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  • One World, Many Cultures: Margaret Mead and the Limits to Cold War Anthropology
  • Peter Mandler (bio)

The implication of anthropology in colonialism and neo-colonialism has been a much debated subject, practically since the modern discipline of anthropology began to emerge in the early twentieth century. In recent years, however, a parallel argument about the implication of anthropology in the American project of the early Cold War has been developed. This argument about a ‘Cold War anthropology’ forms part of a broader historiographical orthodoxy, within the history of the social sciences, which describes an interdisciplinary ‘behavioural science’ which was forged in the crucible of the Second World War but passed seamlessly into the early Cold War as a key instrument of American policy. In this orthodoxy, anthropology is seen to have been bent – either consciously by the ambitions of its disciplinary leaders or subconsciously by ‘subtle means and enticing carrots’ – into a form subservient to American global aspirations, on both the anti-Communist front and that of Third World modernization, propounding a vision of ‘universal humanity’ on the American model.1 It could be argued that anthropology in general, with its strong intellectual and professional traditions of cultural relativism, would fit poorly with such a monolithic vision of ‘universal humanity’.2 Far from accepting it meekly or cravenly as the historiographical critique has suggested, nearly all anthropologists smartly marched out of it – out of government service and indeed out of the key research programmes – in the immediate postwar years. As Margaret Mead commented years later (in 1975), since Korea and McCarthy no anthropologist had ‘been very enthusiastic about working for the federal government. Even if the government did ask us, we were not sure we were going to tell them what we knew’. As the tone of this remark might suggest, Mead herself regretted that outcome of the early Cold War years. At the same time passionate and tough-minded, she saw herself both as the tribune of the great tradition of cultural relativism she had inherited from her mentor Franz Boas, and also as the champion of applying anthropology to international relations and to public service more generally, however hostile the political environment. In that same 1975 retrospect, she opined, ‘I think the withdrawal of anthropologists – just going and sucking their thumbs in corners or marching in demonstrations – was lamentable’.3 An examination of Mead’s attempts to bring cultural relativism to bear on the American vision of ‘universal humanity’ ought, therefore, to shed light both on how far cultural relativism could in [End Page 149]

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Fig. 1.

This photo is almost certainly of Margaret Mead and Geoffrey Gorer together on holiday in later life. Photographer details unknown but will be credited if details are supplied.

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fact be stretched to conform to Cold War ambitions, and on how far the architects of the Cold War could accommodate a vision of ‘one world’ comprising many cultures. To both questions, this article answers ‘not very far’. It seeks to chart the limits to ‘Cold War anthropology’, in the process offering a view of the relationship between intellectuals and the American State in the early Cold War which differs from that provided by the current orthodoxy.

The story told here comes in two parts, overlapping though also (for reasons I will explore) serial – first, Mead’s engagement with the main event of the Cold War, the U.S.-Soviet relationship, an engagement that reached its gruesome apotheosis in the so-called ‘swaddling controversy’ of 1950–1; and then, Mead’s engagement with the economic modernization of the developing world, an engagement that straggled more ingloriously into the mid 1950s. In both cases, as we shall see, Mead too found herself driven from the field – not by Korea and McCarthyism (of which she was superbly heedless), but by a fundamental incompatibility between her anthropological tradition and the international vision of the American public and policymakers.

As early as the 1930s Margaret Mead was coming to be seen as the public face of cultural anthropology, in the dominant American tradition established at Columbia University by her doctoral supervisor Franz Boas. The mission of Boasian...