Join MIT Global Studies and Languages for our Brown Bag Lunch Series: informal presentations on current research by faculty, lecturers, post-docs, and visiting scholars. Light lunch provided.

“Margaret Mead’s Polynesian Footnotes: Ethnography and the American Literary Archive”

Speaker: Corey Johnson, GSL Pre-doctoral Fellow

The 1920s were a watershed decade in the American academy. Under the influence of 19th century German intellectual tradition, the disciples of Franz Boas’s “new science” of anthropology were marshaled out across the globe to study “fast vanishing” primitive cultures. At home, historians and artists worked to create a “useable past” out of American culture to match the profound economic, governmental, and technological advances of the period. At times, the source material for these two competing impulses overlapped.

In this talk, I examine the composition of Margaret Mead’s doctoral dissertation at Columbia, what she later described as a “dry and formal” study of Polynesian prehistory. Entering print in 1928, it was overshadowed that same year by Mead’s Coming of Age in Samoa, which went on to become the most widely read book of anthropology in the first half of the twentieth century. The published research of the period highlights the still-porous relationship between anthropology and other disciplinary traditions. Both Mead and the Yale-funded Bayard Dominick Expedition to Polynesia cited Herman Melville’s travelogue Typee (1846) in their ethnographic research. While this has been noted in passing by literary historians, I suggest that larger attention to these overlaps can lend insight into a formative moment in the professionalization of two different academic disciplines


Friday, April 28 • 1:00PM • 14E-304

Pedagogy Roundtable “Teaching Culture Through Video Content”
with GSL instructors Margarita Ribas Groeger, Mariana San Martin, Leanna Bridge Rezvani, and Min-Min Liang


Corey Johnson
  • GSL Pre-doctoral Fellow