Mead and Activism

Margaret Mead was a feminist of her time, whether she considered herself one or not. Born in 1901, she studied with Franz Boas, her mentor, and Ruth Benedict, her romantic partner. During this time in the early half of the twentieth century, Margaret Mead developed many of her ideas. Her belief in cultural relativism,  passed down from Franz Boa, led most of her research in her journey to open the mind’s of American citizens. Her feelings of being different from most of society and her closeted relationship with Ruth Benedict created dissatisfaction with the gender role expectations in American society motivating her to make a change.

This dissatisfaction led to her study of gender roles in three primitive societies, which later turned into her ethnography, Sex and Temperament in Three Primitive Societies. Within the book, Margaret Mead’s goal was to show sex-specific roles are not universal and that each society has equally valid patterns of life. The first society she described was the Arapesh. Men and women were more equal within this society. Stereotypes weren’t as gender-based due to both genders being thought of as acting similarly: gentle, responsible, and cooperative. The second society that Mead wrote about was very similar to the last society in regards to equality. The women and men of Mundugumor viewed each other as both violent, aggressive, jealous and competitive. The only inadequacy that was brought to the public eye was that women were not as physically strong as the men. The Tchambuli was the last society that Mead wrote about and the least similar to our culture in the United States. Tchambuli women are considered energetic, managers of households, uninterested in self-expression, and fishers or manufactures. The men in this society relate closely to the women in the United States as they are considered self absorbent due to their interest in art, dancing, carving and painting. These societies, explained by Mead, showed a large variation in gender role expectations throughout cultures hopefully leading to change within ours.

Mead’s study included the notion of configuration and deviance. Each culture has their own configuration that affects behavior within that culture. Mead and Benedict both explain this as approved rules in a society that motivates behavior. A good example of this is our culture in the United States. Throughout our history, the rights of members in the LGBTQ community have been ignored and dismissed. This has always been “justified” by close-minded members of our society using our cultural configuration against us -a cultural configuration that has put the expectation of “traditional” relationships ahead of our needs and feelings. This is where Mead and Benedict’s ideas of deviance come to play.  Yes, we have a cultural configuration in the United States that is strict and firm, but this does not mean we have no free will. Deviance is Mead’s explanation for the feminist activists,  movements, and LGBTQ rallies that have taken place since her time. This deviance make us strong, independent people grasping to our freewill in a binding cultural configuration filled with gender expectations that have forced many of us in the past to hide who we are.

General Theory

Little White Lies

Structural-functionalism is primarily interested in the rules of society, it assumes the members of the society simply acted according to these rule and the exceptions to these rules were dismissed as “deviant”  (Moberg 2013, 208). This thinking didn’t consider that “deviant” behavior could be a regular behavior that exists within the society and should be seen as just as important in understand the behaviors of the individuals within (Moberg 2013, 207). In response to this school of thought, Sir Raymond Firth developed a theory regarded as “Anti-structure” according to Mark Moberg in Engaging Anthropological Theory: A social and Political History. This anti-structure finds it important to look at individuals actual behaviors within the society and not assume that they follow the rules. By doing this, he was able to identify that the “deviance” behavior should actually be seen as just as important in understanding a society as you would the structure of society. This theory the same structural-functionalist category of social structures which includes social rules, but added another layer called “Social Organization” which consists of the actual behaviors rather than the assumed behaviors (Moberg 2013, 208). Firth believes that the individuals within a society can and frequently if not regularly reinterpret and manipulate the structural rules to benefit them (Moberg 2013, 208). This theory makes the structure of society no longer rigid like the structural-functionalist viewed, but something more like Silly-Putty. The individuals within a society still have to act within the Silly-Putty, but it can be twisted, stretched, and squeezed into different amorphous shapes.

This manipulation of societal rules is something I found to be prevalent in American society as well. For example this practice can be seen in things as complex as legal matters such as marital practices, gun rights, and business law and as simple as a lying. As a general rule within American society lying is seen as deviant behavior and understood to be bad but there seems to always be exceptions and different ways to interpret what constitutes as lying. Lying is defined as “to make an untrue statement with intent to deceive” or “to create a false or misleading impression” by Merriam-Webster’s online Dictionary. The vague definition of this word allows individuals to frequently reinterpret what constitutes as lie. There are ways in which children and adults find to circumvent this rule and exceptions that our society has a tendency accepts overall. Examples of these include “little white lies”, “stretching the truth”, or equivocating. Little white lies are still seen as being untruthful but with harmless affects and often benefit both parties. Little white lies are seen as often necessary and wouldn’t be shamed to the same degree as a typical lie. I still remember first learning this and after years of being told not to lie and lying is bad, I found a loophole that many people follow.  A famous example that shows the purpose of white lies is the question, “Does this dress make me look fat?” If the dress actually does, both parties would be hurt by an honest response so it’s considered socially acceptable to just say “no”  and spare everyone involved. This example was even used in the following Geico commercial:

Like Firth theorized, there is another layer that needs to be considered when understanding society which is that the individuals can and will play with the rules to benefit the themselves, and lying is just one of the many cases where this can be seen. The mere act of actively manipulating a social rule (like in the example above) validates the person as existing within the social structure —  a.k.a. the Silly-Putty — because they must first be aware of the society’s rules in order to reinterpret them for one’s self-interest. If all acts of lying were seen as deviant, it would lead to an incomplete understanding of the actual function of lying in American society. The ability for the individuals within the overarching culture to reinterpret and manipulate rules needs to be understand as well as the structure in order to better understand societies rather than dismissing all acts outside of the perceived structure as deviance.


Moberg, Mark. 2013. Engaging Anthropological Theory: A Social and Political History. New York: Routledge.

-Jessica M. Hebert