book reviews / Born in a Treacherous Time / culture

Book Review: Letters From the Field Part II

Letters from the Field, 1925-1975Letters from the Field, 1925-1975

by Margaret Mead

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

View all my reviews

If you didn’t read my last week’s post here, you may wonder why I am so excited about Margaret Mead’s decades-old book, Letters From the Field. Even if you read me last week, you may wonder–I think I wandered a bit. Here’s the synopsis: I’m writing a series on the life of earliest man–think 2 million years ago. There is little primary evidence, so I must do a lot of extrapolation based on facts. I’ve read scores of books that nibble around the edges, all resulting in a pretty good feel for what their lives might have been like.

One of those books is Margaret Mead’s Letters From the Field. She spent most of her life living with primitive tribes so she could understand their worlds. This primary research influenced every corner of her life. For example, she is widely quoted as saying:

It takes a village

This is her daughter’s discussion of that oft-quoted and rarely-attributed concept:

“One of the ideas my mother got from Samoa,” she says, when asked about the concepts that shaped her childhood, “was that the way people were connected to each other was primarily based on kinship. That meant that children had a place in many households and a lot of adults were involved in the life of every child. So in raising me, my mother very deliberately created an extended family. I spent time in many households and learned different attitudes toward the world, and the rules were different. Her approach is reflected in an African proverb which is often quoted in the United States: ‘It takes a village to raise a child.’ My mother created a village for me to grow up with, and it was the existence of that village that allowed her to pursue her career and come and go and feel that I was not abandoned.”

Here are ten of my favorite quotes from Letters from the Field: 1925-1975:

  1.  “It [the Samoan language] is like an elaborate jeweled costume standing quite alone waiting for the wearer to appear…”
  2. “…accompanied by some fifteen girls and little children, I walk through the village to the end of Siufaga, where we stand on an iron-bound point and watch the waves splash us in the face…”
  3. In Samoa, I found I could not understand adolescents without studying pre-adolescents.
  4. “They are great dialecticians and will argue for an hour over the difference between a word which means ‘borrow to return the same object’ and one which means ‘borrow to return another of the same kind’.
  5. The most frequent cause of women running away is if one wife is offended with another or doubts her welcome; the husband doesn’t figure largely.”
  6. “They are quite willing to talk to use [Mead and her group] to keep us amused, as talk seems to be what we want”
  7. “…the only way to get a house built was to have two built, and so now we have two houses which they are completing in their own good time, but strictly in step. And the next dilemma is which one to live in.”
  8. “There is to be a great birthday feast here in the West Palace and there won’t be another for a year because there are no more children.”
  9. “Our route home is still uncertain. We have to wait for the water to rise to get into Tchambuli; the lake is nearly dry. And we have to wait for the water to rise for this village to do any ceremonies. At present it simply eats, drinks, sleeps and has seances about crocodiles.”
  10. “They understand how to tell time and set a meeting for ‘one o’clock’. But there are only two clocks and one watch in the village and the meeting is less likely to start on time than when meetings were set by the sun. They have learned about dates, but they have no calendars, so what day it is, is a matter for protracted discussion… They want good materials and good equipment, but they cannot write to order it nor have they any way of sending money.”

More cultural reviews:

Gates of Fire

Tongwan City

The Land’s Wild Music

Jacqui Murray is the author of the popular Building a Midshipman, the story of her daughter’s journey from high school to United States Naval Academy. She is the author/editor of dozens of books on integrating tech into education, webmaster for six blogs, an Amazon Vine Voice book reviewer, a columnist for and TeachHUB, Editorial Review Board member for Journal for Computing Teachers, monthly contributor to Today’s Author and a freelance journalist on tech ed topics. 

30 thoughts on “Book Review: Letters From the Field Part II

  1. Pingback: My Latest Non-fiction Winner | WordDreams...

  2. I never knew where that quote, made famous by Hilary Clinton, came from. Thank you! I find it incredible that in our point in history, we still get a window backwards in time within primitive villages. It’s a rare gift. I love that you’ve chosen to research this….I’m curious about what you’re writing…will you share some of your work at some future point?


    • As I studied these ancient societies, I learned so much! They think differently than modern cultures, but no less brilliantly.

      BTW, I wish Hilary had credited Margaret Mead for that quote. I wonder if she even knew where it came from?


  3. What an interesting idea! I’ve heard the village quote many times, but hearing the concept further explained by Mead’s daughter only served to transform and solidify its meaning even more. Wonderful review – thank you for sharing. xx


  4. I’m most drawn to Mead’s statement that it isn’t possible to understand adolescents without studying pre-adolescents. We are connected to our history, whether we try run from it, share it with the world, or pretend it was completely different.


    • The one that inspired the research is easy because it’s about early man. So, to understand how some cultures expect groups to raise children (as opposed to America where we presume parents are the best at that) is important. It’s the same book I so long ago sought out your ideas on herbs about.


  5. I’m definitely going to add these books to my list. I’m intrigued. As for the quote – the concept has always fascinated me. I’ve never belonged to that type of community, unless you count the writing community and they’re not liable to help me raise my kids! Not my real ones in any case 🙂


  6. Insightful and delightful. The one concern I have is that the “developed” world often starts to patronise the “less developed” world that it discovers. Can we become friendly and knowledgeable without patronising? And, if we don’t “boldly go where no man has…” we will know and understand ourselves much lesser. It is a complex situation 😦


    • It is complex. I think if it starts with respect from both sides, there’s hope. Margaret Mead always had that in her interactions. As did many of the cultural anthropologists I’ve studied. The ‘civilized’ world isn’t always the right approach.


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