Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Margaret Mead (1901-1978)

Sierra Club


If one cannot state a matter clearly enough so that even an intelligent twelve-year-old can understand it, one should remain within the cloistered walls of the university and laboratory until one gets a better grasp of one's subject matter.


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Margaret Mead (1901 - 1978) was an American cultural anthropologist. At this point Mead is probably most famous for the controversy surrounding her work. Her premiere work Coming of Age in Samoa was, like many ethnographies, based on research conducted as a graduate student. In the Foreword to the book, 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.

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. However, 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. Nevertheless, the controversy has not been definitively resolved.

The Intercollegiate Studies Institute (a politically conservative United States organization) declared Coming of Age in Samoa the "worst book of the 20th century". [This article is licensed under the GNU Free Documentation License and uses material adapted in whole or in part from the Wikipedia article on Margaret Mead.]

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