Famously, the cultural anthropologist Margaret Mead was asked what she thought was the quintessential sign of civilization. In response, she said, “a healed femur.” By this, Mead was indicating the urge to help defenseless or weakened others in our society, and civilization as the system through which we bind ourselves together in mutual support. Mead’s anthropology involved in-depth ethnography, meaning a method of gathering data gained by living with people from very different backgrounds and seeking to understand them through shared personal experience. For anthropologists, seeing through very different eyes allows us to question what we might take for granted in our own society. Mead’s study of adolescence and sexuality in Samoa challenged conservative American cultural norms and became pivotal to the sexual revolution in the 1960s. Instead of a period where sexuality was held back from adolescents, and a natural conflict between parents and children, Mead found a more open acceptance of sexuality, and a lack of conflict. This, and Mead’s more interpretive approach (i.e. seeing anthropology as something more akin to history or literature than a “hard” science) led to a backlash from some circles, one that had more to do with present-day American politics than the quality of her work.
Mead laid the foundation for present-day anthropology, at least for the most part. While her work is not as widely read as it was, her attention to how other societies make meaning, live their lives, love, and feel is shared by other cultural anthropologists today, and she was recognized with the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1979. Mead died a year prior, in 1978.