A mannerly, disciplined refutation of Margaret Mead's Coming of Age in Samoa, which systematically challenges the late...


MARGARET MEAD AND SAMOA: The Making and Unmaking of an Anthropological Myth

A mannerly, disciplined refutation of Margaret Mead's Coming of Age in Samoa, which systematically challenges the late anthropologist's first work without assailing her personally or questioning her academic integrity. Prof. Freeman (Anthropology, Emeritus, Australian National Univ.) maintains that Mead was mistaken--in both methodology and conclusions--about Samoa; and that her book, a popular classic since its publication in 1928, has perpetuated an idea of cultural determinism that warrants radical revision. He suggests that Mead went to Samoa inadequately trained and also, to a great extent, primed: a student of Franz Boas, she was intent on finding evidence to discredit biological determinism and promote ""the Boasian paradigm""--an explanation of human behavior in purely cultural terms. This Samoa seemed to do, with its portrayal of an adolescence without turbulence in a society punctuated by few conflicts. A ""negative instance"" was thus used to confute the biologists and establish the sovereignty of culture. But succeeding anthropologists failed to discover the peaceful paradise Mead described; reports from her contemporaries (and earlier travelers) suggest a more complex social system with adolescent turmoil and other troubles as prevalent as elsewhere; and biological and psychological findings of the last 50 years also tell us much about human development through the life cycle. Was Mead so dramatically overdetermined? Freeman demonstrates that she went into the field with little preparation, lived with a non-Samoan family, generalized from a small population, and limited her sample to girls. Moreover, the girls she interviewed probably deceived her, especially in answer to questions about sex. Freeman stockpiles his evidence quite thoroughly, consulting a broad range of sources (including eyewitnesses, local newspapers, tribal songs, civic records) and using insights from other disciplines. In a particularly convincing section reminiscent of Erikson in Childhood and Society, he analyzes Samoan musu states, finding in this common, emotionally troubled condition compelling proof of stressful childrearing practices. Too bad the always articulate Mead can't serve as her own ""talking chief"" and respond. A scholarly, well-sustained argument, respectful and stimulating throughout.

Pub Date: April 1, 1983


Page Count: -

Publisher: Harvard Univ. Press

Review Posted Online: N/A

Kirkus Reviews Issue: April 1, 1983