Fear and Loathing of Margaret Mead

Margaret Mead, American cultural anthropologist

The War Horse Herself

To be perfectly frank, I am no fan of Margaret Mead. Had she been born a while later, she probably would have been the Senior Social Scientist at the Human Terrain System. I once heard a colleague describe her, in supposedly positive terms, as one of anthropology’s “war horses” –which seems all too true on many different, unflattering, levels. I use some of her work in my visual anthropology course, but generally I have avoided her work, not recommending it to students, and her work had absolutely no impact whatsoever on either my entering or staying in anthropology. So, hopefully I have made myself clear: I don’t like her, at all, in no way.

This post was “inspired” by a random event: I have been rereading some early interviews with the founder of Haystack, Austin Heap, in preparation for the next Encircling Empire report (which will come out sooner than planned, because it is huge already). Incidentally, I basically have the same opinion of Heap as I do of Mead, except that she actually did real work, and didn’t just gain the public spotlight for work not achieved.

Was Austin Heap’s overweening sense of self-importance at least partly inspired by the words of Margaret Mead? In an early interview, Heap stated:

“There is a quote I am fond of and will mangle but ‘never doubt that a small group of common people can change the world’.”

Some anthropologists use the actual quote as part of their e-mail signature lines (probably just to aggravate me…yes, that’s it), and so I have come to know it quite well—it’s alleged to be from Margaret Mead (not that there is any source for the quote in which she she either said or wrote these words):

“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.”

Mead also found her way into the text of gonzo journalist Hunter S. Thompson, which I suddenly remembered while reading Heap. Here is one of many great scenes from the film with Johnny Depp playing Thompson, at a policemen’s anti-drug convention in a hotel in Las Vegas:

Update (thanks to CM and Daniela–see comments below): Mead Men
(Reference to Margaret Mead from “The Summer Man” episode of Mad Men)

Where else have you encountered references to Margaret Mead in popular culture? I would be curious to know.

25 thoughts on “Fear and Loathing of Margaret Mead

  1. Bernice

    Wonder though if Heap didn’t mangle Mead’s quote as much by removing it from its original context which came from the 1966 publication The Wagon and the Star, which Mead co-wrote with Muriel Brown. An rather odd “study of American community initiative” that makes some very strident claims on the basis of rather thin evidence, nevertheless Mead was writing about American grass root community politics and engagement.

    Though the vision of her in fatigues in a dusty village in Afghanistan will amuse me for the rest of the day, I don’t think she intended the line to end up as the email signature of the next generation of anthros who seem to have read The Foutainhead at an impressionable age…

    1. Maximilian Forte

      Thanks Bernice (long time no see, glad to see you again)…had it not been for your notes, I very likely would never have known the location of the original quote. Incidentally, I have met quite a few non-academics, and non-anthropologists, who have told me a great about Mead and her work, more than I ever learned from any anthropologist in any course…so something tells me that I studied under others who had an unspoken “fear and loathing.”

    1. Maximilian Forte

      Excellent! Thanks for those references, and just a note to say that I mentioned to Jamil that you had posted a question on another topic, so he might respond either tonight or tomorrow.

  2. erikwdavis

    nicely done, Max. I don’t know if you’ve read Eric Wakin’s “Anthropology Goes To War,” but if I remember correctly there’s a reference to her spitting (!!) on one of the anti-war anthropologists connected with the Committee of Concerned Asian Scholars. Possible I’m mangling much of this, but worth a check.

    1. Maximilian Forte

      Yes, that’s right Erik. She did do that, angry at critics (!) like Wolf and Jorgensen, and very eager to shut down the AAA investigation into anthropological involvement with counterinsurgency, which she then whitewashed. She seems to have had no problem with her beloved “Papa Frans” remaining censured by the AAA for all those decades. To top it off…her vision of visual anthropology is akin to using a microscope or surveillance camera, some of the basest positivism one can find in writing.

      The time Mead spat at Jorgensen’s face is documented and referred to in a variety of sources, including:
      and in this, what was part of an excellent series of essays on “Anthropology Goes to War” from nearly three years ago:

  3. Daniela

    In the “Beautiful Girls” chapter of Mad Men, one of the main characters (Peggy) stares at the boys in the office fighting with the vending machine and says: “I feel like Margaret Mead”.
    I am not partial to Mead myself but I was glad to see her mentioned anyways.

    1. Maximilian Forte

      Thanks very much Daniela. If I can find the episode online, I will probably extract the scene and upload it, adding it below what I have here. Who knows, after a while, we may have enough scenes to mount an informal video collage of Mead references in popular culture, which would be interesting.

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  5. Maximilian Forte

    Thanks again CM and Daniela…I found the episode and am currently processing it to get that scene extracted, so it should appear above in another video segment later tonight.

    Thanks and best wishes.

  6. Bernice

    Not sure that it qualifies as popular culture, but Rebecca Solnit references Mead’s The Wagon and the Stars in her last book, A Paradise Built in Hell – rather fulsomely which kinda surprised me as you’d figure her more of a David Graeber reader than Mead.

  7. Mead Casualty

    Can Bernice tell us what page the supposed Mead quote appears on in “The Wagon and the Star?” I can’t find it.

    Also, what year did Heap come up with her version of the “change the world quote?”

    1. Maximilian Forte

      Hopefully Bernice will reply, because I don’t have the book myself and have never read it.

      As for Heap’s interview with the BBC, that is dated Thursday, 6 August 2009.

  8. Mead Casualty

    Bernice will not reply, because she can not supply us with a line or a page for this quote. This quote does not come from Mead and Brown’s book The Wagon and the Star.

    I defy anyone to find a published source referencing the source of this quote that has repeatedly and falsely attributed to Mead after her death. Mead never wrote these words, they were invented by her apostles after they claimed she ascended into the Heavens.

    1. Maximilian Forte

      Very interesting. It might be that Bernice is just not checking these messages, but in any case I am intrigued enough to have my university’s other library send a copy to our downtown campus so I can check it myself.

      Are you absolutely certain that Mead never said or wrote these words, that the saying was attributed to her falsely? That’s amazing if so.

    2. Maximilian Forte

      Follow up: a colleague asked a Mead expert for the location of the original quote and the reply was that “no one knows when or where she said this,” which gives some further weight to what you say here.

    1. Maximilian Forte

      George W. Bush took an anthropology class? And with Margaret Mead?

      Yes, “we” really do enlighten, elevate, and transform the minds of our ethnocentric and bigoted citizens, don’t we.

      Many thanks for that link.

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