'Trashing' of Margaret Mead's Reputation Based on Deeply Flawed Evidence, CU Prof Finds

December 10, 2009

When Time magazine listed Margaret Mead as one of the 20th century's 100 most influential scientists and thinkers, it described the American icon as the world's "foremost woman anthropologist."

But Time also depicted Mead's research as sloppy and her conclusions as false.

Margaret Mead's most famous book, 1928's "Coming of Age in Samoa," portrayed an idyllic, non-Western society, free of much sexual restraint, in which adolescence was relatively easy.

Derek Freeman, an Australian anthropologist, wrote two books arguing that Mead was wrong and launched a heated public debate about her work.

To Freeman, the issue was larger than the accuracy of "Coming of Age in Samoa." As he saw it, Mead's book was pivotal in arguing that humans' cultural environment -- or "nurture" -- could mold them as much or more than their biological predispositions -- or "nature."

Many thought the Freeman-Mead controversy crystallized the nature-nurture debate, which in turn fueled the late 20th century's culture wars. Mead's theory that adolescence was not biologically destined to be a time of storm and stress was said to have incubated moral relativism and the free-loving counterculture of the 1960s.

The quarrel also enveloped anthropology. In a 2006 television documentary, the BBC called the Freeman-Mead controversy "a battle for the very heart and soul of anthropology."

Paul Shankman, a University of Colorado professor of anthropology, has spent years studying the controversy and has uncovered new evidence that Freeman's fierce criticism of Mead contained fundamental flaws.

"Freeman told a good story. It was a story people wanted to hear, that they wanted to believe," Shankman said. "Unfortunately, that's all it was: a good story."

Shankman has exhumed data that deeply undercut Freeman's case. His research, partly based on a probe of Freeman's archives, opened after his death, revealed that Freeman "cherry picked" evidence that supported his thesis and ignored evidence that contradicted it.

Shankman dissects the controversy in "The Trashing of Margaret Mead: Anatomy of an Anthropological Controversy," a book published in November by the University of Wisconsin Press.

"Coming of Age in Samoa" was written for a mass audience, not for academics. At the time, Mead was in her 20s, and the field of anthropology also was young.

Her task in Samoa was to test the theory that a stormy adolescence was hard-wired into the human condition, a biological fait accompli. She concluded that it was not.

Mead interviewed adolescent Samoan girls whose lives seemed relatively placid by American standards in the 1920s. Some of them engaged in premarital sex with comparatively little guilt. In 1928, this was scandalous.

The book propelled Mead into a 50-year career as America's leading woman of science.

By contrast, Freeman argued that Samoan society was devoutly Christian, patriarchal, violent and sexually inhibited. His evidence included discussions with male leaders in Samoa, who granted him an honorary title. They told him that a central focus of Samoan society was the ceremonial virgin -- or taupou -- whose chastity was celebrated and zealously guarded by the entire village in which she lived.

Such a culture, Freeman contended, would neither tolerate nor condone adolescent sexual experimentation.

"We can demonstrate conclusively as in a court of law that her formulations are in error," he told the Los Angeles Times in 1983. "The evidence I have presented is final; it's devastating."

In his second book, Freeman reported the statements of an 86-year-old woman, Fa'apua'a, who said she was Mead's "closest friend and informant" in Samoa. The woman said she and a companion lied about going out with boys at night, but that Mead believed them.

After Freeman's death in 2001, Shankman studied Freeman's archival records. He found previously unreleased transcripts of the 1987 and 1993 interviews with the woman. Those documents show that Fa'apua'a's statements were contradictory or unclear, and they were inconsistent with Freeman's arguments on key issues.

Further, in Freeman's archives Shankman read Freeman's graduate school thesis, in which Freeman concluded that by the 1940s, the taupou system was "virtually defunct." This directly contradicted his published work.

Though Mead's work was neither perfect nor beyond criticism, Shankman said, "she contributed much to our knowledge of Samoa and other cultures and gave so much to anthropology and the world at large that she deserves to be remembered for her many contributions."

More on this story will appear during the week of Dec. 14 in Colorado Arts & Sciences Magazine at artsandsciences.colorado.edu/magazine.

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