Where we’ve been and where we’re going

Margaret Mead and Samoa

Posted by 4hiram on March 24, 2008

The Samoa Caper


Derek Freeman’s Margaret Mead and Samoa: The Making and Unmaking of an Anthropological Myth (1983) touched off the most extended–and intractable–controversy in anthropology’s history. Mead’s Coming of Age in Samoa: A Psychological Study of Primitive Youth for Western Civilization (1928) was an anthropological classic read by many students in many countries over many years. As the title hints, her study is a lesson on how we, living the conflicts of advanced culture, can ease them by learning something from the low-stress social relations of a ‘primitive’ society where individualism and the nuclear family are absent. We can in some measure imitate them, particularly in sexuality, where Samoan adolescent girls are unfettered by taboos.

Hers is a version of the happy Polynesian myth. It is a venerable tale, stemming from French and English expeditions to the South Seas, especially that of Louis de Bougainville. On his return to France in 1767, he brought with him a Tahitian, named Ahutoru, who he claimed exemplified the natural human condition. He was gentle, well-mannered, and good-natured. Ahutoru and the Tahitians, Bougainville told the world, lead gentle lives and could engage in the arts of love free from guilt and shame; jealousy and possessiveness were unknown to them. His tale also depicted Tahiti as a beautiful island blessed with a Samoa Island viewmild climate and abundant food. He likened it to the Garden of Eden. This paradise was used by the philosophers to reprobate guilt-burdened, priest-infested European society and supported revolution to remove the autocrats. (Campbell, The Culture of Culture Contact) A century after Bougainville’s enlightenment, Hermann Melville recycled the myth in his novel Typee.

Mead was in touch with the myth. On her outbound voyage, she spent three weeks at the Bishop Museum in Honolulu, where anthropologist Edward Handy introduced her to Polynesian ethnography. He told her that the Marquesas Islanders, whom he had recently studied, lived in the paradise manner, as did Polynesians generally. The reality was that like other Polynesian and Pacific peoples, the Marquesans had suffered drastic population decline, in the nineteenth century, after contact with Europeans infected them with diseases to which they had no immunity. The islands in his time had a population of about 3,000. Their ‘natural society’ was under French administration, carried out by French priests, who prohibited drinking and expunged the venerable old custom of cannibalism.

Marquesas bayBougainville’s tale assumes that law and custom are the outgrowth of experience. There is no human nature, or original sin, to constrain what societies may do. This belief was strongly promoted in pre-revolutionary France and was integrated into post-revolutionary ideology. It was also promoted by Mead’s mentor, Franz Boas, who opposed the theory of psychologist G. Stanley Hall, who characterized adolescence as a time of ‘storm and stress’ due to the physiological changes accompanying puberty. Girls and boys occupy different behavioral orbits. For the girls, it is coming motherhood; for boys, the development of dominance. Boas didn’t like it. While he retained biological variables in the anthropological menu, he was highly critical of their misevaluation by some anthropologists, particularly concerning the question of race. The message that most students took from Boas was that the influence of biological or evolutionary variables were so small that they could be ignored.

Mead stated that her investigation was to ‘to investigate to what extent the storm and stress of adolescents in our kind of culture is biologically determined and to what extent it is modified by the culture within which adolescents are reared.’ And again ‘to test out, on the one hand, the extent to which the troubles of adolescence . . . depended upon the attitudes of a particular culture, and, on the other hand, the extent to which they were inherent in the adolescent stage of psychobiological development.’ She concluded that since the biological variables of adolescence are constant, ‘we can make no explanation [of the Samoan evidence] in terms of biology’ but instead cultural factors must account for the difference.

Mead was not the first female author to challenge Hall’s views on adolescence. There were a number of critics, particularly the Columbia University psychologist, Willstine Goodsell. Her The Education of Women, Its Social Background and Its Problems (1923) is a detailed examination of research on adolescent behavior which places it in the context of the dramatic changes in the role(s) of women of those times. That neither Boas, in his instructions to Mead, nor Mead reference Goodsell’s book is curious.

Who are the Samoans?

To appreciate the controversy, we need to know something about Samoans. Paul Cox’s essay, Samoan Americans, is an outstanding description of Samoan life and customs, including those tattoos. Cox is a botanist and conservationist specializing in Samoan flora.

Here is sample from his story:

‘In Samoa religion plays a huge role that remarkably has been ignored by many anthropologists studying Samoan culture. The Samoan culture is a pious one. Most families in Samoa conduct a nightly lotu or vespers service in which the family gathers together, reads from the Bible, and offers prayers. Prayers are offered at every meal. Church attendance in Samoa is almost universal….’

Another attractive introduction is Richard Goodman’s website Pacific Encounters

Where is Samoa?

Despite the title of her book, Mead’s research on adolescent girls was conducted entirely on the small island of Ta’u, which is the largest of three islands that comprise Manu’a, which in turn is part of American Samoa, whose main island is Tutulia

Derek Freeman did his research in what was called Western Samoa, now called Samoa. It consists of two major islands, Savai’i and Upolu

Photo Galleries of Samoa and Samoans

American Samoa

Western Samoa

Pacific Encounters

Samoa Websites

Samoa Sensation
Samoan links

Documentary: Tales from the Jungle, BBC (2006)

The BBC’s tag reads: ‘This edition tells the story of the epic clash between Margaret Mead, arguably the most famous anthropologist of all time, and Derek Freeman, the Australian maverick who hounded her for years. They and their supporters would fight it out over two decades as they struggled with that fundamental question–which governs human nature more, nurture or nature?’ The documentary covers both points of view and culminates by declaring that anthropology has now incorporated biological and evolutionary into anthropology.

Robin Fox, Paul Shankman, Bradd Shore, Mary Catherine Bateson and I were among those interviewed. In the course of my pre-filming consultancy with the producer, I urged interviews with Samoans, and suggested some names. Alas, that didn’t happen, but there’s footage of Samoan girls with the Mead actor making notes.

The documentary is online through Google videos.

Recent Publications

Maureen A. Molloy. 2008. On Creating a Usable Culture: Margaret Mead and the Emergence of American Cosmopolitanism. Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press.

The author, who is professor of Women’s Studies at the University of Auckland, argues that Mead drew on this vision of an ‘integrated culture’ and used her ‘primitive societies’ as exemplars of how cultures attained or failed to attain this ideal. Her ethnographies are really about ‘America’, the peoples she studied the personifications of what were widely understood to be the dilemmas of American selfhood in a materialistic, individualistic society.

Derek Freeman. The Social Structure of a Samoan Village Community, Canberra: Target Oceania Press, 2006.

This is the thesis that Freeman wrote in 1948 describing his research in the village of Sa’anapu, on the island of Upolu.  The circumstances of Freeman’s write up of his research are thoroughly described by Peter Hempenstall in his essay, On Missionaries and Cultural Change in Samoa: Derek Freeman Preparing for a ‘Heretical’ Life, J of Pacific History 39 (2004), 241-250.

Merrily Stover, Samoan Responses to Margaret Mead, Feb. 2005.

Stover, an anthropologist at the University of Maryland, summarizes the opinions of some half dozen Samoans of Mead’s famous book. Among the writers she cites are Alex Wendt, Felix Wendt, Sia Figiel, Malopa’upo Isaia, Napoleone A. Tuiteleleapaga, and Unasa L. F. Va’a. I will add the opinion of another prominent American Samoan, Congressman Eni F. H. Faleomavaega, who says that ‘I believe there has always been a consensus among Samoans . . . that Mead’s work . . . is definitely an insult on Samoan culture . . . the older generation never seemed bothered by all this because many never had the opportunity for higher education . . . [but] I can attest to you that my generation definitely considers Mead’s work as trash and an insult to the Samoan people . . .’

Serge Tcherkezoff

Serge is affiliated with the Centre de Researche et de Documentation (CREDO) in Provence, France. CREDO covers socio-cultural anthropology, archaeology, and history.

Le mythe occidental de la sexualite polynesienne: 1928-1999, Margaret Mead, Derek Freeman et Samoa. Paris, Presses Universitaires de France, 2001.

Is Anthropology about Individual Agency or Culture? Or Why ‘Old Derek’ is Doubly Wrong, J of Polynesian Society, 2001, 59-78.

FaaSamoa, une identité polynésienne (économie, politique, sexualité). L’anthropologie comme dialogue culturel. Paris: L’Harmattan (“Connaissance des hommes”), 2003.

“First Contacts” in Polynesia: the Samoan case (1722-1848). Western misunderstandings about sexuality and divinity. Canberra/Christchurch: Journal of Pacific History Monographs / Macmillan Brown Centre for Pacific Studies, 2004.

Frank Heimans, Recorded Interview with Derek Freeman. 12 Feb 2001 Oral History Section, National Library of Australia.

This interview, conducted six months before Freeman’s demise, is a colorful documentation of his beliefs about himself and his entanglement with his critics. It provides ample evidence for my diagnosis of Freeman’s intimidating behavior as an expression of Narcissistic Personality Disorder. The interviewer, who produced and directed the documentary ‘Margaret mead and Samoa’, enjoyed Freeman’s full confidence. The interview may be downloaded from the National Library of Australia, Oral History section.

Course Work

William Kelly, North American Anthropology in the Aftermath of Boas, Session 8: Margaret Mead: From Cultural Pattern to Cultural Psychology

This course is a graduate seminar in the anthropology department, Yale University. Topics include Boas and the American Historical School; Culture, the individual, and the superorganic; Culture as ‘personality writ large’; Mead as the public voice of anthropology; and the Mead-Freeman controversy. The extensive online course materials are available here.

Michael E. Mills, Humans: Nature and Nurture

Michael is an evolutionary psychologist at Loyola Marymount University, Los Angeles. He is also editor and webmaster of the Human Behavior and Evolution Society website. This text is a chapter from his yet to be published book, Sex Differences, Gender Differences. It’s an outstanding analysis.

Hiram Caton

The Freeman/Mead Controversy is Over: A Retrospect, J. of Youth and Adolescence, 29 (2000), 587-605. Link

Talking to a Heretic: Interviews with John Derek Freeman, Griffith University, 2002. Link

These discussions with Derek were taped in January 1985 and January 1988. Our talk wasn’t organized as interviews but as explorations of his experiences relevant to the book then in preparation, The Samoa Reader. Derek gave me access to notebooks and other records. I was astonished, for I had never encountered personal records so well organized and tidy. The experience helped me understand his exceptional grasp of facts in his extensive responses to critics.

The Exalted Self: Derek Freeman’s Quest for the Perfect Identity, Identity: An International Journal of Theory and Research, 5 (2005), 359-384.

This article sets out my diagnosis of Freeman’s ‘madness’ as the Narcissistic Personality Disorder. Extensive use is made of David Williamson’s play Heretic because he based his depiction on detailed interviews with Derek and his wife Monica. There is also the advantage that Freeman said of the play that it ‘laid bare my soul’. Williamson read my draft and warmly endorsed my diagnosis. The article was reported by Peter Monaghan in the Chronicle of Higher Education, the Australian Higher Eucation Supplement, Historians in the News, and the Canberra Times.

Conversion in Sarawak: Derek Freeman’s Awakening to a New Anthropology, The GlobalAnthro Journal,2006.

This is a detailed analysis and description of Freeman’s ‘breakdown’ in Kuching in March, 1961, and his subsequent troubles with his anthropology colleagues and with ANU senior officers. It is based on ANU archive.

Sia Figiel. Where We Once Belonged. Auckland: Pasifika Press, 2002.

Chief Malopa’upo Isaia. Coming of Age in American Anthropology: Margaret Mead and Paradise. Universal Publishers, 1999.

This is one hellova blast at Margaret Mead for her ‘slander’ of the Samoan people and culture. When I queried American Samoa’s Congressman Eni F. H. Faleomavaega about Isaia’s book, he told me: ‘I believe there has always been a consensus among Samoans . . . that Mead’s work . . . is definitely an insult on Samoan culture . . . the older generation never seemed bothered by all this because many never had the opportunity for higher education . . . [but] I can attest to you that my generation definitely considers Mead’s work as trash and an insult to the Samoan people’. The Congressman grew up in the Sixties, when Samoan radio talk shows derided Mead’s use of their culture to promote relaxation of sexual morals in her own culture. She visited them, the story goes, as a ‘tourist on a study holiday’, and, although she could scarcely speak the language, she was shown every courtesy. Then she pretended to the white world that she knew all about those South Seas ‘primitives’. When Samoans began to enter white universities, and told anthropology instructors delivering the Mead line that she got it wrong, they were told to shut up because Mead was the expert . In 1984, Isaia heard Freeman lecture on the Samoa controversy at his school in Apia. On the spot, he told me, there was born in him a mission to vindicate Samoan honor. This book is the outcome.

Derek Freeman, The Fateful Hoaxing of Margaret Mead: A Historical Analysis of Her Samoan Research. Boulder: Westview Press, 1999.

Freeman shows that Mead’s fieldwork was premised on two strategic deceits. She concealed from her hosts her married status. By passing herself off as a virgin, she was honored by three villages with title of taupou, which conferred a great advantage-she had, as she said, ‘rank to burn’ and could ‘order people about’. She second strategic deceit was perpetrated on her supervisor, Franz Boas and indirectly on her funding sponsor, the National Research Council. Boas and the Council expected her to research the personality of adolescent girls, to determine the extent to which nature (puberty) or culture influenced adolescent conflict. But Mead wasn’t interested in this project. She accepted it because it got her a ticket to the field. Her real interest was ethnography. Unbeknownst to Boas, Mead struck an agreement with the Bishop Museum (Honolulu) to prepare an ethnography of Manu’a. Freeman shows by a meticulous reconstruction of her activities that she spent no more than four or five weeks on the funded project, hardly time enough for a systematic investigation of this complex and demanding subject. This is confirmed by her sparse field notes on the adolescent project.  Having little data (judging from her field notes) it seems that she just made it up and pretended, in the appendices of Coming of Age, to have found it.

Mead seems to have enjoyed slipping mickies. She says, for example, that Samoa was untroubled by natural disasters.  And this absence of adversity prompted their easy life-style.  (Boungainville said the same thing).  Yet it’s common knowledge that no island is spared the ravages of storm, flood and occasional tsunamis. In fact, a hurricane devastated Manu’a in January of the year of her visit!  Her field notes record the adversity that it caused.  Again,  she says that Samoan children alternately crawl or walk until the age of ‘three or four’. Yet every caregiver knows that once the child learns to walk, next it runs and never returns to crawling. She seems to have been confident that no one would call her hand on such whoppers. Deception was so habitual that she fibbed gratuitously. Thus she told Boas that she was seasick for six weeks (!!) on her return voyage, while in fact she was romancing a new beau-love sick, not seasick. It’s not surprising that her epistemological mottoes were: ‘The truth isn’t out there, you know’ and ‘If it isn’t [true], it ought to be’.

Freeman’s claim that the hoax ‘effectively solve[s] the enigma of Margaret Mead’s research’ unfortunately follows the fashion of substituting victimhood for active will. He would have us see her as the unwitting pawn of a mythopoetic fate. An alternative interpretation suggests Mead’s conduct in Manu’a fell short of professional standards set by A. C. Hadden and others.  It had no logical relation to Boasian anthropology. It was entirely her doing. Having deceived her hosts, telling them that she was single, she compromised the sacrosanct taupou (virgin) title by having affairs. That too was her choice. She went on to invent a free sex Samoa as a preamble to the part of Coming of Age that made her famous–her advocacy of educational, family, and sexual reform in America.

To me Mead’s research presents no enigma. She went to the field to find what she wanted to find-an uplifting story to boost a current social fashion. As for those ‘primitives’ who served as fodder, well, they were expendable in the great struggle to change the world.

Martin Orans. Not Even Wrong: Margaret Mead, Derek Freeman, and the Samoans. Novato, CA: Chandler & Sharp, 1996.

Anthropologists have been in damage control since Derek Freeman published Margaret Mead and Samoa in 1983. Although Mead had long since ceased to be a research leader, Freeman linked her high standing with anthropology’s research paradigm and threw both to the sharks. Anthropologists thus found themselves in the compromised position of defending a study of only historical interest, in order to save face. In the latest episode of the contest, Freeman inflicted a grave wound. Mead got Samoa so wrong, he claims, because she was hoaxed. ‘A whole view of the human species was constructed out of the innocent lies of two young women’, says Freeman. ‘That one of the ruling ideologies of our age should have originated in this way is both comic-and frightening!’ Plainly Freeman has fitted the dunce cap on anthropology.

Martin Orans’s study gives anthropologists something to cheer about. It removes the dunce cap by presenting what to my mind is a conclusive rebuttal to the duping allegation. But it achieves something more: he shows by example how to get beyond the storm of controversy, personal antagonisms, and the mystique of prestige to examine the issues on the basis of evidence. The book is a model of composure. There is no impulse to vanquish, no concern to save or diminish face, no demonization or valorization of paradigms, no flag-waving. Refreshing! The issue is the reliability of Mead’s Samoan ethnography.

Orans places this examination on a factual basis by comparing the text of Coming of Age with Mead’s field records. The leading questions are: what evidence did she have for contested claims? who were her informants and what are their reliability? how did she evaluate the information she collected? what was her methodology for weaving her intimate portrait of Samoan psychology? does the evidence support her global claim that coming of age in Samoa was unperturbed by adolescent storm and stress, and does this evidence support the conclusion that adolescent psychology and behavior are not materially affected by the biology of sexual maturation? The contested ethnographic terrain concerns Mead’s descriptions of sexual moeurs and of aggression. According to Freeman, she greatly inflated the degree of permissible sexual congress and greatly diminished the degree of competition and aggression. Orans examination of the field record shows that Mead collected substantial evidence of norms and practices restraining adolescent sexuality. Freeman’s countervailing evidence adds little to what she knew. Orans writes, Mead ‘knew perfectly well’ that free love did not prevail in Samoa. There is very little support in the field materials for numerous particular claims about sexual license and no support for generalizations that depicted Samoa as a free love paradise. Mead purported to have obtained the information primarily through interviews with adolescent girls. But the records of these interviews are sparse and do not support her claim. Her principal informant on sexual practices was indeed not a girl but a male of her own age, who did not remotely suggest Mead’s sensational reports of stress-free homosexuality and lesbianism among adolescents. How then did Mead arrive at her celebrated conclusions? Orans points out that Mead did in fact report many of the restrictions on adolescent sexuality. The result was an inconsistent text, which she ‘reconciled’ by repeatedly suggesting that strict norms were winked at in practice. For example, the conspicuous Christian worship of the Samoans she squared with free love by claiming that they didn’t internalize the teaching on sinfulness of the flesh. In addition, Orans says, Mead made ‘extravagant claims’ on the basis of ‘exceedingly limited data . . .’. This she did because she was ‘not [on] a voyage of discovery’ but was ‘out to make the strongest possible case for her position’. The rebuttal to the hoax allegation is straight-forward. Mead did not record the specious information and demonstrably did not credit it because she knew-and stated in her book-that ceremonial virgins were chaste. In addition, by the time the duping occurred, she had already collected testimony that she interpreted as evidence of promiscuity among adolescents of common status. So the prank was not credited and added nothing to what she thought she knew. This book takes its title from Orans’ assessment of Mead’s global claims to have proved the independence of cultural practices from biology in this test case, and in particular to have proven that Samoan adolescents are free of stress. These arguments are so vague that they cannot be empirically tested and hence haven’t reached the threshold required of scientific claims. ‘Not even wrong’, Orans advises, is ‘the harshest scientific criticism of all’. It strikes both Mead’s global claims and Freeman’s purported refutation.

In drawing out ‘lessons for us all’, Orans states: ‘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’. This statement is highly ‘incorrect’, viewed from the perspective of controversy, but it is wholesomeness itself judged from the point of view of the rejuvenation needed by anthropology. Orans’ book deserves to be studied in every graduate seminar on method and evidence.

Lenora Foerstel and Angela Gilliam. Confronting the Margaret Mead Legacy: Scholarship, Empire, and the South Pacific. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1992.

In the Foreword, English anthropologist Peter Worsley says that ‘critical evaluation of Margaret Mead’s work is long overdue, particularly in the United States, where I have frequently found it difficult to engage in discussion about Mead, since the slightest breath of criticism commonly evokes a passionate-and to my mind quite uncritical-defence of the entire corpus of her very uneven writings and of her life-career’. Worsley should know, for he wrote a review of Mead’s anthropology of the Manus, published as New Lives for Old, which he styled ‘science fiction’. New Lives for Old was a message of hope. It’s about the people of Manus who have formed a mass movement (the Paliau movement) to transform their culture from its pre-war primitiveness to integration with modern life-government, economic, educational, cultural. According to Worsley (also Lenora Foerstel), Mead’s interpretation of the movement got it back to front: it was an indigenous movement against involvement in western owned plantations and business. Mead was furious about Worsley’s review. She would also be furious about this book because it gives those ‘natives’ a platform to talk back to anthropologists.

One indigenous contributor, Nahau Rooney from Manus, notes that anthropologists set up shop without any local consultation. The subjects of ‘research’ were not told what information was being gathered, to what purpose, and what use would be made of it. From the anthropologists’ point of view, this wasn’t relevant because, well, savages are illiterate, aren’t they? But the published depictions had a way of getting back to the natives, and when they did, some got angry. One angry soul is Warilea Iamo, the first Papuan to be awarded an anthropology PhD. In his contribution he blisters Mead for turning his and other Pacific cultures into consumer items for western readers keen to know about the exotics in the imperial domain. This ‘objectification’ (description without any native input or right of correction) is, in his view, yet another manifestation of racist condescension. A number of contributors fault anthropologists as the main source of racist western ideas of the primitive. Mead in particular is blamed for her consistent approval of American imperialism in the Pacific. She never protested nuclear testing in the Pacific and the removal of peoples from their islands to make way for tests. She never participated in anti-war protests (to the puzzlement and consternation of her colleagues). She even denounced US labor unions and others who opposed nuclear testing.

Worsley’s essay is an example of the low opinion that some anthropologists had of Mead’s edifying anthropology, but this collection lacks an essay devoted to that theme. Here are some items that it might reveal. ++Douglas Oliver, a Pacific anthropologist at Harvard, wrote in 1991 that ‘when I took courses in anthropology at Harvard, in the early Thirties, the only use made of Coming of Age was as an example of how not to do field work, and how not to leap to universal conclusion about human behavior’. He goes on to mention that John Whiting, who was once a Mead fan, ‘has come to express something like contempt for Mead (within my hearing, that is)’. ++Mead’s long term collaborator and friend, Lola Romanucci-Ross, said in 1985, ‘It might be worth making the point that many, if not all, of Margaret’s recent public defenders, attacked her brutally and gave her credit for nothing for many years. For many years I was accosted by some of these same defenders who … wanted me to give up some terrible secrets about her ‘incompetence’, or ‘dishonesty’, etc.’ ++Westin LaBarre, a leading anthropologist, stated in 1983: ‘When I was a graduate student in anthropology at Yale in the late ’30’s, Mead’s Sex and Temperament came out. Puzzled that even a big island like New Guinea should have had three tribes waiting to be discovered to prove her point about the non-biological nature of gender, I went to Edward Sapir with my puzzlement. He said laconically, ‘She’s a pathological liar.’ I was startled as much by what he said, as by the fact that an eminent anthropologist and chairman of a department should say this to a mere graduate student. But over the years, I have come to believe that this is literally the case.”

More to come ….


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