Margaret Mead’s good name, redeemed

CU-Boulder anthropologist finds stark evidence that Mead’s indefatigable critic misrepresented her work with ‘layer upon layer of error’


By Clint Talbott

Time magazine dubbed Margaret Mead one of the 20th century’s 100 most influential scientists and thinkers. It also depicted Mead as a sloppy researcher who “accepted as fact tribal gossip embellished by adolescent Samoan girls happy to tell the visiting scientist what she wanted to hear.”

The source of that false characterization was anthropologist Derek Freeman, who published two books alleging that her work was fatally flawed.

A University of Colorado Boulder professor has now debunked the source of that slander. And while the debate over Mead’s research might now seem obscure, many saw it as symbolic of the culture wars of the last century.

Mead rose to fame in 1928 for her book “Coming of Age in Samoa,” which described Samoans’ permissive attitude toward adolescent sexual dalliances.

Mead’s book, written for a general audience, raised eyebrows. She interviewed adolescent Samoan girls whose lives seemed relatively placid by American standards of the 1920s. Some engaged in premarital sex with comparatively little guilt, which Mead suggested was an alternative to the prim standards of 1920s America.

Freeman later stated that he had found definitive proof that Mead’s “closest Samoan friend and main informant” had misled Mead with innocent jokes about the private lives of Samoan girls, arguing that Mead was “hoaxed” about Samoan sexual conduct.

Paul Shankman, a University of Colorado professor of anthropology

Mead died in 1978, before Freeman’s critiques appeared, but a number of anthropologists defended her. Among the most tenacious of these scholars is Paul Shankman, professor of anthropology at CU-Boulder.

Shankman recently uncovered clear evidence that Mead was not hoaxed. It comes from the full transcripts of three interviews with Mead’s so-called key “informant.”

In his 2009 book “The Trashing of Margaret Mead,” Shankman cited transcripts of two of the three interviews and other material to demonstrate that Freeman “cherry picked” evidence that supported his thesis and ignored evidence that contradicted it.

In an article published in the journal Current Anthropology this spring, Shankman reveals the evidence—especially from the first interview transcript—that Freeman’s case was fundamentally flawed.

It has long been known that Freeman’s claim that the so-called key informant, a ceremonial virgin named Fa’apua’a, was, in fact, not an informant but a friend of Mead’s.

In his latest work, however, Shankman reveals that the interviews with Fa’apua’a were predicated on false statements made to Fa’apua’a and misrepresentations of her testimony by Freeman.

The interview, verbatim

Fa’apua’a had known Mead six decades earlier. But Fa’apua’a did not know that Mead was an anthropologist who had written a popular book about Samoa. Fa’apua’a did not read English and did not know what the book said.

In the first interview with Fa’apua’a, in 1987, the Samoan interviewer, with Freeman present, told Fa’apua’a that the purpose of the interview was to correct the “lies” Mead wrote in “Coming of Age in Samoa.” Those lies, the interviewer told Fa’apua’a, “insult you all.”

The interviewer then asked a leading question: whether Mead had asked Fa’apua’a what she and her friend Fofoa did at nights and if they joked with Mead about this. Fa’apua’a said she told Mead, “We spend the night with boys, yes with boys!”

Fa’apua’a said she was “only joking” and said Samoan girls are “terrific liars.” But, Fa’apua’a added, “Margaret Mead accepted our trumped-up stories as though they were true.”

Freeman cited this portion of the first interview as Exhibit A in the case against Mead’s credibility:

But, as Shankman reveals, the evidence was neither final nor devastating. Just after the “terrific liars” section of the interview with Fa’apua’a, the interviewer asked for clarification, as the now-public transcript shows:

Question: “Did Margaret Mead ask you both, my apologies … whether you had sex with boys at night?”

Answer: “Absolutely not.” …

Question: “Nothing like what she is saying happened?”

Answer: “What did she say? That boys came over and slept with us?”

Question: “Slept with and had sex with you.”

Answer: “Liar.”

Far from agreeing with Freeman about Mead, Fa’apua’a further denied that she had told Mead anything about her private life.

What’s wrong with this picture?

Shankman lists some of the other major problems with Freeman’s public account of his evidence.

First, the interviewer, who was the son of Fa’apua’a’s friend Fofoa, framed the interview by falsely representing what Mead had written. Mead did not write that Fa’apua’a, the ceremonial virgin, had sex with boys; in fact, Mead’s book barely mentioned Fa’apua’a.

Second, the interview began with a leading question. “Methodologically, this would never make it in legitimate scholarly circles,” Shankman says.

Third, toward the end of the interview, Fa’apua’a seems puzzled by what is happening and asks the interviewer why he is asking these questions. Her memory, at age 86, seems hazy. The interviewer repeats the statement that Freeman is trying to correct the “lies she wrote, lies that insult all of you.”

In the transcript, Fa’apua’a then asked, “What did she say?”

The interviewer repeated the false claim that Mead portrayed Fa’apua’a as having gone out at night, “all night, every night.”

“She is such a liar. We did no such thing,” Fa’apua’a responded.

Shankman cites several flaws in Freeman’s case: “He misrepresents what Mead wrote. He misrepresents Fa’apua’a’s role as Mead’s main ‘informant.’ He misrepresents the testimony of Fa’apua’a that he does quote. And he completely omits her testimony when it contradicts his ‘hoaxing’ argument.

“It’s layer upon layer of error.”

How, then, did Freeman persuade so many people?

“It’s presented with such conviction, authority and scholarly presence that for many people, it’s absolutely convincing,” Shankman says.

The broader issue

Beyond “Coming of Age in Samoa,” Freeman saw Mead’s book as pivotal in arguing that environment—or “nurture”—could mold humans as much or more than their biological predispositions—or “nature.”

Many thought the Freeman-Mead controversy crystallized the nature-nurture debate, which, in turn, fueled the late 20th century’s culture wars. Mead’s theory that adolescence was not biologically destined to be a time of storm and stress was said to have promoted moral relativism and the free-loving counter-culture of the 1960s.

Her task in Samoa was to test the theory that a stormy adolescence was hard-wired into the human condition. She concluded that it was not.

Freeman also argued that Samoan society was devoutly Christian, patriarchal and sexually restrictive. His evidence included discussions with male leaders in Samoa, who granted him an honorary title. They told him that a central focus of Samoan society was the ceremonial virgin—or taupou—whose chastity was celebrated and zealously guarded by the entire village in which she lived.

Such a culture, Freeman contended, would neither tolerate nor condone adolescent sexual experimentation.

Mead gained the confidence of adolescent girls, while Freeman joined the community of male chiefs.

And the significance of the taupou, the ceremonial virgin, is not straightforward. As Shankman told the BBC: “The taupou system applied to the very upper tiers of Samoan society. It did not apply to most of the rest of Samoan society, which had a different system of marriage.”

Freeman stated that Mead’s work was compromised by her youth and inexperience, that she had naively believed innocent lies Samoans told her about their private lives. He wrote that Mead was the source of “the most widely propagated myth in 20th century anthropology.”

Further, he denounced the alleged “Mead paradigm,” a view of culture that was anti-biological, anti-evolutionary, anti-scientific and culturally deterministic.

However, Mead did not argue that biology played no role in human development, and she encouraged the study of evolution, including human evolution.

Shankman points out that Mead’s work is not beyond criticism. “‘Coming of Age in Samoa’ did include errors of fact and questionable interpretations, as well as overstatements. … Mead could have been a more scientific ethnographer of Samoan adolescence.

“These were not difficult points to make. However, Freeman used his knowledge not merely to correct the ethnographic record but to damage Mead’s reputation in a deliberate and personal manner.”

The damage continues. Just this spring, The New York Times Magazine echoed Time magazine’s assessment of Mead, suggesting that her work, like that of others, was “shot through with ideology and observer bias.”

Freeman’s flawed caricature of Mead and her Samoan fieldwork has become conventional wisdom in many circles, Shankman observes. As a result, her reputation has been “deeply if not irreparably damaged.”

“And this is no joking matter.”

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