Margaret Mead quotation
July 27, 2001
Paul Ryder, Ohio Citizen Action
National Canvassers Conference, Columbus, Ohio
There's a Margaret
Mead quotation that appears in countless
books, articles, blackboards, and
posters. It goes like this:
that a small group of thoughtful committed
individuals can change the world.
In fact, it's the only thing that
Good quote. Unfortunately, there's
no evidence to support it -- its just
Let's go back 50 years and look at
some world-changing events. In the
1950's and early 60's, scores of colonies
around the world, especially in Africa,
revolted and broke free from the empires
that had held them. Who did this?
Not a small group of thoughtful committed
individuals, but millions of thoughtful
This civil rights movement in the
United States? The antiwar movement?
The women's movement? Millions.
The overthrow of the Soviet Union
and the other Soviet bloc dictatorships?
The end of apartheid? Millions of
thoughtful, committed people.
In general, small groups can win small
victories. Big networks of groups
can win big victories.
but doesn't it start with a small
No, that's too
mechanical. Real life is more interesting.
As Tom Hayden has said, "Any oppressed
people will always look like they
are asleep to everybody from the oppressor
to the organizers to the experts who
are observing and writing about them
. . . The people who seem asleep always
awake at the most unusual times. No
one ever predicts when or where people
will rise up. . . . If you predict
a revolt here, it will start there."
Small groups can't even
predict when it will start, let alone
Of course, spontaneity
is not enough; organization and leadership
are required if the movement is to
sustain itself. But the idea that
a small group can start a world-changing
movement is not based on fact.
on Margaret Mead
1925, Margaret Mead, a young American
anthropologist, went to Samoa. On
her return, she wrote a book called
"Coming of Age in Samoa", which
became a runaway bestseller, quite
influential. It made her the most
well-known scientist in America until
Albert Einstein showed up.
The book's popularity came from the
message: that in Samoa, young people
practiced free love with no rules
whatsoever, and that as a result there
was no adolescent turmoil, tension
about sex, jealousy, revenge, divorce,
The book also
supported a then-fashionable idea,
in Mead's words, that "human nature
is the rawest most undifferentiated
of raw material"; "human nature is
almost unbelieveably malleable."
Mead died in 1978, and a few years
later Derek Freeman and other scientists
confirmed what Samoans had been trying
to say all along -- that the premise
of the book was patently false. In
fact, in Samoa, young people were
and are subject to sexual modesty
and regulation much like everywhere
else in the world.
How did Mead get it so wrong? She
had a little trouble getting down
to work in Samoa, and found that she
had to leave before she could do the
research. In a rush, she interviewed
two young women, Fa'apua'a and Fofoa,
one night and left Samoa the next
day. Mead then presented the results
of the interview in her book as though
they were the results of months of
study of dozens of people.
After Mead died, Fa'apua'a -- now
an old woman herself of course --
said that what she told Mead was a
hoax. According to her, she and Fofoa
colluded in telling Mead what they
did because of their embarrassment
at her insistent questioning on the
forbidden topic of sexuality. They
decided to tell some tall tales at
the expense of a visiting American.
The hoax doesn't get Mead off the
hook, because she lied about doing
a study. (While in Samoa, she served
as a translator at a couple of rape
trials. How can you have a rape trial
if you don't have any rape?)
This background sheds light on that
quotation -- she was talking about
herself and her colleagues -- and
the dangers of taking the quotation
is this quotation so popular?
It may be because many activists are
frustrated with working with people
who appear to be fast asleep. (Remember
that's how they seem just before the
This frustration can lead to giving
up, or to the fantasy that we can do it ourselves. "If they won't come along,
don't worry, our small group will
do it for them. We'll continue to
call ourselves 'organizers', but we'll
win without organizing those sleepy
This notion leads nowhere.
As a canvasser, the most important
thing you do is to look people in
the eye and identify who has the potential
for activism and leadership beyond
signing the support statement, contributing
money and writing a letter.
Once you have identified such a person,
an organizer must follow-up promptly
to realize this potential. That's
the most important thing they
If, instead, the
"organizer" spends their days talking
to experts, academics, reporters,
lawyers, legislators, bureaucrats,
and other nonprofit staff -- that
is, everyone except the people with
the problem -- then they're throwing
away your most important work.
And the campaign
ends up achieving what a small group
can achieve: small results.
From the point of view of the person
at the door, once they let you know
they are ready for more, a clock starts
ticking in their head. If, within
a certain short amount of time, they
don't hear from an organizer, this
potential leader will write us off
as the most recent in a long string
There are such clocks ticking all
over the United States right now.
Some people think that 'left' and
'radical' are synonymous. They're
not, and the Margaret Mead quotation shows the difference:
The left is a small group of thoughtful,
committed individuals with a vision
of the future and a plan to make it
happen one way or another, regardless
of what the millions think.
Radicals, by contrast, set out to
help people by the millions free themselves
to realize their own vision of the