Margaret Mead’s New Lives for Old

Margaret Mead's New Lives for Old


Many scientists compared the lifestyles as well as individual’s cultural habits and regularly encountered the examples of the differences between social status and roles of men and women in every culture. These differences are widely described. However, making the description, ethnographers, with surprising constancy, considered the social expectations, roles and status of men to be a starting point in the studies of societies. All ethnological works began with these male life aspects depictions, and the discrepancies related to women were considered as the “anomaly.” Obviously, a woman plays the major role in parenthood, and child development depends on it. Early work, New Lives for Old, by a female anthropologist, Margaret Mead, created conditions for the later discussions of women, gender in cross-cultural perspective, and understanding the nature of parenthood, which is not just a matter of research interest. The studies of the latter, as well as children development in a family, could lead to the restructuring of traditional parenting roles. This is principally relevant for women who are usually expected to take on a role of caring for the child. However, men might also be expected to make a greater contribution to child bringing-up than before. Regardless the kind of parenthood role played by a man and a woman, it is important to verify how acceptance of these roles is related to the level of family satisfaction in our culture.

Literature Review

The study of parenthood in anthropology has its earliest roots in the work of Margaret Mead who first decided that the differences between women and men as worthy of a focused study rather than of a passing mention. While Mead reassured the audience that her book was “not a treatise on the rights of women, nor an inquiry into the basis of feminism,” she steadfastly maintained her thesis that women and men were not biologically pre-programmed for certain behaviors:

If those temperamental attitudes which we have traditionally regarded as feminine – such as passivity, responsiveness and a willingness to cherish children – can so easily be set up as the masculine pattern in one tribe, and in another be outlawed for the majority of women as well as for the majority of men, we no longer have any basis for regarding such aspects of behavior as sex-linked.

Thus, Mead privileged the development of a theory that held that the behavioral differences between the sexes were socially constructed rather than an inescapable product of biology. Because of defining behavior as a cultural rather than a biological construct, gender has become the topic of choice in anthropology in the 1980s and largely still is. Moreover, parenthood liberated anthropologists from the necessity to consider a difficult theoretical issue. If motherhood was the source of male dominance, the majority of women worldwide would forever remain oppressed. Further, if motherhood lent women status, as Lohmann argued, women would never gain status through achievement but due to ascription only. Thus, the idea of parenthood, while not completely disassociated from the ideological and symbolic elaboration of women’s reproductive roles, contributed to the analysis of the male dominance element of mutability, which sex never could.

In addition, in her work, Mead described the family relationship. According to the researcher, family relationships are different from the traditional society’s perception of them. First, the relationship between a man and a woman are cold and tense. Second, they both constantly struggle with each other for the attention of the child. Third, the man never treats his wife as a closer person than he does with the relatives in blood. These statements contradict the belief that a husband and wife belong to one small social group such as family. However, as Mead argued, both man and woman are satisfied with the state of affairs and agree to play that role, which is formed for them in their culture.

In addition, the study of parenthood invoved a more complex examination of power since gender was cross-culturally variable while motherhood itself as a biological event was not. As Roscoe demonstrated, an important aspect of the translation of sex into gender is its connection to the power relations between men and women. The construction of parenthood in society, the symbolic and/or social valuing or devaluing of male and female roles, activities, and speech can be related to the degree of male dominance. Yet, Di Leonardo opposed such an idea and claimed that the alteration between sex and gender was more than semantic for anthropologists. Gender varies cross-culturally while sex does not, and a role of the parent that is appropriate in one society is inappropriate in another. Further, parent roles, behavior, and attendance in any society change over time. In fact, some anthropologists argue that there exist the third gender or interstitial individuals who demonstrate a combination of male and female behaviors as parents.

However, Mead was not close to the idea of raising the question of the relationship between “individual” and “cultural.” During the expeditions, the scientist compiled a lifetime of the descriptive anthropology of “primitive” peoples. In the chapter “Women, Sex and Sin,” the researcher strengthened the conviction that gender relations in any of the analyzed communities were not predetermined by nature but socially and culturally constructed. Lipset also insisted on the social nature of parental feelings instead of attributing the paternity and maternity to “instinctive” and “natural” types of conduct. The scientist emphasized socio-cultural conditioning of parental and family roles allocation between men and women. However, for the first time, it was Mead who showed an enormous influence of societal attitudes regarding temperament on sex differences and parenthood roles in her book.

Finally, the acceptance of parenthood and identification of one as a parent constitute the gaps between stereotypes about the parent roles of women and men and the actual family responsibilities. Nowadays, the stereotypes of men as the breadwinner for a family and the women as a housemaker are no longer principal. Besides, the cultural functions of the family were never actually connected with what it truly means to be parents to a child. These roles refer to relations between parent and child. From the emotional point of view, parenthood is essentially interchangeable since both sides of the relationships are supportive and understanding. From a child’s position, the need to have both a mother and a father is robust and natural. Knauth explains this on the basis of an innate readiness to form altered kinds of connection bonds to parents and even to relatives.


Parenthood is the basic purpose of life, the important status, a social and cultural function of virtually everyone. The quality of these manifestations and their socio-cultural implications are significant. There are contradictions associated with the need for the study of parenting as a system of family relations. Nevertheless, in the present study, the relationship of the attitudinal variable assessing how both men and women feel about their parenthood was examined by means of a questionnaire. To this end, one part of the questionnaire mirrored the nature of the phenomenon of positive or negative assessment by respondents. The other part was related to the investigation of a parent role perception. The questions of this unit were supposed to explore the degree of respondent’s belief in his/her parenthood values and assist with evaluating own contributions to the family satisfaction.

In order to validate the results, the data examination procedures were implemented. Intercorrelation between the altered types of replies was applied to assess the effects of the parent perception. All question measures of the current study were from the seven-point Likert-style grade, where “1” was understood as strong disagreement, and “7” was strong agreement with the report. Suurveys were sent via e-mail to 20 respondents, 10 females and 10 males. Each respondent performed the procedure of the questionnaire completing individually. The anonymity of the responses was guaranteed. The survey consisted of two dimension units. The first unit contains two statements used to measure the perceived role of parent. They were designed as follows: (1) “I am proud that I am a parent” and (2) “My parenthood is my only goal in life.” In the second part, two other statements, namely “I am satisfied with my family” and “My family conditions are the most comfortable for me,” measured overall contributions to the family satisfaction. These statements refer to specific targets of the study.


Two items of perceived role of parent and two items of contributions to the family satisfaction were tested. The confirmatory factor analysis for the estimation of the measurement value of questions was used in this research. Before estimating, the reliability of the interrelated factors was verified with the help of Cronbach’s Alpha in order to further define the internal reliability of the measure. The r-Alpha coefficients of two units equaled 0.77 for perceived the role of parent and 0.79 for overall contributions to the family satisfaction. The values are acceptable according to Robinson et al. The authors claim that if the reliability coefficient (Alpha) of the scale is beyond 0.70, the alpha value of the factor is acceptable.

Supplementary intercorrelation analysis presented that perceived role of parent had a significant correlation with the contributions to the family satisfaction (r= 0.62; p=0.044). The perceived role of a parent is closely related to the respondents’ degree of contributions to the family satisfaction. Contrary to this result, Knauth, who tested the connection of sense of competence in parenthood and the importance of the family relationship, found that the latter did not change over time for females and endured significantly longer than for males. Hence, current variables are different from those proposed by Knauth. Thus, it means that perceived role of a parent has a strong relationship with family satisfaction. In other words, if the parent feels the connection to the family, he/she is more satisfied with conditions.

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Further, the t-test was conducted with an aim to find the differences between males and females answers for the survey. Insignificant t= 0.76 and p=0.72 showed that there were no differences between answers of female and male respondents. Additionally, this result indicated that both sexes perceived their role of parent similarly. The level of family satisfaction did not differentiate (t= 0.86, p=0.79) between respondents as well.


In anthropology, parenthood is accompanied by the discarding of ethnocentric interpretations of cross-cultural experience. Anthropologists very skeptically resorted to the analysis of the impact of parenthood structures on gender stereotypes and roles, insisting on a cultural rather than on the social determination of the phenomenon. Nevertheless, some studies emphasized the social nature of parental feelings and socio-cultural conditioning allocation of parental and family roles between men and women instead of claiming that the paternity and maternity being “instinctive” and “natural.” The results showed that there no significant difference in both levels of the acceptance of parent role and family satisfaction between males and females. Additionally, the high intercorrelation coefficient demonstrated that estimated value of perceived role of a parent was closely related to overall contributions to the family satisfaction. These results reveal that men and women are similar in handling parenthood issues and levels of family satisfaction. Moreover, parenthood is not the feature that distinguishes both sexes. Perspectives of current study might concern the development and estimation of how these factors affect children development itself.

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