Was Margaret Mead naive in her collection of anthropological materials and biased in her interpretation of her data

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Was Margaret Mead naive in her collection of anthropological materials and biased in her interpretation of her data?

Viewpoint: Yes, Margaret Mead's methodology was flawed, and her bias and naiveté call into question her conclusions.

Viewpoint: No, while Mead's methodology and conclusions have been legitimately criticized, her overall analysis has been supported by a majority of anthropologists.

When the American anthropologist Margaret Mead died in 1978, she was the only anthropologist so well known to the general public that she could be called "grandmother to the world." Indeed, it was through Mead's work that many people learned about anthropology and its vision of human nature. Through her popular writings she became a treasured American icon, but by the end of the twentieth century her reputation was under attack by critics who challenged the accuracy of her early research and her concept of human nature and culture. Perhaps it was Mead's obvious eagerness to offer advice and guidance on a plethora of issues that caused critics to complain that she "endowed herself with omniscience … that only novelists can have."

Mead was born in Philadelphia in 1901. She majored in psychology at Barnard, earning her B.A. in 1923, then entered Columbia University at New York, where she earned an M.A. in 1924, and a Ph.D. in 1929, and studied with pioneering anthropologists Franz Boas (1858-1942) and Ruth Benedict (1887-1948). In 1925 Mead went to American Samoa to carry out her first fieldwork, focusing on the sexual development of adolescent girls. When the Samoan work was published as Coming of Age in Samoa: A Psychological Study of Primitive Youth for Western Civilization (1928), it became the best selling anthropology book of the twentieth century. In 1929 Mead and her second husband Reo Fortune went to Manus Island in New Guinea, where her fieldwork focused on children. This work was published as Growing Up in New Guinea: A Comparative Study of Primitive Education (1930). In subsequent fieldwork Mead explored the ways in which gender roles differed from one society to another. Various aspects of her pioneering comparative cross-cultural studies were published as Sex and Temperament in Three Primitive Societies (1935). In fieldwork carried out with her third husband, Gregory Bateson, Mead explored new ways of documenting the relationship between childrearing and adult culture. Bateson was the father of Mead's only child, Mary Catherine Bateson, who also became an eminent cultural anthropologist.

During World War II, Mead and Ruth Benedict investigated methods of adapting anthropological techniques to the study of contemporary cultures, especially the allies and enemies of the United States, including Britain, France, Russia, Germany, and Japan. Through an understanding of cultural traditions, Mead hoped to find ways to encourage all nations to work toward a world without war. "Those who still cling to the old, simple definition of patriotism have not yet recognized that since Hiroshima there cannot be winners and losers in a war," she warned, "but only losers." When remembering Margaret Mead, most people will recall her famous admonition: "Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world."

Although Mead taught at Columbia University, New York University, Emory University, Yale University, The New School for Social Research, University of Cincinnati, and The Menninger Clinic, the American Museum of Natural History in New York was always her research base. She also served as president of the American Anthropological Association, Anthropological Film Institute, Scientists Institute for Public Information, Society for Applied Anthropology, and the American Association for Advancement of Science. She was awarded 28 honorary doctorates and, in 1979, the Presidential Medal of Freedom. A popular lecturer and prolific author, Mead produced over 40 books and thousands of articles, and made dozens of films that introduced new ways of thinking about adolescence, sexuality, gender roles, childrearing, aggression, education, race relations, and environmental issues. For the centennial celebration of her birth, many of her books were reissued with new introductions.

Despite Mead's immense popularity, her reputation was somewhat tarnished when Derek Freeman, a professor of anthropology at Australian National University, created the "Mead-Freeman controversy" with the publication of his book Margaret Mead and Samoa: The Making and Unmaking of an Anthropological Myth in 1983. Initially, Freeman argued that a young, gullible Mead mistook Samoan jokes about sexual conduct for the truth. Freeman's assertion that he had discovered a "towering scientific error" received widespread media attention. According to Freeman, Mead used inaccurate material to please her mentor, Franz Boas, and to support the doctrine of absolute cultural determinism. Freeman argued that the "Mead paradigm" dominated twentieth-century anthropology because of the cultlike loyalty of her followers. According to Freeman, anthropology cannot be a respectable scientific discipline until anthropologists acknowledge Mead's initial errors in Samoa and their disastrous intellectual consequences. Some critics of Freeman's book suggested that his attack on Mead had been inspired by his friendship with the Australian anthropologist Reo Fortune, Mead's second husband, whom she divorced.

In a later book, The Fateful Hoaxing of Margaret Mead: A Historical Analysis of Her Samoan Research (1999), Freeman claimed that Mead had been "hoaxed" by her informants, citing as evidence some of the letters exchanged between Mead and Franz Boas in the 1920s. Critics of Freeman counter that he used the letters selectively and even deceptively. For example, Martin Orans, an anthropologist at the University of California at Riverside, refuted Freeman's claim that Mead was duped by her Samoan informants. Nevertheless, Orans called his book Not Even Wrong: Margaret Mead, Derek Freeman, and the Samoans (1996), because he rejected the assumption that Mead's work proved that Samoan adolescents "came of age" without stress, and that cultural practices are universally independent of biological determinants. Orans believed that such sweeping global assertions were too vague to be empirically tested, and thus, the Samoan conclusions did not reach the threshold required of scientific claims. Both Mead's global claims and Freeman's refutation were "not even wrong," which Orans asserts, is "the harshest scientific criticism of all."

Although Freeman's critique of Mead brought him a remarkable amount of media attention, he presented himself as a heretic and a lonely dissenter searching for truth. Accusing anthropologists of mindlessly following the "prescientific ideology" of a "totemic mother," Freeman asserts that professional journals have suppressed his work in "the interests of a ruling ideology." Indeed, the title of his Margaret Mead and Samoa (1983) was changed in the 1996 edition to Margaret Mead and the Heretic (1996). In his later writings, Freeman claimed that Mead was antievolutionary, but other anthropologists argue that Freeman simply omits or misrepresents Mead's views on evolution in order to discredit her work. Anthropologist Paul Shankman, at the University of Colorado at Boulder, writing in the Skeptical Inquirer (1998), asserts that "on the fundamental issues of biology, culture, and evolution, Mead and Freeman are in substantial agreement. Mead was not antievolutionary; she held what are now conventional views on evolution, just like Freeman."

Since Freeman published Margaret Mead and Samoa in 1983, even anthropologists who had criticized various aspects of Mead's work or conclusions on technical grounds, found themselves defending a popularized work from the 1920s in order to defend the overall scientific standing of anthropology. Some have accused Freeman of cowardice for waiting until after Mead's death to publish his attacks on her early work. On the whole, Freeman's critiques have dismissed his thesis as ridiculous and absurd, because no rational scientist would expect work carried out in the 1920s to meet contemporary standards of scholarship. Coming of Age in Samoa was a popular classic. It was never a "sacred text" for anthropologists, and certainly not a model for modern fieldwork and scholarly writing. Indeed, Shankman admits that Mead's popularity actually "led academic anthropologists to treat her work with caution, recognizing its limitations as well as its strengths."


Viewpoint: Yes, Margaret Mead's methodology was flawed, and her bias and naiveté call into question her conclusions.

Margaret Mead was direct, strong, unique, articulate, intellectual, hardworking, passionate, and honest. Thought by many to be the mother of anthropology, there is much to admire in Mead. However, to say that she was always unbiased with regard to the way she interpreted her data would be stretching the truth. Complete objectivity was certainly the ideal, but it was not always the reality. In addition, it could easily be argued that Mead was, at times, naive regarding the process of data collection, especially early in her career.

Early Influences

Margaret Mead had an interesting childhood. Her father, a university professor, placed a high value on intellectual thought and believed that the finest thing a person could do was to add something of value to the public discourse. Margaret's mother, an educated woman in her own right, was a dutiful and earnest woman who took her domestic role seriously and had little regard for ostentatious behavior. Margaret learned a certain degree of self-sufficiency from watching her mother, who was keenly aware of her husband's affairs and frequently left alone.

In many ways, it was her father's behavior that taught Margaret never to be too dependent on a man. Although Margaret respected her father's mind, she did not always respect his ethics. In her book, Blackberry Winter, she wrote, "I simply was very careful not to put myself in a position in which he [her father], who called the tune, had too much power over me." After all, Margaret's father was not especially warm toward her, and it could easily be argued that his opinions and behavior influenced her passionate viewpoints regarding a woman's place in society. For example, despite the strength of Margaret's mind, her father advised her that a college education was unnecessary in the event that Margaret was to marry; an opinion Margaret blatantly dismissed as incorrect, demonstrating early on her unwillingness to be a pedestrian in her own life.

Indeed, Mead was greatly influenced by the strong opinions of her mother and paternal grandmother. From them she learned that a mind is not sex-typed and that it is perfectly natural for a woman to be intelligent. In fact, if what she claims is true about one's environment shaping personal character, then she certainly learned the value of social advocacy from the women in her life and maybe a bias or two as well. After all, her mother was quite vocal with regard to those who did not support the suffragettes campaigning for women's right to vote, referring to them derisively as "women who probably kept poodles."

Mead's Early Work

And yet, despite all her lessons in reality, Margaret Mead was a bit naive when she set off for Samoa to study adolescent girls in 1925. She was fresh out of college and virtually without any field experience. To make matters worse, the methods she learned were not practical, but based on theory, and much of the previously published work on Samoa was inaccurate and did not pertain to the question she hoped to study anyway. Mead was not a linguist and had never even learned a foreign language, so she had to rely totally on an interpreter's ability to convey the facts in an unbiased way. Although Mead attempted to learn some of the culture's language that she was about to study, she was hardly fluent, and it was naive of her to assume that this would not affect the outcome of her research is a significant way.

Indeed, Mead was not getting the whole picture; the Samoans sometimes censored themselves, and political opposition from local officials resulted in the monitoring of her correspondence. Mead, aware of her readership at home, censored herself and tailored her stories to her audience. The argument can easily be made that no matter how objective the researcher, a personal agenda and outside factors can sometimes effect the interpretation of events and the way those events are communicated.

Mead's training in psychology may have given her ideas regarding samples and tests, but it did not prepare her for some of the obstacles she faced. After all, she was breaking new ground and had to invent procedures of her own which she later claimed allowed her to create a broad cultural picture without the need for a lengthy stay. However, it was naive of Mead to think that she could understand with complete clarity the nuances of a culture in a matter of months, regardless of how effective she believed her methods to be. And although it is true that different scientists may approach the same problem in different ways, Mead's conclusions on Samoan promiscuity remain controversial today.

Data Collection and Interpretation

Despite the fact that Mead was armed with the ability to competently categorize subjects and facts, much of her controversial work on gender issues came from "post interpretation," which is disturbing to anyone hoping to verify her conclusions. This is true, for example, regarding the much-discussed research she conducted with Reo Fortune, a respected Australian anthropologist and her second husband. Together they studied three New Guinea tribes: the Mundugumor, Arapesh, and Tchambuli. In contrasting the typically gentle Arapesh women and men with the typically assertive Mundugumor women and men, Mead concluded that one's culture formed adult personality, not one's biological sex. Whether or not one believes this analysis, critics point to a variety of problems in the way Mead collected her data.

First, Mead's naïveté did factor into her collection of data. Nancy McDowell, a professor of anthropology at Beloit College, did fieldwork in 1972 and 1973 in the first village upriver from the village in which Fortune and Mead carried out their research and continues to visit periodically. In her book Mundugumor, McDowell says that Mead thought that no significant problem of sampling or perspective existed if the informant knew the culture well. Most scientists now know that the questions asked could very well shape the answers given. Even the development of the questions could be influenced, at least in part, by the researcher's bias or personal interest. A broader sampling is so valuable for that reason; it helps eliminate bias. But Mead disagreed. For this reason, many of Mead's critics have questioned the validity of her conclusions. They find it naive, at best, to think that anyone could reach valid conclusions about a culture based on the information derived from only one or two informants. One example of this limitation is reflected in an observation made by McDowell, "Mead may have failed to see that her perception of the collapse of Mundugumor society may have been as much her informants' construction of past events as it was a true rendering of 'reality.'"

To compound the problem, Mead was operating within the confines of a far less sophisticated paradigm than anthropologists do today. Mead had a tendency to think she could study a culture for a bit of time, master it, and move on to the next culture. This "mosaic view" of culture, a term coined by Roger Keesing, author of Cultural Anthropology: A Contemporary Perspective is considered simplistic by today's standards. As McDowell states, culture is now understood to be both "a complex set of diversities" and "not perfectly integrated."

Data collection can also be affected by egalitarian factors. Sometimes a female/male team can be helpful in communicating with both sexes; however, the division of labor can also affect how the data is gathered. Communication problems among field workers who are supposed to be teammates can certainly damage the accuracy of the data collection process. For example, when Fortune missed a cue and did not communicate all aspects of his research with Mead, he caused Mead to unknowingly work in the dark, so to speak, and this lack of knowledge could have affected her conclusions. In part this problem was not Mead's fault; she trusted Fortune to be completely forthcoming and thorough, but in retrospect that was probably naive. How impressed she was with his scholarship and how their personal chemistry effected the process is also difficult to know for certain, but it is fair to speculate that a more seasoned Mead would have done things differently had she been able to relive the experience.

Some would argue that Mead, who was earnest enough to type out her notes, was capable of working so fast that she did not have to spend as much time in the field as other workers. However, working fast is not always better as there were considerable gaps and inconsistencies in her notes. Some questions simply remained unanswered. As Nancy McDowell, author of Mundugumor, states "Mead never claimed that she and Fortune did a complete ethnography of the Mundugumor, and she knew very well that her materials were especially limited since they left in the middle of their planned field trip."

On some level, Mead may have wished she could have studied the Mundugumor culture from a distance. She did, after all, hold it in a fair amount of disdain, which causes one to question how unbiased she was in the interpretation of the data she collected. Photography, some say, allows quite a bit of objectivity. Mead often used photography in her work, especially to study a culture from a distance, yet this seemed to contradict her belief that one must immerse oneself in a culture. It would seem that to study a culture accurately, one must examine it close up, not at a distance. Documentary-style photographs, as compelling as they are when they are well done, capture only a moment in time. Moreover, the snippets of information they provide can also be deceiving; for a total picture, the subject must be studied over time.

Some of the most vocal criticism regarding Mead's work has come from the Australian anthropologist Derek Freeman, who lived in Samoa for a time. According to Freeman, his conversations with Samoan women generated significantly different results than did Mead's. However, when one considers the passion and determination with which Freeman attacks Mead's work, it is not surprising that some people have called his motives into question. Indeed, his delivery does seem unduly forceful at times, and perhaps he simply could not reconcile his conservative views with Mead's radical ones. In any event, Freeman has garnered a great deal of attention. On the surface, it might appear that Freeman is primarily responsible for the controversy that surrounds Mead's work, but to give him that kind of power is to oversimplify the situation. Mead's methods and conclusions were controversial on their own; Freeman was hardly alone in his criticism. He merely capitalized on some of the weaknesses in her methods, claiming that she was duped, for example, by the people she interviewed in Samoa. What is ironic is that the same argument against credibility could also be used with regard to Freeman's work. The language barrier was a challenge for any anthropologist studying Samoan culture. And, indeed, the same gender politics that might have affected what was said to Mead might also have affected what was said to Freeman. So, in truth, each proposed theory must be weighed against a multitude of variables.

The Strength of Her Convictions

To her credit, Mead was not a weak person; she was unafraid to take a stand and voiced her opinions openly. One needs only to read her book Some Personal Views to understand what an unconventional thinker she was. Mead's personal beliefs were, by many accounts, radical in nature, in fact, despite her rejection of the term, she could easily be defined as a radical feminist. Rosemarie Tong, author of Feminist Thought pointed this out when she used Margaret Mead as an example of someone who "espoused a nurture theory of gender difference according to which masculine and feminine traits are almost exclusively the product of socialization or the environment." In essence, Mead held the controversial belief that culture determines the formation of an individual's character, an idea that is widely debated even today.

One could easily say that Mead enjoyed shaking things up a bit and, despite all her rhetoric about suspending one's own belief system while studying other cultures, her biases were simply too strong not to occasionally affect her data interpretation. Some might even argue that it is our bias, our unique philosophical perspective that serves us well when we engage in scientific analysis. Those same people might also debate that it is not possible, or even advisable, to completely abandon all we believe to be intrinsically true when we interpret data that relates to human behavior. When studying human nature and other cultures, as anthropologists do, it seems perfectly natural to utilize not only clinical, objective methods of analysis, but also personal impressions. In some other scientific disciplines, chemistry, for example, the analysis is more mathematical than intuitive. In anthropology, however, this does not have to be the case; the collection of data can successfully be united with intuition. As long as the bias is recognized within the framework of the analysis, it does not have to be detrimental. The problem is that the bias is not always adequately recognized and identified; and it is this concern that some scholars have with the way Mead interpreted her data. And yet, it is nearly impossible to "sweep one's mind clear of every presumption" as Mead suggests in Blackberry Winter. Mead herself could not do it in every case; it is merely an ideal. Some might even argue that it is a senseless ideal. There are times when it is appropriate for an anthropologist to recall personal experiences, especially when trying to understand differences that exist within cultures. In Mead's book Letters From the Field 1925-1975, she cautions "one must be careful not to drown," and adds that balance can be achieved when "one relates oneself to people who are part of one's other world."

When Mead was a young anthropologist, scientists were just beginning to explore the nature of the relationship between the observer and the observed. Biases in her interpretation were more than likely unintentional, but nonetheless, they did exist. However, to criticize Mead in some moral fit of anger, filtered through the veil of chauvinism as some scholars have done, seems extreme and certainly not in the spirit of scientific discovery. It seems equally ridiculous to accept Mead's conclusions on culture and character, for example, simply because she was instrumental in putting the field of anthropology on the map. Her work provides food for thought, but she is not the final authority on culture and character, nor did she wish to be. Mead acknowledged that in the light of changing theories, improvements in data collection would be made and that people would reevaluate her methods as part of the learning process—a process that she thoroughly embraced.


The issue of how Mead collected and interpreted her data is complicated. Cutand-dried analysis does Mead and her work a disservice. Her numerous contributions to the field of anthropology are rightly acknowledged, and she was a leader, and by many accounts, an important thinker. Indeed, Mead's pioneering spirit and strength of character led her to engage in studies that were, in her youth, reserved only for men. In that regard, her work is admirable, but it can also be said that her personal biases sometimes prevented her from being completely objective. It is also important to recognize that no scholar or scientist is, or should be regarded as, flawless. With scientific advancement and new research comes an inevitable series of new questions. The awareness that others may come after us and develop new hypotheses and different methodologies should free us to act. Mead certainly understood this, and no matter how controversial some of her theories have been, she certainly added to the public discourse, despite her biases. Mead inspired people to look at society in a new way, to think critically, and to appreciate different cultures.


Viewpoint: No, while Mead's methodology and conclusions have been legitimately criticized, her overall analysis has been supported by a majority of anthropologists.

Margaret Mead followed anthropological guidelines and attempted to maintain a "scientific" detachment during her fieldwork, from her first field work in Samoa, to her last study. While many anthropologists have questioned portions of her work, criticized her populist writing style, and disagreed with her both personally and professionally, only one person has seriously questioned her in terms of bias and naïveté. After her death, Australian anthropologist Derek Freeman managed to single-handedly call Mead's scientific reputation into question. However, although the public perception of her achievements was tarnished, even her opponents in anthropology rallied to her defense against what they considered an unwarranted attack.

An Influential and Controversial Book

Margaret Mead came to fame chiefly due to her first book, The Coming of Age in Samoa, published in 1928 when she was in her early twenties. The book was based on several months' fieldwork on the islands of Manu'a, in American Samoa. Mead had set out to study adolescent life, as it was both her hope and that of her supervisor at Columbia University, Franz Boas, that she would find proof that adolescence is not the same in all cultures. This was important to Boas, as he was a supporter of cultural determinism, a theory that stood in opposition to genetic determinism and eugenics. The eugenicists argued that human behavior was genetically determined; the cultural determinists argued that upbringing and environment were more important factors in development. Simply put, the debate was over which was more important in human life, nature (genetics) or nurture (upbringing). Boas was opposed to eugenics on philosophical and moral grounds, as well as scientific ones, as many eugenicists believed in notions of racial purity, forced sterilization, and other concepts he found abhorrent. However, Boas and his students still recognized the important of hereditary and genetics. The cultural determinists were seeking evidence against an extreme form of genetic determinism, not against genetics itself.

Mead had a broader interest in adolescence, and her observations led her to think that there was a great range of cultural difference in young people. She needed a good test case, decided the Pacific held promise, and went to Samoa. After a number of months in the field she concluded that for the 50 young Samoan women she had studied, there were few of the typical Western adolescent upheavals and rebellions associated with adolescence. Samoan culture, she claimed, provided an openness that made coming of age a relatively smooth transition. This implied, therefore, that nurture was more important than nature, at least in this one case.

Rather than just another shot fired in the battle between cultural determinists and eugenicists, Mead's Coming of Age in Samoa was destined to make a much wider splash. Her editor encouraged her to make it more marketable by including chapters written in a popular style, and to generalize her conclusions to United States culture. She included flowery passages such as: "As the dawn begins to fall among the soft brown roofs, and the slender palm trees stand out against a colorless, gleaming sea, lovers slip home from trysts beneath the palm tress or in the shadow of beached canoes, that the light may find each sleeper in his appointed place," which gave the work a romantic feel. The popular style, and the suggested application to United States culture and child-rearing, gave the book a wide appeal. While the book offended many with its call for sexual freedoms, it also struck a powerful cord in a time when American adolescence and sexual behavior were hot topics. Coming of Age in Samoa was probably the most widely read anthropological book of the twentieth century, and many commentators placed it as one of the 100 most important works of the century. Mead became a celebrity, and her career soared. She went on to study other cultures, and wrote many other important works on a variety of subjects including motherhood and the women's movement, publishing over 1,400 articles and books.

Freeman Challenges Mead in the Media

In 1983, several years after Mead died, Harvard University Press published a book by Derek Freeman questioning Mead's work, Margaret Mead and Samoa. The publishers appear to have realized the promotional possibilities of such a work, attacking the most well known of anthropologists, as they "leaked" details to the popular media. For example, two months before the book was published, an article, "New Samoa Book Challenges Margaret Mead's Conclusions," appeared on the front page of the New York Times. In Margaret Mead and Samoa, Freeman charged that Mead's cultural determinist ideology had been more important to her than the evidence she had found in Samoa, that many others had observed Samoa differently, that her methods of getting information were flawed, and that she had taken things said in jest too seriously. He also went on to claim that the whole validity behind Boas's cultural determinism and the importance of nurture was therefore based on flawed work. This last claim seemed to challenge the very foundation of anthropology, and its scientific status.

Much of the debate over Mead's work and the implications for anthropology were played out in the media. Freeman appeared on talk shows, gave public lectures, and many magazines (including Time ) and newspapers carried articles on the subject. While the debate was over fairly quickly in academic circles, with Freeman's claims being soundly dismissed for a variety of reasons, Freeman continued to press his case in the media. Dismissals from academic critics just seemed to strengthen Freeman's resolve, and he began to stress his "outsider" status. A new edition of his book was renamed Margaret Mead and the Heretic, with Freeman now taking the role of the "heretic" attacked for pointing out the faults with Mead's false doctrine. A film presenting Freeman's view was made, and a play, Heretic, was staged. In 1998 a second book, The Fateful Hoaxing of Margaret Mead: A Historical Analysis of Her Samoan Research, was published. Its major claim was based on a portion of the film, in which one of Margaret Mead's teenage informants, Fa'apuna'a (now in her eighties), was interviewed. In the interview Fa'apuna'a states that she and her friend Fofoa had hoaxed Mead by making up stories about their sexual adventures. In reality, Fa'apuna'a claimed, there had been no trysts among the slender palm trees as portrayed in Coming of Age in Samoa, she had been a virgin.

The Anthropologists Respond

The anthropological community generally dismissed Freeman's work. His use of evidence was seen as highly selective, ignoring that of other observers of Samoan culture who agreed with Mead. His method was criticized, and the whole basis for his attacks questioned. Freeman's claims regarding Boas's philosophy were considered to be wildly inaccurate and misleading, and some went so far as to dismiss the whole affair as another right-wing attack on liberal academia. Rather than an academic work, many anthropologists considered it nothing more than an attempt at character assassination, timed as it was after Mead's death.

Freeman portrayed these criticisms as the followers of Mead's ideology "circling the wagons," desperately defending against the onslaught of his "irrefutable" evidence. Yet many of those who spoke up to defend Mead's work also disagreed with aspects of her methods and conclusions. Mead's reputation had never been totally clean, and as one academic noted, "she has never been accused of having been the most meticulous and persistent of linguists, historians or ethnographers." Many of Mead's colleges had criticized her work, her methods, her conclusions, and her style. However, Mead might not have been totally correct, many said, but she was not the biased and naive researcher that Freeman portrayed. Anthropologist Lowell D. Holmes of Wichita State University, whose doctoral research consisted of a methodological restudy of Mead's Samoan work, had what he described as a stormy relationship with Mead, and his own research led him to several opposing conclusions. However, Holmes saw these as details to be politely debated academically, and stated: "Although I differ from Mead on several issues, I would like to make it clear that, despite the greater possibilities of error in a pioneering scientific study, her tender age (twenty three), and her inexperience, I find that the validity of her Samoan research was 'remarkably high.'" Many others had revisited the islands and questioned portions of Mead's work, yet none saw Freeman's arguments as valid. Indeed, in the same year as Freeman's first book was published, another book, Richard A. Goodman's Mead's Coming of Age in Samoa: A Dissenting View, offered an analysis of Samoa that differed from Mead's. Goodman's book did not gain any media attention as his tone was much tamer, more reasoned, and more academic.

Freeman's Argument Criticized

It is easy to see why there was such as strong reaction to Freeman's books when his methods and evidence are analyzed. Freeman set out to prove Mead wrong, as early correspondence with other scholars shows, implying that it was he that was biased from the outset. Freeman's research in Samoa began some time after Mead's, and he did not publish his work until 1983, yet the changing nature of Samoan culture is not considered in his work. Furthermore, Freeman did not study the same area as Mead, and much of his statistical evidence, such as reports of rape and other violent crimes, does not take into account the divisions between urban and rural Samoan culture. Freeman was a middle-aged man living with his wife in Samoa, yet does not seem to consider that this might color the responses of young girls when talking to him about sexuality. Mead had the advantage of establishing a rapport with girls about her own age and size (Mead was slim and short), whereas the middle-aged Freeman must have seemed an imposing figure in a fiercely patriarchal and Christian society. As Holmes notes, "one cannot criticize Margaret for believing the sexual accounts of young Samoan girls, many of them about her age, and then expect the scientific community to believe that the investigations of an elderly white male among girls of adolescent age could be reliable and valid on such a delicate subject as virginity." It is not surprising Freeman only heard denials of sexual activity from young women. Would anyone expect any other response in such a situation in any society? Freeman also fails to consider what motivations there may have been for the changed testimony of Fa'apuna'a, some 60 years after the fact. Although Freeman is quite certain that Fa'apuna'a lied to Mead, he does not consider that he himself may have been hoaxed. An elderly woman in Christian Samoa is not likely to admit to adolescent sexual behavior, especially not when Fa'apuna'a had been a high-status maiden who should have guarded her virginity. Freeman is asking us to believe this one interview instead of the fieldwork of Mead in which Fa'apuna'a was just one informant, yet has not considered which is the more plausible story.

Although many anthropologists believe that Mead went too far in her conclusions, and that she was mistaken in some instances, the majority of the anthropological community consider that the vast bulk of her research and analysis was correct. Mead's Samoa work was a portrait of Samoan adolescent female culture in the 1920s, and in that narrow context appears to have been very accurate. Some of the broader conclusions that Mead included, partly to please her publisher, may be justly questioned, but that does not imply that she was naive or biased in her study of Samoa, just over-reaching in her promotion of cultural determinism.

In addition, the broader implications for the nature/nurture debate are not as dramatic as Freeman has portrayed them to be. Mead's book was not the only study to show the importance of nurture, and neither Mead nor Boas were blind to the importance of heredity. Freeman himself, criticizing cultural determinism on the one hand, then attempts to use it to prove his case. Samoa, he argues, is an unusually violent culture, something he does not link with genetics. Freeman's celebrated calls for a new style of anthropology fell not on deaf ears, but on those of intelligent listeners who quickly decided that his ideas were confused and worthless.

Although Freeman found fame and support outside anthropology, he did not find wide support for his criticisms of Mead within the discipline. Yet Mead's legacy in anthropology is not one of blind faith by devoted followers. Many have questioned her methodology and her broad conclusions, but the majority of anthropologists have supported Mead's overall analysis. Coming of Age in Samoa was a pioneering work, and as such must be expected to have its faults. Many other studies have shown that Mead's conclusions regarding the cultural component of adolescence hold true in many societies. Mead was no more biased than any other anthropologist, and there were few who would have called her naive, even at the age of 23. Even though Freeman's attacks may have succeeded in damaging her popular reputation, Mead's anthropological reputation remains intact.


Further Reading

Caton, Hiram, ed. The Samoa Reader: Anthropologists Take Stock. Lanham, MD: University Press of America, Inc., 1990.

Freeman, Derek. Margaret Mead and Samoa: The Making and Unmaking of an Anthropological Myth. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1983.

——. The Fateful Hoaxing of Margaret Mead: A Historical Analysis of Her Samoan Research. Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1999.

Hellman, Hal. "Derek Freeman versus Margaret Mead." Great Feuds in Science: Ten of the Liveliest Disputes Ever. New York: John Wiley & Sons, Inc., 1998.

Holmes, Lowell D. Quest for the Real Samoa: The Mead/Freeman Controversy & Beyond. Boston, MA: Bergin & Garvey Publishers, Inc., 1987.

Keesing, Roger. Cultural Anthropology: A Contemporary Perspective. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1981.

McDowell, Nancy. The Mundugumor: From the Field Notes of Margaret Mead and Reo Fortune. Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1991.

Mead, Margaret. Coming of Age in Samoa: A Psychological Study of Primitive Youth for Western Civilization. New York: Perennial Classics, 2001.

——. And Keep Your Powder Dry: An Anthropologist Looks at America. New York: Berghahn Books, 1999.

——. Blackberry Winter: My Earlier Years. New York: William Morrow & Company, Inc., 1972.

——. Letters From the Field, 1925-1975. New York: Perennial, 2001.

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Tong, Rosemarie. Feminist Thought: A Comprehensive Introduction. Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1989.



Scientists who systematically study and record data about other cultures.


An example, pattern, or principle that forms the basis of a methodology or theory. In science this word is often used to refer to a clearly defined archetype (something that served as the model or pattern for other things of the same type).


Study of human genetics and methods to improve inherited characteristics, both physical and mental. The early emphasis was on the role of factors under social control that could either improve or impair the qualities of future generations. Modern eugenics is directed chiefly toward the discouragement of propagation among the unfit (negative eugenics) and encouragement of propagation among those who are healthy, intelligent, and of high moral character (positive eugenics). Such programs encounter many difficulties, from defining which traits are most desirable, to the obvious moral and ethical dilemmas that result regarding the freedoms of individuals.


Idea that the culture in which we are raised determines who we are, both emotionally and behaviorally. Some cultural determinists argue that even physical traits can be affected by culture, such as the effect of proper nutrition on growth and final height. While genetic research often makes the headline, cultural determinists consider it is more important to remember the role culture plays in determining abilities and capabilities. While genetics has obvious effects, and may define limits to growth and development, cultural influences have a broader role in shaping individuals.

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Was Margaret Mead naive in her collection of anthropological materials and biased in her interpretation of her data

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