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Tuesday, June 5, 2018

Mead, Emotion, and Breakthrough


(From My Apprenticeship: An Intellectual Journey, 2018)

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Mead and Samoa


One of my friends was deeply concerned that I should take the risk of conveying my state of mind in the field when I had just succeeded in publishing several well-reasoned papers and a book. Why would you want to take the dangerous route and tinker with emotions when what excited me most is your precise analytical mind? What do you hope to achieve by this tinkering?
These questions are hard to answer. Margaret Mead points out how troublesome Reo Fortune’s passion was because it cast suspicion on his work. According to her, Radcliffe-Brown, for example, did not believe Fortune’s account of the Dobuans because the passion with which Fortune wrote about his sorcerer-informant seemed somehow to match his own (1972, p.184). It seems perfectly natural to me, however, that a researcher should find himself in a society—often by choice for he will have read accounts about it before embarking on his research venture—whose people display a range of emotions and passions that do resemble his own. Mead, Fortune, and Bateson were very discontent in some cultures and made conscious efforts to find social settings in which the people’s ethos or emotional tone was agreeable. I suspect that the rare accounts we get by anthropologists like Castaneda or Griaule, for example, who studied and even assimilated the philosophy of their informants, are the result of a unique harmony between the intellect and emotions of the informant and those of the anthropologist.
The answer to the question why one would wish to note emotional responses to field experiences can be made more profound yet. I take the reader back to Thomas Mann’s question; how does one achieve the breakthrough? And to his answer that, for the artist, the breakthrough lies in achieving a new emotional freedom but one regained by the author on the level of utmost intellectual clarity. I suggest something similar happens to the anthropologist during times of intense experiences, especially, during periods of intensity in the field. At these times, an ethnographer, even one as little concerned with introspection as Margaret Mead, experiences a new emotional freedom that impels her to look simultaneously into herself and the other; and into her own culture as well as the culture she is studying. The result frequently consists of new theoretical insights and formulations. Margaret Mead (1972) describes the brief period in the field which she spent together with her husband, Reo Fortune, and fellow researcher, Gregory Bateson, as follows:
The intensity of our discussions was heightened by the triangular situation. Gregory and I were falling in love, but this was kept firmly under control while all three of us tried to translate the intensity of our feelings into better and more perceptive field work (p.217).
And then she notes:
As we discussed the problem, cooped up together in the tiny eight-foot-by-eight-foot mosquito room, we moved back and forth between analyzing ourselves and each other, as individuals, and the cultures that we knew and were studying, as anthropologists must (ibid).
It is from this emotionally charged period that her ideas about temperament and sex developed. Indeed, as one reads Mead’s account of her surprisingly normal, although she considers it privileged, upbringing, one soon learns that most of her theoretical breakthroughs are the direct result of relatively “intense” experiences. For example, her unpleasant experiences at DePauw led her to observe that “in the setting of this co-educational college, it became perfectly clear both that bright girls could do better than bright boys and that they would suffer for it” (p.99–100). She developed this thesis in her work Male and Female. Finding co-education unattractive, she observes, “This preference foreshadowed, I suppose, my anthropological field choices—not to compete with men in male fields, but instead to concentrate on the kinds of work that are better done by women” (1972:100). Finally, upon discovering with considerable disappointment that she could not have children because of a tipped uterus, Mead remarks that the whole picture of her future changed: “if there was to be no motherhood, then a professional partnership of field work with Reo, who was actively interested in the problems I cared about, made more sense than cooperation with Luther in his career of teaching sociology” (p.164).
These experiences, which in the more chaotic lives of others might have gone unnoticed, are highlighted by Mead herself from her otherwise tranquil existence because through them she achieved remarkable insights. And these, certainly, had to do with her changing relationships with men, intimacy, ideas, and field work.
Faithful to her North American tradition, Mead avoids revealing herself through introspection. We never really know how she felt, only that she felt. And that she felt is almost consistently revealed to us through a mediating medium, a selected letter, a carefully chosen poem, and her frequent descriptions of herself from photographs. Believing that an ethnographer could, indeed must, free herself of all presuppositions, and that she must adhere to the subject-object distinction even when she talked about herself; believing, further, that members of privileged groups who had never suffered oppression themselves could yet initiate movements to improve the rights of the downcast, Mead, nevertheless, wrote:
Certainly, positions of privilege can breed a kind of hardened insensitivity, an utter inability to imagine what it is to be an outsider, an individual who is treated with contempt or repulsion for reasons of skin color, or sex, or religion, or nationality, or the occupation of his parents and grandparents. A defining experience is necessary to open one’s eyes and so to loosen the ties of unimaginative conformity (1972:93).
I suspect, however, that Mead is a liberal, as maternal toward the unprivileged as men have been paternalistic. And with Steven Biko, I must believe that while victims are as likely to flee from their fate as they are to stand up against it, in the end it is sufferers of great injustice who must also find the means to overcome their condition of suffering. And the difference between those who run and those who “lean into the wind” is the belief of the individual that joy will come when one embraces freedom, responsibility, and courage.
In the end, and from my perspective, the miracle of Margaret Mead is that so normal a person should have become so prominent. What Mead calls privilege, I call normal. The millions of people who live in poverty are not normal even when they are the majority in many nations. Not normal, too, are the millions of recent immigrants into the United States, or those among the middle classes who live with uneducated parents many of whom remain anchored to fundamentalist religions. Yet out of this morass of human misery arise those whose lucid minds grasp their situation and succeed to reach beyond.
To sum up, Mead’s professional excellence is rooted in the single-mindedness with which she defined and pursued her projects. According to the tenets of Sartrean existentialism, her projects should have infused every one of her actions with meaning. In the case of Margaret Mead, Sartre’s formulation is proven right. Her projects determined her choice of spouses just as they determined the nature of her research. Likewise, just as her projects allowed her to assign meaning to her relationships, so these same projects would determine the tone and range of her emotional responses. In short, through her clearly defined projects she simultaneously harnessed meanings and emotions.


My Apprenticeship: An Intellectual Journey
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