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Margaret Mead

Coming of Age in Samoa is a book by Margaret Mead based upon youth in Samoa and lightly relating to youth in America, first published in 1928. In the foreword to 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, very 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 (particularly women) as they pass through adolescence as "unavoidable periods of adjustment." Boas felt that a study of the problems faced by adolescents in another culture would be illuminating.

Samoan girls, c. 1902

And so, as Mead herself described the goal of her research: "I have tried to answer the question which sent me to Samoa: Are the disturbances which vex our adolescents due to the nature of adolescence itself or to the civilization? Under different conditions does adolescence present a different picture?" To answer this question, she conducted her study among a small group of Samoans — a village of 600 people on the island of Ta‘ū — in which she got to know, lived with, observed, and interviewed (through an interpreter) 68 young women between the ages of 9 and 20. She concluded that the passage from childhood to adulthood (adolescence) in Samoa was a smooth transition and not marked by the emotional or psychological distress, anxiety, or confusion seen in the United States.

Satellite image of the island of Ta‘ū

Mead concluded that this was due to the Samoan girl's belonging to a stable, monocultural society, surrounded by role models, and where nothing concerning the basic human facts of copulation, birth, bodily functions, or death, was hidden. The Samoan girl was not pressured to choose from among a variety of conflicting values, as was the American girl. Mead commented, somewhat satirically:

... a[n American] girl's father may be a Presbyterian, an imperialist, a vegetarian, a teetotaller, with a strong literary preference for Edmund Burke, a believer in the open shop and a high tariff, who believes that women's place is in the home, that young girls should wear corsets, not roll their stockings, not smoke, nor go riding with young men in the evening. But her mother's father may be a Low Episcopalian, a believer in high living, a strong advocate of States' Rights and the Monroe Doctrine, who reads Rabelais, likes to go to musical shows and horse races. Her aunt is an agnostic, an ardent advocate of women's rights, an internationalist who rests all her hopes on Esperanto, is devoted to Bernard Shaw, and spends her spare time in campaigns of anti-vivisection. Her elder brother, whom she admires exceedingly, has just spent two years at Oxford. He is an Anglo-Catholic, an enthusiast concerning all things medieval, writes mystical poetry, reads Chesterton, and means to devote his life to seeking for the lost secret of medieval stained glass. Her mother's younger brother is an engineer, a strict materialist, who never recovered from reading Haeckel in his youth; he scorns art, believes that science will save the world, scoffs at everything that was said and thought before the nineteenth century, and ruins his health by experiments in the scientific elimination of sleep. Her mother is of a quietistic frame of mind, very much interested in Indian philosophy, a pacifist, a strict non-participator in life, who in spite of her daughter's devotion to her will not make any move to enlist her enthusiasms. And this may be within the girl's own household. Add to it the groups represented, defended, advocated by her friends, her teachers, and the books which she reads by accident, and the list of possible enthusiasms, of suggested allegiances, incompatible with one another, becomes appalling.

As Boas and Mead expected, this book upset many Westerners when it first appeared in 1928. Many American readers felt shocked by her observation that young Samoan women deferred marriage for many years while enjoying casual sex but eventually married, settled down, and successfully reared their own children.

The use of cross-cultural comparison to highlight issues within Western society was highly influential, and contributed greatly to the heightened awareness of Anthropology and Ethnographic study in the USA. It established Mead as a substantial figure in American Anthropology, a position she would maintain for the next fifty years.

As a landmark study regarding sexual mores, the book was also highly controversial, and frequently came under attack on both ideological and academic grounds. The National Catholic Register argued that Mead's findings were merely a projection of her own sexual beliefs and reflected her desire to eliminate restrictions on her own sexuality.[1] The Intercollegiate Studies Institute listed Coming of Age in Samoa as #1 in the list of what it thinks are the "50 Worst Books of the Twentieth Century".[2] Other critics, most notably Derek Freeman, claimed that Mead failed to apply the scientific method and that her assertions were unsupported.[3]


The Mead-Freeman controversy

Derek Freeman

In 1983, five years after Mead had died, 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. In 1988, he participated in the filming of Margaret Mead in Samoa, directed by Frank Heimans, which claims to document two of Mead's original informants, now middle-aged women and converted to Evangelical Christianity, swearing that the information they provided Mead when they were teenagers was false.[citation needed]

"She must have taken it seriously," one of the girls would say of Mead on videotape years later, "but I was only joking. 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." If challenged by Mead, the girls would not have hesitated to tell the truth, but Mead never questioned their stories. The girls, now mature women, swore on the Bible to the truth of what they told Freeman and his colleagues."

Another account of Mead which Freeman attacked particularly was her claim that Samoan girls could and do lie about their status of virginity by the use of chicken blood. [4] Freeman pointed out that virginity of the bride is so crucial to the status of Samoan man that they have specific ritual in which the bride's hymen is manually ruptured in public, by the groom himself or by the chief, making use of chicken blood impossible. On this ground, Freeman argued that Mead must have based her account on (false) hearsay from non Samoan sources. [5]

The argument hinged on the place of the taupou system in Samoan society. According to Mead, the taupou system is one of institutionalized virginity for young women of high rank, but it is exclusive to women of high rank. According to Freeman, all Samoan women emulated the taupou system and Mead's informants denied having engaged in casual sex as young women, and claimed that they had lied to Mead (see Freeman 1983).

After an initial flurry of discussion, many anthropologists concluded that the truth would probably never be known, although most published accounts of the debate have also raised serious questions about Freeman's critique.[6]

First, these critics have speculated that he waited until Mead died before publishing his critique so that she would not be able to respond. In 1978, Freeman sent a revised manuscript to Mead, but she was ill and died a few months later without responding.

Second, Freeman's critics point out that by the time Freeman arrived on the scene Mead's original informants were old women, grandmothers, and had converted to Christianity, so their testimony to him may not have been accurate. They further allege 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 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. Further, they suggested that these women might not be as forthright and honest about their sexuality when speaking to an elderly man as they would have been speaking to a woman near their own age.[7]

Some anthropologists also criticized Freeman on methodological and empirical grounds. For example, they claimed that Freeman had conflated publicly articulated ideals with behavioral norms — that is, while many Samoan women would admit in public that it is ideal to remain a virgin, in practice they engaged in high levels of premarital sex and boasted about their sexual affairs amongst themselves.[8] Freeman's own data documented the existence of premarital sexual activity in Samoa. In a western Samoan village he documented that 20% of 15-year-olds, 30% of 16-year-olds, and 40% of 17-year-olds had engaged in premarital sex.[9] In 1983, the American Anthropological Association held a special session to discuss Freeman's book, in which they did not invite Freeman.[10] They passed a motion declaring Freeman's Margaret Mead and Samoa "poorly written, unscientific, irresponsible and misleading." Dr. Freeman commented that "to seek to dispose of a major scientific issue by a show of hands is a striking demonstration of the way in which belief can come to dominate the thinking of scholars."[11]

In the years that followed, anthropologists vigorously debated these issues. People who challenged Freeman include Appell, Brady, Feinberg, Leacock, Levy, Marshall, Nardi, Patience, Paxman, Scheper-Hughes, Shankman, Young and Juan.[12]

Much like Mead's work, Freeman's account has been challenged as being ideologically driven to support his own theoretical viewpoint (sociobiology and interactionism), as well as assigning Mead a high degree of gullibility and bias. Freeman's refutation of Samoan sexual mores has been challenged, in turn, as being based on public declarations of sexual morality, virginity, and taupou rather than on actual sexual practices within Samoan society during the period of Mead's research.[13]

Considerable controversy remains over the veracity of both Mead's and Freeman's accounts. Lowell Holmes, who completed a lesser publicized restudy commented later, "Mead was better able to identify with, and therefore establish rapport with, adolescents and young adults on issues of sexuality than either I (at age 29, married with a wife and child) or Freeman, ten years my senior".[14]

Freeman continued to argue his case in the 1999 publication of The Fateful Hoaxing of Margaret Mead: A Historical Analysis of Her Samoan Research, introducing what he claimed was new information in support of his arguments.

See also





  • Gregory Acciaioli, ed. 1983 "Fact and Context in Etnography: The Samoa Controversy" Canberra Anthropology (special issue) 6(1): 1-97.
  • George Appell, 1984 "Freeman's Refutation of Mead's Coming of Age in Samoa: The Implications for Anthropological Inquiry" Eastern Anthropology 37: 183-214.
  • Mary Catherine Bateson, With a Daughter's Eye. 1984 ISBN 0-688-03962-6 , (2003 ppb ISBN 0-06-097573-3)
  • Ivan Brady, 1991 "The Samoa Reader: Last Word or Lost Horizon?" Current Anthropology 32: 263-282.
  • Hiram Caton, Editor (1990). "The Samoa Reader: Anthropologists Take Stock". University Press of America. ISBN 0-8191-7720-2.
  • Richard Feinberg 1988 "Margaret Mead and Samoa: Coming of Age in Fact and Fiction" American Anthropologist 90: 656-663
  • Leonora Foerstel and Angela Gilliam (eds) (1992). Confronting the Margaret Mead Legacy: Scholarship, Empire and the South Pacific. Philadelphia: Temple University Press
  • Derek Freeman (1983). Margaret Mead and Samoa. Cambridge, London: Harvard University Press. ISBN 0-674-54830-2.
  • Derek Freeman (1999). The Fateful Hoaxing of Margaret Mead: A Historical Analysis of Her Samoan Research. Boulder, Colorado: Westview Press. ISBN 0-8133-3693-7.
  • Hilary Lapsley (1999) Margaret Mead and Ruth Benedict: The Kinship of Women University of Massachusetts Press. ISBN 1-55849-181-3
  • Lowell D. Holmes (1987) Quest for the Real Samoa: the Mead/Freeman Controversy and Beyond. South Hadley: Bergin and Garvey
  • Howard, Jane (1984) Margaret Mead: A Life. New York: Simon and Schuster.
  • Eleanor Leacock 1988 "Anthropologists in Search of a Culture: Margaret Mead, Derek Freeman and All the Rest of Us" in Central Issues in Anthropology 8(1): 3-20.
  • Robert Levy 1984 "Mead, Freeman, and Samoa: The Problem of Seeing Things as They Are" Ethos 12: 85-92
  • Jeannette Mageo 1988 Mālosi: A Psychological Exploration of Mead's and Freeman's Work and of Samoan Aggression" Pacific Studies 11(2): 25-65
  • Mac Marshall 1993 "The Wizard from Oz Meets the Wicked Witch of the East: Freeman, Mead, and Ethnographic Authority" in American Ethnologist20(3): 604-617.
  • Bonnie Nardi 1984 "The Height of Her Powers: Margaret Mead's Samoa" Feminist Studies 10: 323-337.
  • Allan Patience and Josephy Smith 1987 "Derek Freeman in Samoa: The Making and Unmaking of a Biobehavioral Myth" American Anthropologist 88: 157-162.
  • David B. Paxman 1988 "Freeman, Mead, and the Eighteenth-Century Controversy over Polynesian Society" Pacific Studies 1(3): 1-19
  • Roger Sandall 2001 The Culture Cult: Designer Tribalism and Other Essays ISBN 0-8133-3863-8
  • Nancy Scheper-Hughes 1984 "The Margaret Mead Controversy: Culture, Biology, and Anthropological Inquiry" in Human Organization 43(1): 85-93.
  • Paul Shankman 1996 "The History of Samoan Sexual Conduct and the Mead-Freeman Controversy" in American Anthropologist98(3): 555-567.
  • Brad Shore 1982 Sala'ilua: A Samoan Mystery New York: Columbia University Press.
  • R.E. Young and S. Juan 1985 "Freeman's Margaret Mead Myth: The Ideological Virginity of Anthropologists Australian and New Zealand Journal of Sociology 21: 64-81.
  • Mary E. Virginia, "DISCovering U.S. History", Benedict, Ruth (1887-1948), Online Edition, (ed Detroit: Gale), 2003


  1. ^
  2. ^
  3. ^ "Mead ignored violence in Samoan life, did not have a sufficient background in—or give enough emphasis to—the influence of biology on behavior, did not spend enough time in Samoa, and was not familiar enough with the Samoan language." Library of Congress, "Afterward: Derek Freeman and Margaret Mead."
  4. ^ Mead, "Social Organization of Mana'u
  5. ^ "In 1943, knowing what I did of the rite of fa'amasei'au, I felt certain that Mead's account was in error and could not have come from any Samoan source.[1]
  6. ^ (see Appell 1984, Brady 1991, Feinberg 1988, Leacock 1988, Levy 1984, Marshall 1993, Nardi 1984, Patience and Smith 1986, Paxman 1988, Scheper-Hughes 1984, Shankman 1996, and Young and Juan 1985)
  7. ^ (see Appell 1984, Brady 1991, Feinberg 1988, Leacock 1988, Levy 1984, Marshall 1993, Nardi 1984, Patience and Smith 1986, Paxman 1988, Scheper-Hughes 1984, Shankman 1996, and Young and Juan 1985)
  8. ^ Shore 1982: 229-230
  9. ^ Freeman, 1983: 238-240.
  10. ^ Their criticism was made formal at the 82nd annual meeting of the American Anthropological Association the next month in Chicago, where a special session, to which Dr. Freeman was not invited, was held to discuss his book.[2]
  11. ^ [3]
  12. ^ Appell 1984, Brady 1991, Feinberg 1988, Leacock 1988, Levy 1984, Marshall 1993, Nardi 1984, Patience and Smith 1986, Paxman 1988, Scheper-Hughes 1984, Shankman 1996, and Young and Juan 1985.
  13. ^ Shankman, 1996.
  14. ^ Holmes & Holmes, 1992.


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