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Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Mead did not dispute the patriarchy

Margaret Mead was famous as:
She was both a popularizer of the insights of anthropology into modern American and Western culture and a respected, if controversial, academic anthropologist. Her reports about the attitudes towards sex in South Pacific and Southeast Asian traditional cultures amply informed the 1960s sexual revolution. Mead was a champion of broadened sexual mores within a context of traditional western religious life.
She was a big hero to women who wanted to be liberated from sex roles, because of anthropological evidence. Some of that evidence was hotly disputed by Derek Freeman.

This essay points out:
In response to such criticism, Miss Mead wrote a famous letter to The American Anthropologist in which she pointed out that:
Nowhere do I suggest that I have found any material which disproves the existence of sex differences. ... This study was not concerned with whether there are or are not actual and universal differences between the sexes, either quantitative or qualitative.
Over the course of fifty years Miss Mead repeated her denial a hundred times, in response to one or another claim that she had found a society that reversed sex roles; in a review of my The Inevitability of Patriarchy, she wrote:
It is true, as Professor Goldberg points out, that all the claims so glibly made about societies ruled by women are non-sense. We have no reason to believe that they ever existed. ... Men have always been the leaders in public affairs and the final authorities at home.

Finally, eight years ago I published -- in the American Sociological Association's journal of book reviews, perhaps the most-read journal in sociology -- a letter making all of the above points.
Now, one would think that all this would be sufficient to preclude even the most ardent environmentalist's invoking Margaret Mead's study as evidence of sex-role reversibility. And yet, a couple of years ago I went to Barnes and Noble and located 38 introductory sociology books published in the few preceding years. Of these 38, 36 began their sex-roles chapters with a discussion of Miss Mead's work on the Tchambuli and how it demonstrates the environmental nature of male and female behavior.

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