Friday Book: Sex and the Samoans

The Fateful Hoaxing Of Margaret Mead By Derek Freeman, Westview Press, pounds 16.50

"THIS MEAT has surely been used for soup," says Miss Bartlett at the beginning of A Room with a View. I had similar thoughts on picking up Derek Freeman's latest book on the "Mead-Freeman controversy", about the validity of the American anthropologist's famous fieldwork in Samoa. Freeman published Margaret Mead and Samoa: The Making and Unmaking of an Anthropological Myth in 1983, five years after Mead's death. His earlier book provoked not only many publications but also a play called Heretic, staged in Australia and New Zealand. Yet such is Freeman's skill with condiments that, in the end, one has quite a tasty meal.

The American Anthropological Association won many people over to Freeman's side when it passed a resolution denouncing the 1983 book without inviting Freeman to defend himself. This stupid reaction vindicated the contention that Mead was a liberal American mother-goddess of the Spock era whose cult led her devotees to behave unscientifically when challenged by a rude Australian.

The scholarly issue - to what extent had a 24-year-old anthropologist been led to exaggerate sexual permissiveness among Samoan adolescent girls in her 1928 book, Coming of Age in Samoa? - is not of great intrinsic importance. But Mead was to become the first, and most successful, media anthropologist. She built for herself a unique position in American public life as social critic and ambassador for her discipline. (In Britain, she was never so much admired.)

Those who live by the media are often brought down thereby. When Freeman's earlier book was published, Harvard University Press hired a New York PR firm to handle his talk-show bookings. While proclaiming that his only goal is the truth, he has piggybacked on Mead's fame.

Freeman does show that Mead's research relied more on hunch than on rigour. Her close relationship with her professor, Franz Boas, did induce Mead to tailor her findings to his hypothesis: that adolescent behaviour was subject to cultural variables, rather than genetically determined. Boas, meanwhile, was over-indulgent towards a book written with Mead's enchanting literary facility.

Amusingly, Freeman records how Mead skimped on the focused research she had promised Boas because it required spending time with (in her words) "socially unimportant adolescents". Staying in US Navy premises for most of her fieldwork, she was treated as one of the governing elite from America and took on the persona of a visiting taupou or ceremonial virgin (concealing the fact that she had married two years previously).

Freeman's new material is partly based on a reconstitution from archives of Mead's itinerary, and partly on testimony sworn in the late Eighties by an old lady called Fa'apua'a, one of Mead's closest Samoan friends. She confessed that she and a girlfriend had engaged in recreational lying when they told Margaret that they spent their nights with boys.

Freeman builds an edifice upon one evening, 13 March 1926, when Mead is supposed to have been gulled by this teasing. But Fa'apua'a was a taupou herself and Mead knew quite well that a taupou's virtue was carefully protected. Moreover, Fa'apua'a and her friend were in their mid-20s, as Mead was - not adolescents. Freeman shows literary flair himself in persuading the reader that he is building up a watertight case, and he has succeeded in convincing some eminent natural scientists. But he remains a prosecuting attorney rather than an impartial historian.

It may well be that Mead's informants told her what they thought she wanted to hear, and that she did not cross-check the story. But many Samoans have come to resent their culture's reputation for sexual looseness, and this may have slanted Fa'apua'a's evidence in the Eighties. Also, America in the Twenties was quite strait-laced. Mead may have sussed out the reality of private sexual norms in Samoa, and confused these with public rules. In fact, Samoa seems to have been neither especially permissive nor especially restrictive.

Freeman concedes that Mead and Boas were not deliberately deceitful (they allowed extensive archives to be preserved) so much as "cognitively deluded". Though he oversimplifies Boas's position, Freeman has a point in criticising those anthropologists who think that culture somehow overrides biology. His own pleas for a reintegration of cultural anthropology and evolutionary biology are fine words, but he does not explain how the Samoan debate bears on the theoretical problems of today.

Mead insisted that her best-seller, Coming of Age in Samoa, should not be revised. It will survive as a literary rather than a scientific classic. And if she was duped? The mistakes people make at the age of 24 acquire public notoriety only if they later become famous.

There was nothing in her of the curmudgeon. In life, she was serially married to three anthropologists. Freeman, having found the key to her weak spot, has hyphenated himself to her as an endlessly replicating duo in the afterlife of publicity. A feature film must impend: Derek and Margaret, perhaps?

Jonathan Benthall

The reviewer is director of the Royal Anthropological Institution

Arts and Entertainment

Will Poulter will play the shape-shifting monsterfilm
Arts and Entertainment

books
Arts and Entertainment
Paul Hollywood

'Whether he left is almost immaterial'TV
Arts and Entertainment

game of thrones reviewWarning: spoilers

Arts and Entertainment
The original Star Wars trio of Harrison Ford, Carrie Fisher and Mark Hamill

George Osborne confirms Star Wars 8 will film at Pinewood Studios in time for 4 May

film

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Fishing for votes with Nigel Farage: The Ukip leader shows how he can work an audience as he casts his line to the disaffected of Grimsby

    Fishing is on Nigel Farage's mind

    Ukip leader casts a line to the disaffected
    Who is bombing whom in the Middle East? It's amazing they don't all hit each other

    Who is bombing whom in the Middle East?

    Robert Fisk untangles the countries and factions
    China's influence on fashion: At the top of the game both creatively and commercially

    China's influence on fashion

    At the top of the game both creatively and commercially
    Lord O’Donnell: Former cabinet secretary on the election and life away from the levers of power

    The man known as GOD has a reputation for getting the job done

    Lord O'Donnell's three principles of rule
    Rainbow shades: It's all bright on the night

    Rainbow shades

    It's all bright on the night
    'It was first time I had ever tasted chocolate. I kept a piece, and when Amsterdam was liberated, I gave it to the first Allied soldier I saw'

    Bread from heaven

    Dutch survivors thank RAF for World War II drop that saved millions
    Britain will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power - Labour

    How 'the Axe' helped Labour

    UK will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power
    Rare and exclusive video shows the horrific price paid by activists for challenging the rule of jihadist extremists in Syria

    The price to be paid for challenging the rule of extremists

    A revolution now 'consuming its own children'
    Welcome to the world of Megagames

    Welcome to the world of Megagames

    300 players take part in Watch the Skies! board game in London
    'Nymphomaniac' actress reveals what it was really like to star in one of the most explicit films ever

    Charlotte Gainsbourg on 'Nymphomaniac'

    Starring in one of the most explicit films ever
    Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi: The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers

    Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi

    The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers
    Vince Cable interview: Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'

    Vince Cable exclusive interview

    Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'
    Iwan Rheon interview: Game of Thrones star returns to his Welsh roots to record debut album

    Iwan Rheon is returning to his Welsh roots

    Rheon is best known for his role as the Bastard of Bolton. It's gruelling playing a sadistic torturer, he tells Craig McLean, but it hasn't stopped him recording an album of Welsh psychedelia
    Morne Hardenberg interview: Cameraman for BBC's upcoming show Shark on filming the ocean's most dangerous predator

    It's time for my close-up

    Meet the man who films great whites for a living
    Increasing numbers of homeless people in America keep their mobile phones on the streets

    Homeless people keep mobile phones

    A homeless person with a smartphone is a common sight in the US. And that's creating a network where the 'hobo' community can share information - and fight stigma - like never before