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Anthropological Quarterly 76.4 (2003) 693-713

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Rereading Sex and Temperament:
Margaret Mead's Sepik Triptych and its Ethnographic Critics

David Lipset
University of Minnesota

In her autobiography, Blackberry Winter, Margaret Mead (1972) recalled the goal of her well-known project in Sex and Temperament in Three Primitive Societies (1935/1963). She wrote there that she had wanted to show "the different ways in which cultures patterned the expected behavior of males and females" (1972:102). A few pages later, however, she admitted that "the subject on which...[she] had particularly wanted to work" had been rather more definite (1972:205). She was not then just interested in assessing the contribution of culture to defining gender stereotypes, as temperaments are now known, but she really wanted to encounter and study a culture in which the emotions ordinarily associated with men and women contrasted with one another as well as with those in the West.

Sex and Temperament has been read and reread countless times since it was published in 1935. It has been viewed as a theoretical relic, a passing moment in the history of the American culture concept. Indeed, the imprint of Benedict's configurationalism is strong. This was the ideal that culture as a whole might be conceived as personality writ large, personalities to which actors also might find themselves in more or less conformity. The coherence and integration of culture was seen in terms of prototypical psychological patterns that were acquired or [End Page 693] learned during childhood (Benedict 1934). Configurationalism has been displaced by an emphasis upon agency, actor and person. Perhaps the more lasting theoretical contribution of Sex and Temperament might be to the history of modern feminism (Lutkehaus 1995:8). The book has both been praised for its patently constructivist view of gender roles and stereotypes(Rosaldo 1974) while it has also been lambasted for its rigid cultural determinism (Wrangham and Peterson 1966). The publication of Sex and Temperament remains an important event in the history of both the culture concept and feminist theory. But it also stands out as a unique event in the history of the Sepik ethnology.

It remains an unmatched ethnographic comparison of three Sepik groups: Mt. Arapesh, Mundugumor and Tchambuli. This latter project, the fieldwork for which was done with her husband, Reo Fortune, certainly makes up the bulk of the book. While specific claims about each of the three groups have been the subject of critical attention, no one has bothered to reread these debates by way of putting together an overall evaluation of their claims as a whole. I want to return, as a Sepik ethnographer, to this dimension of Sex and Temperament. I shall therefore resume the major claims Mead made about each group and the specific criticisms to which they have given rise. I shall then argue that Nancy McDowell's conclusion about Mead's work on the Mundugumor is not quite right. That is, McDowell argues that although Mead was "hampered by the theoretical paradigm she espoused,"(1991:303) her ethnography remained far more complicated than her interpretations. I would say that because of Mead's theoretical interest in the cultural construction of both genders, and her interest in women in particular, the ethnography in Sex and Temperament turned out to be far more instructive, inclusive and interesting than Mead's configurationalist model of culture permitted her to theorize. Her commitment to understanding divergent cultural patterns of personality of both women and men, and of deviant men and women, sharpened her ear for plural voices in Sepik cultures.

The Mt. Arapesh

When Mead and Fortune spent eight months in the Arapesh-speaking village of Alitoa in the Prince Alexander mountains in 1931-32, the people lived in patrilineal clans which were localized in small hamlets. In both material and symbolic senses, they were poor. They lived with chronic food shortages. Their gardens and foraging did not yield abundance. Elsewhere, Mead called them an "importing culture" (1938). They conducted trade relations with their Plains neighbors and with the maritime peoples of the...


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