Nancy Lutkehaus

National Endowment for the Humanities Resident Scholar

1997–1998

Margaret Mead as Cultural Icon: Anthropology, Intellectuals, and the Media in American Culture

Margaret Mead, famous anthropologist, teacher, and public intellectual, at her death attained iconic status as "grandmother to the nation," not only because of her research and writing but also because of her relationship with the media. Credited with popularizing the field of anthropology when it was first being discovered by the American public, Mead "attracted media attention through the public's romance with anthropology as exploration and her position as a woman scientist-explorer," explains Nancy Lutkehaus.

The seed of Lutkehaus's new book, Margaret Mead and the Media: The Making of an American Icon, was planted in the 1970s when, as an undergraduate at Barnard College, she began to work for Mead at the American Museum of Natural History. "I was fascinated by the diversity of things she was doing," Lutkehaus said of Mead. "I accompanied her to talk shows, to United Nations conferences in Europe, to professional meetings. In my book, I'm attempting to understand why this one woman came to be called upon by so many different people for her knowledge and insights."

As a graduate student at Columbia University, Lutkehaus was also struck by the paradox that while Mead was acclaimed by the public, her reputation as an anthropologist was often dismissed by her own academic peers—perhaps because of the "female" topics she often focused upon (such as parent-child relationships and socialization), perhaps because of her theoretical focus on culture and personality, or perhaps simply because of professional jealousy.

Years later, after conducting research in Papua New Guinea and working as a consultant on two documentaries about Mead, Lutkehaus decided to focus on Margaret Mead as myth and symbol, much the way an anthropologist would go into another culture and ask, "What do stories about certain people tell us about that society?"

By analyzing newspaper, magazine, radio, and television coverage of Mead, as well as how Mead herself constructed her public image and the messages she wanted to convey about anthropology and its usefulness to American society, Lutkehaus identified four key images that recur in the media: Mead as feminist or independent woman, as anthropologist, as scientist, and as celebrity and public intellectual. Her book traces the contradictory meanings these images of Mead had for post-World War II Americans—a symbol to some of scientific expertise, to others of science fiction; a symbol of either women's liberation or antifeminism; a symbol of either the best of liberal democracy or the worst of American liberalism.

Although initially Lutkehaus asked why there are no "Margaret Meads" in anthropology today, during her year at the School she began to frame the question differently and to focus instead on shifts in anthropology itself. "The challenge," Lutkehaus maintains, "is to develop a new sense of identity for anthropology." It should no longer be associated with the image of "the primitive" with which Mead was so clearly identified. But because Mead was in the forefront of the transformation of anthropology from the study of primitive people to the study of modern nations, Lutkehaus believes Mead's later work can offer the discipline some clues.

Affiliation at time of award:
Associate Professor of Anthropology, University of Southern California


Follow us: