they lie to Margaret Mead?Credit: Haaretz Archive
Mary Catherine Bateson. Credit: Getty Images



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