DEREK FREEMAN's attack on Margaret Mead's anthropological classic, Coming of Age in Samoa, has already been the subject of considerable attention in the press. The anthropological community has been busy taking sides in the controversy, and there have been important responses to Freeman from, among others, Margaret Mead's daughter, Mary Catherine Bateson, herself a professor of anthropology at Amherst College.
Coming of Age in Samoa is a study of female adolescence in American Samoa, more particularly on the island of Ta'u. It has an altogether unambiguous message: Mead argued that for Samoans, in contrast to Americans, adolescence was not a time of unusual stress, but among the most agreeable periods of life. Where American adolescents struggled neurotically with their nascent sexuality and engaged in intractable conflicts with their parents, the young women of Samoa enjoyed a carefree regime of sexual dalliance, whose emotional demands were never imperious, and which seldom found them at odds with their elders. This fortunate state of affairs she attributed to the mores of Samoan civilization, which, she maintained, devalued many of those habits of thought and behavior that Americans held so dear, above all, competitiveness, aggression, and asceticism. Indeed, the muting of such values in Samoa accounted, in her opinion, not only for the easiness of Samoan adolescence, but for many other aspects of Samoan civilization as well: for the virtual absence of homicide, rape, and violent assaults among the Samoans, and for their relative immunity to jealousy and psychological disturbances.
Derek Freeman contests all these assertions. He argues that Samoan society was and continues to be characterized by exactly those vicious proclivities of which Mead had pronounced it innocent. Samoans, it seems, are among the most competitive and aggressive of peoples. The incidence of rape among them is one of the highest in the world. They are beset by every imaginable neurosis. They are implacably jealous, and they place a high value on chastity. Needless to say, it follows that Samoan adolescence is even more tumultuous and conflict-ridden than anything American youth has had to endure. Freeman ends by calling Mead's portrait of the Samoans "the most widely promulgated myth of twentieth-century anthropology."
How, then, was Mead so utterly deceived? Part of the answer, Freeman says, lies in the technical shortcomings of her research. She went to Samoa knowing nothing of the language, and she never mastered it well enough to conduct a scientifically adequate study. In addition she remained in Samoa less than a year and spent virtually all of her time living with Americans. The sample on which she based her portrait of adolescence consisted of only 25 young women, whom she interrogated for a mere three months. Her informants were in no way controlled for representativeness, and Freeman suggests that they may well have fibbed to her about their sexual lives in order to tease her or to amuse themselves.
More important than any of these technical liabilities, according to Freeman, Margaret Mead desperately wanted to find in Samoan civilization the sexual nirvana that she ultimately portrayed in her book. He places her work in the context of anthropological theory in the first quarter of the 20th century, insisting that Mead was explicitly sent out to Samoa by her mentor, Franz Boas, to find incontrovertible evidence for the doctrine of cultural determinism, that is, for the proposition that human nature is remarkably plastic, and that our experience is shaped overwhelmingly not by biology (such as the onset of puberty) but by culture. From the perspective of cultural determinism, adolescence is a time of troubles only in those cultures--such as our own-- that make it so, whereas in a society with a different set of values, the very same biological phenomenon can result in an altogether different experience. Samoa was the "negative instance" that demonstrated, unambiguously, the primacy of nurture over nature. Mead, in sum, is portrayed in Freeman's book as the victim of ideological imperatives, which compelled her to find in Samoan civilization the counter-example that would show once and for all the contingent nature of our own values and the experience that they have given rise to.
What is one to make of this extraordinary enterprise, which comes to us more than half a century after the publication of Margaret Mead's book? As Freeman himself notes, many elements of his critique have already appeared in the anthropological literature on Samoa, in some cases as long ago as 1930. Indeed, Freeman himself first got in touch with Mead as early as 1964, informing her of his grave reservations about her findings. He even sent her a copy of his manuscript in 1978, although he never heard from her before her death that same year.
Freeman's critics say that he has not studied the same society that Margaret Mead studied--neither the same geographical area (his research was primarily in Western Samoa, hers in American Samoa) nor the same historical epoch (Mead was in Samoa during 1925 and 1926, whereas Freeman first visited Western Samoa in 1940, and he did not reach Mead's island of Ta'u until 1967). Hence, they suggest, it is not especially surprising that he has come to such opposite conclusions. These considerations obviously carry weight, but not enough, I'm afraid, to account for the radical discrepancy between Mead's and Freeman's portraits. Freeman's critics have also drawn attention to the heavily polemical nature of his book: he is clearly out to get Margaret Mead, and that determination has led him to paint as dark a picture of Samoan society as he possibly can. But even when we allow for differences of time and place and for the distortions introduced by the book's patent animus, I'm inclined to think that Freeman's version is closer to the truth.
Nonetheless, there remains something profoundly misguided about this book. One is inclined to say that its tone is all wrong. Instead of trying to understand a document that must now be considered a historical artifact, Freeman approaches his task in the spirit of a prosecutor--as if Coming of Age in Samoa were the ill- conceived and sloppily executed work of some graduate student in the mid-1980s, and not the archetypal reflection of a particular historical moment, within both anthropology and American culture at large. Ironically, Freeman pretends to be undertaking just such a historical reconstruction, but he can muster none of the requisite disinterestedness. He is too eager to make points and settle scores.
Coming of Age in Samoa will survive Freeman's mean-spirited critique precisely because it is a classic, and hence no more right or wrong than Montesquieu's Persian Letters, Rousseau's Second Discourse, or Frazer's Golden Bough. It is, moreover, a book with a vision, whose spirit is generous and life-affirming, even if it lacks the sense of complexity and tragedy that we expect in the very greatest writings. By way of contrast, there is neither vision nor generosity in Freeman's book. Perhaps one might argue that its appearance was necessary for the anthropological profession to put its intellectual house in order. But even here I am suspicious of the scientific pretensions that Freeman entertains for the discipline--they sound like something left over from the 19th century--and of his atavistic call for a "synthesis" of biology and culture. His critique, moreover, is just as much a product of historical circumstances as was Margaret Mead's original study, in that it reflects the heightened biological sympathies and the more conservative sensibility of our own era. One might accurately describe it as the revenge of biology on the overextended cultural ideals and libertarian impulses of the first half of the century.
Mead's book retains its vitality not because it tells the truth about a particular society or because it establishes the doctrine of cultural determinism, but because it embodies the aspirations of an age that believed passionately in the possibilities of human improvement. Like Rousseau before her, Margaret Mead belongs to the party of humanity, and the myth she propagated, like Rousseau's, is eloquent testimony to humanity's hope for a better future.