Before returning to the United States, Mead and Bateson traveled to New Guinea to test in a different culture the fieldwork techniques they had developed in Bali. They spent approximately six months observing, photographing, and filming the Iatmul of the Middle Sepik region for their comparative study of the connections between child-rearing practices and adult personality. They selected the Iatmul because Bateson had previously studied them, and Mead was familiar with other cultures of the region. Due to the onset of World War II, very little was ever published from the 1938 Iatmul research.
Iatmul Woman with Baby
Mead and Bateson returned to the Sepik in the spring of 1938 and settled in Tambunam Village. Bateson shot approximately 10,000 still photographs and 11,300 feet of motion picture film on that portion of the trip. This photograph, part of the Sepik documentation, shows a Iatmul woman holding a baby on her outstretched arm.
Working Among the Iatmul
In Letters from the Field (1977), Mead wrote of her time among the Iatmul: “the house has to be primarily considered as a combination laboratory, observation post, fort, outpost, dispensary, and gathering place.” Their house in Tambunam had a big mosquito room, a small mosquito room, a bed, the storeroom, and a bathroom. In the image below, left, Bateson photographs as Mead takes notes on a children's play group. In the image below, right, Mead and Bateson type up their notes in the big mosquito room. Screened rooms to keep out mosquitoes were a necessity in this region.
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Gregory Bateson, photographer. Margaret Mead and Gregory Bateson working among the Iatmul, Tambunam, 1938. Gelatin silver print. Manuscript Division, Library of Congress (211a)
Gregory Bateson, photographer. Margaret Mead and Gregory Bateson working in the mosquito room, Tambunam, 1938. Gelatin silver print. Manuscript Division, Library of Congress (211b)
Mead generally transcribed her handwritten field notes into typed form, making a diagonal slash or “X” on the original page once she had typed it. When she converted her handwritten notes into typescript, she usually elaborated on the ideas and information she had recorded by hand, spelling out her thoughts more explicitly. This page is from a field diary Mead kept while studying the Iatmul with Gregory Bateson in 1938. She is working through ideas related to the cultural patterning of emotion (ethos) and thought (eidos).
Iatmul Child's Drawing
Mead noted of Iatmul children's drawings that they “are static and scattered aimlessly over the page; there is no movement and no relationship between one design element and another.” She contrasts this to Balinese children's drawings, which are full of activity and movement, and attributes the difference to culture. While Iatmul children are taught to pressure others to give into their demands, Balinese children are “discouraged when they attempt to bring human relations to a climax.” The figures in this drawing represent a man (center bottom) and animals.
When Mead went to the field, she set out not only to observe people, but also to participate in the life of the community, as a way of more fully understanding the culture. She learned to perform the kava ceremony in Samoa, for instance, or to make offerings at the Bateson household shrine in Bali. Participant-observation fieldwork is a hallmark of contemporary anthropology.
In Mead's notes, she recounts her own actions, as well as her descriptions of others. Here Mead is introducing a doll to the Iatmul. She writes: “I chased the mob of boys away saying that it [doll] was for the girls.”
Lesson in Holding a Doll
As Mead was aware, the culture being studied is affected by the presence of the anthropologist, who brings to the field her own values and cultural training, along with her anthropological skills. Here Mead is handing the doll back to a girl, probably Mbtenda, after Mead has cradled the doll in her arms like a baby. Mead writes: “I hand it back saying: 'hold it like this'.”
A Farewell Picture
When Mead and Bateson departed for New Guinea, their Balinese secretary, I Madé Kalér, commissioned a painting from one of Bali's most notable painters to commemorate the occasion. The painting shows Mead and Bateson leaving Bali and heading for New Guinea on a boat. The Balinese are on one shore and the Papua New Guineans on the other, with Mead and Bateson in the center. At the top, the Balinese volcano spells out “goodbye” and “good luck.” Below and to the right, the New Guinea volcano says “welcome.”
I Ketoet (Ketut) Ngéndon of Batoean (Batuan), “Goodbye and Good Luck to Margaret Mead and Gregory Bateson,” 1938. Ink on Paper. On loan from Mary Catherine Bateson (219)