Margaret Mead, Derek Freeman
Margaret Mead's fieldwork in Samoa, which resulted in her first major work, Coming of Age in Samoa, was completed over a period of months during 1925/26. Upon publication, it became an immediate success with the public. Through it, people were given access to a society unburdened by the problems of twentieth century industrialized America. She wrote of a society where love was available for the asking and crime was dealt with by exchanging a few mats. This book launched Margaret Mead's, career, which led to her becoming one of the most renown figures in American anthropology, if not in the world.
...and the Samoans .
In 1983, Derek Freeman published his own study of Samoa titled, "Margaret Mead and Samoa: The Making and Unmaking of an Anthropological Myth"(1983a.).
Derek Freeman read Mead's "Coming of Age in Samoa" soon after it was published. Enthralled, he became a regular visitor to the islands, learned the language, customs, and even became a participant local village politics as a full-fledged member of the community. He is recognized by his peers, and by the Samoans themselves, as an authority on Samoan culture. In his text, which is actually a refutation of Mead's work, Freeman takes particular umbrage at Mead, and claims that she was, or may have been, duped in regard to her conclusions. Freeman's work in Samoa encompassed the same area of Mead's, yet with quite different results.
What emerges through Freeman's detailed research is the somewhat troubling possibility that what was published by Mead in 1928 could not have been what she observed during her fieldwork in 1925/26.
On Margaret Mead's "Coming of Age in Samoa", Dr. Martin
Orans, Emeritus Professor of Anthropology at the University of California, Riverside, opens his book "Not Even Wrong" (Harvard University Press, 1983), thusly;
"Occasionally a message carried by the media
finds an audience so eager to receive it that it
is willing to suspend all critical judgment and
adopt the message as its own. So it was with
Margaret Mead's celebrated 'Coming of Age in
Dr. Orans also did fieldwork in Samoa and compiled his book using Margaret Mead's actual
fieldnotes, loaned to him by her daughter.
He states that he carried "Coming of Age in Samoa" on his required reading list for the anthropology classes that he taught over the years. He then seems to lament this deed by waxing thus:
"The greatest fault lies with those of us like myself who understood the requirements of science, but both failed to point out the deficiencies of Mead's work and tacitly supported such enterprise by repeatedly assigning it to students." [1(b)]
Derek Freeman, on the other hand, revels in no such remorse at the possible tarnishing of Margaret Mead, an anthropological legend. In fact, throughout his book he goes for the throat, so to speak;
"It is with the scientific adequacy of Mead's picture of Samoan society that I shall be concerned with from now on, for to the extent that this picture is defective, Samoa ceases to be a negative instance and Mead's central conclusion that culture, or nurture, is
all-important in the determination of adolescent and other aspects of human behavior is revealed as ungrounded and invalid." (Freeman, 1983a: 83)
When Freeman's book was published, Mead had been dead for five years. Criticism was leveled at Freeman for this because he had completed his study for the book years earlier, while Mead was still alive. If this criticism is based on a belief that Freeman held back on publication until after her death to avoid the possibility of her being able to respond to his charges, it is a non-sequitur argument.
Freeman had met with Margaret Mead and showed her the evidence that he had accumulated during his work in Samoa. He also discussed her work in comparison and explained that he was not ready to publish at that time.
Mead's reaction to this visit will be discussed in the conclusion of this paper.
By attacking Mead and her work, leveling charges of bias, and insinuating academic fraud, Freeman found himself on the outside of the anthropological circle.
David Williamson, Australian playwright has written a satirical play based on the Mead-Freeman controversy titled: "Coming of Age in Academia"
(http//:www.monash.edu.au.pubs/). Writing of himself in an advertisement for his play, William's states:
"He believes that it is ironic that while anthropologists argued that there was no biological essence to human nature or links to our animal ancestors "'Their treatment of Derek was identical to the treatment a
chimpanzee troupe gives to one of it's outcasts."3
Another perspective of the Mead/Freeman controversy is offered by James E. Cote, Professor of Psychology at the University of Western Ontario. In this research monograph titled Adolescent Storm and Stress, Professor Cote offers his views of the controversy as seen from the eyes of a social psychologist. A 1994 press release announcing publication states:
"...a great deal of attention has been directed toward the Mead/Freeman controversy. This book contributes to that controversy and to the general understanding of adolescent storm and stress by undertaking an interdisciplinary analysis of Freeman's criticisms and
an assessment of the plausibility of Mead's work. ....While much has been written about this controversy during the past decade, a gap exists in the sense that most of the publicity about Mead's work has missed her main focus concerning the processes governing the "Coming of age" of her informants. A valuable historical document and a pioneering study, Mead's book anticipated changes that are still unfolding today in the field of human development. The preoccupation with issues tangential to her main focus -- issues involving the Samoan ethos and character -- have not only diverted a clear analysis of Mead's work, they have also led to the creation of a number of myths and misconceptions about Mead and her book. ...[Professor Cote] also has an interest in Mead's original focus on the relative impact of biological and cultural influences in shaping the behavior of those coming of age--in all societies. Despite what has been said by her critics, not only was this a crucial issue during the time of her study, but it is also an issue that is now just beginning to be under-stood some 60 years later. In addition, the issue of biology versus culture--the so-called nature- nurture
debate--carries with it many political implications. In the case of the Mead/Freeman controversy, this political agenda looms large..."(4)
Margaret Mead states in "Coming of Age in Samoa" that her fieldwork was done entirely in the Samoan language, as few, if any of the natives spoke English. Yet, Freeman discovered, and her fieldnotes even indicate, that many of the people she contacted did speak English.
Being a student of Boas, Mead had learned anthropology in the Boasian school of "cultural determination." This mode of anthropological thought (at that time current) was advocated by both Boas and Ruth Benedict (another of Mead's professors and her personal friend). Freeman believes that Mead left for Samoa with the purpose of confirming this theory. Boas, Benedict and Mead argued that it was "culture" that most influenced a growing individual, as opposed to the inborn influences of biology.
Mead paints a picture of Samoa as a place of nearly stress free living, where the children pass through adolescence without the many pressures put upon teenagers in an industrial, twentieth-century America. In Mead's Samoa, families are large, taboos and restrictions are few, and disagreements are settled by the giving of mats. The stresses encountered by American teenagers are unknown to their Samoan counterparts.
In "Coming of Age in Samoa" Mead refers to premarital sex as the "pastime par excellence" for Samoan youth. She writes that Samoa is a virtual paradise of free love, as the young people from
(aproximately.) 14 years of age until they are married have nothing on their minds except sex. Of Samoan girls, Mead says,
"She thrusts virtuosity away from her as she thrusts away from her every other sort of responsibility with the invariable comment,
"Laititi a'u" ("I am but young"). All of her interest is expended on clandestine sex adventures..." (Mead, 1928: pg. 33)
Derek Freeman points out that this picture of Samoa Mead presents is contradicted by other parts of her book where many restrictions on teenagers, and sexual activity
in particular, are outlined along with punishments for offenders.
The three main limitations on casual sex for female Samoan youth are:
1. The rank of the girls family (high or low).
2. The age of the girl.
3. Whether or not the girl lives in the pastors house.
Mead tells of clandestine sex among the trees and of a "diluted Christianity," where the young people simply go through the motions of church participation without reverence or real need for it. Freeman alleges that not only has Mead misrepresented the data that she collected, but that she completely misunderstands the attitudes held by Samoans regarding sex and the Christian church.
The information on female virginity Mead collected is contradictory in her book, fieldnotes and in real life. She tells of the defloration ceremony that was eventually outlawed by the government and of girls having their heads shaved and/or being beaten for certain violations of sexual conduct. Several times Freeman makes the point of mentioning that this does not mesh with her statement of casual sex being the "pastime par excellence" of Samoan youth or with his own extensive fieldwork.
Freeman claims that Mead was hoaxed into believing what she wrote by two girls
[Fa'apua'a and Fofoa] that befriended her and accompanied her on various excursions around Samoa. According to Freeman, the two girls became informants for Mead and would tell her "stories" that they had made up concerning teenage sexual practices (Freeman, 1991:pg. 104).2
Freeman acquired this knowledge of the hoax through an interview of one of the girls, conducted by Galea'i Poumele in 1987. Part of this interview is included in the film.
In Lowell Holmes' 1957 dissertation, "The Restudy of Manu'an Culture", he followed in the footsteps of Margaret Mead and compared his material to hers. He made corrections concerning some of Mead's incorrect use of the Samoan language and corrected errors made about various social organizations. The work that Holmes completed was generally in agreement with Mead's findings and therefore did not spark the controversy that
Freeman's book generated.
Holmes found that gathering sexual data from the Samoans was a difficult task. He states: "(sex was the)...most difficult of all areas of
Manu'an culture to discuss. ...it was never possible to obtain details of sexual experience from unmarried informants... (though Mead may have done better)...due to the fact that she was not married when she carried on her study."**
**Note: Mead was, in fact, married when she did her fieldwork, but her husband did not accompany her to Samoa.
In 1987, Holmes published his "Quest for the Real Samoa" in which he clarifies some of his 1957 work. He writes: "I could not agree with Mead on the degree of
sexual freedom supposedly enjoyed by young people on Ta'u.... However, there was considerable evidence in the form of illegitimate children and divorces with adultery as a ground to indicate that a fair amount of premarital and extramarital sexuality existed."
Holmes, in his 1957 dissertation, compiles a list of 5 "aspects of Samoan behavior."
1. Lack of specialized feeling in human relations
2. Lack of crisis, in human relations
3. Lack of competitive spirit
4. Interpretation of sexual activity data.
5. Importance of the
Any differences between these and Mead's aspects of behavior, Holmes assures us, is due to interpretation. Dr. Orans states that the overall data gathered by Holmes in 1957 is thin and inadequate to support his categorical assertions.
Holmes ended his 1957 work in general agreement with Mead. Neither Mead nor Holmes actually conducted surveys of households to support their contentions that large families were one of the stress reducing factors that made coming of age in Samoa easier.
On Lowell Holmes, Orans states: "Apparently Holmes 's current view is that Mead exaggerated the extent of sexual freedom, though his dissertation gives no indication of this, nor does his book present evidence supporting such a position."1(c), 5
Mead presented, through her work, a picture of Samoa that, unfortunately, could only exist in a dream. A society of leisure, living on the beach, where the word stress had no translatable counterpart, and was nearly unknown. Where sex was a matter of merely picking from a bounty of lovelies and finding a semi-concealed spot under a palm tree. A place without violence, without schedules.
This state of, as Mead called it, "felicitous relaxation" is complete fantasy, according to Freeman. Freeman, while researching Samoan crime statistics, and history, came to a quite different conclusion. According to Freeman, the decade of the 1920's was a particularly violent era for American Samoa.
The world without question accepted Margaret Mead and Coming of Age in Samoa. The world accepted what it wanted to hear and know on her word alone, without asking for evidence to support her statements. This is a failure for all of American anthropology. Of Mead's "Coming of Age in Samoa," Dr.
"That Mead's seriously flawed work, which is filled with internal contradictions and grandiose claims to knowledge that she could not possibly have had and is so weakly supported by data, could have survived and formed the foundation for an illustrious career raises substantial doubt regarding improved standards of research. ...That a person of such conspicuous talent could have produced such a flawed work and that it was so widely accepted and praised by so many should serve as an object lesson to us all."1(d)
Dr. Orans then writes:
"...Mead's misleading generalizations were not
the considered opinions of one who had engaged
in a voyage of discovery but the polemical claims
of one anxious to make a case."1(e)
Dr. Orans concludes that Mead, as a scientist and especially as an anthropologist, was a failure. But she did achieve success beyond her wildest dreams, by putting them up for sale.
"Mead's failures were partly those of cultural anthropology then and now; she did not make her claims clear enough to be tested and she did not present sufficient or adequately representative data to support her generalizations. Had she met these requirements of ordinary scientific practice, whatever her predilections regarding culture and biology, she could not without
falsifying have written the rather misleading account that she did."1(f)
Facts aside, when different individuals view the same picture, it is not uncommon to have two interpretations. Everything is not purely black and white, with the dividing line clearly and indisputably drawn. Maybe Mead was duped, maybe she was not. Both perspectives exist within her work, imperfect as it is. This is the only defense of Mead that I can give. I will not give her an excuse.
"Never doubt that a small group of
thoughtful, committed citizens can
change the world; indeed, it is the
only thing that ever does."
Born: Dec. 16, 1901
Died: Nov. 15, 1978
Margaret Mead was, throughout her adult lifetime, the undisputed matron of American anthropology. On the basis of one piece of work, Mead spent her life on the crest of fame, and certainly, fortune. Was Mead really duped as has been suggested? Or was Mead the one who duped. The video on the Freeman/Mead controversy contained interviews with close friends of Mead. One of them spoke of the meeting between Freeman and Mead where Freeman confronted Mead with his evidence. She said that Mead was visibly shaken, and then told her that Freeman had evidence that proved her work in Samoa was wrong.
Surely, only the fact that someone had the evidence must have been news to Mead. Margaret Mead was obviously very intelligent, her work on Samoa notwithstanding. She was far too intelligent not to know what the ramifications of what she had done entailed. Did she live in fear of being discovered? Was her subsequent tireless drive an effort to make up for the fraudulent start that provided her initial push to fame?
And what of Franz Boas, the "Father of American Anthropology"? Franz Boas must have known what the penalty for academic fraud would entail. It does not make sense that a scientist such as Boas would resort to fraud in support of a hypothesis, regardless of how dear it was to him. If he believed that "cultural determinism" was a provable hypothesis, why accept falsified or flawed data as correct? Could he have seriously believed that his opponents would not test his evidence? That is not a very scientific viewpoint, but it is almost what happened. Perhaps Boas thought that no one would dare to question perky, young Margaret Mead's results. If so, for a long time he was right.
The part I see as missing from this controversy is Margaret Mead. There is no one firmly in her corner to stand up in her behalf and say, "But what about this,..." or, "You do not understand." I would like to see a rebuttal to Freeman's work by someone who supports Mead. Seeing only one side of an issue is not the way to develop an informed opinion.
Dr. Martin Orans succeeds in his comparison of the work of Freeman and Mead. Even though Derek Freeman emerges as the clear victor in this battle of truths, it is obvious that Dr. Orans still has a place in his heart, and on his bookshelf, for Margaret Mead. His book is important for the facts that it presents, and the unanswerable questions that arise from those facts.
How will history deal with the famous and the infamous of anthropology. How will it change the method and theory of anthropology in the future?
And change it must.
The "policing", so to speak, of one's own profession becomes a necessity in light of the Freeman/Mead controversy. This is how the works of Freeman and Mead should be viewed in the context of future usefulness to anthropology as a whole. Fieldwork should be subject to the possibility of reevaluation at all times. But can fieldwork be done effectively by a worker who knows that their work may fall under intense scrutiny? Yes. If not, there are other occupations less demanding that are open to those people who are inclined to fear criticism, or put less effort than their best into their work. Another question arises whether or not a doctoral candidate should espouse the truth in their particular dissertation as opposed to the views of their professor's, when the possibility exists of offending the very
professor(s) who will be deciding whether or not to grant the award? Should a student take the chance of completing the work with the possibility of being denied their Ph.D., or support what they believe to be incorrect in order to advance, and rewrite the work after being granted the award?
My recommendation is that Derek Freeman's "Margaret Mead and Samoa: The Making and Unmaking of an Anthropological Myth" and "Coming of Age in Samoa" by Margaret Mead, be discussed thoroughly in all cultural anthropology classes or, better yet, have a class exclusively devoted to the subject. Indeed, it would serve as a useful tool in any class with a focus on the use of the scientific method for data acquisition, as an example of how the system can be manipulated and abused by those who are entrusted with its care.
for Anthropology 4500 "Growth of Anthropology"
Professor Kofi Akwabi-Ameyaw
California State University Stanislaus