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The Margaret Mead Vendetta, Round Two.

An anthropologist with considerable experience in Samoa questions the validity and tenor of Derek Freeman's most recent attack on Margaret Mead's integrity and the validity of her Samoan research.

Lowell D. Holmes is Distinguished Professor Emeritus of Anthropology at Wichita State University. His most recent publications are Samoan Village Then and Now (1992) and Other Cultures, Elder Years (1995), both coauthored by Ellen Rhoads Holmes. He is currently working on a book on Robert Louis Stevenson's experiences in the South Seas.


A Historical Analysis of Her Samoan Research Derek Freeman

Publisher: Boulder, Colo.: Westview Press, 1999 279 pp., $24.00

The recent publication of The Fateful Hoaxing of Margaret Mead represents a second volley in an eighteen-year assault on Margaret Mead and her Samoan research by emeritus professor Derek Freeman of Australian National University, who also authored Margaret Mead and Samoa: The Making and Unmaking of an Anthropological Myth. That book, published in 1983, questioned the quality of Mead's work in Samoa as presented in 1928 in her world-famous Coming of Age in Samoa, which made her one of the most respected anthropologists in America.

Because of Mead's popularity among behavioral scientists as well as the lay public, the publication of Freeman's first book immediately became a media event, with reviews appearing in scores of newspapers, popular magazines, and scientific journals. Freeman appeared on the Studs Terkel Show, Phil Donahue, and CBS This Morning. Harvard University Press, the publisher of his book, employed a New York public relations firm to arrange a whirlwind TV tour of the United States.

Freeman unquestionably saw himself as something of a giant killer; his target was both Mead and her popular book on adolescence in Samoa, which he described to a New York Timesreporter as the greatest "wholesale deception in the history of the behavioral sciences." Jane Howard, Mead's biographer, reported that Freeman had predicted his book might cause Mead's reputation to "do a thirty- two" (a reference to the rate at which the velocity of falling bodies accelerates), stating, "I have succeeded, haven't I, in staggering the American anthropological establishment."

While his book did not stagger American scientists, he did precipitate a debate that has raged off and on for nearly two decades. The debate recently warranted a chapter in Harold Hellman's Great Feuds in Science and gave birth to a bizarre play titled Heretic: Based on the Life of Derek Freeman by Australian playwright David Williamson.

I became a participant in the controversy early in 1983 due to my own long- standing research experience in Samoa, more specifically because I had done a methodological restudy of Mead's work in the same village on Ta'u island in American Samoa in 1954 for my doctoral dissertation in anthropology. In the years since, I have returned to Samoa for fieldwork in 1962-63, '74, '76, and '88 and have studied Samoan migrants in San Francisco in 1977 and '92. I have published numerous articles in journals about the debate as well as Samoan culture in general and have written five books on Samoa, including Quest for the Real Samoa: The Mead/Freeman Controversy and Beyond(1987).

The nature/nurture controversy

A brief look at the intellectual atmosphere of 1925, the year when Mead went to American Samoa for her research, is helpful in understanding some of the issues related to the debate over her conclusions in Coming of Age in Samoa. At that time, the behavioral sciences were involved in an ongoing dispute referred to as the "nature/nurture" controversy. The department of anthropology at Columbia University, where Mead was then a student, was headed by Franz Boas, a "nurture" advocate and a brilliant scholar, who had done extensive research on the culture of Eskimos and of the Indians of the Northwest Coast as well as considerable research into human biology (particularly race) and linguistics.

Years earlier, Boas' first teaching position had been at Clark University in Massachusetts, whose president was a psychologist named G. Stanley Hall. In his book Adolescence (1904), Hall had postulated that adolescent behavior was entirely determined by such biological factors as the nature of a person's racial history and level of maturation, particularly the onset of puberty, and not by his cultural and social environment. In Hall's view, this "storm and stress" invariably marked adolescence in all human societies. He also delineated what kinds of crimes or forms of malicious mischief were characteristic of particular years between twelve and eighteen.

Encouraged by her mentor, Boas, Mead postulated that if she found a society where adolescents did not experience psychological storm and stress, she would have a "negative instance," which would document the force of culture rather than biology alone in adolescent personality development. This might settle for all time the nature/nurture controversy. Since she had already completed a library dissertation on cultural change in Polynesia, she decided, much in opposition to Boas' initial objections, that Samoa would be a good field for her research.

Mead's Samoan research

Mead's study in the Manu'a islands of American Samoa used a sample of sixty- seven girls between the ages of eight and twenty from three villages on Ta'u island, but she also drew information from a broad spectrum of the population to provide background on the overall cultural context. The study involved residence in American Samoa for approximately 9 and l/2 months. According to Mead, she found in Samoa a culture that did not produce storm and stress in adolescents and fostered a healthy attitude toward sex, thereby establishing Samoa as the "negative instance" that she and Boas were seeking.

My restudy experience in Manu'a in 1954 led me to conclude that Mead often overgeneralized and that in many cases we interpreted data differently. There was evidence that, because of her age and sex, some avenues of investigation were closed to her--particularly those having to do with the more formal aspects of village political organization and ceremonial life. Nevertheless, her overall characterization of the nature and dynamics of the culture were, in my estimation, quite valid, and her contention that it was easier to come of age in Samoa than in America was undoubtedly correct.

I have always looked upon an ethnographic account as a kind of map to be used in finding one's way about in a culture, in anticipating and comprehending behavior. Mead's account never left me lost or bewildered in my interactions with Samoan islanders.

Freeman's initial attack

In his earlier book, Freeman maintained, contrary to Mead's characterization, that Samoans were by nature sexually inhibited (even puritanical), aggressive, highly competitive, prone to jealousy, and given to a whole range of pathological types of behavior including assault, rape, suicide, and murder. The book was lauded by a few ethologists and sociobiologists who lean toward biological determinism but was bitterly criticized by the vast majority of American anthropologists. David Schneider of the University of Chicago wrote in a Natural History review, "This is a bad book. It is also a dull book," and George Marcus of Rice University called it "a work of great mischief" in his New York Times review. Reviewing for the New Republic, Colin Turnbull wrote, "Given his own methodology I doubt if Freeman's book is worth very much either as anthropology or biology."In the late l980s, Freeman and Australian filmmaker Frank Heimans began production on a documentary carrying the same name as his l983 book. The film, which played on American television, consists of a series of interviews with several anthropologists apparently chosen by Freeman to support his position. Only three anthropologists--Mary Catherine Bateson (Mead's daughter), Laura Nader, and myself--appeared to support Mead's findings. The film dwelled on Samoan sexual behavior and introduced the testimony of Fa'apua'a Fa'amu, an elderly Samoan woman. It concerns her alleged deception of Margaret Mead, which is the central theme of Freeman's new book, The Fateful Hoaxing of Margaret Mead: A Historical Analysis of Her Samoan Research.

The hoaxing incident

In 1925-26 Fa'apua'a Fa'amu was the taupou (ceremonial maiden) in the village of Fitiuta on the island of Ta'u. Though only eight miles distant, it was a very difficult walk over a mountain trail from where Mead was working. Freeman maintains that this woman was Mead's chief informant and closest friend. But on March 13, 1926, during a trip to the nearby islands of Ofu and Olosega, Fa'apua'a and her friend Fofoa told Margaret Mead that they had engaged in numerous sexual adventures and that this was typical of young Samoans' behavior. This one piece of information is what Freeman says is the basis for Mead's conclusions.

In November 1987, Freeman, Heimans, and the secretary of Samoan affairs of American Samoa were in Manu'a to film Margaret Mead and Samoa. Freeman records that Fa'apua'a confessed to the Samoan official as follows, "As you know, Samoan girls are terrific liars when it comes to joking, but Margaret accepted our trumped-up stories as though they were true." This alleged hoaxing, which occurred toward the end of Mead's research project and was confessed by a very elderly lady sixty-one years after it was supposed to have happened, is presented in Freeman's new book as proof positive that everything Mead said about Samoa is wrong and everything he is saying is correct, including the fact that Mead was a cultural determinist.

From my perspective, the possibility of Mead's being hoaxed by two informants about the nature of Samoan sexual behavior is simply not credible for several reasons. She already had detailed information from young women on this issue. She would also have been familiar with taufa'ase'e (joking behavior), which is mostly practiced by children and rarely by adults who respect a person.

Moreover, Mead was an extremely intelligent, well-trained Ph.D. who constantly cross-checked her data with interviews from several informants. Anyone who even briefly has studied her field notes in the Library of Congress, as I have, would be impressed with her savvy and sophistication. I have spent a considerable amount of time with Mead discussing changes in Samoa since her research, and I consider her to be one of the most brilliant and insightful people I have ever known.

Martin Orans has carried out an exhaustive analysis of Mead's field notes in the Library of Congress for his book Not Even Wrong (l996). In regard to the "hoaxing" issue, he writes that since Fa'apua'a was a taupou and Mead emphatically maintained that taupous were the only young people absolutely forbidden to engage in sexual activity, it is not conceivable that her story would have been believed. Furthermore, Orans doubts that Mead would have been very much interested in Fa'apua'a and Fofoa's experiences anyway, since they were in their twenties and not part of the adolescent population she targeted. Orans also maintains that Freeman's claim that Fa'apua'a was Mead's principal informant is questionable. None of the information in Mead's field notes is attributed to her, and it is an accepted practice for fieldworkers to identify sources in their notes. There is also evidence that Fa'apua'a spent very little time in Ta'u, and the numerous letters which she sent to Mead from Fitiuta contain no ethnographic information and are mostly requests for foodstuffs, clothing, and other gifts.

While Fofoa is no longer living, Fa'apua'a was featured in Freeman's movie telling Galea'i Poumele, the secretary of Samoan affairs (who interestingly enough is Fofoa's son), that in 1926 she and her friend "lied and lied" to Mead. In other words, she was lying to Mead then but telling the truth now to Freeman and the world.

Focus of the volume

Freeman's new book gives the impression that the Mead/Freeman controversy is mainly about sex, which is far from the truth. It is but a single aspect of Mead's discussion of how Samoan adolescents come of age. She presents a full account of child rearing and discipline, of typical activities and interests of Samoan children of all ages, of family structure and the interaction of its members, of courtship and marriage and of what is expected of young people by their age-mates, families, community, and church.

In The Fateful Hoaxing of Margaret Mead, what seems to take the place of a meaningful discussion of the ethnographic issues is a mean-spirited, petty attack on Mead and her mentor Boas as persons and as investigators of human behavior. Reading much like a tabloid, Freeman's book tells us that Boas was an "incorrigible idealist," having possibly been influenced by communism through his aunt's husband Abraham Jacobi, an associate of Marx and Engels; that according to his colleague Kroeber, "So decisive were his judgments and so strong his feelings, that his character had in it much of the daemonic"; and that he imposed his ideas and views of human behavior on Mead, who dutifully confirmed them in Samoa.

The charges against Mead are more malicious. Freeman implies that she was high-strung and emotional, even perhaps neurotic; dishonest in dealing with funding agencies; guilty of unsystematic and anecdotal investigation of Samoan adolescent behavior; untruthful in her communications with Boas while in Samoa; a bit of a snob in regard to referring to the "dull white people" who were her hosts at the Ta'u village dispensary; and an unfaithful wife, having had a lesbian relationship with Ruth Benedict and an improper shipboard romance with Reo Fortune on her way home. His book does not contain information, fortunately, that he communicated to me in a letter dated October 10, 1967, where Freeman asked me if I was aware that Mead had slept with the son of an important local chief (who he named) and had danced bare-breasted at poula (night dances). I wrote him that I was not aware of this, but that I had gone to Ta'u as an anthropologist and not as a Peeping Tom.

In summation, I do not believe that Freeman's new book has brought us any closer to a settlement in the Mead/Freeman controversy than we were before. The hoaxing information is highly questionable and inappropriate, and the greater share of the book consists of a dull chronicle of Mead/Boas correspondence and facts regarding her day-to-day research activities with which Freeman finds considerable fault.

Samoa was, after all, the locale of her initial research when she was very young, and it could have been better, but it is certainly not the disaster that Freeman implies. Mead went on to a distinguished career of anthropological research, writing, and lecturing. Books like The Fateful Hoaxing of Margaret Mead cannot discredit this American icon nor bring any great acclaim to Freeman.n
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Title Annotation:Review
Publication:World and I
Article Type:Book Review
Date:May 1, 1999
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