A tale of adolescent sexuality in Samoa triggered a ‘battle for the very heart and soul of anthropology,’ but a CU professor shows the fight wasn’t fair
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. “It seems Mead accepted as fact tribal gossip embellished by adolescent Samoan girls happy to tell the visiting scientist what she wanted to hear.”
For Mead, Time offered praise with faint damnation. Three decades earlier, however, Time’s take was reverential, calling her “Mother to the world.”
How the mighty had fallen, thanks to Mead’s indefatigable critic, Derek Freeman.
Margaret Mead was an influential thinker whose most famous book, 1928’s “Coming of Age in Samoa,” portrayed an idyllic, non-Western society, free of much sexual restraint and lacking much violence, guilt and anger.
Freeman, an anthropologist, said Mead was wrong and launched a heated public controversy that journalists were more than eager to narrate.
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 environment—or “nurture”—could mold humans 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 sturm und drang (storm and stress) was said to have incited moral relativism and the free-loving counter-culture 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. He first did field work in Samoa in 1966 and has returned periodically since then. He 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 recently. “Unfortunately, that’s all it was: a good story. We should have asked more questions, and we didn’t.”
In his long search for answers, Shankman 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.
What’s more, some exculpatory evidence that Freeman omitted from his critique was contained in Freeman’s own long-unpublished documents.
Shankman dissects this controversy in “The Trashing of Margaret Mead: Anatomy of an Anthropological Controversy,” a book published in November by the University of Wisconsin Press. Shankman is not the first to wade into the dispute with a book. But he has followed the data—critical portions of it new—wherever it led.
In the end, Shankman’s portrait differs from Time’s dismissive epitaph for Mead. He convincingly rebuts Freeman’s certitude that Mead suffered a “fateful hoaxing” in Samoa that changed the course of anthropology and, by implication, society itself.
Mead and Samoa
Mead entered the public stage in 1928 with the publication of “Coming of Age in Samoa,” a book written for a mass audience, not for academics. At the time, she was still in her 20s, and the field of anthropology 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.
Some Americans denounced Mead for loosening society’s morals. Others savored her portrait of South Pacific life that confirmed their own fantasies.
The book, which Mead did not consider her most important work, propelled her into a 50-year career as America’s leading woman of science.
In her lifetime, she produced almost 1,400 publications and wrote or co-wrote more than three-dozen books. She wrote a magazine column for 17 years, and the press quoted her frequently and sometimes fawningly.
She presided over the American Anthropological Association and the American Association for the Advancement of Science. She helped pioneer anthropology and popularize it, and she used that fame to comment on a host of topics ranging from feminism to nuclear war.
Despite the breadth of her life’s work, Mead remained forever linked with her first public work, “Coming of Age in Samoa.”
Freeman in pursuit
In early 1983, The New York Times ran a front-page story about Freeman’s soon-to-be-released book, “Margaret Mead and Samoa: The Making and Unmaking of an Anthropological Myth.”
Freeman’s critique, published five years after Mead’s death, was based in part on his extensive grasp of Samoan culture. Freeman had done field work there in the 1940s and the 1960s.
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.
Freeman stated that Mead’s work was compromised by her youth and inexperience, that she had naively believed innocent lies Samoans told her about their private lives. He wrote that Mead was the source of “the most widely propagated myth in 20th century anthropology.”
Further, he denounced the alleged “Mead paradigm,” a view of culture that was anti-biological, anti-evolutionary, anti-scientific and culturally deterministic.
“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.”
But much of the evidence Freeman presented was not final, and the existing evidence was not “devastating.” For instance, Mead did not argue that biology played no role in human development, and she encouraged the study of evolution, including human evolution.
Mead and Freeman observed Samoan society from different vantage points: Mead gained the confidence of adolescent girls, while Freeman joined the community of male chiefs. Their differing portrayals reflected their perspectives.
And the significance of the taupou, the ceremonial virgin, is not straightforward. As Shankman told the BBC: “The taupou system applied to the very upper tiers of Samoan society. It did not apply to most of the rest of Samoan society, which had a different system of marriage.”
Freeman’s book ignited a media firestorm and a fierce battle within academe. Although championed in some circles, Freeman was widely criticized. In 1983, the American Anthropological Association formally denounced his book as “poorly written, unscientific, irresponsible and misleading.”
The smoking gun?
But Freeman did not quit the fight. In 1999, he published a second book, “The Fateful Hoaxing of Margaret Mead: A Historical Analysis of her Samoan Research,” stating that he had definitive proof that Mead had been duped.
His evidence: A videotaped interview with an 86-year-old Samoan woman, Fa’apua’a, whom Freeman described as Mead’s “closest Samoan friend and informant.”
Fa’apua’a, first interviewed on camera in 1987, said that Mead asked her and another young woman what they did at night. Fa’apua’a replied that they went out with boys. Fa’apua’a also told the interviewer that she was joking, that Samoans are good liars, and that she and the other woman “just lied and lied” to Mead.
The implication was that Mead took these jokes at face value.
Again, Mead’s supporters questioned Freeman’s argument. Fa’apua’a was a taupou in her mid-20s; she was not an adolescent. As a ceremonial virgin, continually watched and guarded, Fa’apua’a would have been hard-pressed to have had sexual affairs with boys. Even if Fa’apua’a did lie about her activities, Mead would have surely viewed such statements critically.
Additionally, Mead did not rely on the brief replies of two adult Samoan women. Her primary data came from 25 adolescent girls.
Still, Freeman maintained that his account was unimpeachable. As he told the BBC: “I have always been a heretic, but what you’ve got to be in science is a heretic who gets it right.”
Those who challenged Freeman’s analysis felt the full force of his displeasure. He often argued that those who challenged him were ignorant. Sometimes, he threatened to “destroy” them or, as in Shankman’s case, demanded that he travel to Samoa to make a ceremonial apology.
Did Freeman get it right? Shankman reveals new data that give ample room for doubt.
After Freeman’s death in 2001, Shankman studied Freeman’s archival records. There, he found previously unreleased transcripts of the 1987 and 1993 interviews with Fa’apua’a.
Those documents show that Fa’apua’a’s statements were contradictory or unclear, and they were inconsistent with Freeman’s arguments on key issues.
In 1988, Fa’apua’a said she had not heard of any cases of elopement in the Samoa of the 1920s, but elopement was the most common form of marriage. Fa’apua’a also said she remembered no cases of illegitimate children, adultery or rape, though these, too, were occurring at that time.
Further, while Fa’apua’a said she was Mead’s “closest Samoan friend and informant,” later in the same interview, she was asked if she actually worked with Mead as an informant. The answer: “Only once.”
“Her answers were not in accord with what Freeman knew about Samoa in the 1920s,” Shankman writes. “Nevertheless, Freeman vouched for the ‘historical reliability’ of Fa’apua’a’s testimony.”
In the second interview, Fa’apua’a gave different assessments of Mead’s fluency in Samoan.
In a published interview, Fa’apua’a said Mead spoke very little Samoan and that a translator was always needed. Yet in the unpublished interviews, Fa’apua’ said Mead understood and conversed in Samoan, and that no one else was present during their conversations.
Fa’apua’a’s statements were also contradictory and inconsistent on questions of whether the alleged “hoaxing” or “joking” happened only once or over an “extended period.” Further, Fa’apua’a gave differing accounts of where the “hoaxing” conversation or conversations happened.
Transcripts of the unpublished interviews, including the interviewer’s skeptical comments and Freeman’s annotations, “suggest that Freeman knew that key elements of Fa’apua’a’s testimony were questionable six years before the publication of ‘The Fateful Hoaxing of Margaret Mead,’” Shankman writes.
Instead of mentioning the obvious problems with the alleged smoking-gun source, Shankman notes, Freeman “continued to promote the hoaxing hypothesis as if there were no inconsistencies, no ambiguities, no contradictions and no lapses in Fa’apua’a’s memory.”
Further, Shankman learned that Freeman himself seems to have known that his emphasis on the importance of the taupou system was incorrect. A great deal of historical evidence indicates that ceremonial virginity was waning by the time Freeman studied Samoa, a point Shankman made in a 1996 article in American Anthropologist.
Freeman responded with a “rejoinder,” titled “All Made of Fantasy.” In that response, Freeman dismissed Shankman’s sources and suggested that Shankman simply did not understand Samoa or the taupou, which Freeman maintained were of central importance into the mid-20th century.
However, in Freeman’s archives, opened after his death, Shankman read Freeman’s graduate-school thesis. In it, Freeman concluded that, by the 1940s, the taupou system was “virtually defunct.” This directly contradicted his published work.
Mead’s work is not beyond criticism, and Shankman notes instances in which her language in “Coming of Age in Samoa” was less precise and more sweeping than a scholarly tract should be.For instance, Mead suggested that “in almost all cases,” the social norms in Samoa—which she said included the knowledge of sex and the freedom to experiment—guaranteed Samoan girls a “perfect adjustment.”
As Shankman notes, “‘Coming of Age in Samoa’ did include errors of fact and questionable interpretations, as well as overstatements.”
He continues: “Mead could have been a more scientific ethnographer of Samoan adolescence. These were not difficult points to make. However, Freeman used his knowledge not merely to correct the ethnographic record but to damage Mead’s reputation in a deliberate and personal manner.”
“My argument is certainly more sympathetic to Mead than to Freeman,” Shankman writes. “Yet one of the misconceptions about the controversy is that there are only two sides to it.”
“There are other voices, including Samoan voices,” Shankman continues. “There are shades of gray. There are unanswered questions, and there are pieces of the controversy that do not always fit together as they should.”
And though Mead’s work was neither perfect nor beyond criticism, “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.”