Friday, May 21, 2010

The Trashing of Margaret Mead by Paul Shankman

This book is an analysis of New Zealand Anthropologist Derek Freeman's critique of Margaret Mead's best selling work Coming of Age in Samoa (1924), The Making and Unmaking of an Anthropological Myth (1983), which became a media sensation for a short time, fueling controversial discussions on such outlets as The Phil Donahue Show, and has remained a focus of debate in the social sciences in general ever since.

Freeman's book was about how Samoa was puritanical and sexually restrictive rather than sexually permissive, as Mead described it. According to Freeman, Samoa was not a tropical paradise with islanders engaging in casual sex under the palms; instead, it was a repressive culture riddled with conflict, aggression and rape. In contrast to Mead's portrayal of a relatively conflict -free adolescence, Freeman contended that Samoa adolescence was a time of storm and stress. Freeman's book was also about the nature-nurture debate and whether Mead's emphasis on culture, as opposed to biology was warranted. Mead had noted that while puberty was a universal biological process, it did not lead inevitably to a period of adolescent turmoil in Samoa, as she thought it had in America. For Mead, this demonstrated the importance of culture in shaping human behavior. For Freeman, however, adolescence in Samoa was difficult, just as he believed it was everywhere. He thus criticized Mead for being an “absolute” cultural determinist and for ignoring biology completely.

In the early 1980s the nature-nurture debate was of great interest, one of the issues in the emerging American “culture wars,” with conservative social commentators weighing in on the side of “nature” and criticizing those like Mead who were on the side of “culture.” Freeman's critique of Mead tarnished Mead's reputation not merely as an anthropologist but as a public figure, a feminist and a liberal, one of the great icons of popular culture in America during the 60s and 70s.

In the first place, Mr. Shankman points out, Coming of Age in Samoa was never intended as a scholarly report of Margaret Mead's early and brief field work in Samoa . The simplistic, non-historical, 'exaggerated' narratives found in Coming of Age was meant to arouse public interest in the emerging field of Anthropolgy and were not characteristic of her academic publications on the same subject. It was a self-consciously commercial enterprise which left her exposed to criticism both from within her profession and from the public at large.

There are many different angles from which to consider this lasting controversy, but perhaps it is most important to point out the following:

Margaret Mead and her colleagues Franz Boas and Ruth Benedict did agree that culture mattered. They were “cultural determinists”. At the time is was almost a revolutionary idea. In the early twentieth century, race was the common explanation for cultural difference. Racial superiority and inferiority were assumed to explain differences in technology, social organization, and religion. If these differences were fixed and unchangeable because they were allegedly rooted in race and biology, then theories about “the master race” and other totalitarian ideologies were more acceptable. Indeed, eugenics and ideas about sterilization of the “unfit” were popular throughout Europe and America in the 1920s. Totalitarian solutions based on racial classifications of “inferior” and “superior” populations were just around the corner. Boas, Benedict and Mead played a major role in moving America away from thinking about human differences in terms of race and towards thinking about them in terms of culture. But this hardly made them “cultural determinists” as Derek Freedman alleged and tried to prove by using limited selections of their works , and incomplete quotations out of context.

Boas, Benedict and Mead simply argued that cultural differences could not be explained by biology alone. The human ability to learn and symbolize allowed for cultural differences, and these differences cannot be explained exclusively by biology and evolution.. Some cultures practiced infanticide, while others did not; some worshiped gods that were world redeemers, while others worshiped gods that were world destroyers; some cultures were egalitarian, while others were highly stratified; and in some cultures, adolescence was more stressful than others. How could a human nature per se explain these variations? “Culture determinists” ( otherwise often referred to as “moral relativists”) were not actually denying that biology was important; rather, the argued that it was not destiny.

In regards this founding principle of Anthropolgy itself, surprisingly enough, Derek Freeman was in complete agreement with Margaret Mead. For a number of reasons including his upbringing, experience, approach to the field work he also did in Samoa - the findings he chose to emphasize -and perhaps as well as a consequence of professional jealousy he came to believe that Mead and many others did not. We will never understand completely what motivated him to attack Mead in the way he did until his confidential diaries are published. Some of his criticism of Mead's work were justified and are accepted today, others were bizarre and simply defamatory.

Even a brief narrative of Margaret Mead's life makes it clear why she could become the object of disdain and ridicule for the conservative proponents of culture war in America. She was married three times , carried on numerous and bi-sexual affairs, advocated free love, contraception, feminism, racial equality as well as federal government intervention in education and family life.

From the beginning of her career Margaret Mead was unique among American anthropologists in giving priority to studies that could inform our everyday lives. In writing about Samoa she was also writing about America, recognizing the cultural and political cross-currents of the post World War I era. Mead was aware that the late 1920s were a time of youth a hope- she went to college at Barnard in NYC were art, poetry, literature, music, psychoanalysis, the bohemian and the avant-garde were everywhere- but also a time of self-criticism and despair. Mead knew of the simmering issues at home and the rising totalitarianism abroad. For her, anthropology was ideally suited to the understanding of these contemporary issues. As she stated just prior to the publication of Coming of Age in Samoa:" By the study and analysis of the diverse solutions to the problems that confront us today, it is possible to make a more reasoned judgment of the needs of our own society.” Mead set her agenda accordingly and lived by it for the rest of her life.


  1. The Trashing of Margaret Mead; An Anatomy of an Anthropological Controversy by Paul Shankman; University of Wisconsin Press,, Studies in American Thought Series, 2009

  2. In traditional Samoan society the virginity of the daughters of village head men and noble (rich) families was carefully protected. Their marriage- in a complex 'deflowering ceremony- to the sons of other chiefs in nearby villages formed the basis of a system of alliances by which their wealth and status was maintained. There seemed to be a less rigid standard of sexual conduct for the lesser folk of Samoa society though a certain “ideal” was maintained, if only in the breach. Traditional standards for sexual conduct in Samoa were much vitiated even by the time of Margaret Mead's research there in the 1920s though maintaining at least a show of traditional practice often remained a point of honor, especially among the elite. So the picture of how Samoan society actually worked , the difference between what informants said and what they did, could vary to considerable degree. There was no clear line between “restrictive” and “permissive”. Perhaps the situation was best described in a passage in Samoan novelist Sia Figiel “Where Once We Belonged”, a humorous conversation between two Samoan school girls:

    “One day our teacher showed us an article from “Time” magazine which was supposed to be about we were supposed to be very interested in. The article was written on Samoa and the “Mead-Freeman Controversy”. None of us knew what the controversy was about. None of us knew what the word controversy meant.

    Later on I asked a girl from Malifa to explain what the teacher had talked about in class. This is how she explained it.

    Mead was a palagi ( European) woman who wrote a book on Samoan girls doing “it” a lot... and they were loving and loved “it” too. Freeman was a palagi man who said that Mead was wrong about Samoan girls doing “it” a lot...and the Samoans are jealous, hateful, murderous people who don't know how to do “it”.

    That evening I told Lili and Moa what the girl from Malifa explained to me. Lili looked at me and laughed.

    'How do you think she knew?' she said.

    'Who? What?' I asked.

    'How did the palagi woman know that we do “it” a lot?'

    'You do it a lot, not we,' said Moa to Lili.

    ' Malo ( good) Moa! I laughed.

    ' And what about the palagi man?' I asked. 'What about him. How does he know that we... I mean, that people like Lili don't do “it” a lot?'

    ' I don't know,' said Moa. 'Maybe he was talking to someone like Faukafe, who'll be a spinster for the already rest of her life... or to some matai ( chiefs), like your father, who are too embarressed to tell palagi where their hundreds of children come from.”