Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Margaret Mead and Samoa

Margaret Mead and Samoa: The Making and unmaking of an Anthropological Myth – Derek Freeman

In this thoroughly researched and expertly argued analysis, Derek Freeman sets out to correct all the mistakes, misunderstandings, and misrepresentations of Margaret Mead’s famous “Coming of Age in Samoa.” Freeman begins with a summary of the time at which Mead did her research on Samoa, which was a critical time for the young field of anthropology, struggling for acceptance. Anthropology found itself in direct competition with biology and the then popular field of eugenics, brought about by Darwin’s theory of evolution. After establishing the period of her research, Freeman then goes on to explain all her misconceptions about Samoan culture and way of life. Point by point, he explains what she falsely portrayed, then refuted her with both his own extensive research in Samoa and countless other written works and observations on Samoa. He shows conclusively that Mead’s research was poorly planned and executed, misled, and misinformed, yet was still accepted and venerated because of its implications for the field of anthropology.

This particular work by Freeman (I’ve still got two more of his books on the same topic in my reading queue) was mostly dense and academic, and understandably it must be. Mead’s work on Samoa was unquestioningly accepted for decades, so any refutation must be expertly researched and argued. Freeman does his work well. He takes particular care to explain the attitudes at the time Mead did her research, which also requires quite a bit of history. This was hard to follow at times, but when I caught the flow of it, I found it quite interesting. Obviously the most interesting part of the book is when he takes apart Mead’s research piece by piece, but it still had some difficult moments. Those chapters are laden with dates, names, and locations, which are important for research, but don’t help for ease of reading. He includes enough of Mead’s writings so that this book could probably be read alone and still give sufficient understanding of “Coming of Age in Samoa,” but I thought it made a great follow up after reading Mead’s work first.

I wasn’t entirely sure what to make of Freeman’s arguments. Every time he quoted Mead, I would think to myself “but I see that all the time.” Then he would follow up with his own counter-example to contradict her findings and I would think to myself “Oh, but I see that all the time too” (I remember as I was reading “Coming of Age in Samoa,” I thought a few times “Oh really? I didn’t see that before reading this.” I never had that reaction with Freeman). After mulling it over, my opinion is that Mead’s research was a surface analysis of Samoan culture, and at times it was absolutely false. Many of the things she wrote about do happen here, but that’s only if you get a really quick glimpse at life in Samoa, which is exactly what her research was based on. She makes sweeping generalizations based on limited and often wrong information. Freeman’s examples seem more substantial, and more fully show the intricacies of fa’asamoa. I think Freeman is angling for a scientific perspective in his work, meaning if one instance proves a theory false, then the whole theory is false. I say that, humanly, there are exceptions to the rule, and Mead was wrong in general, but not in everything. Conclusion: If you read “Coming of Age in Samoa,” you must also read Derek Freeman (which I was told many times as I was reading “Coming of Age in Samoa”).

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