Collection ID: 6911269 MS#1762

Collection context


Research in Contemporary Cultures
This collection contains the records of the Research in Contemporary Cultures project (1947-1953) begun by Ruth Benedict at Columbia University, and carried out by Margaret Mead at Columbia University and the American Museum of Natural History after Benedict's death in 1948. The records of three successor projects, Studies in Soviet Culture (1948-1952), Studies in Contemporary Culture (1951-1952), and and Study Program of Human Health and the Ecology of Man (1954-1956) are also included. The purpose of these projects was anthropological study at a distance of global cultures inaccessible for direct observation, in an attempt to establish the "national character" of countries of geopolitical interest to the United States government.
19.5 linear feet and 15 record cartons, 11 manuscript boxes
English , French , German .
Preferred citation:

Identification of specific item; Date (if known); Research in Contemporary Cultures Records; Box and Folder; Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Columbia University Library.


Scope and Content:

This collection comprises the records of the Research in Contemporary Cultures project and its successor projects, Studies in Soviet Culture, Studies in Contemporary Cultures, and Study Program of Human Health and the Ecology of Man, inaugurated by Ruth Benedict in 1947 and continued by Margaret Mead and Rhoda Métraux between 1948 and 1956 at Columbia University and the American Museum of Natural History. Each project is documented in a series of nation-specific volumes containing extensive anthropological interviews with informants, descriptions of interviewers' observations of family interactions, notes on language use, etc. In addition, many volumes of group seminar minutes transcribe verbatim the proceedings of biweekly project-wide meetings, in which participants presented reports on specific topics. Drafts and final versions of project reports, as well as publications, administrative documents, and some financial records are also included in the collection. Most material was meticulously labeled, numbered, and dated by Mead and her colleagues. Each volume contains a table of contents and tabs for reference. The vast majority of the collection consists of copies made using a spirit duplicator; there is very little typewritten or handwritten material. Subseries III.2 and Series IV also do not appear to be complete sets of records.

Researchers and informants in the projects were given code numbers in project publications, in order to protect their anonymity but permit material created by the same individuals to be identified. While researchers are often identified by name in the records, informants are generally identified by their code numbers.

Biographical / Historical:

The Columbia University Research in Contemporary Cultures (RCC) project and its successor projects, Studies in Soviet Culture (SSC) Studies in Contemporary Culture (SCC), and Study Program of Human Health and the Ecology of Man (HEC), were a series of interrelated anthropological studies of societies inaccessible via direct observation that took place between 1947 and 1956. The RCC was inaugurated by Ruth Benedict at Columbia University with funding from a grant from the United States Office of Naval Research Human Resources division. Following Benedict's death in 1948, the research was continued and expanded in a series of successor projects by Margaret Mead, Rhoda Métraux, and colleagues at the American Museum of Natural History and Columbia University. These projects were among later entries in the now-defunct genre of national character studies: anthropological studies conducted during and immediately after World War II into the cultures of national and ethnic groups and the influence of those cultures on individuals' behavior.

The study of culture at a distance, according to Mead and Rhoda Métraux's 1953 manual of the same title, was an interdisciplinary approach developed by Benedict and expanded upon by Mead and their colleagues, which combined historical and anthropological methods to study cultures rendered temporally, spatially, and/or administratively inaccessible. For example, the Studies in Soviet Culture and RCC China research adopted this approach "due to barriers to travel and research." Meanwhile, the RCC studies of Jewish small towns, or shtetls, in Poland and Ukraine investigated societies the researchers explained had been "physically destroyed and the survivors scattered." Benedict also used the approach in her wartime studies of Japanese culture, commissioned by the Office of War Information and published in 1946 as The Chrysanthemum and the Sword.

RCC and successor project studies focused on cultural characteristics of nations they identified and described as follows: China, Czechoslovakia, The East European Jews before World War II, France, Great Russia before 1917, Poland, Syria, Germany, and the contemporary Soviet Union. "Brief preliminary explorations" of Italian and Spanish culture were also included in the projects. Studies analyzed cultural products including film, literature, and advertisements, but primarily focused on interviews with informants. These were people who had lived in the nations under study: immigrants, the children of immigrants, refugees, students studying abroad in the United States, and sometimes people from the United States who had lived abroad for extended periods. Informants were also sometimes administered projective tests, such as Rorschach tests.

More than 120 researchers from fourteen academic disciplines contributed to the RCC and its successors. The projects had a circular design in order to avoid the development of hierarchical structure or "vested interests," in which researchers were organized into groups by the cultures they studied, by approach or method, and into temporary groups for accomplishing specific tasks such as drafting reports on particular topics. Each senior researcher occupied at least two roles of different statuses in different groups; for example, convener in one group, and member in another. All project members met for General Seminars every two weeks. Each study's findings were summarized in final project reports.

The applicability of Soviet and Chinese cultural studies to U.S. geopolitical interests in the context of the early Cold War explains the expansiveness and abundance of resources afforded to this work. The Studies in Soviet Culture and Studies in Contemporary Cultures A projects, both directed by Margaret Mead, investigated the Soviet national character. RCC China included a detailed analysis of Chinese political character, while the Study Program of Human Health and the Ecology of Man investigated cultural factors related to the health of subjects of Chinese heritage in New York City. The Studies in Contemporary Cultures B project, directed by Rhoda Métraux, addressed German national character, a subject of similar interest to American military and political policy makers after the descent of the Iron Curtain. The Studies in Soviet Culture project was funded by the Rand Corporation, while the Studies in Contemporary Cultures project was funded partially by the Office of Naval Research and partially by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Center for International Studies.

Acquisition information:
Transferred to the Rare Book and Manuscript Library from Georgetown University Special Collections Division, 2001 July 28.
Custodial history:

The collection's full custodial history is not clear. In Mead and Métraux's 1953 volume on the project, The Study of Culture at a Distance, Mead notes that the project's records were stored "in the custody of the Institute for Intercultural Studies, 15 West 77th Street, NYC, where they are available for consultation by professional workers." The Institute for Intercultural Studies, founded by Mead and Gregory Bateson, closed its doors as of 2009. However, these records left the Institute's custody no later than 2000. Correspondence in the Rare Book and Manuscript Library's collection files suggests that the records were, perhaps briefly, stored at the Smithsonian Institution before being transferred to Georgetown University.

Processing information:

This collection was processed by Carolyn Smith in 2015. Finding aid drafted by Carolyn Smith in May 2015 and completed by Celeste Brewer in November-December 2022 and March-April 2023.

The collection was previously called the Margaret Mead papers. The collection title was changed in December 2022 to better reflect the nature of its contents and to avoid confusion with Margaret Mead's papers at the Library of Congress.

The original order of the collection is not clear. Most materials were not physically rearranged during processing, though the contents of some boxes were consolidated after de-duplication. Unsorted loose materials were sorted, identified, and placed in folders accordingly. Papers stored in binders appeared to have been removed from binders and placed in folders by a previous archivist.

Excessive duplicate materials were discarded. Spirit duplicator masters in Boxes 27 and 28 were also discarded: copies made using these items are available elsewhere in the collection, and they transferred ink onto adjacent papers and folders. As a result, Boxes 27 and 28 no longer exist.


This collection has been arranged into 4 series. Series I is arranged in alphabetical order by country, while Series II through IV are arranged in the order of the numbers assigned to each volume of records or document.


No additions expected.



This collection is located off-site. You will need to request this material at least three business days in advance to use the collection in the Rare Book and Manuscript Library reading room.

This collection has no restrictions.


Single photocopies may be made for research purposes. The RBML maintains ownership of the physical material only. Copyright remains with the creator and his/her heirs. The responsibility to secure copyright permission rests with the patron.


Identification of specific item; Date (if known); Research in Contemporary Cultures Records; Box and Folder; Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Columbia University Library.

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