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
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.
Is Anthony Bourdain Margaret Mead's true
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
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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