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On Creating a Usable Culture

On Creating a Usable Culture: Margaret Mead and the Emergency of American Cosmopolitanism

Maureen A. Molloy
Copyright Date: 2008
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    On Creating a Usable Culture
    Book Description:

    Margaret Mead’s career took off in 1928 with the publication of Coming of Age in Samoa. Within ten years, she was the best-known academic in the United States, a role she enjoyed all of her life. In On Creating a Usable Culture, Maureen Molloy explores how Mead was influenced by, and influenced, the meanings of American culture and secured for herself a unique and enduring place in the American popular imagination. She considers this in relation to Mead’s four popular ethnographies written between the wars (Coming of Age in Samoa, Growing Up in New Guinea, The Changing Culture of an Indian Tribe, and Sex and Temperament in Three Primitive Societies) and the academic, middle-brow, and popular responses to them. Molloy argues that Mead was heavily influenced by the debates concerning the forging of a distinctive American culture that began around 1911 with the publication of George Santayana’s "The Genteel Tradition." The creation of a national culture would solve the problems of alienation and provincialism and establish a place for both native-born and immigrant communities. Mead drew on this vision of an "integrated culture" and used her "primitive societies" as exemplars of how cultures attained or failed to attain this ideal. Her ethnographies are really about "America," the peoples she studied serving as the personifications of what were widely understood to be the dilemmas of American selfhood in a materialistic, individualistic society. Two themes subtend Molloy’s analysis. The first is Mead’s articulation of the individual’s relation to his or her culture via the trope of sex. Each of her early ethnographies focuses on a "character" and his or her problems as expressed through sexuality. This thematic ties her work closely to the popularization of psychoanalysis at the time with its understanding of sex as the key to the self. The second theme involves the change in Mead’s attitude toward and definition of "culture"—from the cultural determinism in Coming of Age to culture as the enemy of the individual in Sex and Temperament. This trend parallels the consolidation and objectification of popular and professional notions about culture in the 1920s and 1930s. On Creating a Usable Culture will be eagerly welcomed by those with an interest in American studies and history, cultural studies, and the social sciences, and most especially by readers of American intellectual history, the history of anthropology, gender studies, and studies of modernism.

    eISBN: 978-0-8248-6377-7
    Subjects: History

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. ix-x)
  4. 1 Introduction
    (pp. 1-18)

    This study seeks to explain the shape of Margaret Mead’s early popular ethnographies and the professional and popular responses to them as cultural phenomena. It asks the question: what was it in American culture between the wars that was articulated in Mead’s early work in such a way as to secure it and her enduring place in the public imaginary? If Mead spoke to America, then just as surely America spoke to and through Mead. Thus, my focus is not on Mead’s anthropology of the various indigenous groups she studied. Rather, I consider her de facto anthropology of America, a...

  5. 2 The Problem of American Culture
    (pp. 19-41)

    Traditional historiography collapses the decades from 1919 to 1939 into a general “between-the-wars” time span or differentiates this period into the Roaring Twenties and the Hungry Thirties. As a frame for understanding the cultural history of the United States and Margaret Mead’s role within it, neither periodization works particularly well. Although her work under consideration here spans only a decade, its intellectual roots must be traced back two decades to the beginnings of what has been called the cultural-nationalist movement in the United States. If one comes backwards, as I did, from Mead’s writing to the critical writings on American...

  6. 3 The “Jungle Flapper” Civilization, Repression, and the Homogenous Society
    (pp. 42-61)

    “Scientist Goes on Jungle Flapper Hunt”: thus theNew York Sun Timesintroduced Margaret Mead, the young woman who was to establish anthropology in the popular lexicon and entrench an unsuspecting Pacific Island people in the popular imagination as the epitome of sexual permissiveness and bliss.¹Coming of Age in Samoa, the product of this “jungle hunt,” is unique among anthropological texts in its durability in both the popular imagination and academic debates. If as Micaela di Leonardo suggests, Margaret Mead is the public’s Ur-anthropologist,² thenComing of Age in Samoais surely its Ur-text. Despite, or because of, its...

  7. 4 “Lords of an Empty Creation” Masculinity, Puritanism, and Cultural Stagnation
    (pp. 62-82)

    Margaret Mead left New York in August 1928 with a crescendo of praise forComing of Age in Samoarising behind her. Her ultimate destination was not yet decided—somewhere in the Admiralty Islands off the coast of New Guinea—but her aims were clear: “to collect a body of detailed material upon the behavior of children in a primitive community for purposes of comparison with the large body of data which psychologists and educators are collecting concerning the mental development of children in our own civilization.”¹ She returned almost exactly a year later, having completed the fieldwork that was...

  8. 5 “Every Woman Deviating from the Code” Cultural Lag, Moral Contagion, and Social Disintegration
    (pp. 83-106)

    Of the four non-specialist ethnographies that Margaret Mead wrote between 1928 and 1935, the least well known isThe Changing Culture of an Indian Tribe. There are a number of reasons for this. In the first place, the research was located in the American Midwest, well outside Mead’s usual provenance of Oceania, an anomaly in her oeuvre. Perhaps more important is the fact that Mead herself never popularized this work. Unlike the three more famous monographs,Coming of Age in Samoa, Growing Up in New Guinea, andSex and Temperament in Three Primitive Societies, Changing Cultureinspired no spin-off articles...

  9. 6 “Maladjustment of a Worse Order” Temperament, Psychosexual Misidentification, and the Refuge of Private Life
    (pp. 107-133)

    In the autumn issue of the 1931 volume ofOceania,the Notes and News section contained the following announcements:

    Dr. Margaret Mead (Mrs. Fortune) and Dr. R. F. Fortune have arrived in New Guinea. They will carry out field work inland of Wiwiak until about the middle of 1932, after which they propose to undertake research among an Australian tribe.

    Mr. Gregory Bateson arrived in Sydney on December 17th, and after a short stay in Brisbane is proceeding to New Guinea to continue his study of the culture of the tribes of the middle Sepik region.¹

    Two years later, Notes...

  10. 7 On Creating a Usable Culture
    (pp. 134-142)

    The initial impulse for this book came, as it usually does in academic life, from a previous piece of research. While researching a New Zealand government inquiry into “Moral Delinquency in the Young,” I came across the following statement by Professor W. G. Minn, chair of social science at the Victoria University of Wellington. Professor Minn, called to give expert testimony, told the committee that

    we know [teenage sexual behavior] crops up over and over again, a lot of the children grow out of [it] any way—[the behavior being investigated] does seem so terribly organised. It seems to be...

  11. Notes
    (pp. 143-174)
  12. References
    (pp. 175-192)
  13. Index
    (pp. 193-200)
  14. Back Matter
    (pp. 201-206)