The Trashing of Margaret Mead: Anatomy of an Anthropological Controversy (Studies in American Thought and Culture)

The Trashing of Margaret Mead: Anatomy of an Anthropological Controversy (Studies in American Thought and Culture)

Paul Shankman

Language: English

Pages: 320

ISBN: 0299234541

Format: PDF / Kindle (mobi) / ePub

In 1928 Margaret Mead published Coming of Age in Samoa, a fascinating study of the lives of adolescent girls that transformed Mead herself into an academic celebrity. In 1983 anthropologist Derek Freeman published a scathing critique of Mead’s Samoan research, badly damaging her reputation. Resonating beyond academic circles, his case against Mead tapped into important public concerns of the 1980s, including sexual permissiveness, cultural relativism, and the nature/nurture debate. In venues from the New York Times to the TV show Donahue, Freeman argued that Mead had been “hoaxed” by Samoans whose innocent lies she took at face value.
    In The Trashing of Margaret Mead, Paul Shankman explores the many dimensions of the Mead-Freeman controversy as it developed publicly and as it played out privately, including the personal relationships, professional rivalries, and larger-than-life personalities that drove it. Providing a critical perspective on Freeman’s arguments, Shankman reviews key questions about Samoan sexuality, the alleged hoaxing of Mead, and the meaning of the controversy. Why were Freeman’s arguments so readily accepted by pundits outside the field of anthropology? What did Samoans themselves think? Can Mead’s reputation be salvaged from the quicksand of controversy? Written in an engaging, clear style and based on a careful review of the evidence, The Trashing of Margaret Mead illuminates questions of enduring significance to the academy and beyond.
2010 Distinguished Lecturer in Anthropology at the American Museum of Natural History
The Trashing of Margaret Mead reminds readers of the pitfalls of academia. It urges scholars to avoid personal attacks and to engage in healthy debate. The book redeems Mead while also redeeming the field of anthropology. By showing the uniqueness of the Mead-Freeman case, Shankman places his continued confidence in academia, scholars, and the field of anthropology.”—H-Net Reviews

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behalf of the Iban and the Samoans against allegedly decadent and deviant Europeans whom he believed threatened the integrity of these indigenous cultures. Reality Check To verify the Samoan testimony that he solicited about Mead’s personal conduct on Ta‘¯u, Freeman wrote to Lowell Holmes, an anthropologist who in the 1950s had done a restudy of Mead’s Samoan work and found it to be generally reliable.29 Freeman informed Holmes of Mead’s alleged affair with Aviata and asked him if he had heard

glances.”3 Nevertheless, Mead focused on her project. Naval personnel provided her with a Samoan nurse to help her learn the language, which she began to study almost immediately. Mead was interested in Samoan culture, but American Samoa was not a pristine, untouched culture and had not been for some time. Samoans had become devout Christians many decades earlier; they were part of a cash 87 88 Mead and Coming of Age in Samoa Map of the Southwest Pacific with Western Samoa and American Samoa.

for example, her concern about Samoan food. She candidly admitted, “I can eat native food, but I can’t live on it for six months.”12 In fact, it was not easy for Americans to adjust to the high-carbohydrate Samoan diet, consisting at that time mainly of taro, bananas, and breadfruit. This was not just a matter of taste; one young fieldworker experienced protein malnutrition after living with a Samoan family for several months.13 There were social challenges in living with Samoans as well as

necessary to protect virgins? The answer, paradoxically, was that the same brothers who were supposed to protect the chastity of their sisters were themselves encouraged and expected to seduce someone else’s sisters.9 As a result, according to Freeman, “virgins are both highly valued and eagerly sought after.”10 Because there was a double standard of morality for young men and women, public ideology about virginity was not monolithic and did not apply equally to all segments of Samoan society.

by the host village’s group of unmarried women. Visiting parties were recognized as potential opportunities for relationships to form, even though they were chaperoned. At visiting parties, young men and women were more likely to be unrelated than within a village and therefore had fewer restrictions on them. They were expected to consider potential partners for marriage and possible affairs, since most marriages occurred between men and women from different villages.3 As each group of young men

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