Chasing Margaret Mead's Ghost

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Chasing Margaret Mead's Ghost (Part I)

Several months ago, late into the night, I was flipping channels. When I arrived at the Travel Chanel, I paused to watch No Reservations.

The food writer Anthony Bourdain was sitting in a fast food stall, hovering over a mound of deep fried chicken and French fries. Across from him was a woman covered in a black gown, only her hands and cherub-shaped face exposed. Their booth had doors that swung closed, keeping the outside world from peering in. They ate and talked about why the sexes should be segregated in public spaces. I learned after a few minutes, this was fast food--Saudi Arabia style.

I've caught a few Bourdain shows, and knew him to be prone to all-night binges, a clear appetite for life's wilder side. What would he make of religion-bound Saudi Arabia, a country as different to him as, well, a planet like Pluto would be?

The show revealed Bourdain's immersion into the foreign country. He talked seriously about religious beliefs. He questioned if national borders are evaporating. He charted a family's history. He learned all of this by eating his way through the country--almost an excuse to just walk in the shoes of a local for a week. By his journey's end, he thoughtfully compared life there to here, concluding that he should not judge another culture by his own values and experiences.

As the credits rolled across the screen, it suddenly hit me: Anthony Bourdain is not really a travel writer, or food critic, or even a TV host. He is an anthropologist.

Bourdain uses the classic anthropological method of participant-observation--immersing himself in another culture, living as an insider while taking an outsider's impartial view. He draws on basic anthropology concepts like relativism and cultural comparison. He talks about the same themes that you would find in any anthropology journal: globalization, religion, identity, kinship, culture change and continuity.

Although he doesn't hold a PhD, circumvents French theorists, shuns academic conferences, and would probably never call himself one, Anthony Bourdain is arguably America's best known and most successful living anthropologist.

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Is Anthony Bourdain Margaret Mead's true heir?

Margaret Mead is the celebrated anthropologist who helped make anthropology a household word. Born in 1901, Mead began to dream of exploring distant lands while an undergraduate at Barnard College. She went on to study under Franz Boas--the "father" of American anthropology--receiving her PhD from Columbia University in 1929.

Mead's first book, Coming of Age in Samoa (1928), launched her into the public view, a work that presented the sexual development of adolescents in the South Pacific as free and uncomplicated. It was a bestseller and remains in print today. Dr. Mead went on to a venerable scholastic career. Based out of New York's American Museum of Natural History, she held the presidency of major scientific organizations, and published a staggering 44 books and 1,000 articles.

Not only a great academic mind, Margaret Mead's convictions led her to be a public scholar. She deciphered her ideas for popular magazines, newspapers, and books. She made documentaries and appeared on TV. By the time of her death, in 1979, she was the 20th century's most celebrated anthropologist.

In the void that followed Mead's passing, no successor followed. While in part due to the fact that Mead's talents were as quixotic as Darwin's or Einstein's--and so in a real sense, she was irreplaceable--the cause can also be linked to the changing nature of anthropological science. By the early 1980s, anthropologists no longer saw themselves, as Mead and her generation did, as the chief advocates for the concept of "culture."

To be continued in Part II ...

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