Notes on “Four Families,” Margaret Mead on socialization of infants

Right at the beginning, Mead makes the axiomatic statement of the Culture and Personality school: A human child can be any type of person – through unformed, infinite possibilities. Through socialization, they are made into particular kinds of people, with particular personalities, traits, skills, attitudes.

This film exemplifies a particular kind of comparative method (this is Boas’s comparative method, not the unilineal evolutionists’). One of the principles of the comparative method is that we shouldn’t compare societies that are different from each other. They must be similar in particular traits, so, do not compare rich and poor, or rural and urban.

The examples are India, France, India, Canada.

Although each vignette starts with contextualizing information, such as the type of livelihood, gender roles, daily activities, the role of the government, inheritance, etc., the main focus is actually care for infants and toddlersIn this, I think she’s very influenced by Freud. For instance, in the French case, note how she associates pleasure and the delights of food and the mouth, that is orality as a cultural trait. The traits focused on in the film arise out of western psychotherapy that was common at the time.  So, the films focuses on bathing and everyday care of the infants; the family meal, focusing on family dynamics expressed in the sharing of food; practices for putting children to sleep; and weaning practices. Psychotherapists of this era thought that weaning practices, like the ways that different parents treated defecation and bodily fluids, were highly significant in the formation of personality and that mental illness could be attributed to mothering techniques. Issues of the ‘best’ way to raise children were points of discussion and debate in the 1950s.  This is the period when America was transitioning to bottle-only feeding, valued as more scientific, rational, and ‘better’ for the child; and Dr. Spock was advocating the importance of scheduling of feeding and sleeping for American infants.

It’s very qualitative, and despite Mead’s emphasis on appropriate cross-cultural comparison, I don’t know how she knows that these case studies are typical.  Others in the Culture and Personality school attempted to operationalize these assumptions and test them cross-culturally. I also feel that she’s not ‘stepping back’ to observe. Rather, she inserts herself right into the interpretation – her emphasis on the orality of French culture and food seems to me to be a reflection of American idealizations of French food and life as well as her uncritical acceptance of Freudian concepts.  What do you think? Am I being too harsh?

She is making a critical connection between individuals and culture (between agency and structure).  But she ignores history. Could the authoritarianism and disciplinary style reflect that people are poor, especially following on the trauma of WWII?

Here is the link to Miner, 1956: <a href="” title=”Body Ritual Among the Nacirema”>

<a href=" Is my assessment of Mead’s analysis too harsh?” title=”Poll” target=”_blank”>

Unilineal Evolution





This Lego structure represents unilateral evolution. The first light blue portion is a maze of dead ends with one path leading to the next stage of human culture. This earliest culture represents so-called simple hunter gatherer societies.  In the next section there is one large door with a smaller door leading out. This represents feudalism or societies with city states, that have a well-defined religious and upper class. Only a few societies manage to pass through the small door. Where they advance into semi-modern thinking societies, as the car crash represents many societies get stuck at this point and then revert to an earlier stage. The white plank represents cultures that have successfully made it to industrialization. However if a civilization becomes industrialized it may still not reached the peak of civilization. This peak of civilization is represented by steering wheel, a fully industrialized society. Usually whichever society the theorist belongs to.



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