Mary Catherine Bateson

The Margaret Mead Centennial, Part I

VTR Date: November 9, 2000

Guest: Bateson, Mary Catherine


Host: Richard D. Heffner
Guest: Mary Catherine Bateson, Ph.D.
Title: A Margaret Mead Centennial
VTR: 11/9/00

I’m Richard Heffner, your host on The Open Mind. And the other evening preparing for this program, I was looking for my now more than half-century old paperback copy of “Coming of Age in Samoa”, the innovative and ultimately controversial study of adolescence and sex in primitive society that had first drawn our attention to Margaret Mead, the now world-renowned cultural anthropologist whose centennial we celebrate in 2001.

And to mark that occasion, with me here today is Dr. Mead’s daughter, herself an accomplished anthropologist, Dr. Mary Catherine Bateson, who has joined me before on The Open Mind … first in the 1980s to discuss “With A Daughter’s Eye”, that wonderfully evocative volume in which she shared with us so much of both of her famous parents, Margaret Mead and Gregory Bateson, also a most accomplished anthropologist.

Later, too, Mary Catherine Bateson talked with us here about other of her compelling studies such as “Composing Our Lives”, and “Full Circles, Overlapping Lives”. But now I would like Dr. Bateson to discuss the Margaret Mead Centennial, but not before I describe her mother once more as perhaps the most giving person I’ve met at this table since I began The Open Mind in 1956. Margaret Mead graced this program many times, alone, and as was our custom earlier on, with others, too. Always she was enormously generous to me and to my family. Indeed, when my wife wrote “Mothering, The Emotional Experience of Motherhood After Freud and Feminism”, Dr. Mead devoted her precious time, even in her very last days, to write a most perceptive and helpful comment about the book.

In fact, I think Dr. Mead just never said “no” to any appropriate request …

BATESON: [Laughter]

HEFFNER: … professional or personal. And I particularly remember how she delighted my two young sons with her charming eccentricities. In thought and in deed she always made me aware of graciousness and wisdom, that were endless and in their way, seamless. Yet, I certainly wasn’t a personal friend, nor part, really, of her own vastly extended family. And I don’t claim Margaret Mead as a friend, as so many obviously did and do, whom, as her daughter has written, never met her, but had read her writings or heard her recorded voice or viewed her image on a screen as here on The Open Mind. But now we celebrate her Centennial in 2001. And I want to begin this first Centennial program about Margaret Mead by asking her daughter, not only what were the major contributions her mother made to our understanding of ourselves and of our culture, here in the 21st century, but also just how will the Mead Centennial be celebrated. So, there you are.

BATESON: Well, you know you warned me you were going to ask this. And one of the things that I immediately realized is that much of what my mother did that was radically new in her time has become part of our common sense. That she was at the frontier of bringing to the American public the concept of culture, the notion of that societies in other places and times, not only have different customs, but see the world differently, think differently about the world, and that this is an extraordinary evidence of the flexibility and potential of human beings. That we are not locked in by our past. And through her studies of specific groups of people, and then going on to comment on questions as they arose in the context of American culture, I think she introduced a note of … first of all, of openness and curiosity, but then a sense of possibility that hadn’t previously existed. Now, that said, so much that she wrote about childhood, about adolescence, about gender has come to be taken largely for granted. You know when my mother decided that I was to be breast fed on a self-demand pattern … I was the first breast fed, self-demand baby that Benjamin Spock ever saw. Because in those days educated, middle class women were all committed to high tech nursing. [Laughter] Oh, well, the equivalent thereof. But now it’s taken for granted. At least as an option by mothers everywhere. And, so part of what her legacy has become so close to us, I for instance, have great difficulty saying “Did I learn this from her? Or did I figure it out for myself?” But there are other things in her legacy that have not been sufficiently integrated in our thinking.

HEFFNER: Like what?

BATESON: Well, you see, we have become an increasingly compartmentalized society. Specialist in this. Expert in that. And one of the things that she represented, because she was an anthropologist who studied small communities that perhaps have never been studied before, so she wanted to get the whole picture. So, instead of the situation we have, where we … all these different departments and experts … she wrote with an awareness that politics and child rearing and religion and economics and how houses are built and how people are buried are all inter-connected. That cultures are integrated. So that was one things that I hoped we would re-emphasize through the Centennial … is go back to thinking of a very complex pattern of integration. You know something very sad has happened over the last few years. That globalization which I though, when I first heard the term, had to do with the sense of being part of a world-wide community, being open to cultures everywhere, it’s come to mean and economic process. And so often we focus in on the economy … stupid … instead of saying “Well what is the whole shape of people’s lives?
HEFFNER: Now this anthropological approach is new I gather, at the beginning of this century when your mother was born. It was even somewhat new when, as a young woman, she went to Samoa. Is that correct? I knew there was her great teacher Franz Boas …

BATESON: Certain Boas and Ruth Benedict.


BATESON: I think Boas … well Benedict took the concept of, of the way a culture is integrated a substantial step further by what she … the notion that culture is personality “writ large”. As time went on my mother also saw the contrasts within a given culture. And how that works. And, anthropology has moved on, in her lifetime, toward seeing as well as congruity within a culture.

HEFFNER: But you know, you, you spoke about flexibility and possibility. And I remember that it was Max Lerner, actually, who identified himself at this table as a “possibilist”, but I always thought that about your mother, too. But there are those who think in terms of cultural determinism and how do you, as an anthropologist? How did she, manage to emphasize change and flexibility with an understanding, going along with an understanding of cultural determinism?

BATESON: Well, I wish that every youngster growing up in America could have an intensive experience of another culture. Because I think this is one of the ways we learn to do what’s now called “thinking out of the box”. That is looking at a question without being constrained, without being determined by what people have taken for granted before. And I, I mean she had an extraordinary upbringing … very interesting family life and education. As, of course, I did with these parents of mine. But really I think what she brought to every topic of public debate was a willingness to question things that are taken for granted. Is war fare a part of every human society? No, it’s not. Are … is adolescent turmoil a part of every human society … it’s a potential of every society for biological reasons, but depending on how adolescents are treated, the development is different.

HEFFNER: Was that the great message of “Growing Up In Samoa?” …

BATESON: “Coming Of Age In Samoa” …

HEFFNER: “Coming of Age In Samoa”.

BATESON: It really was. That the things that we had come to take for granted about adolescence did not necessarily occur in ever society. In every society you have to deal with the fact that your body is changing and new hormones are surging up and, and there’s a tendency to want to test boundaries and so on. But, depending on how the boundaries are constructed it can be a time of huge conflict, or a time of great learning. And we’ve, we’ve made I think, improvements in the way we deal with adolescents. There was a little tenuous … but I think the awareness that conflict between young and old is not a necessary fact of those years has been helpful.

HEFFNER: Now, you’ve written about, you’ve spoke about … and we’ve spoken about here, the opposition of an anthropological approach and a biological approach. Where is destiny?

BATESON: Well, biology is where destiny starts, of course. I mean, I mean we can only learn and adapt and change because we have the biology appropriate for learning and adapting and changing. Okay?


BATESON: And we have evolved to be not only the learning species, but the teaching species, par excellence, the discovering species, instead of adapting by some rather rigid pattern of behavior, as very many species have, a pattern of behavior that fits them perfectly to a particular niche and is hard programmed. We have adapted and that’s out biology by being flexible.

HEFFNER: So flexibility is biology?

BATESON: Flexibility is part of biology, part of our biology. And therefore in a real sense, as a species we have the possibility of making our destiny. Now that doesn’t mean that every individual makes all of his or her choices in perfect freedom. We choose in the context of what we are able to imagine. And we now live in a time where, partly because of cross-cultural knowledge, we are able to imagine far more alternatives than ever before. We are able to imagine a world without war. We are able to imagine a world in which males and females are equals. We are able to imagine a world in which every child develops to his or her best potential. And once we imagine it, we can get to work and try to build it.

HEFFNER: Why was it the 1920’s in which we found the ideas expressed “Coming Of Age In Samoa” and in other Margaret Mead writings? Why was it then? Was it the power of your mother? Was it the power of Margaret Mead? Or were we at a stage in our own cultural development?

BATESON: Oh, I think it’s where we were in our own cultural development. And this, you know, something that she felt very strongly is that although you can, you can trace key ideas to particular brilliant individuals, an idea has an impact on a society because it’s taken up by other people and it interacts with other ideas. I think, and well as I’ve said before, in many ways she was just enough ahead of her time so that people would hear her speak and they’d say, “Wow, it never occurred to me that way”. And then a month later they’d think they’d always known it. And that was what made her such a skilled communicator.

HEFFNER: You know, it’s interesting. I came across in one of my readings in the past week, this reference to Margaret Mead, this comparison of her to Eleanor Roosevelt, and then I thought back to the thirties and to the forties and realized, by gosh, that’s true. You think of two major women in those years, and one was certainly was Eleanor Roosevelt, and the other perforce was Margaret Mead. An incredible impact that she had at that time. If Dr. Mead had been able to survive through the Centennial, do you think she would have been aware of progress? Do you think she would have been disappointed? That we hadn’t, in terms of her own pioneering work, sufficiently moved forward?

BATESON: Oh, I think both. She was, I believe a congenital optimist. She worried about things and she was critical of things, and she was impatient with things. But at, at the deepest level I think she was, she was optimistic about human being and optimistic about American society. And so there are, are many trends that continue that she would have criticized. They’re been so many things that, that she hoped would have, would advance and haven’t advanced as far as they might have. Though there are technological breakthroughs that she would have adored. She would have adored the Internet … I’m really sad that she missed out on that.

HEFFNER: I remember hearing her say at a meeting that I presided at … she was filled with enthusiasm about this new instrument … television … and she said that it meant that in the future “they”, “the forces”, “the bosses”, could never again pull the wool over our eyes because the camera’s eye would be there to reveal what they were doing. Now, I happen to think that was a terribly optimistic, overly optimistic and naive point of view. But I do remember her great enthusiasm, feeling this was going to be the solution of many, many problems.

BATESON: Well, I think she was probably commenting … I mean, two, two great examples … well, this is at least partly true … one was the McCarthy hearings where when the American public saw McCarthy on television … they realized that they did not trust him and that this was a put up job. The other has been Vietnam. That, at the point where the actual battle scenes came into people’s living rooms … popular attitudes, new kinds of attitudes towards the war began to develop. Now, of course, there are clever people who are spin doctors and so on, who are steadily learning how to manipulate television more and more effectively. And I hope very much that, that the Internet will remain a very free area of expression. I think cable has opened up television in ways, so it is not monopolized by just a few networks. It’s funny about progress … I usually don’t like to use the work because you have what looks like a step forward and there are a new set of problems buried inside it. And I think that’s how it is. And I think she was the kind of person who saw the donut before she saw the hole.

HEFFNER: Let me ask you a question that has been to me a source of puzzlement. And I wanted to ask you, those you who are marking the Margaret Mead Centennial in 2001, say it again and again … quote again and again that expression “never doubt that a small group of thoughtful committed citizens can change the world?” Is that some kind of coda?

BATESON: When I first started thinking about the Centennial, the question that I struggled with was this question of “how do you deal with someone who was involved with so many issues? How do you focus the Centennial? And I knew I wanted it to be focused on the future, not on the past. Johnetta Cole, who was President of Spellman College at that time, saw that slogan on the wall of a Patagonia store and suggested building the Centennial about that. Because I don’t want the Centennial to be something that I’m organizing, or the Institute for Intercultural Studies is organizing. Our concept is that a lot of people, to whom Mead’s words on some topic have been important, who are working on issues now, trying to change the world and the future as we approach it, would be able to work on their issues and tie them in to this larger vision. So I wanted a very open ended statement and that’s, that’s really what I’ve been hoping for. I mean there are some big celebrations coming up. But, what to me is the real expression of the Mead Centennial in the months ahead, in the whole, this whole year … 2001 … is if small groups of people have the imagination, don’t feel dwarfed by all that’s going around them. But say, in fact, they can change the world. That’s what we’re celebrating, really.

HEFFNER: Her, the basic element of Margaret Mead, we can change the world?

BATESON: We have changed it. The question is, we can choose the way in which we change it, and the way we choose, as a society is by being able to talk and discuss and expose ourselves to the new ideas.

HEFFNER: Do you think that was the most basic contribution, that singular thought?

BATESON: No. I, I put it out there because I felt it was a way of focusing now, in 2001, the … that saying came out of her experience in 1953, when she went back to the South Pacific for the first time after World War II. And studied a group of people, who when she first studied them still had a stone-age technology and had, had very little contact with the outside world. The Manus people of the Admiralty Islands. And what they had done, after a lot of disruptions during the war, their ancient tradition was to say, “Alright, now we can decide what culture we want to have”. She was tremendously excited by … new lives for old, we can choose our future.

HEFFNER: I think, you know, it is at that point that I need to say to you, “You must come back again and speak more about the Mead Centennial itself and the elements that will go into it, and maybe some time in the near future you’ll do that.” Meanwhile, thank you so much for joining me again today.

BATESON: It’s always a pleasure.

HEFFNER: Thanks, Dr. Bateson. And thanks, too, to you in the audience. I hope you join us again next time. If you would like a transcript of today’s program, please send four dollars in check or money order to: The Open Mind, P. O. Box 7977, F.D.R. Station, New York, New York 10150

And, I think we ought to get a website.

BATESON: There is a Mead Centennial website,, with lots more information on it.

HEFFNER: Great. Meanwhile, as an old friend used to say, “Good night and good luck”.

N.B. Every effort has been made to ensure the accuracy of this transcript. It may not, however, be a verbatim copy of the program.