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.

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