Anthropology as Open Marriage

A New Life Style for Anthropologists

This blog-post reproduces my comment on Paul Shankman’s “The Public Anthropology of Margaret Mead: Redbook, Women’s Issues, and the 1960s” published in the February 2018 issue of Current Anthropology. Used with permission from Current Anthropology. I have edited the original to include relevant links.

Please note that Shankman’s article also includes comments from Ira Bashkow, Deborah Gewertz, Alex Golub, and Susan Trencher. Shankman’s article emerged from a panel organized by Alex Golub, Margaret Mead and Jared Diamond: Past Publics, Current Engagements at the 2013 meetings of the American Anthropological Association.

Jason Antrosio
Department of Anthropology, Hartwick College, Oneonta, New York 13820, USA

In the May 2017 New York Times Magazine, writer Susan Dominus asks, “Is an Open Marriage a Happier Marriage?” The article quickly soared to the top of the online “most read” list and generated over 1,500 online comments. Marriage patterns are of course a founding issue for anthropology as well as a continuing bread-and-butter staple in the field [see the 2021 update on marriage is a social process]. Almost every Introduction to Anthropology course and textbook features some cross-cultural and historical treatment of marriage. Alisse Waterston’s inaugural 2013 issue of Open Anthropology, an attempt by the American Anthropological Association to provide access to a wider public, is titled “Marriage and Other Arrangements.” As Waterston writes in the introduction, “anthropologists have been examining ‘marriage and other arrangements’ since the birth of the discipline” (2013).

But for the readers of the New York Times Magazine, no anthropologists appear. There is some reference to primatology, prehistory, biology, and social constructs but no explicit mention of anthropology. This absence is especially ironic when tracing the origins of the phrase “open marriage”: “If pressed to find language, the couples might have said they were in open marriages, a phrase first popularized in 1972, with the publication of Open Marriage: A New Life Style for Couples, by Nena and George O’Neill. The book, which focused mostly on emotional openness, became a best seller” (Dominus 2017).

The irony, as Paul Shankman informs us in his article, “The Public Anthropology of Margaret Mead: Redbook, Women’s Issues, and the 1960s,” is that the authors of Open Marriage were anthropologists. “Anthropologists Nena and George O’Neill’s [p.66] Open Marriage (1972) was on the New York Times best-seller list for 40 weeks and sold millions of copies worldwide, making it one of anthropology’s best-selling books ever.”

How times have changed. Shankman’s article tells us of a time not only when anthropology owned public discourse on discussions of marriage but when Margaret Mead could write and be heard on issues far afield of her anthropological training. Given the absence of anthropological voices from even our most basic concerns, little wonder that, as Shankman writes, “anthropologists sometimes wish that someone like [Mead] would appear as a voice for the discipline.”

Shankman’s carefully researched and timely article is important reading for all those concerned with the history of anthropology, especially with regard to anthropological voices in the public sphere. There are a number of surprises. Although I was aware that Margaret Mead was a prominent public anthropologist, I did not realize just how influential she became, such as when she was invited to be US Secretary of Health, Education, and Welfare.

For many anthropologists, the biggest surprises are the positions Mead took in her Redbook columns. I was the discussant for the American Anthropological Association panel when Shankman presented an earlier version of this article. I still remember audible gasps from the audience when they heard about how Mead wrote against premarital sex and in favor of traditional marriage roles (at least through the early 1960s). This was not the Margaret Mead many of us believed we knew. Indeed, I find myself endorsing Betty Friedan’s critique of Mead’s columns. Friedan pondered what might have been: “The feminine mystique might have taken from Margaret Mead her vision of the infinite plasticity of sexual patterns and the enormous plasticity of human nature.”

Shankman’s article is a valuable historical corrective to the myths of Margaret Mead, as well as a corrective to myths about the 1960s. In terms of how anthropology might find a more public voice, however, Shankman offers mostly pessimism. Shankman’s rehearsal of reasons why anthropology is not more prominent–lack of attention in the bookstore, a retreat into academic specialization, the decline in publishing and journalism generally–are all very familiar. Shankman bluntly informs us that someone like Margaret Mead could not emerge now: “her kind of public anthropology is unlikely to be replicated by anthropologists today.” Indeed, given Mead’s public positions and lack of anthropological analysis in her columns, we may not want such a figure again.

Nevertheless, I find within Shankman’s article hints of a different approach to publicizing anthropological discourse. Shankman notes that Mead collected audience questions on 3 × 5 cards during her public lectures. Mead would sometimes use one of those questions as the basis for a Redbook column. Today, search engines can be used as the equivalent of such index cards–they reveal the questions and topics people are seeking. Not all of those questions or topics will be amenable to anthropological analysis. Like Mead’s columns, they may be “remarkably eclectic.” Moreover, the internet’s “immediacy and transient nature may not work for the kind of durability and audience loyalty that was so important for Mead.” But the search engine offers unexpected possibilities. For example, a somewhat offhand blog post on gender and social construction I wrote in 2012 has received over 100,000 page views; 5 years after posting it, it still receives 50–60 page views each day.

With respect to what lies ahead for public anthropology, I am basically in agreement with Shankman’s AAA panel co-organizer Alex Golub, who urges anthropologists to do things such as write book reviews on Amazon and learn how to become a Wikipedia editor. The gains will not be in heroic achievements, such as those enjoyed by Margaret Mead. Golub characterizes it as more like trench warfare: “Moving from a heroic, ineffective public anthropology to new and unfamiliar genres will be key to making sure that everyone, everywhere, has access to the factual and accurate information they need in this troubling new time” (2017).

As in the time of Mead, people still have questions on a range of issues that are basic to anthropological expertise. They may not be asking those questions in the bookstore, the library, or even the classroom. But our task is to find a way to put anthropologically informed answers in front of this still-existing “broad audience outside of academia.” When someone types “what is marriage?” into a search engine, anthropology should be all over the results.

When someone types 'what is marriage?' into a search engine, anthropology should be all over the results.Click To Tweet
To cite the original article: Shankman, Paul. 2018. “The Public Anthropology of Margaret Mead: Redbook, Women’s Issues, and the 1960s.”Current Anthropology 59(1): 55-73.

To cite this post: Antrosio, Jason. 2018. “Comment on Paul Shankman’s ‘The Public Anthropology of Margaret Mead: Redbook, Women’s Issues, and the 1960s.'” Current Anthropology 59(1): 65-66. Posted 6 May 2018,