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Beginning in the 15th century and for the next 200 years, European explorers and traders roamed the world in search of peoples to conquer and resources to wrongfully take by force and/or guile. In doing so, the Westerners came into contact with people who looked, dressed and acted in ways deemed primitive and innately inferior in every way. These international businessmen wrote reports describing how the natives (their words) acted and behaved. Reports were written primarily as instruction manuals for how to dominate and control “inferior” peoples. 

Early anthropologists collected the written accounts of those explorers and traders

And those from ship crews, adventurers, missionaries, colonials and whatever came their way. As you can easily imagine, the reports were filled with inaccuracies, prejudices, exaggerations and more. The goal of aggregating all these different accounts was to describe different cultures around the world. But summarizing flawed reports is a far cry from living among native peoples, so these writers were referred to as armchair anthropologists because they never left home.

Then along came Claude Levi-Strauss

An anthropologist, he had a different perspective. He saw colonialism as “The larger part of mankind being made subservient to the smaller, with millions of innocent human beings having their resources plundered while they were ruthlessly killed and thrown into bondage.” He said the only way for an anthropologist to understand different peoples and cultures on their own terms was to leave home.

His New York Times obituary was headlined: Claude Lévi-Strauss, 100, Dies; Altered Western Views of the ‘Primitive’

Edward Rothstein wrote in 2009 “His revolutionary studies of what was once called ‘primitive man’ transformed Western understanding of the nature of cultures, customs and civilizations.” The writer goes on to say “his writing is a mixture of the pedantic and the poetic, full of daring juxtapositions, intricate argument and elaborate metaphors, resembling little that had come before in anthropology. And how.

Anthropology is the scientific study of the physical, social and cultural development of humans

Margaret Mead is the world’s most famous cultural anthropologist, a field that relies upon on first-hand observations and face-to-face interactions, not on questionnaires. Cultural anthropologists study the beliefs, practices, symbols and rules of groups. Other areas within the broad field of anthropology include physical anthropology (Jane Goodall), linguistics (Noam Chomsky) and archaeology (Indiana Jones). 

Mead studied primitive cultures

For anthropologists, studying means observing without making judgments. When they left their armchairs behind and went out into the world, these new anthropologists lived with tribes in remote jungles studying humans not yet exposed to the influences of the modern world. The idea was to take a closer look at humankind in the raw and unspoiled by modern times, searching for more clues to who we are and how we got here. This isn’t done by popping in and out on a congressional junket. It’s done by living side-by-side with the people for long enough to establish mutual trust and respect.  

Plus, the weather was swell

Mead chose to study South Seas islanders because they were primitive peoples who had a spoken language but were unable to read or write. For nearly a year, Mead lived her daily life among a Samoan tribe that lived in three neighboring villages on Ta’u Island. Like all good ethnographers, she kept extensive written records of what she saw and heard.

Mead used her notes and observations to write her first book

In Coming of Age in Samoa, she described in vivid detail the social and sexual lives of Samoan girls and women. Mead believed that childhood and adolescent gender and sexual relations were largely driven by cultural practices learned by the young members of the tribe, and included free, experimental and open sexual relationships among them. This caused quite a stir when it was first published 100 years ago. For those of us who weren’t around to remember those times, here’s what they looked like:

Anthropology for modern times

Indeed’s Career Guide says every organization can benefit from finding ways to better interact and communicate with current, past and future customers. That’s where business anthropology comes in, emphasizing information quality over quantity and solving business problems by using ethnographic techniques to:

  • See everything through the customers’ eyes.
  • Develop an in-depth understanding of customers’ wants, needs and expectations.
  • Explore new cultural contexts.
  • Generate valuable strategic insights.
Mead wrote 23 books and was extremely progressive for her time

Margaret Mead was outspoken about sex, child rearing, personality and culture, believing that “Children must be taught how to think, not what to think.” She took early stands for women’s rights, racial equality, environmental pollution and world hunger. She also left us with some memorable quotes.

  • “No country that permits firearms to be widely and randomly distributed among its population can expect to escape violence, and a great deal of violence.
  • “As a people we have developed a lifestyle that is draining the earth of its priceless and irreplaceable resources without regard for the future of our children and people around the world.”
  • “Always remember that you are absolutely unique. Just like everyone else.”

Margaret Mead was president of the American Association for the Advancement of Science and winner of the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest honor the United States bestows upon civilians. Mead was Curator of Ethnology at the American Museum of Natural History and also studied Russian culture for the U.S. military.


Later on, some anthropologists questioned the accuracy of her observations and the soundness of the conclusions she drew from them. Among her critics were those trying to make names for themselves and those with greater academic status but resentful of being overshadowed by her fame and popularity. Some of the criticism was deserved. Britannica.com says even her fans conceded that her renown “owed as much to the force of her personality and her outspokenness as it did to the quality of her scientific work.” Carl Sagan and Michio Kaku, two media figures who opened up scientific worlds to all the rest of us, have also been criticized for their popularity.

Surveys are good at finding out what people say they do

But we all know that people say, what people do and what people say they do are three very different things. Ethnographic studies are the best way to truly understand groups. Princeton University says ethnographies are relevant wherever people are relevant. Anthropologists don’t pop in and out for quick looks; they go on extended expeditions led by experts, much like tourists go on safaris to see animals in their natural habitats. Cultural anthropologists see the closeups and the bigger picture, the similarities and differences, the interactions, the environment – the breadth and depth of it all – and they write it all down. Make sure your ethnographer has the required research skills, is disciplined and is able to communicate clearly, concisely and colorfully. 

Ethno-graphy means people-writing

Here are some simple rules, all of which require an uncommonly disciplined approach: 

  • Never make value judgments.
  • Leave your biases and stereotypes at home. 
  • Immerse yourself in the group you want to know more about.
  • Explore cultural phenomena from their point of view.
  • Use proper observation, conversation and interview techniques.
  • Keep a detailed written record of all your observations and interactions.
The first Spock

Benjamin Spock, M.D. was Margaret Mead’s pediatrician. He incorporated some of what Mead had learned in his writings. Dr. Spock’s conclusion that breastfeeding when the baby demanded it was a better way to raise a child than breastfeeding by the clock was only one of the inferences he drew from Mead’s observations and writings. Spock’s bestseller, The Common Sense Book of Baby and Child Care, sold 50 million copies and revolutionized parenting in the United States. He, too, has many critics.  


It is said that in later years, Dr. Mead cut a dashing figure in her cape and walking stick, now on permanent display at the American Museum of Natural History. She also offered this interesting bit of interpersonal advice, surely from experience: “You can never have a relationship with someone whose smell you don’t like.”

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