It’s a familiar tale to those who have just watched a documentary about it: In 1925, a student named Margaret Mead ventured to the six-hundred person Samoan island of Ta’u on an anthropological mission to study adolescence. She was assigned this task by her professor at Columbia, the legendary “Father of Anthropology,” Franz Boas. Adolescence, as far as they knew it in America and Europe, was a hellish, stressful time for all involved parties; A blood-sweat-and-tears-soaked bungle of fits and zits that had seemingly been that way since the beginning of time. Was it like this all over? That’s what he intended for Mead to find out.
And find out she did. Mead moved into the US naval dispensary in Samoa, learned a whopping (or meager, depending on whose side you’re on) five hundred words of the Samoan language, and dove right in. Based on her observations of the inhabitants of Ta’u and her interviews with local adolescent girls, she found the culture to be tame, peaceful, promiscuous, and even (mon Dieu!) incestuous.
In 1928, she published her astonishing findings in a little tome she called Coming of Age in Samoa. The book championed the idea that we bullish, brutish Americans could learn a thing or two from the “simple” and tribal folk of that Polynesian paradise. The stress of adolescence was a product of stresses and pressures present in Western homelife. It shocked, offended, inspired and, naturally, became a massive success. Mead rocketed to the top of the anthropological pops.
Based on the success of Coming of Age (not to mention her signature penchant for rocking capes and canes), Mead became as much of a celebrity figure as an anthropologist can possibly be. Coming of Age was held up by many as a self-help book of sorts, a model of a healthy lifestyle that could yield noticeable life results. The idea that people could help themselves and produce change in the environment around them was hopeful and, as this BBC documentary points out, profoundly American. It’s no wonder that people latched onto it. Mead would even become a hero of the hippie generation, who took the message of peaceful and promiscuous living to greater heights (or lower depths, depending on whose side you’re on) than ever before.
Over the course of the rest of Mead’s career, she contributed majorly to the feminist movement, became a professor at a number of prestigious schools, and held high positions in important scientific associations. She is still considered one of the most influential and prominent scientific figures of all time. But all the while, another anthropologist was waiting in the wings; his quiet whispers of “bullshit!” would soon grow into obsessive shouts.
His side of the story: In 1925, an unprepared, ignorant girl with an agenda set out and, with no employment of any scientific method whatsoever, saw what she wanted to see and wrote what she wanted to write about a tiny, biased fragment of a complex country whose language she barely spoke. You can see why Mead tends to get a little more play -- her side of the story is a lot more fun to read. But who’s right?
Well, New Zealand’s Derek Freeman -- the aforementioned bullshit-whisperer -- would have you believe that he is, of course. That’s a tempting notion. Freeman became absolutely dedicated to (many would say obsessed with) dismantling Mead’s reputation and her findings, which had become widely accepted shortly after Coming of Age in Samoa’s publication.He spent the majority of his career and over forty years of research trying to do just that.
Before publishing not one but two books set out to set the record straight on Samoa, Freeman took not one but two trips to the country. He spent significantly more time there than Mead and used what he considered to be much more scientific methods. In fact, he became integrated enough into Samoan culture that he was made an honorary chief. He talked to Samoans who claimed that Mead’s writings had been completely fabricated. According to Freeman, “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. 1” These observations fundamentally clashed with Mead’s and in 1983 (five years after Mead’s death), he published Margaret Mead and Samoa: The Making and Unmaking of an Anthropological Myth. Zinger! Another book, The Fateful Hoax of Margaret Mead, followed in 1999, revealing that two of Mead’s interviewees had admitted (on film!) to willfully deceiving her.
There is only one explanation for two intelligent, respected anthropologists spending time in the same place and coming away with such vastly different conclusions: The Rashomon Effect! Named in 1988 by Karl Heider for the Kurosawa film in which the central plot is told from four disparate points of view, The Rashoman Effect gives a name to the subjective interpretation of reality. That is, “it is only with the assumption of a shared reality that these disagreements take on significance as puzzles to be solved; there is a shared reality, true, but differing truths may indeed be said about it. 2”
Today, thankfully, neither the work of Freeman nor Mead is taken as gospel. While Coming of Age in Samoa is not nearly as well-regarded as it was in its heyday, Freeman came off in his no-holds-barred quest to dishonor Mead as obsessive, misleading, and downright mean-spirited. The fact that they studied Samoa at different points in time is also significant -- Freeman didn’t set foot in Samoa until fifteen years after Mead. Both figures have their adamant supporters and their passionate critics. As with everything, the standard evolves. There’s no right answer.
The debate that was really reinvigorated by the ideological battle of Freeman and Mead is one of the longest running and most divided in history: nature vs. nurture. There have been innumerable papers published in regards to the rivalry of these two forces. Modern science would have us believe that the right answer is a little bit of both. Yawn. In the old days, they at least picked a side.
1 Library of Congress, "Afterward: Derek Freeman and Margaret Mead."
2 Karl G. Heider (March 1988). "The Rashomon Effect: When Ethnographers Disagree". American Anthropologist 90 (1): 73–81.