Monday, August 26, 2013

Margaret Mead: Worth Consideration, But With A Few Caveats

In the Margaret Mead Selection, From Sex and Temperament in Three Primitive Societies, taken from Feminist Theory: A Reader, she looks at the justifications for gender roles.  She examines the huge range of variances that gender roles have across cultures, and determines that it is ludicrous to suggest that one is naturally predisposed to universal traits, temperaments or roles because of one’s sex.  Furthermore, she asserts that all cultures dramatize certain traits that are based on biological sex, though which traits are affiliated with sex differ to varying degrees between cultures.  After comparing the differences between cultures, performing a thought experiment on a possible alternate cause for the creation of gender related dispositions and roles, and identifying three possible directions a civilization may take regarding the these roles and temperaments, Mead proposes a solution to the arbitrariness of sex based cultural inculcation.  Society should focus on each individual’s capacity and potential based on his or her own, unique predispositions and temperaments, and in order “…to achieve a richer culture we must recognize the whole gamut of human potentialities, and so weave a less arbitrary social fabric, one in which each diverse human gift will find a fitting place.”(134)  This essay will explore how Mead develops her theory, and will find much to agree with her about, while providing an examination of some potential problems resulting from possible incompleteness and research bias.
Mead begins by qualifying her paper in terms of what it is not intended to be.  The paper is not intended to be a quantitative or qualitative analysis of sex differences among cultures, nor is it meant to explore whether women vary more or less than men do in terms of temperaments.  The paper is not intended to be a survey of women’s rights, nor an inquisitive look into the foundations of feminism.  All it is, in her words, “is…an account of how three primitive societies have grouped their social attitudes toward temperament about the very obvious facts of sex-difference.”(130)  Mead claims that her purpose in studying this phenomenon in these “simple societies” is because they are similar to the industrialized Western complex societies, merely differing in size and scope.  Her investigation was centered on a “fierce” group, a “gentle” group, and a “graceful” group, the Mundugumor, Arapesh, and Tchambuli, respectively.  Beyond that, she mentioned that the gentle group insisted that women’s heads were stronger than men’s heads.  Otherwise, her only mention of these particular groups in the selection was that they each focused on sex-difference as a factor for determining which temperaments to promote and which social roles each individual of the group were to be groomed for, though they each chose different temperaments to apply to females and males of the group.  To support her claim that different cultures treat sex-difference in varying ways, Mead goes on to mention five other groups and a particular characteristic, or temperament, of each.  The specific group she gives the most space to in the selection being discussed is the Dakota Indians, where she talks about the berdache. The berdache were males who failed to prove their masculinity and have given up the battle, choosing to take on the social role of women and thenceforth serve as a tool of warning to shame other young males into not giving up the fight for maleness.
In order to not take a cheap shot and criticize Mead for her lack of exposition on her findings in the selection, it becomes necessary to find any available resource that more fully explains the relevance of the three tribes she investigated.  Class discussion and a look at the Library of Congress webpage devoted to a Margaret Mead exhibition from 2001-2002 filled in a few missing pieces.  Briefly, the men and women in the Arapesh tribe were found to be “gentle, responsive, and cooperative.”  The men and women in the Mundugumor tribe were found to be “violent and aggressive, seeking power and position.”  The Tchamubli tribe consisted of men and women who were distinctly different from each other in temperament, “the woman being dominant, impersonal, and managerial and the male less responsible and more emotionally dependent.” (LOC)  When these three tribes gender behaviors are put on a chart, it becomes obvious that sex-determined inclinations or propensities become substantially less likely and that the inclinations of men and women are largely, and perhaps entirely, the function of socialization within a given culture.  The table below shows that each of the four cultures displays different temperamental norms, and it appears that those norms are not necessarily the function of biological sex.  Assuming there is a causal factor, a reasonable explanation is cultural inculcation, not sex.  Also, it is interesting that Mead finds that any deviation from the cultural temperament norm is seen as being worthy, within the culture, of condemnation by others within the culture, and this is universal. (131)
Biological Sex Identification

Male / Female

Male / Female

Male / Female

Male / Female
Observed Temperament – Gender based (Masculine/Feminine)



Fem. / Masc.

Based on this observation, Mead identifies three different courses of action for any society wishing to experience a “planned order of society.”   The first option is the Western option where men and women are raised to be “contrasting, complementary, and antithetical” to each other, and direct all of the society’s institutions to pursue such an end.(131)  The risk with this option is that any child with temperamental inclinations that don’t comport to the cultural norms is forced into a social structure where those gifts are lost, or at least minimized, and replaced with the behaviors trained into the child by society.  Mead asserts that this wasting of talents is hurtful to men and women, and “does violence” to them both.(132) 
The second option is to ignore biological sex and raise children to be either masculine or feminine in order to fulfill the roles defined by the culture, and which requires either a masculine or feminine temperament.  This can result in masculine and feminine males, and females, not defined by their sex, but by their gendered behaviors and inclination, which would be trained into them by the society.   Mead seems to find this option to be an advance compared to the first option, though still arbitrary in nature, calling it a “parody of all the attempts that society has made…to define an individual’s role in terms of sex, or color, or date of birth, or shape of head.”(133) 
Mead’s third option is to not only refuse to apply gender roles based on masculinity and femininity as a result of biological sex, but to refuse the idea of gender roles altogether.  By focusing on a child’s talents, inclinations, temperament and character as they become evident, society could raise them around the variety of traits and the temperaments that are unique to the individual.   This eliminates superficial classifications and serves as a way to promote the individual and the special qualities each person can bring into society, each performing according to their supported, natural talents.(134)  No longer would social roles be based on an arbitrary characteristic, but on the chosen roles of the individuals that make up the society.
At first blush Mead’s third option seems to be an egalitarian, individualistic ideal that promotes self actualization and personal liberty.  It would probably not be difficult to find many who would support such an ideal, but there are some potential risks involved.  First, such a society takes the primacy of the individual to levels never before realized by even the most individualistic society.  This elevation of the person as sacred is likely to come at a risk to the society at large, also known as a community, which may have competing ideals.  Granted, if it is assumed that somehow a society could ever exist along the lines theorized by Mead, it can further be assumed that the society would not have any competing ideals, otherwise her utopia would never have come into being.  The ideal she puts forth is currently unattainable in the near future.  This is not to say that over a long enough time it could not be realized, but when you consider the thousands of years of human existence and the fact that even in one of the most individualized countries of the world, the U.S.A., there are still vestiges of coverture in the laws and the culture at large, to believe Mead’s third option can be realized within the next few generations seems absurd.  However, it is one worth working toward.
One possible problem with the idea that temperament is a function of cultural inculcation is that it isn’t quite conclusive.  Mead’s research is not quantitative in any sense of the word, nor does it address any aspect of evolutionary biology, or evolutionary psychology.  It is entirely possible that there are some few temperaments that are generally most prevalent in men or women, based on their sex.  Furthermore, it is possible that these general traits are such that they contribute to the survival of the species through mate selection, child rearing, emotional attachment over time, or some other important end as yet unknown.  If there are studies that tend to show this as being the case, Mead might argue that the genetic contribution is both minimal and, given the right environmental conditions, unnecessary.  If she is right, then over time it is quite possible that any possible genetic traits that create a propensity toward certain temperaments depending on a person’s sex might eventually be relegated to the status of the appendix.  This basically means that while it is still present in each person’s genetic make-up, this genetic trait will be no stronger or weaker in one than it is in another, regardless of sex.
            In conclusion, Mead has shown a very strong argument against the belief that women have feminine traits, and men have masculine traits, as a function of and in proportions appropriate to their sex.  What she has not done is show that any and all variations that have ever been deemed to be masculine or feminine are not in any way generally the result of one’s sex.  She also hasn’t accounted for the origins of social customs regarding sex based roles and temperaments.  Without knowing the genealogy of gender it is impossible to know from where it comes or why it is there.  Also, to assume that biological sex is the equivalent of eye color in terms of arbitrariness for the determination of social roles seems somewhat biased in that it makes sex generally meaningless in all areas other than simple procreation.  While it may be true that simple procreation is the only identifiable purpose of sex differences, social roles throughout history have shown that the core of society is, in large part, family.  To have family, there must be at least one to care for and raise the infant to self-sufficiency.  Has biology, through sex, or perhaps merely identifiably based on sex, provided the temperaments to men and women in different measures for this, or another, natural purpose, or purposes, that modern, civilized people no longer need?      

Works Cited
Margaret Mead: Human Nature and the Power of Culture - To the Field and Back | Exhibitions -Library of Congress. Library of Congress. nd. Web. 30 September 2012 <>
Mead, Margaret. “From Sex and Temperament in Three Primitive Societies. Feminst Theory: A Reader. Wendy Kolmar and Frances Bartkowski. Mountain View, CA: Mayfield Publishing Company, 2000. p130-134. Print

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