Wednesday, February 18, 2009

On Mead and Samoa

Back in the day when the Nurture vs. Nature war was going full tilt, Franz Boas, the most eminent anthropologist of his time, sent 23-year-old Margaret Mead to do some field work in Samoa. A short time later she returned to the States and in 1928 published her startling book Coming of Age in Samoa.

Coming of Age in Samoa was a smashing success for at least a few reasons: 1). its preface, written by Boas, very strongly endorsed Mead's conclusions, 2). it was uncritically accepted by scholars and laymen alike, and 3). Mead's conclusions were that free love was the rule in Samoa and Samoan girls didn't suffer, like their American counterparts, from the storm and stress associated with adolescence. Mead went on to generalize that all youth wherever would benefit from following the Samoans' lead.

It wasn't until 1983 before anyone seriously challenged Mead's conclusions, and when he did, Derek Freeman started an uproar in anthropological circles. For a while, Freeman was considered the anthropological Antichrist, attacking as he was the conclusions of Mead--the 'Mother-Goddess' of anthropology, but now his work concerning Mead is much more widely accepted.

I've recently read most of Freeman's Margaret Mead and Samoa (1983) and all of his Fateful Hoaxing of Margaret Mead (1999). Both are fascinating and I'd recommend them to anyone interested Samoa, anthropology, or good old-fashioned scientific controversy.

I've learned a few lessons from Mead's work in Samoa that should prove helpful to any aspiring scientist. Mead could have avoided posthumous embarrassment at the hands of Freeman had she or her advisor, Franz Boas, done three things before publishing Coming of Age in Samoa:

1. Checked her conclusions against her own field notes,

2. Checked her conclusions against the extant ethnological data,

3. Checked her conclusions by returning to Samoa for additional study.

Freeman makes it clear, however, that not only did Mead not do any of the above mentioned things, she insisted in the preface to the 1973 edition of Coming of Age in Samoa that revision was an impossibility:

"Some young critics have even asked me when I am going to revise this book and look unbelieving and angry when I say that to revise it would be impossible. It must remain, as all anthropological works must remain, exactly as it was written, true to what I saw in Samoa and what I was able to convey of what I saw; true to the state of our knowledge of human behavior as it was in the mid-1920's; true to our hopes and fears for the future of the world." (Emphasis mine)

So, instead of revisiting and revising her terribly flawed work, Margaret Mead doggedly upheld its conclusions for the rest of her life. Perhaps Mead thought she'd lose her credibility if she ever reversed her stance.

Contrast that attitude with Hugh Nibley's: "Everything...is being reappraised....I refuse to be held responsible for anything I wrote more than three years ago. For heaven's sake, I hope we are moving forward here! After all, the implication [is] that one mistake and it is all over with. How flattering to think in forty years I have not made one slip and I am still in business! I would say about four-fifths of everything I put down has changed. Of course! That is the whole idea; This [research] is an ongoing process...." (Source)

We have to reappraise and revise all the time, of necessity, or else we are liable to be made to look like fools. There's no shame in admitting a mistake; it's bar none the best way to correct our course and start moving in the right, or a better, direction.

Dr. Paul Alan Cox, an ethnobotanist who has done extensive field work in Samoa, has a differing view than both Mead and Freeman:

"Noncompetitive, lenient, and somewhat promiscuous [Mead's conclusions]. Authoritarian, competitive, and touchy [Freeman's conclusions]. Margaret Mead's and Derek Freeman's descriptions of Samoans seem worlds apart. The longer we [Dr. Cox and his family] lived in Falealupo, the more I wondered if what one sees in Samoa is merely a reflection of one's own preconceptions." (Nafanua: Saving the Samoan Rainforest, pg. 68)

Enter another piece of advice for budding young scientists: be careful of preconceptions; science is supposed to be unbiased and objective. But since it's nearly impossible to completely remove one's biases and subjective views, one must lay all of them on the table before stating one's conclusions.

I agree with both Freeman and Cox: the Samoans are not to be characterized as the libertines Mead made them out to be.

Enough pontificating! You get the point.

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