By Louis Menand
A brave band of scholars set out to save us from racism and sexism. What happened?
Not that long ago, Margaret Mead was one of the most widely known intellectuals in America. Her first book, “Coming of Age in Samoa,” published in 1928, when she was twenty-six, was a best-seller, and for the next fifty years she was a progressive voice in national debates about everything from sex and gender to nuclear policy, the environment, and the legalization of marijuana. (She was in favor—and this was in 1969.) She had a monthly column in Redbook that ran for sixteen years and was read by millions. She advised government agencies, testified before Congress, and lectured on all kinds of subjects to all kinds of audiences. She was Johnny Carson’s guest on the “Tonight Show.” Time called her “Mother to the World.” In 1979, the year after she died, President Jimmy Carter awarded her the Medal of Freedom.
Today, Margaret Mead lives on as an “icon”—meaning that people might recognize the name, and are not surprised to see her face on a postage stamp (as it once was), but they couldn’t tell you what she wrote or said. If pressed, they would probably guess that Mead was an important figure for the women’s movement. They would be confusing Mead’s significance as a role model (huge as that undoubtedly was) with Mead’s views. Mead was not a modern feminist, and Betty Friedan devoted a full chapter of “The Feminine Mystique” to an attack on her work. Mead mattered for other reasons. One of the aims of Charles King’s “Gods of the Upper Air” (Doubleday) is to remind us what those were.
A lot of this story has been told, but King is an intelligent and judicious writer, and he has woven a concise narrative that manages to work in a fair amount of context. His subjects were all unusual characters, and their lives are colorfully related. Obviously, legal and political actors had at least as much to do with the changes in social attitudes that King writes about as anthropologists did. But he makes a good case with the cards he has dealt himself. On the other hand, issues around race, gender, sexuality, and “otherness” are still very much with us, although in slightly altered form. And when people discuss them they no longer solicit the wisdom of anthropologists. What happened?
Boas was born and educated in Prussia. He moved to the United States in 1886, when he was twenty-eight, and a decade later, after some false starts, became a professor of anthropology at Columbia. For many years, he was institutionally embattled, at least partly because of his left-wing politics. King says that at one point the anthropology department was moved into three rooms up seven flights of stairs in the journalism building—one room for Boas, one for a secretary, and the third left empty.
Somehow, Boas managed to train an entire generation of scholars in what was, until after the Second World War, a tiny academic field. The historian Lois Banner has calculated that forty-five Ph.D.s in anthropology were awarded in the United States between 1892 and 1926, and that nineteen of the recipients studied under Boas. By 1930, she says, most American anthropology departments were chaired by Boas students.
Like two other influential professors, John Dewey and Thorstein Veblen, both of whom were his exact contemporaries, Boas was a turgid writer. But he was intellectually fearless; he had energy and charisma; and though he made a fierce impression—his face was scarred from sabre duels he had fought as a student in Germany—his students were devoted to him. They called him Papa Franz. He retired from teaching in 1936, but remained active professionally until his death, in 1942.
Boas was trained as a physicist. His student work was in psychophysics, the science that measures things like sensory thresholds, and his dissertation was an effort to determine the degree to which light must increase in intensity for people to perceive a change in the color of water. This might seem an utterly sterile topic for research, but Boas reached an unorthodox conclusion: it depends. Our perception of color is a function of circumstances. Different observers have different perceptions depending on their expectations and experiences, and those differences are not innate. They are, consciously or unconsciously, learned. It made no sense, Boas decided, to talk about a general law of sensory thresholds.
It’s an academic adage that a scholar’s career consists of footnotes to the dissertation, and, in a way, this was true for Boas. He was an empiricist: he collected facts, and he was not inclined to theoretical speculation. But he thought that the basic fact about human beings is that the facts about them change, because circumstances change. Our lives may be determined, by some combination of genes, environment, and culture, but they are not predetermined.
Boas’s revolutionary work was a study, undertaken for a congressional committee and published in 1911, on the bodily form—head size, height, hair color, age at pubescence—of the children of recent European immigrants. The impetus was public anxiety that immigrants from southern and eastern Europe would, through intermarriage, dilute the racial stock (sometimes identified as “Nordic”). Boas’s finding, which was that the cranial index of children born in America differed from that of children of the same background born in Europe, rocked the field. It upset long-believed claims that racial differences, including what we would now call ethnic differences, are immutable. The evidence proved, Boas said, “the plasticity of human types.” It also showed that variations within groups are greater than variations between groups.
In 1911, this was not what most white scientists and politicians wanted to hear. Boas’s career spanned an exceptionally active period of Aryan supremacy. Boas witnessed the legalization of Jim Crow; the widespread acceptance of social Darwinism and eugenics; imperial expansion, including the American occupation of the Philippines; drastic restrictions on immigration; the rise of the second Ku Klux Klan; and the coming to power of Adolf Hitler. (Boas was Jewish.) Often, science was invoked as a justification for colonization, segregation, discrimination, exclusion, sterilization, or extermination. Boas devoted his life to showing people that the science they were relying on was bad science. “He believed the world must be made safe for differences,” Ruth Benedict wrote when Boas died.
If innate biological differences don’t account for the observed variety of roles and practices among human groups, then something else must be at work. Boas thought there were several factors, and one was culture.
Using the term required some redefinition. In the nineteenth century, “culture” was generally regarded as an attainment; it was something societies acquired as they advanced, marking a stage in the growth of a civilization. Boas is one of the people responsible for the sense we have in mind when we use the phrase “culture in the anthropological sense”—that is, the sense of culture as standing for a way of life. One of his major contributions was to show that pre-modern societies—“primitive” was the accepted term—have cultures in exactly the same way that modern societies have them, and that the minds of people who live in those societies are no different from the minds of everyone else.
Boas did his first field work with the Inuit living on Baffin Island, in northern Canada. He had intended to study hunting patterns and the like, but the more time he spent with the Inuit the more he realized that their particular way of doing things reflected a particular way of seeing the world. The Inuit way was not the European way, but it wasn’t inferior. In some respects, he thought, it might be better. The Inuit seemed, for example, to be more hospitable than Europeans. Immersion in Inuit life made him see his own culture from the outside. He learned, as he put it, “the relativity of all education.”
Boas eventually concluded that there is not one human culture but many, and he started referring to “cultures,” in the plural. He was engaged in ethnography, and he believed that the job of the ethnographer was to disappear, in effect, into the culture of the people being studied, to understand from the inside what it means to be male or female, to give or receive a gift, to bury one’s dead. The ethnographer needed to get the society’s jokes. This meant leaving one’s ethnocentrism at home. “Get nowhere unless prejudices first forgotten,” Ella Deloria wrote in her notes on one of Boas’s lectures. “Cultures are many; man is one.”
“All my best students are women,” Boas told an anthropologist friend in 1920. Columbia College did not admit women—it was the last of the Ivies to go coed, in 1983—but the graduate school and Teachers College did. And Boas also taught at Barnard, which is right across the street.
Ella Deloria came to Boas by way of Teachers College. She was born on a South Dakota reservation, and belonged to an eminent Sioux family. Her father was an Episcopal priest; her mother was the daughter of a high-ranking U.S. Army officer. She went to Oberlin, then transferred to Teachers College, where she received a bachelor’s degree in 1915. In her final year, she received a summons from Boas, who enlisted her in a lifelong project of his, recording Native American languages.
Deloria was never officially a Boas student. But she worked as his assistant and attended some of his lectures, and he employed her to fact-check the work of early ethnologists and linguists who had studied the Plains Indians. Boas was not surprised to learn that a lot of their findings were worthless. In 1941, the year before Boas died, he and Deloria published “Dakota Grammar.” King says it is one of the few works in his career that Boas agreed to co-author.
Of the women King writes about, Ruth Benedict was professionally the closest to Boas. She had a bachelor’s degree from Vassar and got interested in anthropology when she took courses at the New School. She entered the graduate program at Columbia in 1921, and, after getting her degree, became what King calls Boas’s “lieutenant” in the department. Boas struggled to get her a regular faculty position; she was finally made an assistant professor in 1931.
When Boas retired, Benedict was the most famous member of the Columbia department. Her book “Patterns of Culture,” a study of three groups—the Zuñi (of the American Southwest), the Kwakiutl (of British Columbia), and the Dobu (of Papua New Guinea)—was published in 1934 and became one of the best-selling works of academic anthropology ever written. The university, it is almost unnecessary to say, decided to go with a man as the new chair. He was Ralph Linton, a critic of Benedict’s work. They did not get along.
In 1946, Benedict published a second fantastically popular book, “The Chrysanthemum and the Sword,” a study of the culture of Japan. Linton left Columbia that year and Benedict was finally promoted to full professor in 1948. Two months later, she had a heart attack and died. She was sixty-one.
It was Benedict who recruited Margaret Mead to anthropology. Mead entered Barnard as a sophomore in 1920. She was an English major, then a double English and psychology major, but she took an introduction-to-anthropology class with Boas in her senior year, and Benedict was her T.A. Benedict persuaded Mead to enroll in the graduate program. They also fell in love.
Benedict was fourteen years older than Mead, and Mead was married. So was Benedict. Their intimacy lasted for the rest of Benedict’s life, and through two more marriages for Mead. (That relationship is the subject of a book, by Lois Banner, called “Intertwined Lives.”) Mead’s choice to do her field work in Samoa, studying adolescence, was encouraged by Boas, who wrote a foreword to the book that resulted and that launched her career.
Zora Neale Hurston entered Barnard in 1925, when she was thirty-four. (No one knew her age; Hurston always lied about it.) After graduating, she spent two years in the doctoral program before dropping out, but by then Boas had got her started collecting African-American folklore in central Florida, where she had grown up. She published her findings in 1935, as “Mules and Men,” with a preface by Boas, but the real importance of the work she did was that it provided material for the astonishing representation of African-American speech in her singular novel “Their Eyes Were Watching God.” That book was published in 1937 and slowly sank from view—Richard Wright accused Hurston of minstrelsy—but it was “rediscovered” in the nineteen-seventies, and is now a staple text in English-literature courses.
The anthropology these people practiced had two motives that might seem, from an orthodox scholarly perspective, extracurricular—except that knowledge is always pursued for a reason. One motive was to record ways of life that were rapidly disappearing. Even in the nineteen-twenties, it was almost impossible to find groups of humans untouched by Western practices. The island that Mead’s research subjects lived on was an American possession. It had an Anglo-American legal system, and the Samoans were all Christians.
Mead did her best to minimize these circumstances, because she wanted to capture behavior and mores that were remote from American Christian moral and legal conceptions—in particular, Samoan attitudes toward premarital sex, which is the part of the book that got all the attention. So she centered her account on what she took to be the distinctively “Samoan” aspects of her subjects’ lives.
Early-twentieth-century anthropologists were highly self-conscious about this recovery mission. They worried that the world was losing its cultural diversity. “Western civilization, because of fortuitous historical circumstances, has spread itself more widely than any other local group that has so far been known,” Benedict wrote. “This world-wide cultural diffusion has protected us as man had never been protected before from having to take seriously the civilizations of other peoples.” The French anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss, who did his field work among indigenous groups in west-central Brazil in the nineteen-thirties, once suggested that the word “anthropology” should be changed to “entropology”—the study of the homogenization of human life across the planet. Cultural anthropology was the West’s way of memorializing its victims.
The other motive—and this is what accounts for the popularity of Mead’s and Benedict’s books, and of Hurston’s novel—was to hold up a mirror. What is of interest to the anthropologist is difference, but all difference is difference from something, and the “something” in these books is the anthropologist’s own culture.
This is true even for Hurston. She was raised in Florida, but she attended college in the North and was part of the Harlem Renaissance. She was cosmopolitan. She wrote “Their Eyes Were Watching God” because she wanted to show Northern readers a way of life that was barely conceivable to the integrationist mentality (which she did not share): African-Americans living happily in the South and having virtually no contact with whites.
The idea behind all these books is that we can’t see our way of life from the inside, just as we can’t see our own faces. The culture of the “other” serves as a looking glass. As Benedict put it in “Patterns of Culture,” “The understanding we need of our own cultural processes can most economically be arrived at by a détour.” These books about pre-modern peoples are really books about life in the modern West.
Given this aim, the emphasis falls, almost unavoidably, on the exotic, and for the nonprofessional audience exoticism is a big part of the appeal. The jacket illustration for “Coming of Age in Samoa” featured a topless girl. The trick was to turn this appeal inside out, so that what appear at first to be outlandish and sometimes repellent practices come to seem natural and sensible, and our own practices, whose reasonableness we had taken for granted, start to appear tribal and arbitrary. The anthropologist Clifford Geertz, writing about Benedict, called this “portraying the alien as the familiar with the signs changed.”
Soon after Mead’s death, cultural anthropology began losing its voice in public debates. King thinks that the reason for this was the rise of anti-relativism. He points out that cultural relativism is the principal target of Allan Bloom’s “The Closing of the American Mind,” which was published in 1987 and helped launch the culture wars of the ensuing decade. Bloom attacked both Mead and Benedict, and the notion that teachers who preach cultural relativism are turning American students into unpatriotic nihilists has been a recurrent theme in political rhetoric ever since.
It’s true that Boas and Benedict spoke of “relativity,” and that at the end of “Patterns of Culture” Benedict refers to “coexisting and equally valid patterns of life which mankind has created for itself from the raw materials of existence.” But everything else in Benedict’s book contradicts the assertion that all cultures are “equally valid.” The whole point is to judge which practices, others’ or our own, seem to produce the kind of society we want. The anthropological mirror has a moral purpose.
The term “culture” is responsible for some of the confusion. We think that to call something part of a group’s culture is to excuse it from judgment. We say, That’s just the lens through which people in that society view the world. It’s not for us to tell them what to think. Our ways are not better, only different. What it all boils down to (to paraphrase Montaigne) is: We wear pants; they do not. That would be relativism.
But to say that a belief or a practice is culture-relative is not to place it beyond judgment. The whole force of Boasian anthropology is the demonstration that racial prejudice is cultural. The belief that some races are superior and some inferior is learned; it has no basis in biology. It is therefore subject to criticism.
Boas spent his entire life telling people that intolerance is wrong. King says that cultural anthropology pushes us to expand our notion of the human. That may be so, but it has nothing to do with relativism. King’s anthropologists are prescriptivists. They are constantly telling us to unlearn one way of living in order to learn a way that is better by our own standards.
Mead argued, for instance, that American families are too insular and put too much pressure on growing children. The example of Samoa, where families are extended and children can move around among the adult members, suggested that American teen-agers could be healthier and happier if we relaxed our notions of how families ought to function. There was nothing natural and inevitable about American social structures.
But there were also changes within the field of anthropology itself. Soon after Mead’s death, the concept of culture began to be targeted. The arrows flew from multiple directions, and some of the criticisms exposed tensions within the Boasian tradition. Although the concept had been given an enormous amount of work to do, the meaning of “culture” was never settled on. In 1952, two anthropologists, Alfred Kroeber (who was Boas’s first Ph.D. student) and Clyde Kluckhohn, published “Culture: A Critical Review of Concepts and Definitions.” They list a hundred and sixty-four definitions from the literature.
As an instrument of analysis, the term is impossibly broad. If we mean by “culture” something like the lens through which a group of people ineluctably see the world, then “culture” becomes synonymous with “consciousness,” and it seems absurd to generalize about “Navajo consciousness” or “Western consciousness.” All distinctions are lost. On the other hand, if we do distinguish a group’s culture from, say, its social structure, then we dilute the term’s explanatory power. Culture becomes epiphenomenal, a reflection of underlying social relations.
And there are ethical issues, which, as King acknowledges, Boas and his students were mostly oblivious of. Mead spent nine months, interrupted by a hurricane, in Samoa; she interviewed fifty girls in three small villages on one of the five inhabited American Samoan islands; she never returned. Yet she wrote things like “High up in our list of explanations we must place the lack of deep feeling which the Samoans have conventionalised until it is the very framework of all their attitudes toward life.” She presumed to understand not only Samoan practices but the Samoan way of being in the world. She was speaking for Samoans.
Benedict had done field work with only one of the three groups she wrote about in “Patterns of Culture,” and she never set foot in Japan. Lévi-Strauss, after his time in Brazil, did hardly any field work. He got his facts from published books and articles. This kind of ethnography began to look like crypto-colonialism, the Western scientist telling the “native’s” own story, sometimes without even talking to a native.
There was also the question of how deep cultural difference really runs, an issue aired in the nineteen-nineties in a dispute between two anthropologists, Marshall Sahlins and Gananath Obeyesekere, over how to interpret the death of Captain Cook, in the Hawaiian Islands, in 1779. Were the islanders who killed Cook inside their own perceptual fishbowl, operating with a completely different understanding of how the world works from that of Cook and his crew? Or, underneath the cultural appurtenances of Hawaiian life, were the islanders behaving rationally and pragmatically, much as any other people might?
And there was the complaint, directed at Mead and Benedict, but also at Lévi-Strauss and Geertz, that the cultural approach is ahistorical. The cultural anthropologist freezes a way of life in order to analyze it as a meaningful pattern. But ways of life are in continual flux.
Boas was a firm believer in this: he was interested in what he called “diffusion,” the spread of forms and practices across space and time. Deloria, too, thought that the notion of recapturing Native American life before the arrival of the Europeans was delusional. Native American life was being lived right now, in an evolving mixture of pre-Columbian customs and twentieth-century American ways of life.
But Benedict was looking for patterns. In “The Chrysanthemum and the Sword,” she wrote, “I started from the premise that the most isolated bits of behavior have some systemic relation to each other.” And from this premise she undertakes to explain “what makes Japan a nation of Japanese.” Japanese-ness is a rock, washed over by waves of history.
And what is gained from swapping out “racial difference” for “cultural difference”? As the South African anthropologist Adam Kuper has pointed out, cultural differences between blacks and whites were used to justify apartheid. Making the differences cultural enables people to say, “I’m not a racist—I just want to preserve our respective ways of life. I don’t want to be replaced.”
But all these criticisms of the premises of Boasian cultural anthropology (and there were others) had less impact than the direct attack made by the anthropologist Derek Freeman, a New Zealander, on “Coming of Age in Samoa.” Mead’s controversial finding in that work was that Samoan teen-agers engage in full sexual relations before marriage, with multiple partners, and largely without shame or guilt or even jealousy. She gave this as one of the reasons that Samoan adolescents didn’t exhibit the angst and the rebelliousness that American teen-agers did. The point was that adolescence is a culturally determined phase of life, not a biologically determined one.
In two books published after Mead’s death, “Margaret Mead and Samoa: The Making and Unmaking of an Anthropological Myth” (1983) and “The Fateful Hoaxing of Margaret Mead” (1998), Freeman claimed that Mead had been tricked by her native informants, and that Samoan sex life was far more fraught than she represented it. Freeman’s books kicked off a wave of reconsideration.
King consigns the entire controversy to an endnote, as he does later challenges to the reliability of Boas’s findings in his 1911 study of the bodily forms of the children of immigrants. He does this because subsequent investigations suggest that the accusers were wrong and that Mead and Boas were both substantially correct. But he therefore misses the significance of those episodes. For what was under assault was the whole culturalist account of human behavior, and what the disputes symptomized was a swing back toward biology.
The new biologists are not like the scientists Boas did battle with in the early twentieth century. They agree with Boas that “man is one.” But they think this means that there exists a single “human nature,” and that the success or failure of different forms of social organization depends on how faithful they are to this species essence.
This has become almost the default mode of analysis among social and political commentators, who like to cite work by cognitive scientists, endocrinologists, and evolutionary psychologists. In the most reductive version of the new biologism, life is programmed, and culture is simply the interface. Even the social science that is most popular, like behavioral economics, is human-nature-based. Nurture is out.
And yet the issues on which Boas and Mead made their interventions, issues around race and gender, are now at the center of public life, and they bring all the nature-nurture confusion back with them. The focus of the conversation today is identity, and identity seems to be a concept that lies beyond both culture and biology. Is identity innate, or is it socially constructed? Is it fated, or can it be chosen or performed? Are our identities defined by the existing state of social relations, or do we carry them with us wherever we go?
These questions suggest that the nature-culture debate was always misconceived. As Geertz pointed out years ago, it is human nature to have culture. Other species are programmed to “know” how to cope with the world, but our biological endowment evolved to allow us to choose how to respond to our environment. We can’t rely on our instincts; we need an instruction manual. And culture is the manual.
Only we can tell us how to live. There is nothing that prevents us from deciding that the goal of life should be to be as unnatural as possible. “Human nature” is just another looking glass. ♦