Wednesday, July 06, 2011

Reading :: Coming of Age in Samoa

Coming of Age in Samoa: A Psychological Study of Primitive Youth for Western Civilisation
By Margaret Mead

(Note added 2011.07.07: Page references are to the 1973 paperback edition, not the later edition I linked on Amazon.)

I'm reading some ethnographic classics this summer, and this book has been on my list for a while, so I'm glad I finally got to it. I've never read Mead's classic Coming of Age in Samoa, although I've seen it discussed and cited many times. I'm also aware that this work is controversial, both through general discussions in the literature and through the other book I bought at the same time, Derek Freeman's The Fateful Hoaxing Of Margaret Mead (which I'll review soon). But I avoided reading these critiques until I was able to read Mead's book itself, so that I could form my own impressions.

So what were my impressions? First, Mead had a captivating writing style and a real gift for painting scenes. From the first pages, I could almost envision the Samoan village she described based on her study in 1925-1926. Mead introduces us to the scene first, then takes us through the contextual information in subsequent chapters: a typical Samoan day, children's education, the household, how adolescent girls related to their age groups and community, then issues such as sex relations, dance, and personality. In all these chapters, we almost feel like we have entered village life, learning the hierarchy, seeing the interactions, and being privy to the gossip: who is lazy, who is slow, who has poise and maturity beyond her years, who lags behind, who slept with whom. Mead gives many quotes, but far more stories about the happenings in the three villages she studied.

In fact, much of the book does seem like gossip or hearsay. Mead not only recounts many stories that her informants told her - without consistently specifying her sources - she also makes personal judgments that tend to go beyond what we might consider data analysis. For instance, she describes one delinquent in this way:
She was stupid, underhanded, deceitful and she possessed no aptitude for the simplest mechanical tasks. Her ineptness was the laughing stock of the village and her lovers were many and casual, the fathers of illegitimate children, men whose wives were temporarily absent, witless boys bent on a frolic. It was a saying among the girls of the village that Sala was apt at only one art, sex, and that she, who couldn't even sew thatch or weave blinds, would never get a husband. ... She had a sullen furtive manner, lied extravagantly in her assertions of skill and knowledge, and was ever on the alert for slights and possible innuendoes. (p.101)
This description sounds like the sort of thing that two or three teenage girls might say about a rival. Did Mead triangulate this description with others in the village, including children and adults? Did she interview Sala herself about her own impressions? Unfortunately it's impossible to say. Sala does appear in the table of participants in the back, but in my reading, I didn't see any other information about where she got this description beyond "it was a saying among the girls of the village..."

In fact, the methodology was rather spare. Mead characterizes Samoa's adolescent girls on the basis of "six months" spent "in one small locality, in a group numbering only six hundred people" in "three practically contiguous villages" (p.145). (Elsewhere, Mead puts the total time in Samoa at nine months.) That's a very short period for an ethnography, especially given that Mead had to gain the trust of her informants.

Mead ends with a couple of chapters that attempt to apply the lessons of Samoa to childrearing and education in the West. In these chapters, she paints a rather idyllic picture of Samoan life and especially Samoan adolescence, contrasting it sharply with those of the West, and suggesting that much of the difference comes from the fact that Samoan life is much more heterogeneous than life in the West (pp.112-113) and that Samoan children are given more choices, particularly in their sexual experiences.

An aside: modern readers will be taken aback by some of the language used in this 1928 book. For instance, Mead uses the term "savages," a jarring term in 2011. Similarly, Mead allows that adolescents regularly engage in "homosexual" behavior as part of their development and advancement into adulthood, but she draws a bright line between this experimentation and "perversion," i.e., lifelong same-sex orientation (p.82). Again, the terms are jarring, and may be difficult for the reader of 2011 to get past.

Overall, I was suspicious of Mead's conclusions, based on her small amount of time among the Samoans, the idyllic picture she painted of them, and the methodology she used, which seemed to rely heavily on interviewing teen girls and very lightly on triangulating these impressions via observations, artifacts, or interviews with other groups. It's still a fascinating and well written study, but I wouldn't encourage anyone to model their own studies based on it. I would, however, encourage them to read it.

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