Culture and Personality

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”>


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

  1. Also:

    I also found this quote on Benedict from (gasp!) Wikipedia quite compelling and accurate: “She redirected both anthropology and folklore away from the limited confines of culture-trait diffusion studies and towards theories of performance as integral to the interpretation of culture. She questioned the relationships between personality, art, language and culture, insisting that no trait existed in isolation or self-sufficiency, a theory which she championed in her Patterns of Culture.”

    But most importantly – it is Ruth Benedict who most passionately and effectively espoused cultural relativism. She took a vague idea advanced by Boas and his students and made it a core principle of Anthropology.

    For more on Ruth Benedict’s career, see Vassar College – Bio of Ruth Benedict,

  2. toura001 says:

    I don’t think you are being too hard on Mead. In the film she overgeneralizes what she sees in these four “typical” families and applies them to the whole culture. There could be several different ways to raise a child in certain areas that would still be seen as acceptable. Also she puts her perspective on what the importance is in the family like the food for the French , water for the Indian, and male dominance for the Japanese family.

    • Do we have to generalize in order to make sense of things? If we look at things only in the details and details, then where are the patterns? What do we know about the condition of being human? It seems to me like that was one of the problems of the Boasian perspective. It was a lot of detail, and a lot of warning against generalization, but then where do we go from there. Don’t generalizations then give us something to test?

      See, now I’ve changed my position 🙂

  3. I think the details are what makes the families different. The overall generalizations are used to try and connect them together. I still do agree with Melissa in the matter of overgeneralizing because I think families within the same society do have different ways of rearing a child. For example, the french family where they make it seem like the older children are neglected, but, other french families might show more affection for their extra little helping hands. Then again Mead might just be nit-picking to find specifics on generalized similarities and overall differences.

  4. True enough, Tou.

    How can we figure out, then, if someone is over-generalizing or nit-picking? That is, how can we trust other’s ethnographic descriptions? Are they all inherently untrustworthy because we assume that they are focusing on things that prove their point? Or is there some way of verifying/validating the information people give?

  5. hohen003 says:

    After reading the comments on this post the idea comparing generalization to specific details reminded me of pointillism. Pointillism is a technique in which small dots of pure color are arranged in patterns to form an image. If one looks at pointillism up close all they would see are small individual dots. The small dots would represent the specific details being looked at. The viewer does not see the overall imagine because they are too concerned with the individual dots. Often times it is the same for us that we so concerned with individual details that we do not see the whole picture or the generalization. One must then take a step back and look at the individual details (dots) as a whole. The viewer now can see how the individual dots blend together and create different patterns developing into a more elaborate image. One can look at the individual details, which help form generalizations. By having these generalizations we can better understand how the larger image was created.

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