Elevate Difference

The Trashing of Margaret Mead: Anatomy of an Anthropological Controversy

What do Phil Donohue, a New Zealand ethnologist, three anthropologist husbands, and a small handful of Samoan girls all have in common? The answer is: Margaret Mead and their roles in a debate that has rocked cultural anthropology since 1983.

The Trashing of Margaret Mead is a fine, funny, discriminating, and at times quite disturbing book. At the heart of the so-called Mead-Freeman Debate was the veracity, meaning, and political uses of the data that Mead collected in 1925 during the ethnographic research that she conducted in Samoa. Her central finding was that Samoan adolescence did not require the storm-and-stress widely seen as part of adolescence, the volatility that characterizes “teenaged” behavior. Mead’s work framed the “nature/nurture” debate: is nature (e.,g. biology and hormones) ultimately responsible for sexual maturation and behavior, or is it nurture (e.g., gender relations and child-rearing)? Is male dominance hard-wired biologically, or can egalitarianism be taught? Freeman chose the former, Mead the latter.

The Trashing of Margaret Mead consists of fourteen chapters arranged into five parts. It is filled with salacious talk, iconic photos, back-channel communication, and an impressive attention to nuance and detail. The two chapters comprising “The Controversy and the Media” remind the reader of the huge splash made in 1983 in anthropology and wider circles by the publication of Derek Freeman’s book, Margaret Mead and Samoa: The Making and Unmaking of an Anthropological Myth. Relatively few people actually read the book, but stories about Freeman and Mead, often wildly misunderstanding and misquoting the latter, circulated in the pages of Time, Newsweek, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and most memorably in the telling by the author, Paul Shankman, on The Phil Donohue Show. Shankman shows with great gusto and clarity that U.S. media and many academics were predisposed to accept Freeman’s claims, however fraudulent.

Part two exposes Derek Freeman the man, but more importantly, the mind. At least once in the early 1960s, while working in Sarawak, Indonesia, Freeman went quite off the rails. In a museum there he once hacked off the phalluses of wooden statues carved by fine Iban craftsmen. Freeman’s instability is near legendary, and Shankman shows this to us with grace and skill by revealing the manic tenor of his writings and the increasingly nasty tone of his correspondence until the very day he died.

The four chapters in part three, “Sex, Lies and Samoans,” cover the life of and influences upon the young Margaret Mead, the conditions of her first fieldwork in Samoa, and the publication in 1928 of Coming of Age in Samoa, which was an extremely popular (and popularizing) book. These chapters read like a scholarly detective story of what the Mead-Freeman debate meant (and continues to mean) to Samoans, and of what Samoan thought, belief, and behavior are like in terms of sexual matters. Special commentary is reserved for the place of the "taupou system" in Samoa by and through which female virginity is valorized and idealized. As in most cultures, Samoan brothers want to have virginal sisters, but Mead, Freeman, and Shankman show that they often want also to get into the pants (or back then, under the grass skirts) of other men’s sisters.

Shankman also revisits the effects of cross-cultural contact with the American military during World War II upon Samoan beliefs and behaviors. Whereas Mead said that Samoans were largely egalitarian, easy-going, and not hung-up about sex, Freeman argued that Mead had gotten it all wrong, that Samoan culture was riddled by status differentials, prone to violence, circumspect with regards to sex, and also “rape-prone.” Freeman contended that Mead was hoaxed during her fieldwork by two Samoan girls who jokingly indicated their usual hunts and haunts for boys. Shankman shows that Freeman was mistaken, concluding that “Freeman not only misrepresented the historical work of others but neglected his own personal experiences in the islands during World War II and his unpublished work on the taupou system.” Shankman shows that Mead got it largely right and that Freeman got it sloppily and willfully wrong on many, many counts.

The Trashing of Margaret Mead should be used in college courses ranging from media studies to cultural anthropology to women’s studies to Peoples and Cultures of the Pacific. Graduate-level seminars could be wrapped around the many significant issues raised here. Shankman’s bulldog-like dedication for many years is as laudable as his prose style is engaging.

Written by: Lawrence James Hammar, Ph.D., March 8th 2010