Margaret Mead’s Countercultures

If you were raised in the United States during the 1960s, as I was, and if you came of intellectual age in the 1980s, as I did, chances are that you too have inherited a strangely black-and-white ...

If you were raised in the United States during the 1960s, as I was, and if you came of intellectual age in the 1980s, as I did, chances are that you too have inherited a strangely black-and-white history of mid-20th-century American culture. The story goes something like this: In the wake of World War II, the militarized American state took up cultural arms against Communism, at home and abroad. It recruited artists, writers, and social scientists, and through Congressional witch hunts and FBI manhunts cut short the careers of those who wouldn’t play along. Here and there, and especially in the bars of San Francisco and Manhattan, the outlaw poets of the Beat movement and the moody improvisers of bebop jazz kept themselves free. But in the suburbs that flowered like ragweed just off the newly built interstate highways, men and women coupled up and hunkered down. Guided by government-sponsored pamphlets and popular magazines, they sought to adjust—to one another, to postwar life, and to the norms of American society as they found them. As one historian famously put it two decades ago, in post–World War II America, domestic and international relations mirrored one another: both labored under a policy of “containment.”1

To this rather dismal tale, the 1960s have long provided a happy ending. Thanks to LSD and rock music and marches against the Vietnam War, many now believe, American culture cracked open. The youth movements collectively known as the counterculture burst through and washed away the anxious decades of the past. American culture ceased to repress and became instead the setting for transformations in individual consciousness. The personal became political. From encounter groups to communes, those who had suffered from containment began to discover themselves and, at the same time, to celebrate their connections to one another and the universe. Soon enough, a thousand social movements bloomed.

In its particulars, this now-canonical account of the three decades that followed World War II is true enough. But in its broad arc, it suffers from the fact that it was written by a generation of scholars who came of age in 1968 and have long had a stake in preserving that decade’s claims to revolution. As Peter Mandler’s rigorously researched and compelling history of midcentury American anthropology reveals, the theories of personal and cultural liberation long believed to have emerged only in the 1960s in fact came to life decades earlier, in the epicenters of American academe and, through them, the government.

Beginning in the decades before World War II, American anthropologists, most visibly Margaret Mead, reimagined the relationship between personality and culture. Drawing on a mix of Freudian psychology and overseas ethnography, Mead and others began to argue that in every society cultural processes ineluctably shaped individual personalities to match the array of psychological structures prized by that society. Though such a view has seemed startlingly naive and even pernicious to many recent scholars, in Mead’s time it offered a way to imagine a world that had transcended racial and sexual prejudice and international conflict. As the United States confronted first fascism and then Cold War communism, Mead and her colleagues sought to put this understanding of culture to work on behalf of a deeply egalitarian social vision, both overseas and at home. Men and women of all races and sexual orientations should be able to pursue their unique individual destinies on equal terms with others who might be different from themselves, they argued. Likewise, the full range of individual cultures should be able to flourish within a world political order that guaranteed international pluralism and cultural diversity.

Mead and her colleagues did indeed labor on behalf of the federal government during and after World War II. But, as Mandler demonstrates, that hardly meant that they colluded in Cold War American imperialism. On the contrary, the generation of historians that has accused them of such complicity has misunderstood one of the most visible and influential intellectual movements in 20th-century America and one of its most compelling figures. By dint of exceptionally thorough archival research into Mead’s life and the networks of people and ideas with which it was entwined, Mandler seems to hope principally to set the historical record straight. To that end, he sticks closely to analyzing the midcentury social sciences and shies away from exploring their broader public impact. Yet the story he tells echoes far beyond the halls of academe. By reconstructing the history of culture-and-personality anthropology, Mandler also reveals the long-forgotten wellsprings of the countercultural movements of the 1960s and of the cultural relativism that still suffuses American intellectual life.

Though such a view has seemed startlingly naive and even pernicious to many recent scholars, in Mead’s time it offered a way to imagine a world that had transcended racial and sexual prejudice and international conflict.

To see how, we need first to acknowledge that despite its title Return from the Natives is not really a book about Margaret Mead. As Mandler notes, Mead has long fascinated biographers and critics; from a strictly biographical point of view, there is relatively little left to tell. However, Mead lived and worked within a community of anthropologists, psychologists, and sociologists whose writings informed and built on her own. This network, the true subject of Mandler’s book, has been far less closely studied. Seen from our own time, it looks less like a conventional product of the academic conference circuit (though it was that too) than like a social movement. Like other social movements it sustained itself through the production of ideas and through an urge to change society itself—in this case, to eliminate racism and sexual oppression and to encourage the appreciation of cultural difference.

The movement first came together around the anthropologist Franz Boas, at Columbia University in the early 1920s. At that time, the emerging science of anthropology was dominated by two pernicious theories. The first suggested that cultures could be arrayed along a hierarchical scale from the primitive to the sophisticated. The second suggested that a culture’s place on the scale could be predicted by the race of its inhabitants. Boas argued forcefully, even heroically, against both views, inside and outside the academy, and he trained his students to do the same. Boas believed that each culture had its own integrity and that the job of the anthropologist was to immerse herself thoroughly enough in a culture to understand it in its own terms. Boas also believed that racism had no scientific basis and that for all their cultural differences individual human beings were biological equals.

These views reverberated throughout mid-20th-century American culture thanks largely to the work of two of Boas’s students, Margaret Mead and Ruth Benedict. In 1925, as a PhD student under Boas, Mead set sail for Samoa to study adolescence. When she returned almost a year later, she brought back a description of a tropical isle where unmarried young women slipped into the arms of young men under the cover of darkness and yet society, as a whole, retained a comfortable, easygoing order. To a country undergoing a sudden efflorescence of commercial activity and sexual frankness as it emerged from the 19th century (think neon lights and flappers), Mead’s book offered enormous reassurance. The Samoan example taught Americans that societies could be organized in any number of ways, even ones that embraced premarital sex, without coming apart at the seams.

Mead’s writing on Samoa has been much criticized but rarely out of print. The same can be said for Ruth Benedict’s 1934 volume Patterns of Culture. Here Benedict compared four cultures—Plains Indian, Zuni, Dobu, and Kwakiutl—and demonstrated that, as Boas had suggested, each had its own individual character. The character of each culture in turn shaped the mindsets of its members. Like Boas, Benedict argued that universal notions of cultural hierarchy, racial superiority, and even normal and abnormal human behavior made little sense. Individuals regarded as deviant in one culture might well be viewed as central and benevolent figures in a different one. Individuals and cultures needed to be understood not in relation to some universal ideal, but in relation to one another.

Ruth Benedict. Library of Congress / Wikimedia Commons

Ruth Benedict. Library of Congress / Wikimedia Commons

Through their books, Mead and Benedict offered Americans an opportunity to embrace an extraordinary range of sexual, racial, and cultural differences. As Mandler shows, their work also reflected their own complicated lives. Mead and Benedict were lovers as well as colleagues; Mead also had an affair with Edward Sapir, Benedict’s close collaborator and another of Boas’s students. In 1933, on the shores of New Guinea’s Sepik River, Mead, her then-husband anthropologist Reo Fortune, and her future husband, Gregory Bateson, sat together in an isolated love triangle. While there, Mead and Bateson developed a universal model of cultural “temperaments” that in many ways modeled their own interpersonal situation. Within Mead’s circle, as within the cultures she studied, a range of sexual preferences that mainstream Americans might have viewed as beyond the pale were entirely normal. In their books, Mead and Benedict created windows through which Americans could glimpse the possibility of a more diverse society, at home as well as overseas. In many ways, that society was a mirror of the one in which they lived their private lives. It also reflected the classically American and liberal ideal of a public political order built on a foundation of private individual freedom.

When World War II began, the liberating impulse behind Boasian anthropology helped fuel both American resistance to fascism overseas and public critiques of racism here at home. Mead, Bateson, Benedict, and, indeed, virtually the entire constellation of American social scientists went to work in support of the war effort. They staged conferences on how best to promote American morale. They helped design foreign propaganda. And many, including, most prominently, Mead and Bateson, sought to understand the character of both enemy and allied cultures and so to make American interventions abroad more effective.

Through their books, Mead and Benedict offered Americans an opportunity to embrace an extraordinary range of sexual, racial, and cultural differences. As Mandler shows, their work also reflected their own complicated lives.

Mandler points out that the post-Vietnam generation of historians has condemned this wartime turn to national service as the beginning of a process by which the Cold War state would ultimately swallow up America’s social scientists. In Return From the Natives, his archival digging reveals a far more nuanced picture. At the start of the war, Mead and her colleagues brought their understanding of culture and personality to bear on the problem of domestic morale. The ferocious unity of the fascist armies then rolling across Europe and Asia posed a problem for liberal individualists like Mead: How could Americans come together in a way that would make them strong enough to stand up to the Germans and the Japanese but would not turn them into authoritarians? In July 1942, Mead penned a best-selling answer in a book entitled And Keep Your Powder Dry. There she framed the war as a struggle between two types of character, the democratic and the totalitarian, each created by its respective national culture. American individualism—our freedom to associate voluntarily and to act in our own interest—made us strong, she explained. “We must fight and win the war as Americans, not as hastily streamlined, utterly inadequate, imitation Germans or Japs,” wrote Mead. “We believe that the strength of those who are reared to freedom is greater than the strength of those reared in an authoritarian state.”2

For Mead and her circle, the war was as much a psychological and cultural conflict as a military one. Over the next several years, she and her colleagues would interpret foreign films with an eye to understanding the psychology of our enemies and allies (Bateson), tour England to explain our culture to the British (Mead), “diagnose” our German enemy’s psychopathology (Richard Brickner), research potential audiences for American propaganda (Geoffrey Gorer), and even engage in dirty propaganda tricks abroad (Bateson again). Mandler’s accounting of the sheer variety of their efforts and the extraordinarily diverse array of government agencies with whom they worked mitigates any claim that social scientists in this period were simply happy cogs in a propaganda machine.

According to Mandler, Mead’s “greatest ambition was to embed the ‘culture and personality’ idea at the heart of intercultural relations, not only for wartime purposes of cementing national and Allied unity, but also in anticipation of the postwar task of ‘orchestrating cultural diversities.’” Mead’s professional ambition was legendary, but Mandler’s evidence suggests that he may be selling her a bit short. When Mead and her colleagues carried the ideals of culture-and-personality anthropology into everything from their magazine writing to their position papers for the government, they brought with them more than a vision of expanded influence for their field. They brought a vision of a more diverse and tolerant United States.

Nowhere is this vision more clear than in Ruth Benedict’s wartime attacks on racism, which Mandler acknowledges only very briefly. In 1940, Benedict published a scathing critique of racism, in Europe and the United States, entitled Race: Science and Politics. In her view, the racism underlying both Nazi expansionism and domestic segregation was intellectually bankrupt. To fight fascism abroad required confronting racism here at home as well, her argument implied. Benedict’s book was so popular that it was published in multiple editions into the early 1960s. In 1943, it became the basis of a million-selling pamphlet, The Races of Mankind, that Benedict created with anthropologist Gene Weltfish. Much as Mead’s writing on Samoa had given Americans a glimpse of a sexually diverse yet stable and comfortable society, Benedict’s book and pamphlet opened a window on a racially diverse and yet stable, unified, and powerful United States. And if the sales figures of their works are any indication, millions of Americans cheered.

Mandler’s accounting of the sheer variety of MEAD’s And her colleague’s efforts mitigates any claim that social scientists in this period were simply happy cogs in a propaganda machine.

As Mandler shows, the impact of culture-and-personality anthropology on the American war effort was extraordinary. In that sense, Mead helped win two wars: one for the increased intellectual influence of her field, and the other for the allies on the battlefield. Together these victories helped Americans glimpse the possibility of a more egalitarian, democratic social order, at home as well as overseas. In Mandler’s account, that optimistic vision melted away almost immediately during the Cold War, alongside the influence of culture-and-personality anthropology. Mandler tells this part of his story as a war of ideas: Postwar anthropologists found themselves confronted by state-sponsored pressure to embrace what Mandler calls “democratic universalism” —the notion that all people everywhere were fundamentally alike and that, by implication, they would be best served by democratic, American-aligned governments.3 They responded by reasserting the value of cultural pluralism and, by implication, postcolonial-era national diversity. Unfortunately, they continued to ground their claims in studies of national character that looked increasingly simplistic to an ever-more-cosmopolitan American audience.

The most damaging of these claims was the “swaddling hypothesis,” put forward by Mead’s close friend, the anthropologist Geoffrey Gorer. In 1947, as Americans turned their attention to the Soviet Union, Gorer, Mead, and others took up the analytical tools they had honed in their World War II–era studies of other nations. Once again, they asked how the character of a potential enemy’s culture might shape its will to fight. And once again, they argued that the familial practices that shaped individual psychology reflected and reinforced cultural norms. Gorer took these views to an extreme. Russians traditionally wrapped their infants tightly and strapped them to boards, he claimed. For all the Soviet government’s attempts to reform traditional Russian society, he argued, the practice of swaddling irreversibly rendered the mass of Soviet citizens inclined toward passivity and political submission, even as they suffered intense bouts of longing for personal freedom. Published in a 1949 book co-authored with psychoanalyst John Rickman and entitled The People of Great Russia, Gorer’s swaddling hypothesis opened the entire culture-and-personality approach to international relations to ridicule. At least one writer accused Gorer of engaging in “diaperology.”4

Over the next decade, though the personal prestige of Mead and Benedict would persist and the readership for their books would continue to grow, culture-and-personality anthropologists lost their ability to substantially influence American foreign-policy makers. In fact, Mead actively challenged expansionist American calls for democratic universalism by continuing to press for a pluralist understanding of international relations. As Mandler points out, Mead’s work in the 1950s gives the lie to the post-Vietnam generation of historians’ claim that the American social scientists who had become prominent during World War II simply slipped into harness on behalf of a Cold War national security state. Mead may have committed any number of intellectual sins—oversimplifying cultural processes, imagining societies as homogenous when they were not, reading international relations in terms set by her own interpersonal relations—but she was no Cold Warrior. Nor were her closest friends and allies.

Having very convincingly made this point, Mandler ends his book and modestly leaves the stage. But I wish he’d stayed a bit longer. Watching Mead and her network challenge authoritarianism across their careers, listening to them call for the embrace of sexual diversity, an end to racism, and a celebration of egalitarian pluralism in domestic and international relations alike, it is hard not to hear the first stirrings of the countercultural earthquake that would soon rumble across America. Mead and her colleagues may have failed to move Cold War policy makers, but their books would soon fall into the hands of an entire generation of intellectual and social explorers, of antiwar protestors, feminists, queer activists, and communards. From the point of view of the history of anthropology, Mandler is right: Mead “lost the Cold War” in that she lost the struggle to maintain the influence of her field on government institutions. But seen through the wider lens of American intellectual history, she and her colleagues had already succeeded in redefining cultures and personalities as varied, malleable products of particular times and places. By doing so, they had opened the door to the notion that human beings could reshape their societies by reshaping their cultures and their psyches in tandem. As civil rights marchers and long-haired hippies would soon show, that work helped Mead and her colleagues win a much more important contest: the war for a freer, more tolerant, and more diverse American society. icon

  1. Elaine Tyler May, Homeward Bound: American Families in the Cold War Era (Basic Books, 1988), p. 19.
  2. Margaret Mead, And Keep Your Powder Dry: An Anthropologist Looks at America (W. Morrow & Co., 1942), p. 26.
  3. Ibid., p. 182.
  4. Karl Wittfogel, quoted in ibid., p. 233
Featured image: Margaret Mead. Photograph by Edward Lynch. Library of Congress / Wikimedia Commons