Margaret Mead, Cultural Studies,
and International Understanding
(from The Study of Culture at a Distance. Margaret Mead and Rhoda Métraux, eds. New York: Berghahn Books, 2000)
William O. Beeman
The Study of Culture at a Distance (hereafter TSCD) was originally published in 1953 by the University of Chicago Press and Cambridge University Press. It was edited by Mead and her frequent collaborator, Rhoda Métraux. It is a book of methodologies and examples-a "manual" in Mead's words. However, it also contains a good dose of theory. Mead wrote the bulk of the theoretical material, and based it on the Josiah Mason Lectures she delivered at the University of Birmingham during October and November of 1949.
TSCD represents the birth of several new trends in anthropology that have endured down to the present. Although it was written more than forty years ago, the book has a distinct postmodern quality to it. Several themes underscore this quality. First, as Nancy Lutkehaus has pointed out, TSCD is "in the forefront of the shift in anthropology from a focus on so-called primitive societies to the study of Western societies" (1999)." Second, it also presents the first serious programmatic methodological statements outlining methods of interdisciplinary group research. Third, the theoretical basis for its analysis of specific behaviors is firmly rooted in developmental psychology as manifested in particular social and cultural settings. Finally, it offers the first serious suggestion that anthropologists should be studying film, literature, and popular culture systematically as part of their investigations.
It is curious that other postmodern trends in social science and the humanities had their start at the same time. Cultural studies is generally acknowledged to have been started by British scholars at the University of Birmingham in the early 1950's, beginning with the literary theorist F. R. Leavis and later promulgated by. Richard Hoggart (1957) and Raymond Williams (1958) later promulgated it. In part, a reaction to elitist literary studies, the movement emphasized the investigation of popular culture as a means of understanding the broad spectrum of life of a society, not just the upper fringe.
Before proceeding further, I want to announce here that this essay will not bear the weight of a lengthy critical discussion of every twist, wrinkle, and division in the development of postmodern studies of culture. In trying to show why Mead and Métraux's work should be of interest to readers today, I have decided to be somewhat general in my treatment of what has become a complex array of disciplinary sub-specializations with common roots. I do this at the risk of offending colleagues who may cringe at sharing the same intellectual bed with each other. The contemporary distinctions between among cultural studies (all branches), popular culture studies, media studies, gender studies, queer studies, and many others emerging daily, did not exist, after all, when Mead and Métraux compiled TSCD. However, I hope to establish a shared set of concerns and sensibilities between all of these contemporary approaches to culture and those demonstrated in TSCD-one that today's scholars can study with profit. To this end I have adopted the phrase "contemporary studies of culture" as a gloss for all of these approaches, as well as post-modern anthropological analyses. Occasionally, I make reference to "cultural studies," meaning specifically the tradition growing out of Birmingham in the 1950's.
In many ways, the post- World War II period was an intellectual watershed for the Western world. It obviously engendered, a number of research questions about the relationship of dominant social groups toward other social groups arose among sociologists and cultural anthropologists. For Mead and her large cohort, the central questions revolved around the dynamics of the United States' understanding of foreign cultures. For the practitioners of cultural studies, the questions had to do with the dynamics of the dominant class's understanding of the underclass. As cultural studies gave way to gender studies, queer studies, and a panoply of other sub-sub-disciplines, the questions expanded were then applied to the dynamics of understanding between dominant social groups and other identifiable minority groups.
Both trends shared an emphasis on the use of popular media-particularly film and literature-as a means to explore these questions. The field of media studies later took this media-then later including television-as its main source of data for interpreting culture. Anthropologists tended to follow Mead's lead and considered these materials in conjunction with other social and cultural data.
I will return to an exploration of these intellectual parallels below. However, the historical question of these two similar intellectual movements arising at the same time (and the interesting coincidence of Mead's Birmingham lectures) would have little but passing interest if it did not underscore how fascinating and topical Mead and Métraux's 50- year-old work is today.
Margaret Mead and the Post- World War II Years
Margaret Mead was the most prominent member of what could easily be called the Columbia School of Anthropology during the 1940's and 1950's. From 1947 to 1952 an enormous research project was conceived under the "hospitality" of Mead's mentor and close friend Ruth Benedict at Columbia University. The project, titled Columbia University Research in Contemporary Cultures (referred to hereafter by the acronym RCC) continued work that had been done by Benedict, Mead, and a number of their colleagues during World War II under the auspices of the U.S. Office of Naval Research, starting in 1940. During its operation, the RCC involved more than 120 scholars meeting on a weekly basis to compare research materials on seven societies: China, Czechoslovakia, the East European Jewish shetl, France, Poland, pre-Soviet Russia, and Syria. Additional materials concerning Germany, Great Britain, Italy, Rumania, Thailand, and the United States were considered in the sessions.
The unusual task of the RCC was to study these cultures "at a distance." During World War II, field research on European and Asian societies was a virtual impossibility. Therefore, Benedict, Mead, and their colleagues began to conduct research using a variety of cultural products from these societies.
As mentioned above, the primary source materials for RCC research were literature, film, and public imagery. These were coupled with extensive interviews and projective psychological tests carried out with on U.SU.S. immigrants from the selected societies living in the United States.
The Regarded highly by the U.S. Government, regarded the RCC research effort highly. It resulted in a number of significant governmental policy decisions by the U.S. government, including the decision not to execute the Emperor of Japan following at the end of the War (cf. pp. 446--447 in the current volume). In the end, 118 volumes of research notes, working papers, interview transcripts, and transcribed research seminar discussions were compiled, including material from both 1940--47 and 1947--52, the formal RCC period. The volumes currently reside not at the Institute for Intercultural Studies as stated in the text, but in the Library of Congress, with a second copy in the archives of the Georgetown University library.
It is worth mentioning that although Ruth Benedict began the RCC research effort in 1940, she died in 1948. At this point Margaret Mead took over the administration of the project. In correspondence on file in the Mead archives in the Library of Congress, it is clear that Mead wanted to honor the spirit of her mentor, but at the same time put the entire project on a more rigorous organizational level-an effort that was highloy successful, as I will be demonstrated below.
It is axiomatic that no research effort fully withstands the ravages of time, and the work of the RCC group is no exception. It is conventionally thought in anthropological circles that the developmental psychological approaches formulated by Mead and her colleagues are outmoded. However, as I will maintain below, the work of the group merits a second look. After all, the psychologically based analyses of Lacan are invoked on a regular basis in the study of culture today, and practitioners in cultural and literary studies continue to use Freudian developmental models. When considered in this light, TSCD remains a pioneering, exemplary work with great interest for today's readers.
A Research Manual
Mead describes TSCD as a research "manual," designed to provide readers with examples of how the work of the RCC group was carried out. The book is thus designed to be a kind of propaedia to the real work of the group contained in the 118 volumes of papers "available for consultation by professional workers." Sadly, as far as anyone can tell, these extensive research writings have gone largely unexamined for over 40 forty years.
Even without considering the whole body of finished written materials, it becomes clear on reading TSCD that the RCC research effort was unique. Nothing like it has ever been attempted either before or since. Although the research took place under Ruth Benedict's nominal sponsorship, Mead organized the entire project. In fact, the organization was quite loose: It was designed to be as unstructured as possible. There was no real director of the research. For instance, Benedict was the "convener" of the Czech group. Mead convened the Syrian group. As Mead writes:
[the project] was set up to welcome participants rather than to search for "'research workers"'; to permit any type of participation from full-time work by senior people to short-term part-time work, long-term part-time work, extensive volunteer work by students or seniors, student participation as part of course work or at student rates of payment; participation during the project; and uneven remuneration in terms of each situation or individual need rather than by categories. (97).
Mead, in two essays in the volume (Part One and Part Three A), presents an outlines of the RCC research effort. Her first essay presents a clear snapshot of the ideology of fieldwork as she saw it. She clearly hoped that the book would also be instructive for future interdisciplinary students of culture. Her framing essays provide large doses of practical advice for fieldwork and analysis. As she states:
. . .... the Manual is not for use in isolation, but is rather supplementary to an apprentice type of training for students working together or under supervision. From it the student should be able to learn, not exactly how to conduct a set of interviews, but what interviews of this sort are like and what kinds of interviews may be expected to yield fruitful results. . . .... The material suggests how to go about analyzing films, but not the particular steps or the particular themes to look for, and ways in which literary materials may be related to other types of material. It is meant to be suggestive, stimulating, to build up in the student . . .... a model of the flexible adaptation to the unique character of each body of cultural material. (6).
In her first essay, Mead makes it clear that this book is not designed just for anthropologists. In addition to cultural anthropologists, its audience encompasses researchers in "clinical psychology, dynamically oriented child development, psychologically oriented psychiatry, psychologically oriented history, culturally and psychologically oriented literary criticism [and] modern linguistics" (5). Moreover, it is designed for practitioners of these disciplines who would work together in a team to formulate and test hypotheses about complex literate societies.
Mead's overall approach to this research is standard scientific methodology. She conceives of the study of cultures at a distance as involving four stages: an exploratory stage in which hypotheses are developed; a confirmatory stage in which hypotheses are tested; a stage of quantification in which sampling methods are used to establish "proportional relationships" within cultural materials or among members of, or groups in, a society;, and a stage of experimental verification in which change experiments are performed with the hypotheses that have been developed and of which the proportional relationships have been quantified (7).
TSCD is concerned primarily with the first stage of this process-the development of hypotheses. Here, Mead embraces an interpretive methodology that Clifford Geertz might well endorse. "In this first exploratory stage, the type of material used is far less important than the congeniality between the particular research worker and the type of material. Here, too, attention has to be focused upon the specific use that an investigator of a given cast of mind, habit of work, and disciplinary background will make of informants, of film analysis, or any material" (Ibid)."
In today's intellectual world, open advocacy of the use of both interpretive and scientific method in the same analytic process is rare. One wonders what Mead would make of the intellectual conflicts over this issue today-conflicts that have split prominent academic departments apart.
Her methodological excursions in this first essay continue in a vein contemporary with today's sensibilities. She talks extensively about the difficulties of studying a culture of which one is one's self a member (22). She deals with the problem of sorting out the characteristics of a culture that are internal vs.versus those that arise from contact with the political and economic world external to the society under study (25--26). Dealing with the tension between the culture as a whole and sub-sub-cultures is another theme (24). She also talks knowledgeably about linguistics and symbolic structures within the society (13--14). Pervading the entire essay is her assertion of the need for multi-disciplinary research in fieldwork (11--12). In short, her essay deals in a thoughtful and practical manner with many of the issues that are live concerns forcurrently face interpreters of cultural phenomena today in a thoughtful and practical manner.
In her second framing essay, Mead describes the philosophy and organization of the RCC research. At the time, group research was relatively new as a standard work practice in social science. Mead makes it clear that the project was designed to embody an appropriate methodology for dealing specifically with the problems of the study of contemporary societies. Her justification of the group approach is interesting today. She is quite clear that it is necessary because an individual researcher cannot fully comprehend the complexities of contemporary cultures. She describes the RCC research as urgent, due to the need for an understanding of these the selected societies occasioned by the immediate postw-War political situation of the United States. Group research has the great advantage of being able to proceed with due speed by having more people working on the project. The particular group approach she has arrived at is practical, using as it uses a group of scholars readily available in New York City. Finally, she emphasizes that the group of individuals assembled felt that such research would be congenial. Many of them seem to have volunteered their time (95). The descriptions of the group efforts in the book exude evince a congeniality and cooperativeness among the scholars involved that probably has never has existed transpired againsince. It was a kind of ongoing salon where exciting ideas were exchanged on a continual basis.
Having set up a highly complex research situation, one can only marvel at Mead's analytic rigor. Each participant in the project was given a personal data file and number, and referred to by that number throughout. The project assigned each informant a data file and number. All discussion was transcribed and produced in multiple copies (before photocopiers!) with each line of text numbered. The same treatment was given to interview texts, and all other written material.
Thus each item of recorded information in the project contains double identification: on the informant and on the interviewer. This identification was maintained spontaneously in the research groups, for people would talk about "A's lace merchant who said . . ...." or "B's interview with that diplomat ...". . . " or "C's second interview with the old junkman when he talked about the fountains . . ...." preserving intact the very necessary individuality of each piece of information.
All material was recorded with line numbers, making possible rapid cross-reference during seminar and group discussions. . . . ... Group research of this sort would be unmanageably clumsy without the use of line-numbered documents. (103--104).
Research groups were of two types, . oOne focussing on specific cultural groups, and a second focussing on themes which that cut across cultures, -such as child- rearing, or exercise of power. Additionally, a general seminar was held every two weeks in which individual groups presented their findings for discussion.
The plan of work was extraordinarily free, but it was systematic. Each group was attempting to formulate hypotheses about the cultures they were studying, and were testing these hypotheses continually through their investigation of the variety of cultural materials mentioned earlier. A theme that would be picked up in interviews would be searched for in literary materials or films. Likewise, themes in public imagery would be presented to informants for comment. Evident in the book is a great deal of controversy and give and take between members of the shifting population of scholars attending the seminars and working in the individual groups.
Members of the cultures under study were continually present and active as participants in the research. This for Mead was one of the ways that the research was able to maintain an ethical standard. It was a "requirement" that "statements made about a culture should be phrased in terms that are acceptable to members of that culture." Formulating these statements was evidently difficult, and this-a problem is one that has occupied the attention of contemporary analysts of culture as well.
As a final remark I cannot resist noting that contemporary studies of culture are frequently critiqued for being heavily over-theorized and lacking in research methodology. Mead's outlines for a rigorous and systematic process of work are refreshingly clear, and straightforward. They could be studied by today's analysts with much profit.
As a final note, Mead was no mere administrator for her research group. She was a tireless promoter of their research. Correspondence files in the Library of Congress are stuffed with letters from Mead to book and journal publishers promoting the work of RCC participants. In some cases where the work was controversial, she berates editors at for their lack of vision. Often she had to approach several sources before the work was published. Stubborn and dogged, she defended her colleagues to the hilt. This makes the RCC project look something like a modern think-tank-as indeed it was.
The National Character Question
The theories that the RCC group were aiming to formulate about individual cultures fall under the rubric of national character. Mead, Bateson, and especially Geoffrey Gorer in Part II of the book are straightforward in stating this as their goal.
It is this aspect of the book that most modern readers will find difficult to accommodate. National character formulation as explanation for human behavior was already being contested in anthropology when the book was published, as witnessed by Anthony F. C. Wallace's review in the American Anthropologist (1954). He praises the eclectic nature of the material ("an enthusiastic potpourri of theory, case material, illuminating discussion of techniques of observation and first-stage analysis, and frank and useful advice on practical procedures" ). However, he then goes on to point out what he believes to be the weaknesses in the approach:
The familiar entities of descriptive ethnography and historiography have little place in it. The volume would not help a historian who wondered how to go about working out the Elizabethan English kinship system; there is nothing in it about how an anthropologist might analyze the educational system of an Iron Curtain country from various available documentary and informant sources; the organization of material culture information is scarcely mentioned. . . .... [T]he emphasis lies much more heavily on broad assumptions, on the one hand, and refinements of observation on the other than on procedures of systematic analysis and variation. . . .... One wonders whether the size . . .... of this project may not have focused interest too much on the organization of the group and left too little opportunity for the questioning of the assumptions which held the group together. (Wallace 1954:1143).
Despite Wallace's caveats, I believe that it is shortsighted to characterize this emphasis on national character as a fatal flaw of the book and the research effort it represents. It is far more useful, I believe, to try to understand where the RCC researchers were situated intellectually at this time. Having done this, it becomes possible to see the solid linkages the RCC writers have with practitioners in anthropology and contemporary studies of culture in today's world.
Additionally, it is instructive to look at what Mead and her colleagues were actually trying to express through the term "national character." I believe that it is the name of the term itself-national character- that causes the trouble for today's readers. The word "national" seems to be an overgeneralization when applied to complex, multi-ethnic societies. The term "character" seems by contrast to be to narrowly drawn-a personality trait. Even the alternate formulation "national culture" seems to be overly broad today.
When one looks not at the name, but rather at the explanations Bateson and Gorer provide for this approach, it is clear that what they are describing is an approach most students of culture today would likely agree with. They delineate a methodology for explaining regularities in thought and behavior for a population under study, hypothesized to arise from commonaltiescommonalties in psychological development processes.
The principal problem for the anthropological researcher was to root out the commonalties that united members of a given society-the culture-the "total shared, learned behavior of a society or a subgroup" (22)." The key to systematicity within culture lay in the common learning process. When the culture has "maintained its existence through a sufficient number of generations so that each stage of the life span of an individual is included within the system, [this learned behavior] has been found to be systematic, and this systematization can be referred to the uniformities in the structure and the functioning of the human beings who embody the culture. . . .... and, as such, will be comparable with the same formal aspects of other cultures" (Ibid.)."
Note in the above passage that Mead defines culture as the "total shared, learned behavior of a society or a subgroup (italics mine). Taken in this way, it is easy to see that their the RCC researchers' "national character" analytic strategy can apply to all sorts of public behavior, discourse, and symbolic expression. Moreover, it can be used for groups of any size, including families, clans, ethnic groups, gender groups, socioeconomic classes, or castes. Of course, it can also apply to whole "nations" as far as provided that the development processes are uniform across the population. It might work well for national groups with small, intimate populations, like Icelanders, Tongans, or Trobrianders. It might also work for highly homogeneous populations like the Japanese. However, there is no need to use the nation-state as the minimal unit of analysis to validate the process.
Mead, Bateson, and Gorer were all researchers who had worked extensively in small-scale societies (Mead and Bateson together in New Guinea, Gorer in the Himalayas). They were accustomed to seeking and finding holistic statements that applied in one way or another to every member of the societies they studied. Benedict adds to the mix. Her Patterns of Culture, published in 1934, was and is (it is still in print) an immensely popular work in which societies are characterized under single adjectival rubrics.
To be fair, the RCC team of researchers believed-as we no longer do today-that societies do exist in uniform, largely undifferentiated groups characterized by their common overarching patterns of behavior. James Clifford (and a number of others) later questioned the notion of culture as used by Mead and her contemporaries, asking if it were anything more than an artifact of the anthropological observer:
The pioneering élan of Margaret Mead "'completing a culture"' [referring to a "'note"' written by Mead to the American Anthropologist n.s. 34 (1932): 740] in Highland New Guinea, collecting a dispersed population, discovering its key customs, naming the result-in this case the "'Mountain Arapesh"'-is no longer possible. (Clifford 1993)
However, Clifford does not give them credit for their recognition that the term "culture" can apply to sub-sub-units of a broader social group.
RCC researchers believed in underlying universal developmental patterns as outlined in psychology and psychiatry. Something like the Oedipus complex was to be found in every society-its form and realization changing from cultural group to cultural group (72). In essence, national character studies as practiced by Mead and company were rooted in the premises of developmental psychology. In this regard, Mead, Bateson, and Gorer would have found themselves quite at home with Jacques Lacan-not perhaps in some shared view of Freudian theory, but in their firm belief in the role of early childhood development in shaping adult behavior (77--78). They would also have found a common bond with V. N. Voloshinov (1973), although they were not Marxists, in the clear belief that the learning of a particular language inculcates a child with a particular view of the world. Voloshinov would call it ideology. Mead and company assume a broader conceptual palate and call it culture or world view.
Thus Mead, Gorer, and Bateson do not deny variation in temperament, motivation, or desire within a given society. Nor do they deny the existence either of sub-sub-groups or conflicting interests within a society. Finally, they does not exclude influence of world-systems forces external to the society on the behavior of individuals or groups. All of these variant factors are neatly accommodated in their model.
It is perhaps obvious, but necessary to state, that the RCC's fundamental belief was in human plasticity. Biological heritage was gently acknowledged, but the researchers saw nurture as the dominant factor shaping human behavior. It is this belief more than any other that has set Mead's work in particular at odds with modern commentators.
The relationship between parent and child is seen to govern a whole panoply of culturally specific behavioral reactions as the child reaches adulthood. The whole final section of the book is devoted to case studies that demonstrate this "end linkage."
One additional way to evaluate the national character arguments in TSCD is to ask whether the kinds of societies Mead, Bateson, and Gorer studied in their pre--World War II research exist at all any longer. Modern writers in cultural studies cite Foucault on the death of tradition and the uniformity that comes from looking at society in the historical manner Mead espouses above:
We are in the epoch of simultaneity: we are in the epoch of juxtaposition, the epoch of the near and far, of the side-by-side, or the dispersed. We are at a moment, I believe, when our experience of the world is less that of a long life developing through time than that of a network that connects points and intersects with its own skein. (Foucault 1986: 22)
Intuitively, almost any thoughtful person would agree that Foucault is articulating something true about our contemporary age. But are Mead and company with their belief in social uniformity completely wrong, then? If they are wrong, were they always wrong?, or has the world changed?
As with most bipolar controversies, the truth lies somewhere between the divergent theoretical models. The isolated uniform societies of the early fieldwork of Mead, Bateson, and Gorer no longer exist. Indeed, they disappeared during Mead's own lifetime. Nevertheless, those contemporary cultural analysts who embrace Foucault's formulation, themselves embrace a new set of uniformities based not on the shared experience of traditional childhood upbringing, but rather on a new set of shared group experiences arising from what Stuart Hall calls "postmodernism's deep and ambivalent fascination with difference" (Hall 1996: 466)" based on gender, generation, class, racial grouping, sexuality, and ethnic origin. In this formulation, common shared attitudes and behavior stem not from the common experience of interaction with parents-although such early experiences undoubtedly play a role-but with the more general phenomenon of shared interaction with broad social forces such as political and economic systems. Here a Gramscian hegemony of one sort or another-often capitalism, androcentrism, homophobia, or racism-is usually the force that is seen to produce uniform attitudes, beliefs, and behaviors in social sub-sub-groups rather than uniform child-rearing practices.
The parallels are striking. Like Mead's national character regularities, these new shared realities are seen by researchers to unite members of groups, to produce a recognizable uniformity of behavior, and to be comparable across societies. One might look at, for example, the comparative attitudes of women toward pornography in the United States, Japan, and the Arab world, for example. Margaret Mead would most definitely approve.
As a coda to this part of the discussion, I note that another contemporary researcher, Benedict Anderson, has perhaps unwittingly, provided a support for even the most broadly -based national character statements promulgated by Mead and her colleagues. In his widely admired formulation of the notion of the "imagined community" (1991), Anderson shows convincingly that populations will manifest uniformity of thought, discourse, and symbolic behavior when they acquire the cultural feeling of belonging to a nation. This will occur even despite wide variation in birth, education, residence, ethnic membership, and language. People in these "imagined communities" will fight and die for those communities. This behavior may not be precisely what Mead, Bateson, and Gorer meant by "national character" but Anderson's work is a strong answer to critics who insist that such characterizations of nation-wide cultural uniformity are simplistic steereotypes.
RCC and Contemporary Studies of Culture
I maintained above that the theoretical aims of practitioners of contemporary studies of culture are not very far from those of the RCC. They are at the very least analogous. Of course, one very large difference in the work of the RCC and that of the practitioners of cultural studies is the relative absence of Marxist philosophy in the RCC and its centrality in much of cultural studies-particularly seen in the early Birmingham group. However, in the many flavors of cultural studies that have arisen in the intervening years, Marxist orientation is no longer de rigueur in all quarters.
As I have already pointed out, one of the great parallels in the two approaches is the emphasis on popular culture as a key to understanding the inner workings of a community. The term "popular culture" today has a particular flavor of industrialized commodification and is distinguished from "mass culture," or "folk culture." For the RCC there was no other form of culture except popular culture, which encompassed all of these genres. For cultural studies, emerging as it did from academic departments of literature, the importance of popular culture had to be asserted again and again over an against a "high literary canon." Beyond these different contextualizations for their work, the groups pursued their research in a similar fashion.
For purposes of comparison, I take one of the most celebrated writings by a contemporary analyst of popular culture, : Janice Radway's study of romance fiction, Reading the Romance: Women, Patriarchy and Popular Literature (1984). I compare this work with the analysis in TSCD of French male attitudes toward their fathers, and the resulting projection of those attitudes in folklore and in film.
The RCC working hypothesis concerning the French family involves the internal relationships between parents and children. The hypothesis was a product of group discussion, but was principally formulated by Geoffrey Gorer:
A married couple, together with their children, constitutes a foyer: a foyer consists of a nexus of dyadic relationships-relationships between pairs of individuals-each of which by its existence gives strength, richness, and signification to the others. All relationships tend to be of an exclusive dyadic nature; valued emotional complexity develops in those situations where the whole group is interconnected through mutual dyadic relationships over a long period of time. (112)
French children are taught early about the existence somewhere outside the foyer, of a sinister male mythological figure, to which is attributed excessive violence, destructive sexuality, and other aggressive characteristics (this figure has numerous names-Ramponneau, loup-garou Lustucru, le satyre, etc;" the names and stories of various sadistic murderers may also be invoked). This fantasy figure is consequently available as a recipient of all the negative feelings and fears that the young child might otherwise direct onto the image of the father. In most cases it would appear that this psychological safety valve works effectively and the son conceives the father to be succoring, protective and undestructive. . . .... [This mechanism] seems to operate for the daughters as well as for the sons. (318)
The RCC French culture group was thus using an hypothesis of the "split image" of the father. This hypothesis was used in the analysis of two films, Panique, and the somewhat more famous La Belle et la Bête. In her analysis of Panique (289--90) Jane Belo identifies the central character, ironically named Désiré, as an older man who loves, but is loved by no one. He shows affection for a younger woman, who is then forced by the citizenry to accuse him falsely of making sexual advances. He is thus portrayed as a monster. In the end the crowd surrounds him and causes him to fall from a roof to his death. In his analysis of La Belle et la Bête, Geoffrey Gorer points out that the Beast is related to the father, both of whom Belle is trying to save from death. The beast becomes a personification of le satyre, Ramponneau, Croque-mitaine, etc., "i.e., of the dangerous aspect of the father's personality." (320)."
Janice Radway's analysis of women's reading of romance literature has been called "the most extensive scholarly investigation of the act of reading" (Brundson 1991: 372). It does not focus on familial relations, but rather on the general psycho-social relationships that obtain between women and society at large, and was based on a study of forty-two readers in "'Smithton,"' with whom Radway conducted extensive, long-term fieldwork in a manner most anthropologists (and Margaret Mead) would find admirable.
Radway's work with the Smithton readers produces a profile of an "'ideal romance novel"' in which an intelligent, independent woman undergoes a series of trials, both emotional and physical, to eventually be overwhelmed by a man who is transformed in the course of the novel into someone who can care for her and nurture her. As Radway points out: "The romantic fantasy is . . .... not a fantasy about discovering a uniquely interesting life partner, but a ritual in which to be cared for, loved and validated in a particular way (Radway 1984:83).
Radway draws from the work of Nancy Chodorow (1978) the belief that women emerge from the Oedipusal complex with the "'triangular psychic structures intact."' The result is that "not only do they need to connect themselves with a member of the opposite sex, but they continue to require an intense emotional bond with someone who is reciprocally nurturant and protective in a maternal way" (Radway 1984: 140)." This can take place for adult women in only three ways: lesbianism, relationships with a man, or some other means. Since, Radway claims, society generally prohibits lesbianism, and men in patriarchal society are not socialized to provide this nurturing role, the best means for these women is through escapist romantic fiction, where in which the idealized relationship can be fulfilled.
Radway's analysis of the Smithton women's reading embodies the kind of working hypothesis used by the RCC group in their analysis of French culture-a generalizable central truth, resonating Freudiean psychological realities, that becomes reflected in social institutions. Radway's conclusions might not be identifiable as "national character" explanations, but they are of the same order and validity as the RCC hypotheses with regard to the much broader category: American women-or at least, American women who read romance fiction.
The Use of Literature, Film, and Public Imagery
If the centrality of national character issues constitutes a challenge for the contemporary reader of TSCD, the attention given to film, literature, and public imagery in the book may be more familiar and welcome. The RCCTT research in this area clearly serves as a strong forerunner to contemporary media studies. In Part Five, Mead and Métraux include six essays on Chinese, French and, in particular, Russian popular literature dealing with a variety of cultural themes. Part Six includes five analyses of popular film from Italy, France, China, Russia, and Germany.
Métraux makes it clear that the study of these cultural forms is aimed at elucidating larger cultural patterns rather than studying the structure or aesthetic dimensions of the individual films or literary products. These works help the researcher:
get a sense of the larger and more complex units with which [the researcher] is ultimately concerned. Thus one is concerned not with the way in which a specific writer develops plot or character or elaborates on a series of themes or uses particular images, nor only with the ways in which themes and images are expressed in paintings or in films, nor with the ideal version of the culture as it may be specifically presented in various sorts of materials, but rather with the interrelationships among all of these. (240).
Métraux's characterization of the interrelationship between these cultural forms would be identified today as a discursive process, much as described by Stuart Hall in Culture, Media and Language (1990).
Members of the RCCTT group had an extraordinarily long pedigree in the study of media as a medium means of cultural analysis. Almost all seem to have had some expertise in this area. Margaret Mead and Gregory Bateson themselves were pioneers in the social sciences and humanities in their use of film, photography, and sound recording to document, analyze, and present cultural material.
In TSCD Martha Wolfenstein (author herself, with Nathan Leites, of a pioneering study of popular film ) wrote the programmatic essay on the analysis of film.
Wolfenstein points out that the study of film in anthropology is consonant with the investigation of a wide range of expressive cultural phenomena:
[Cultural anthropology] looks for regularities running through all the productions of a culture: its religious rituals, secular dances, myths, ornaments and the like. At the same time it relates these to genetic psychological material drawn from the typical life cycle of individuals of the given culture. The universal psychological motifs serve to guide the observation both of the life course of members of the culture and of their artistic and other productions. (294).
Here, as in the discussion above of about national character, the guiding principle that serves as the backdrop for cultural analysis is the life cycle of the individual in society, which is presumed at some level to have universal underpinnings rooted most often in the primary relationships of the family. Wolfenstein lays out the methodology for analysis quite clearly:
[A] variable indicates a general area to be observed, such as father-son relations, mother-son relations, father-daughter relations. A theme is the way in which a particular variable is repeatedly concretized in the productions of a particular culture. Thus, for instance, the moral superiority of a son (or son figure) to a father (or father figure) is a theme of American films; the moral superiority of a father (or father figure) to a son (or son figure) is a theme of British films. These two themes represent different positions in relation to the variable of father-son relations. Their relation to a common variable provides a basis for comparison.
A theme is a unit that recurs. That we look for recurrences is not a peculiar point of film analysis, but is rather a requirement of scientific method, which is concerned not with the unique instance, but with regularities. (296).
Wolfenstein, Mead, and their companions may seem limited in their analysis to a contemporary audience. Their discursive discussions focus on plots, images, and themes they see in the film, and the interconnection of these aspects with broader cultural structures. Today's film scholars would analyze this same material in a more elaborate manner, taking note of the filmic vocabulary of the production, the palate of images employed, the rhetorical strategies used by the filmmakers, and the intended effect on the audience in the context of contemporary ideology.
Although the RCC researchers have been superseded in the sophistication of their units of analysis, they are certainly contemporary in their readings of the themes of the film. Here, as in the last section of this discussion, they turn the direction of their theorizing toward explicating the typical behavioral motives of individuals as idealized in these images. They do not take the final step one would expect from today's researchers and ask why these idealizations have developed in the societies in question.
Paradoxically, this does not limit the intrinsic value of their discussion. In TSCD, two fascinating films Young Guard and Hitlerjunge Quex are analyzed in detail (296--314). The presentation of these two films is one of the highlights of the book on several levels. These analyses are good readings of the films. They also give today's readers a fascinating glimpse of researchers in the United States trying to deal dispassionately with the ideological conflict between fascist Nazism and Communism as represented in film fables. We see social scientists at work trying to puzzle out the symbolic themes that drove this characteristically German-Russian conflict. The better-known Cold War conflict between Russian communism and Western democracy that dominated political ideology and for the next 40 forty years was not yet in full flower.
The most engaging reading in TSCD for many readers is likely to be the case studies that appear in the last section of the book. We find here the thinking that caused U.S. military officials to spare the Emperor of Japan after World War II. But these case studies also contain dozens of surprising, delightful, and timely observations about such varied matters as difficulties in U.S.-British communication, the Chinese family, the Soviet image of corruption (and chess!), and the Rumanian concept of history.
There is no question that Mead, Benedict, Bateson, Gorer, and their colleagues made their point in this book: that it was possible to derive significant insights about a society from its literature, artistic products, and self-representations. The more ambitious claims they make concerning the reasons for behavioral and attitudinal uniformity in a given society may have less support today, but it is not necessary to subscribe to these explanations to derive value from TSCD.
Most readers will find it a pleasure to engage with the material of this book. The entire research effort on which it was based bubbles over with good will. The obvious joy with which the 120 researchers worked together in this free-floating project is evident throughout. Moreover, the RCC enterprise yielded not only a set of fascinating observations about a variety of societies, it also carried a subtle, optimistic message. Mead believed in the amelioration of human life through increased understanding between groups. Cross-cultural and cross-generational understanding as a key to social improvement were was an important themes in her lecturing and writing. Thus, discovering and reporting central truths about different societies was not just an intellectual exercise. It was something that would ultimately make the world better. This belief was somewhat more poignant and profound in the ruins of World War II, but the message is still powerful-and greatly needed-today.
William O. Beeman
October 7, 1999
I wish to thank Jonathan Bowen, Frank Farris, Michael M. J. Fischer, Nancy Lutkehaus, George Marcus, and Mary Ann O'Donnell for their kind assistance in critiquing an earlier draft of this introduction. Their assistance greatly improved the final version. Of course all shortcomings are mine alone. Research for this essay and the entire series has been greatly facilitated by the Library of Congress and by Mary Wolfskill who curates the extensive Margaret Mead archives there. Ms. Wolfskill and her colleagues are gratefully acknowledged here.
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©2000 William O. Beeman and Berghahn Books. All rights reserved.