The Punishment of Margaret Mead

Marilyn Strathern

  • Margaret Mead and Samoa: The Making and Unmaking of an Anthropological Myth by Derek Freeman
    Harvard, 379 pp, £11.95, March 1983, ISBN 0 674 54830 2

It is never possible to describe one world without recalling others. The most modest anthropological enterprise necessarily involves comparison. In the first place, the comparison must be between the society described and that in whose language the description is cast. Few, however, have followed the explicitness of the young Margaret Mead in her first monograph, Coming of Age in Samoa (1928). The book opens and closes with discussion of the trauma of Western adolescence by contrast with the smooth passage of the Samoan child.

Most anthropological accounts also incorporate a second comparative device: through the apparently innocuous medium of reporting on other peoples’ worlds emerge commentaries on our own theoretical debates – often confined within anthropology itself, but occasionally with wider impact. Again Mead’s first book is explicit. Her report of a South Seas childhood is also a contribution to a debate on the extent to which culture moulds what we take for granted as human nature. Were the difficulties so commonly attributed to adolescence, Mead wondered, due to being adolescent or to being adolescent in America? Franz Boas, her teacher at Columbia, wanted her to ‘test out’ the relationship between the development of individuals and the culture in which they were reared. Her findings, ‘that adolescence is not necessarily a time of stress and strain, but that cultural conditions make it so,’ rested on the Samoan evidence, where growing up was ‘so easy, so simple a matter’ because of the ‘general casualness of the whole society’. Her data were eagerly accepted, passing beyond anthropological into popular tradition. Samoa became known as a paradise of adolescent free love. Ever since, Mead has always appeared rather larger than life. And she did more than anyone to make anthropology speak to general concerns of ours. She was passionate about the moral necessity of that involvement.

Why should an emeritus professor at the end of a long career wish with equal passion to dismantle Mead’s Samoa? The genesis of this wish, we are told, lay in the author’s youthful research experience there, and the project has intermittently preoccupied him for forty years, including many more in Samoa than Mead ever had. Derek Freeman argues that in being ideologically committed to representing Samoan emotional (and sexual) life as ‘graceful, easy, diffuse’, Mead did not face up to the true nature of this dignified, authoritarian and punishing society. Essentially he is concerned with the second type of comparative issue – the theoretical implications of Mead’s work. He demonstrates the enormity of what to him are erroneous conclusions by taking apart, piece by piece, her ethnographic description of Samoa itself. There have been several rewritings of older ethnographies or conflicting contemporary versions. Indeed the Association for Social Anthropology in Oceania at their meetings in March held a session on the ‘Rashomon effect’ (after the film) – ‘different’ versions of the ‘same’ culture. There have also been many rethinkings, former accounts being taken as they are but their theoretical frameworks demolished, so that evidence for an original point of view is turned into evidence against it. Freeman, however, deliberately reconstructs Mead’s original account. It is important to his argument that theory should be toppled with a discrediting of data.

Immodest as this may seem, the procedure underwrites a scientific intention of his own. Mead’s ethnography was not simply a treatise on child development. It entered the ‘biology’ versus ‘culture’ debate on a particular point of method. She herself saw it as testing a hypothesis about the moulding effect of culture and thus the plasticity of human beings. The point is that her test lay in providing what later became known as ‘the negative instance’ (one case where a theory does not hold is enough to refute the theory, here that of biological determinism). It was as a negative case that Mead’s Samoan research had such impact: an example everyone could point to where stress (which would have suggested common physiological cause did not exist. If Mead’s ethnography is proved erroneous, however, then it ceases to provide the negative instance everyone thought it did, and ‘biology’ cannot be dismissed with such certainty after all. Yet given that Freeman himself acknowledges that the 1920s nature-nurture controversy has ‘receded into history’, why resurrect it?

First, Freeman attributes a dire historical consequence to Mead’s work: it sustained an anti-biological paradigm, so that the significance of biology in human behaviour ‘has still to be recognised by many anthropologists’. But there is a second, driving purpose to his task. Up to now anthropology has been less than a science because its propositions are non-falsifiable. Here, he claims, for the first time, is a falsification. His concern is with the ‘scientific adequacy of Mead’s picture of Samoan society’ and he can show her central conclusion to be ‘ungrounded and invalid’. For her negative instance was based on a description of a culture accessible to others, ‘a scientific proposition ... fully open to testing against the relevant empirical evidence’. The book is dedicated to Karl Popper. Mead’s account can be tested: by showing her to have failed the test, Freeman demonstrates testability itself. He can put anthropology back among the sciences.

There is an uneasy homology between these two aspects of Freeman’s work. He wishes to show that anthropology may be defined by scientific procedure; and he chooses to do this in terms of the culture-biology debate itself, a medium which makes concrete the image of a distinction between the old anthropology (concerned only with ‘culture’) and the new (where ‘biology’ will be given its proper place). The image of a discipline with proper scientific credentials is thus merged with what he sees as missing from anthropological endeavour. But he is too adroit to give this merging much play. There is no sustained attempt in this book to re-address the questions Mead asked about the nature of adolescence: he does not replace her version of an easy development with an account of the social and biological causes of strain and stress. In so far as he is not centrally concerned with demonstrating the nature of biological input, the book is a fortuitous theoretical vehicle for the significant methodological issue: falsification.

And yet he cannot leave the substance of this theoretical frame alone. He allows himself to interpret Samoan respect language as having been developed to deal with disruptive emotions generated by the tensions of social dominance and rank. When courtesy breaks down there is ‘rapid regression’ from conventional to ‘impulsive behaviour’. ‘Impulses and emotions underlie cultural convention,’ he writes, and ‘it is evident, therefore, that the cultural cannot be adequately comprehended except in relation to the much older phylogenetically-given structures in relation to which it has been formed by non-genetic processes.’ But this is not systematically argued.

Elsewhere he introduces ethological terminology, inserting an authoritative tone with apparent disregard for context. Thus he reports that Samoans have been upset by Mead’s casual account of parenthood. Particular exception is taken to her statement that ‘in Samoa the child owes no emotional allegiance to its father and mother.’ He interprets this as wilful ignorance of the fact of bonding: ‘the primary bond between mother and child is very much a part of the biology of all Samoans, as it is of all humans.’ He cites some illustrations of attachment, but also cites evidence for behaviour which is really only evidence for the representation of behaviour – a chief who responded that the feelings of a child for its parents are ‘most intense’. A few pages further on Freeman is describing the quite savage punishments Samoan seniors inflict on those who flout their authority. If parents so violently ‘scold and punish their disobedient children’, does this not suggest a context in which Mead’s remarks on ‘emotional’ allegiance could have a ring of truth? She was no keeper of contexts either, but one may note that many of the punishments Freeman relates are also to be found in her account, though differently evaluated. But Freeman deals in ‘facts’, not values.

Since he is concerned with refutation, not with an alternative ethnography of Samoa nor with the task of himself systematically examining what he calls the interaction between biological and cultural factors, he must necessarily produce counters against Mead’s examples. One is lost as to the weighting to be credited to the series of negative instances he adduces. In fact, Freeman is shackled to Mead’s account in more ways than one.

He sets out very clearly the historical context of Mead’s researches. But his desire to refute is at odds with this historicism. On the one hand, he makes it clear that the old terms of the nature-nurture debate are outmoded, long since bypassed by a paradigm based not on an either/or polarisation but on ‘interaction’ (itself irrefutably dependent, of course, on how the interacting elements are defined). On the other hand, his attention to the former paradigm has to carry the conviction of seriousness: in some sense the debate must still be real. Thus to fault Mead for not carrying out ‘any systematic comparison of hereditary and environmental conditions’ – since she was content with her homespun negative instance – entails his referring to ‘the’ relationship between culture and biology. It is important for scientific refutation that the original terms of reference are held stable. At a simple level, Freeman wishes to demonstrate the significance of the new interactionist paradigm by restoring one of the original terms, biology, to anthropological view. This he deftly accomplishes by also restoring Mead’s subject-matter. Anthropology should be concerned with the study of human behaviour.

To British social anthropologists, who tend to take as their subject-matter the study of society, what gave Mead’s writing its distinctiveness was her attempt to capture a sense of culture in ways of behaving. Evoking the behavioural ‘spirit’ of a culture led into the search for dominant patterns. Here she was developing a mode laid out by others – not-ably by Ruth Benedict following Boas, both of whose influence on Mead’s work Freeman describes in detail. She was very good at it, although the approach is not one that would be adopted now, and perhaps it was collapse of interest in dominant cultural patterns which more than anything led to Mead’s curious theoretical eclipse. Culture is no longer understood as ‘personality writ large’ (if in Britain it ever was). Indeed what was persuasive as reportage also led up bizarre alley-ways. Differences, for example, could not be related to interest groups or to rhetoric and strategy in social action: they had to be understood as a matter of dominant personality types and deviancy. Male and Female, published in 1950, expands Mead’s formulation about the shaping of cultural personalities by the way parents and children and men and women interact. When it first appeared, Eleanor Leacock made the telling criticism that the analysis was totally classless – that is, it was equipped to deal only with interpersonal behaviour, not with social system.

One can begin to see why Mead’s work should have such fascination for Freeman. To the extent that he redescribes ‘the Samoan ethos’ (Chapter 18), he has to agree that a single ethos is describable. Another chapter discusses Samoan ‘character’. He follows Mead in pointing to the relationship between child-rearing and subsequent public behaviour. Only he accounts for aggression, not ease: ‘I would argue that it is in particular a pervasive dependence on the physical punishment of children that makes Samoans so disturbingly prone to interpersonal aggression’; and ‘the regime of physical punishment, and especially of children ... generates [an] “air of violence”.’ Between these two remarks are observations on the biochemistry of aggression. This is irrelevant (does ease not have biochemical correlates?) to the structure of the argument, which seeks explanation for adult behaviour in child-rearing practices.

In her 1962 introduction to Male and Female, contrasting the conventional English view that ‘strong and potentially dangerous impulses in the child must be curbed’ with the American insistence that ‘any defects in children’s control of impulsive behaviour is to be laid at the door of faculty parental functioning,’ Mead refers to the knitting together of an impulse structure with cultural adaptation. Vague her phrasing may be, but there is no more precision in Freeman’s insistence four years later that one should study the interaction between impulse and cultural rule, as adumbrated in his programme for ‘the scientific study of human behaviour’ (published in 1966, in the journal Man). Mead was concerned with the way personality grows out of the examples a child is presented with and her account trivialized impulse by seeing it as culturally controllable: for Freeman it is of paramount importance that culture should be understood as addressing itself to that very act of controlling. Their conclusions appear to differ radically: Mead’s, that one should look first to the cultural setting; Freeman’s, that the description of the phylogenetic bases of impulsive behaviour is necessary to any final analysis. The divergence is unwittingly demonstrated in reference to shared premises.

The focus on behaviour gives Freeman’s book its organisation. Piece by piece he looks at various items of behaviour as reported by Mead for ‘Samoa’, suggesting by counter-example that many are erroneously reported. She misrepresents Samoan culture (Mead did not understand the elaborate socio-political hierarchies, since, on her own admission, and quite properly, she could not participate in political life) and misinterprets actions which spring from repression and impulse (Mead did not realize the violent emotions covered by Samoan etiquette). Freeman discussed his own findings with many educated and high-ranking Samoans, and obviously feels that he dignifies and humanises them by according their passions a true place. He intends no denigration: the statistics of fighting and rape are there to discredit Mead’s claim that this was a society that knew no strong passions.

The observations on rape have attracted some of the popular attention the author has himself sought for his book. Among the types documented is the institutionalised ‘sleep crawling’, rape by stealth, whose target includes virgins. The rape of virgins is clearly at odds with a view of adolescence as a time for free love. This three-way contradiction is a cornerstone of Freeman’s thesis.

Although the role played by impulse in never far from the surface of Freeman’s account, it is not on these grounds that the analysis of rape is significant. To him it is a locus of Mead’s own confusions and misrepresentations. He points out that her depiction of Samoan free love insults Samoans, for it assaults the value they place on virginity. Mead herself of course faced the contradiction in her account. She was clear that extra-marital experimentation was not possible for high-ranking girls, and a ‘ceremonial virgin’ of the village specialized in the guardianship of virginity. Sleep crawling itself she simply characterized as ‘abnormal’ sexual behaviour, later labelled as the actions of a sexual misfit. Such a personality is out of place in a culture ‘with the sunniest and easiest attitudes towards sex’. Obviously the concept of deviancy is a function of her drive to characterise normal behaviour. But this is not the flaw that interests Freeman.

Freeman suggests that Mead has depicted a ‘mind-boggling’ contradiction, not psychologically and thus not humanly possible. Mead, he says, ‘describes the Samoans as making the “demand” that a female should be “both receptive to the advances of many lovers and yet capable of showing the tokens of virginity at marriage”. Something ... is emphatically amiss, for surely no human population could be so cognitively disoriented as to conduct their lives in such a schizophrenic way.’ He argues, not that Meda was lying about the promiscuity which Samoans find so distasteful in her account, but that she was led astray by teasing from her immature female informants.

Unfortunately, what Freeman takes as a devastating indictment – that Mead had described a physically impossible contortion – has been put into ethnographic context by others. Appreciating this context brings one closer to understanding the fascination that Samoa holds for Freeman. I am thinking particularly of two essays in the collection Sexual Meanings (1981), Bradd Shore’s account of Samoa and Sherry Ortner’s synthesis. They make some very simple anthropological observations – and if one wanted to one could use them to account for both Freeman’s and Mead’s views.

Ortner sets the Samoan pattern into the wider and well-documented Polynesian frame-work, where the contradictory demands for sexual access and virginity are aspects of certain sets of relationships. A woman’s virginity is equated with what her male kin possess, rendering it at once a target for protection and (political) attack. There are different standards for high-ranking and for common persons, but there is also a sense in which every first conquest is by definition theft. If defloration is conceptually ‘theft’, it is also conceptually violent, whether or not it takes place with what we would regard as coercion, and the violence is as much against the girl’s male kin as against her person. In other countries rape by a man be defined rather as violence against the woman’s person or against her will. Of what possible scientific interest, then, are decontextualised statistics of rape from elsewhere? With or without police reports, Freeman’s elaborate demonstration that Samoans have the highest reported rape rate in the world does not begin to broach the conceptual issues involved.

Shore adds the interesting observation that Samoan men have some difficulty in transferring cross-sex relationships, typified by ties with female kin, into sexualised ones. There are also reasons for the element of real sexual violence encountered in Samoa. At the same time he describes how Samoans classify behaviour. From his account it is the Samoans whose conceptions of ‘culture’ and ‘nature’ separate off socially-controlled from uncontrolled behaviour. The preservation of virginity is the epitome of dignified, controlled behaviour. Thus conceived, it is an attribute of women, the more high-ranking the more jealously guarded. For high-ranking men, on the other hand, sexual appetite carries connotations of power and vitality. Samoans thus construe virginity as always under attack from the (uncontrollable) urges of men. Yet men, and the more high-ranking the more so, give voice to the cultural values of control, for this is how culture is defined. In a manner that parallels in some respects, but not all, the Euro-American distinction between culture and nature, they see culture as having to work against nature. Socially unregulated sexuality falls for them outside culture.

The implications are startlingly obvious. If the Samoans who read Mead’s account took it to refer to Samoan ‘culture’, of course they could not condone any reference to promiscuity: that would not be describing Samoan culture as far as they were concerned. It is also clear that it is particularly high-ranking men who would be concerned to preserve the virginity of their female kin and whose reactions to its loss would be the most violent and punitive. This is a telling commentary of Freeman’s methods.

Freeman concludes that Mead’s restricted circle of juvenile girl informants and her own restricted public life were no basis from which to generalise about ‘Samoa’. Certainly she was at fault here, one cause lying in her having was at fault here, one cause lying in her having to construe ‘a’ Samoan ethos: it is a fault Freeman compounds. The ‘Samoa’ he describes is male-dominated, competitive, rank-conscious. His informants were often high-ranking chiefs or educated persons, very frequently men. ‘Mead was in no position to check the statements of the girls she was studying against ... well-informed knowledge ... Many educated Samoans, especially those who had attended college in New Zealand ... entreated me, as an anthropologist, to correct her mistaken depiction.’ He sees no ideological intent here: if fact, he has no more insight into social rhetoric and ideological production than Mead does. Instead his account of the two faces of Samoan character replicates Mead’s uncomfortably closely. Where she has ‘easy’ personality types and deviants, he has the smooth outward appearance of serenity and turbulent ‘true feelings’ beneath. He takes, then, at face value Mead’s characterisation of Samoans as emotionless, much of his analysis consisting of the reporting of emotions (though with only the briefest nod at Samoan theories on the topic). He sees his sources as authorities, delivering a verdict on the character of traditional Samoa: he does not see them as social actors. Hence he can speak of an almost exclusively male political arena, the chiefly ‘fono’, as a prime locus of the ethos of Samoan society. He says ‘the Samoans’ are a ‘people’ of exceptional punctilio and grit, where he clearly intends to speak of men, not women. The point to make, however, is not simply that we are given no theory of social action in which to embed these observations, nor that Freeman’s Samoa is as restricted as Mead’s: but that is was necessary for Freeman to eschew such contextualisation if he wanted to make his case for anthropology as science. To have discriminated between his own sources would have toppled his conceptualisation of truth and falsity.

I have indicated various junctures at which Freeman enters the frame Mead set up: his interest in behaviour, in child-rearing practices, in ethos with its demand for cultural consistency (hence the abhorrence of contradiction) and, ‘febrile’ though he now calls is, in the old nature-nurture debate. He can demonstrate error only be keeping constant enough of the original frame for the error to show up. His own historical consideration of Mead’s work turns on the issue of the social sources of data – an issue inimical to a Popperian science. Refutation proceeds with the terms of an original hypothesis held constant. This book is witness to a manful but impossible struggle to do so. Indeed the struggle is lost at its most crucial point. Freeman dwells on the extent to which Mead’s youth and sex counted against her, thus undermining his endeavour at the very point where it needed support. Falsifiability in the strict sense surely rests on the replication of experience. Freeman makes it clear he was not replicating Mead’s experience.

On the other hand, it was necessary for Freeman to deal with an American-based work. For here is a paradox. Mead, he suggests, is committed to an ‘extreme’, ‘total’ and ‘absolute’ cultural determinism. This cannot possibly be judgment on her individual writings – it has to be a judgment on her place in anthropological history. Yet it was in Britain, not America, that people neglected the ‘science of human behaviour’ in preference for the ‘entailments of social customs’, and that can’t have been Mead’s doing. Freeman’s plea that biology be taken seriously no doubt falls well on British ears, but I should imagine many from Mead’s own country would wonder what he was talking about. For although ‘cultural anthropology’ has held sway in America, the study of behaviour never became divorced, as it did in Britain, from social anthropology. At about the same time as Freeman’s Man article was published, Alexander Alland, from Boas’s own university, Columbia, wrote that ‘to consider culture as extrasomatic does not require us to abandon the biological model of evolution, since behaviour based on culture must still solve basically biological problems.’ In his zeal to show how Mead’s ideas were propagated, Freeman sidesteps the interesting problem of dissonance between her popular and her anthropological renown. The popular response was to Mead’s folk model of ‘human nature’ – this made her accessible to a huge public in the way theories of social acts and systems never could. But Freeman pretends too much when he equates this with a scientific acceptance of cultural determinism.

Mead and Freeman are linked in their vision of a society humanised by anthropology. Coming of Age in Samoa ends with a glimpse of the moral possibilities opened up by appreciation of cultural diversity. Freeman’s future envisages a unified science of man. In his view, the results of Mead’s work, coming at the historical juncture they did, have been a block to its development. Is this what Margaret Mead is being punished for, throughout his cool and polite book? If so, the punishment is misplaced, and it may well have unintended consequences. Mead’s spirited role in relation to the general debates of her day made her a ‘symbol of anthropology’. One wonders whether Freeman’s equally honest aims will not be thwarted by his very method. Falsification sounds grand if you know that it defines scientific enterprise: the popular version is likely to be simple that anthropology gets it wrong. I think Freeman would regret that ultimate misplacement.