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Margaret Mead

Margaret Mead (December 16, 1901 - November 15, 1978) was an American cultural anthropologist.

She was born in Philadelphia, her father was a university professor and mother a social activist. She graduated from Columbia University in 1923 and set out in 1925 to do her field work in Polynesia. At this point Mead is probably most famous for the controversy surrounding her work, especially her premiere work, Coming of Age in Samoa (1928), based on research she conducted as a graduate student.

According to psychologist Paul Ekman[?], Mead was highly critical of his ideas about the universality of human emotions; she considered his research "outrageous", "appalling", and "a disgrace". (Pinker 2002, p. 108)

She died in New York on the 15th November 1978 aged 76.

Table of contents

Coming of Age in Samoa

In the Foreword to the Coming of Age in Samoa, Mead's advisor, Franz Boas, wrote of its significance that

Courtesy, modesty, good manners, conformity to definite ethical standards are universal, but what constitutes courtesy, modesty, good manners, and definite ethical standards is not universal. It is instructive to know that standards differ in the most unexpected ways.
Boas went on to point out that at the time of publication, many Americans had begun to discuss the problems faced by young people (especially women) as they pass through adolescence. Boas felt that a study of the problems faced by adolescents in another culture would be illuminating.

Mead conducted her study among a small group of Samoans -- 600 people -- in which she got to know, lived with, observed, and interviewed (through an interpreter) the sixty-eight young women between the ages of 9 and 20. When her study was first published in 1928, many American readers were shocked by her observation that young Samoan women defered marriage for many years while enjoying casual sex, but eventually married, settled down, and successfully reared their own children. Moreover, Mead concluded that the passage from childhood to adulthood was not full of emotional or psychological distress, anxiety, or confusion, but on the contrary rather easy.

As Boas and Mead expected, this book upset many Westerners. The book continues to have this effect on many readers, and the Intercollegiate Studies Institute[?] (a politically conservative United States organization) recently declared Coming of Age in Samoa the "worst book of the 20th century".

Five years after Mead had passed away, in 1983, Derek Freeman[?] published Margaret Mead and Samoa: The Making and Unmaking of an Anthropological Myth in which he challenged all of Mead's major findings. Freeman's critique was based on his own four years of field experience in Samoa and recent interviews with Mead's surviving informants. According to Freeman, these women denied having engaged in casual sex as young women, and claimed that they lied to Mead.

After an initial flurry of discussion, most anthropologists concluded that the absolute truth would probably never be known. Many, however, find Freeman's critique highly questionable. First, many have speculated that he waited until Mead died before publishing his critique so that she would not be able to respond. Second, many pointed out that Mead's original informants were now old women, grandmothers, and had converted to Christianity. They further pointed out that Samoan culture had changed considerably in the decades following Mead's original research, that after intense missionary activity many Samoans had come to adopt the same puritanical sexual standards as the Americans who were once so shocked by Mead's book. They suggested that such women, in this new context, were unlikely to speak frankly about their adolescent behavior. (Note, however, that one of Freeman's interviewees gave her born-again faith as the reason for coming clean about her deception.) Finally, many suggested that these women would not be as forthright and honest about their sexuality when speaking to an elderly man, as they would have been speaking to a young woman. Many anthropologists in turn accuse Freeman of having the same ethocentric sexual puritanism as the people Boas and Mead once hoped to shock. In 1983, the American Anthropological Association passed a motion declaring Freeman's Margaret Mead "poorly written, unscientific, irresponsible, and misleading." (Freeman 1999, cited by Pinker 2002, p. 115.)

Freeman continued to argue his case in the 1999 publication of The fateful hoaxing of Margaret Mead: A historical analysis of her Samoan research. Judging from reader reviews on Amazon.com, the book is not changing many minds in the Mead vs. Freeman controversy.

Quotes

  • "Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed people can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has."
  • "As the traveler who has once been from home is wiser than he who has never left his own doorstep, so a knowledge of one other culture should sharpen our ability to scrutinize more steadily, to appreciate more lovingly, our own."
  • "Thanks to television, for the first time the young are seeing history made before it is censored by their elders."
  • "What people say, what people do, and what they say they do are entirely different things."
  • "At times it may be necessary temporarily to accept a lesser evil, but one must never label a necessary evil as good."
  • "Of all the peoples whom I have studied, from city dwellers to cliff dwellers, I always find that at least 50 percent would prefer to have at least one jungle between themselves and their mothers-in-law."
  • "I learned the value of hard work by working hard."
  • " I was brought up to believe that the only thing worth doing was to add to the sum of accurate information in the world."
  • "Always remember that you are absolutely unique. Just like everyone else."

Bibliography

References

  • Derek Freeman[?] (1999). The fateful hoaxing of Margaret Mead: A historical analysis of her Samoan research. Bounder, Colorado: Westview Press. ISBN 0813336937.
  • Steven Pinker (2002). The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature. Viking Penguin.



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