Mary Catherine Bateson

The Margaret Mead Centennial, Part II

VTR Date: November 9, 2000

Guest: Bateson, Mary Catherine


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

I’m Richard Heffner, your host on The Open Mind. And this is the second of our programs celebrating in 2001 the Centennial of Margaret Mead, the 20th century’s most truly world-renowned cultural anthropologist.

My guest, Dr. Mead’s daughter, Mary Catherine Bateson, is herself an anthropologist. And I would like to ask you, Dr. Bateson … first, when you wrote “Full Circles, Overlapping Lives”, you dedicated your book to the memory of your mother … Margaret Mead 1901 to 1978, for “her pioneering work on the relationship between culture and generation”. What did you mean by that expression?

BATESON: She wrote a book during the sixties about the sixties. When people would talk about the generation gap, and youth, revolution and so on and so forth … with the title “Culture And Commitment”, and in it she explored the various multiple different patters of the relationship between generations. The pattern that you get when all young people expect to be just like their parents … that’s how their lives will be in a very stable culture. The pattern that you get in a society with a large number of immigrants where, for immigrants, the children teach the parents … and the pattern that you get in a society of very rapid change where all the elders depend on learning their way into the future, from those who are younger than them. And, and that’s one of the things I talk about in “Full Circles,” and it’s more true now than every before.


BATESON: Well, just … an immediate example is when your children teach you how to work the VCR. When you’re grandchildren teach you how to use e-mail. But what interest me about that, and I think is implicit in what she was saying is that when the young start being listened to in some areas … they begin to be listened to more in other areas. And today, as we, for instance become more sensitive to environmental issues … who teaches the older people how to re-cycle? Very often, they’re children. Or we deal with all the equal rights and liberation movements that have happened in this country in the lat half century. And very often it’s 12-year-olds who say to their parents “here …”, who hear the residues of one form of bigotry or another, that they’re parents grew up with. And say, “I don’t like to hear you talk like that”. So that increasingly, our children become guides in walking with emerging ethical insights in this society.

HEFFNER: Is this a function of the 20th and 21st centuries? Or is this true historically?

BATESON: I think it is a function of our time that the speed of technological change and associated social change means that you and I, Dick, are immigrants. We’re immigrants to the present from the past. And we need to learn to live skillfully and intelligently in this time.

HEFFNER: But you know, this insight, I’m, I’m puzzled … this insight to which you give expression and that your mother gave expression to … her work was done in Samoa and in other communities so far from us … could that possibly have been true there, too. Or was she, when she wrote about generation, really speaking more about our country, our civilization and didn’t derive that from her experience with a native population. You talk about immigrants …

BATESON: I think … I think she derived the sense that there are different ways of handling inter-generational relations, from her field work. On the one hand, societies like Samoa that were very relaxed in the way they dealt with teenagers, as opposed to societies that were very coercive and puritanical, so that she could see multiple patterns. It was not a novel insight to realize that sometimes there is conflict between generations. A lot of people just saw the sixties that way. I think the novel insight she brought to it was really to say that the, the conversation between generations has been permanently changed by the fact that we now live surrounded by change of many kinds. Now, we’re not expressing it in the same kind of dramatic ways that came out in the sixties. And to some degree she felt that this was a one-time only event.

HEFFNER: Indeed?

BATESON: The generation gap. Well, it was a one-time only gap in this … event in the sense that you shift gears, but we’re in a different gear now.

HEFFNER: You think permanently? You couldn’t believe that. We must be going on to another gear and another and another gear.

BATESON: You know what, I don’t think there will ever again be a time when all adults can say to all young people, “I always better know than you because I’m older”.

HEFFNER: Why will that be? Why will there never be another time? Because we’re constantly in transition now, because change takes place so …

BATESON: I think change is self-reinforcing. I think we have, if you like, institutionalized change. If you just think about the economic world that the realization that you can’t simply go on manufacturing the same product, or adding a few bells and whistles to make it look new, but that you have to be re-thinking and re-thinking what you’re doing, it really is pervasive.
HEFFNER: Talking about pervasive … I am switching subjects here because I really do want to talk about the Centennial. I do want to talk about what it is in 2001 that you and your associates will be doing to mark the Mead Centennial.


HEFFNER: A few of the things …

BATESON: … first of all my thought about this whole year has been that other people would be doing it. The special sessions at the American Anthropological Association, the exhibit at the Library of Congress. Other … a lot of events on different campuses discussing the nature of the public, intellectual or education in America, or … there are so many different themes that have been picked up. But I’ve always felt that the real celebration of the Centennial would be when someone walks into a school committee meeting, in a small town, somewhere in the heartland of America, and says, “You know, if we’re educating our children for the future, we have to teach them how to learn, not have them memorize things. We have to help them adapt, we have to make them open-minded and flexible, rather than giving them multiple choice questions. That to me is what it’s about.

HEFFNER: Now, you say that to you is what it is about. But as you look around us, as we enter 2001, are you disappointed in your hope that this is what will happen? Can you possibly be sanguine about that small town?

BATESON: I think it’s something that keeps happening in small towns around America. And in cities and neighborhoods. It doesn’t happen enough. One of the most interesting things is what ideas get emulated and spread out through the country. I was concerned that the year 2000, there would be so emphasis on high-tech and globalization that people would feel helpless. One of my thoughts was that the Mead Centennial … 2001 … would be alka seltzer for the millennial hang-over. A time when, when people would feel that what they say and do makes a different. That’s not easy in our society today. And I don’t think that the conviction that what you do makes a difference, is served by a lot of argument about the stature of somebody who’s been dead for many years. I think we draw on figures from our past to empower ourselves to act for the future.

HEFFNER: But models are necessary …

BATESON: Models are necessary.

HEFFNER: And when you used the expression before “public intellectual”, I thought to myself that is the way I thought of Margaret Mead …

HEFFNER: … the public intellectual. What’s happened to that concept in our own times?

BATESON: I think it’s definitely around. I think there are …

HEFFNER: Alive, but how well?

BATESON: … well, I’d hate to have to grade it, but then again, I don’t like grading papers. It’s blurred because there are so many voices. Unfortunately because what was originally a lot of talk and conversation, television has been degraded. I think, I think you are one of the people that keeps really good conversation alive with the people you invite onto this show.

HEFFNER: But the people have to be there, the public intellectual has to be there …


HEFFNER: … the person who is willing to step outside of the Academy, the person who like your mother was always so willing to go on … not just talk shows, not just little talk shows, like mine, but to appear in much larger entertainments. She saw a role for herself. Now, do you find that happening anywhere like, to the degree, that she represented the public intellectual?

BATESON: See, one of the things that I have felt about this, Dick, is that she was in many ways the only public voice of anthropology for a long time, and a lot of people got in the habit of sitting on their duffs and being sarcastic about her, but not being willing to stand up and speak to the general public. And that in the present what we need is not one or half a dozen voices … we need a spectrum of voices. In other words, the public intellectual is a kind of lonely, embittered heroic figure … is not what we need now. What we need, much as, as the media might like to focus on one or two individuals, what we need is to improve the quality of public conversation at every level.

HEFFNER: Will there be elements of the Centennial Celebration that will do that?

BATESON: I’m hoping there will. I’m hoping … I mean there will be a lot of symposia and lectures given and some amount of television coverage …

HEFFNER: The books … there will be re-printing … of your own books and of your mothers. Won’t there be?

BATESON: I’m trying to think what the total number is … there are three different publishers reprinting her books. The ones that were written for a general public are all being introduced by, by people who will look at them in terms of their relevance to contemporary society. The ones that, that she did in research on contemporary cultures, she was one of the very first anthropologists to see that the tools of anthropology can be used to look at large industrialized societies, as well as small pre-literate, technologically simple societies. And those books are all coming back and they’re relevant to what we today call “cultural studies” … people in literature and history and so one are using the tools that were developed in that research. And then the classic monographs. The studies of particular pre-literate societies are being re-published because they represent a record of ways of being human that we can duplicate today because everybody’s being influenced by each other.

HEFFNER: Now … you’re going to have to run through that again. Tell me what you mean by that. We can’t replicate them. Why?

BATESON: When my mother, as a woman in her early 20’s went to Samoa, the concept guiding anthropologists was what has been called “salvage anthropology”.

HEFFNER: “Salvage”?

BATESON: “Salvage.” They knew that there were communities on islands, in jungles, on mountain tops that had evolved their distinctive ways of life over hundreds of thousands of years that were about to be confronted with outside influences of all sorts. That was a treasury of the, of ways of being human. Now there’s a certain king of homagination taking place. Just as animal and plant species are, are being wiped out, human languages are disappearing. Customs are being forgotten. Songs and dance styles and rituals and people are, in these small communities, they’re not longer so isolated and they’re becoming integrated into a world economy which may not be kind to them …

HEFFNER: The globalization.

BATESON: … that’s the “globalization pattern”. So that these distinctive adaptations are being blurred. And what they believed in the twenties was that it was really important to get as much as you could on the record. One of the most important things, I think, that my mother did, that she deeply believed in … all of the notes of her field work are in the Library of Congress so that people will have access. Not to her interpretations, they’re in the published books, but to the raw material of what she was able to see. I wish, I wish I could persuade everyone else to keep their notes and make them available in that same sense.

HEFFNER: What happens to the profession, to the, to the science, to the field of anthropology when, as you say, we have been eliminating the very raw materials that the anthropologist always used?

BATESON: Well, what happens is that what anthropologists learned from the study of small, isolated … by no means simple, but technologically simpler groups, becomes a way of looking at the world as it is developing. A kind of sensitivity to patterns, to cultural diversity, to the adaptive value of different ways of doing things. That I think gives a very useful way of looking at our societies today. And, and it’s also a way of being in the world. You know, I grew up in an anthropological household, so of trained from birth to be a participant/observer. To observe what was going on around me and, engage with it both, and observe myself and my reactions and try and sort out the nature of my reactions. So that there’s a, a style of … a kind of curiosity about the world combined with a level of introspection about what you take for granted yourself. That has come out of anthropology, but seems to me a very good way to live in the contemporary world.

HEFFNER: What then, and we just have two or three or four minutes left … what then is the future of anthropology? Unfair question?

BATESON: No, no … if you want it short, it’s unfair. I think the divisions we make between the sciences dealing with human beings are supremely artificial and tend to generation nonsense … frankly. I hope that anthropology will remain an integrative discipline. I’m not counting on it, there are a lot of people becoming specialists on little, tiny things and much too busy to talk to people who are interested in other aspects of human behavior. There are a lot of people looking for new kinds of enclaves to study. Which is fine. But not seeing how much they can contribute to an understanding of what it is to be human, under particular cultural circumstances. So, I don’t know how anthropology is going to develop. I see both trends, I often think that anthropology is one of the best undergraduate majors. Spend your four years as an undergraduate, thinking about what it means to be human. Thinking about it both very practically and very speculatively. The research that we do is going to be very different from what my mother did in the 1920’s.

HEFFNER: Regretfully?

BATESON: No, that has to be the case. It has to be the case. You have to move along. There’s so many … there have been very important improvements in understanding about research. It is regretful that so many cultures have been … regrettable … that so many cultures have been disrupted. It’s not that I would want to require that people stick with a particular inherited tradition, but I wish they’d had the choice more often, that they were not … simply disrupted by war fare and economic trends. So, so that is regrettable and something to grieve about and to try and protect the human rights of all people, whatever their cultural tradition. But I, I look for a world in which anthropologists increasingly contribute to our capacity for self-criticism.

HEFFNER: Well, one way to help that along is by telling our viewers where they can get information about the Mead Centennial, because we’re at the end of our program. What’s the website?

BATESON: There is a website for the Centennial … it is

HEFFNER: Great. I hope everyone uses it, and I want to thank you so much for joining me again today …

BATESON: And I want everyone to feel free to take a piece of the Centennial and use it to advance projects that they care about, that fit with Margaret Mead’s vision.

HEFFNER: Terrific. Thank you again.

BATESON: Thank you.

HEFFNER: 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

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.