extended family

Margaret Mead and her Thoughts about the Nuclear and Extended Family

“Nobody has ever before asked the nuclear family to live all by itself in a box the way we do. With no relatives, no support, we’ve put it in an impossible situation.”

This might be the first generation of women in history that could relate to that statement. Mead believed strongly in the importance of the extended family. It’s just one of the many worthwhile quotes by cultural anthropologist Margaret Mead. Mothers and fathers alike owe her a debt of gratitude for her pioneering work.

This post is more personal in the sense that I have for an inexplicable reason and for several years now been attracted and intrigued by Margaret Mead. While I recognize her weakness lies in the scientific side of her research, she has influenced my thoughts on specific subjects more than others and she was very present when I wrote my fictional book a couple of years ago.

Even after her death, she continued to be high controversial. Among the more debatable aspects is the fact that she was among the first women to openly address were female sexuality, patriarchy consumerism and the link between race and intelligence. Many considered her opinions to be a threat to the sanctity of the family and society.


Born to professor of finance Edward Mead and sociologist Emily Mead, she worked with Franz Boas at Columbia University to obtain her Ph.D. in cultural anthropology. She was one of the first to study the role of women, when she went to Samoa in 1925 to conduct fieldwork, which resulted in her famous book “Coming of Age in Samoa: A Psychological Study of Primitive Youth for Western Civilization”, published in 1928, and republished over and over again.

“I have tried to answer the question which sent me to Samoa: Are the disturbances which vex our adolescents due to the nature of adolescence itself or to the civilization? Under different conditions does adolescence present a different picture?”

The book sparked religious and social controversy regarding the relaxation of sexual mores. Her two divorces further challenged patriarchy, fueling controversy.

Nuclear versus Extended Family

Rather than being a destructive force, she was actually a champion of the family, the nuclear and extended family. The term extended family  has two distinct meanings: it is synonym of consanguinal family (consanguine means “of the same blood”) and in societies dominated by the conjugal family, it refers to “kindred” (network of relatives that extends beyond the domestic group) who do not belong to the conjugal family. Based on her anthropological research, affirmed the centrality of the nuclear family in human society:

“As far back as our knowledge takes us, human beings have lived in families. We know of no period where this was not so. We know of no people who have succeeded for long in dissolving the family or displacing it … Again and again, in spite of proposals for change and actual experiments, human societies have reaffirmed their dependence on the family as the basic unit of human living—the family of father, mother and children.” Mead, Margaret and Ken Heyman. 1965. Family. New York: Macmillan. pp. 77-78.

However Mead observed as an anthropologist various aboriginal societies, where nuclear family structures did not exist in a strict sense. Children grew up within the extended family. Mead’s observations of those societies indicated that adolescents grew up and smoothly transitioned into adulthood without any major issues evident in our own culture.  Dominance of nuclear versus extended family structures have a sociological impact on different levels. Not only does this impact the values of a society such as caring and sharing. This impacts the role of women in a society as well.

Family Values

In a 1963 interview Mead spoke out against the dangers of consumerism and its adverse effects on the family by saying

“We tell people every day in the advertisements, on TV, over the radio: “This is the kind of house you ought to have. This is the kind of car you ought to drive. Are you keeping your wife a prisoner because you only have one car? Are you making a slave of your wife because you’ve turned her into a dishwasher instead of buying a dishwasher?”

In her opinion, children were being neglected in favor of maintaining social status through buying all the latest time-saving gadgets. She also spoke out against age segregation and felt that children would benefit both socially and educationally from the continued involvement of grandparents.

She and her third husband, Gregory Bateson, in 1936, had a daughter, Mary Catherine, who also became an anthropologist. She wrote a memoir ‘With a Daughter’s Eye”, on her mother and herself. Her pediatrician was none other than Dr. Benjamin Spock, whose theories were influenced by Mead’s anthropological observations regarding breastfeeding on demand rather than according to a rigid schedule. You can find more on Dr Spock, here. Their marriage dissolved in 1950, but their friendship lasted to the end of her lifetime. She did not marry again, but rather, stated that an individual’s sexual orientation may evolve over a lifetime.

Career Controversy

The many controversies surrounding her increased both her visibility and popularity, and made her one of the more famous women in history, at least in the 20th century. She was a regular columnist for Redbook magazine as well as often being asked to speak on radio shows. She served as curator of ethnology at of the American Museum of Natural History in New York from 1946 to1969 and as an adjunct professor at Columbia University from 1954 to 1978. She founded Fordham University’s anthropology department while a professor there and was also a faculty member at the University of Rhode Island.

After her death, her work was criticized by a number of people, including Steven Pinker, Richard Dawkins and the feminist Betty Friedan. Derek Freeman published “Margaret Mead and Samoa: The Making and Unmaking of an Anthropological Myth”, in which he accused Mead of failure to apply scientific methods to her research. He negates her claims about the society’s more relaxed sexual mores. Defenders of her work point out that much of the society had been converted to Christianity during the interim.

Contribution to the Role of Women in History

In spite of the controversy that surrounded her, on January 19, 1979, President Jimmy Carter posthumously awarded her the Presidential Medal of Freedom. The award for her important contributions was presented to her daughter at a ceremony sponsored by the American Museum of Natural History. The words on the award were as follows:

“Margaret Mead was both a student of civilization and an exemplar of it. To a public of millions, she brought the central insight of cultural anthropology: that varying cultural patterns express an underlying human unity. She mastered her discipline, but she also transcended it. Intrepid, independent, plain spoken, fearless, she remains a model for the young and a teacher from whom all may learn.”

These words speak to the truth inherent in perhaps her most well-known quote, which is

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

women in history

July 31,2015  |

role of women in society

Why Franz Boas, Father of Modern Anthropology, was a Champion of Equality

“There are two things to which I am devoted: absolute academic and spiritual freedom, and the subordination of the state to the interests of the individual; expressed in other forms, the furthering of conditions in which the individual can develop to the best of his ability—as far as it is possible with a full understanding of the fetters imposed upon us by tradition; and the fight against all forms of power policy of states or private organizations. This means a devotion to principles of true democracy. I object to teaching of slogans intended to befog the mind, of whatever kind they may be.” (From a letter from Boas to John Dewey on 11/6/39)

Although he’s called the “Father of Modern Anthropology”, Franz Boas (1858-1942) isn’t as famous as some of his contemporaries, or even some of his students, like Margaret Mead, who once gave George W. Bush a B+ in her class. That’s largely because he cared much more about scientific and personal integrity than about fame or personal ambition. His refusal to accept the limited role of women in society is another reason that his theories are still relevant today.

One of the most important concepts he introduced was cultural relativism, which holds that cultures cannot be objectively ranked as higher or better than others because we all view and judge the world with a perspective created by our own cultural conditioning. In Boas’ day, orthogeneticists believed that all societies progressed through the same sequential stages towards “progress”. For example, they argued that although the Intuit and German cultures were contemporaries, the German culture was at a later, more advanced stage of cultural evolution.

Boas, in opposition to many other scientists of his day, adhered to three scientific principles. The first was that science begins with questions, not answers or value judgments. The second was that science is dispassionate inquiry rather than ideology tinged with emotional prejudice, and the third was that the nature of science is inferential and judicious. He used these principles in scientific inquiry to make a great contribution to the social debate between nature and nurture.

In an experiment he conducted to determine whether bodily forms are also subject to processes of change, he studies 17, 821 people of seven ethnic/national groups. He found that the average cranial sizes of immigrants were significantly different from members of the same group who had been born in the United States. He also found that the cranial sizes of children born within ten years of their mothers’ arrival to the U.S. were different from those born more than ten years after their arrival.

This experiment clearly demonstrated that traits such as cranial size were not only inherited, but could also be affected and influenced by the environment. The results of this experiment led to his argument that any differences between races were not immutable. In a 1963 book titled “Race: The History of an Idea in America, author Thomas Gossett wrote that

“It is possible that Boas did more to combat race prejudice than any other person in history.”

Boas proved himself to be a man who lived according to his convictions on more than one occasion. For example, in 1892, he and another member of the Clark College faculty resigned to protest infringement of academic freedom by its president, G.Stanley Hall. In 1897, while with the American Museum of Natural History, he attempted to organize Native American exhibits according to cultural context rather than along evolutionary lines. That brought him into conflict with the President of the Museum, Morris Jesup, and its director, Hermon Bumpus who wanted the exhibits to express how much further behind in the evolutionary scale those cultures were compared to U.S. culture. Unable to reform the system or increase its educational potential, he resigned from the museum and never worked at another.

To his credit and the great benefit of science, Boas remained critical of his own work, and often, upon discovering new evidence, modified his own theories. For example, his study of the Tsimshian and Tlingit tribes on the northern coast of British Columbia revealed that their social organization consisted of matrilineal clans. The Nootkaand Salish tribes on the southern coast had a patrilineal social structure. The Kwakiutl tribe lived between the two and had a mixture of elements within their social structure. Before marriage, a man assumed his wife’s father’s name and family crest, his children taking them on as well. Boas at first thought that the Kwakiutl were evolving towards a patrilineal social structure, but later reversed himself, concluding that the evolution was in fact AWAY from a patrilineal structure towards a matrilineal one, learned from their northern neighbors.

Boas spent the final years of his career as a beloved and highly influential professor at Columbia University. Through his students, many of whom went on to found anthropology departments and research programmes inspired by their mentor, Boas profoundly influenced the development of anthropology. Among his most significant students were  A. L. Kroeber, Ruth Benedict, Edward Sapir, Margaret Mead, and Zora Neale Hurston, who all had their impact on Motherhood.

Because in much the same way that his work disproved many racist theories, his actions also helped discredit sexist ones, thereby changing the role of women in society. Before his death in 1942, he entrusted his female colleague Helen Codere with editing and publishing his manuscripts.

You can find more on this period of history, also greatly influenced by Emile Durkheim, the Father of Sociology, here.

role of women in society
Franz Boas, performang a Hamatsa dance. Hamatsa is Kwakwaka’wakw secret society of British Columbia, most likely a cannibal society


June 26,2015  |