Wednesday, July 06, 2011

Reading :: The Fateful Hoaxing of Margaret Mead

The Fateful Hoaxing Of Margaret Mead: A Historical Analysis Of Her Samoan Research
By Derek Freeman

Shortly after Margaret Mead's death in 1978, Australian ethnographer Derek Freeman stirred up a controversy over her first book, Coming of Age in Samoa, in his 1983 book Margaret Mead and Samoa: The Making and Unmaking of an Anthropological Myth. This book generated an enormous backlash, described in the Afterword of Freeman's 1999 book The Fateful Hoaxing of Margaret Mead. I didn't entirely trust Freeman's account of the controversy, but I do trust Bonnie Nardi, who wrote a 1984 review of Freeman's earlier book that she based partially on her own fieldwork in Samoa.

The present book seems very much a reaction to that 1983 controversy. After retiring, Freeman went through Mead's vast archives of correspondence and manuscripts, reviewed court cases from the time that Mead stayed in Samoa, and visited with people who were alive during that time. He also repeats some of the quotes from his previous book, in which one of Mead's original informants claims that she and a companion had joked about Samoan sexual practices, not realizing that Mead would take their claims at face value and characterize the adolescence of Samoan girls based on them. Although I'm not an anthropologist, I think there's some gold in this account - but also much dross, because Freeman seemed to have lost his sense of proportion as he wrote the book.

Here's the gist of the book. Mead, a brilliant young PhD (and Freeman continually reminds us how young she was, at 24), is sent to study adolescence in a primitive culture by her mentor Franz Boas. Boas wants proof that nurture is more significant than nature - that is, that culture determines more than biology. Boas wanted Mead to study culture among the American Indians, but Mead was enchanted with Polynesia and insisted on conducting the study there. According to Freeman, Boas gave Mead a half-hour lecture on fieldwork before sending her off - and that was the sum total of her fieldwork experience.

Mead was not just enchanted with Polynesia, she was also enchanted with ethnology and wanted to conduct an ethnological study. This sort of study, Freeman argues, was explicitly against Boas' wishes and the terms of her fellowship, but she clandestinely entered into an agreement with the Bishop Museum to conduct an ethnological study and write a monograph. In Hawaii, she met with the director of the Bishop Museum and with its ethnologist, Edward Craighill Handy, who described his fieldwork in western Polynesia. Based on his descriptions, as well as other reports from western Polynesia and even fictional descriptions in Melville's writings, Mead learned that Polynesians generally had a lax attitude toward sex. (According to Freeman, Mead was not aware that western and eastern Polynesia had very different cultural attitudes toward sex.)

Mead went on to the US Naval Station in Pago Pago, where she taught herself basic Samoan and discovered that she hated the taste of boiled taro root, the food staple of the islands. She enjoyed living on the base, with its comforts, but concluded that Pago Pago was too colonized to perform the study of primitives that she had envisioned. So she moved on to the islands of Manu'a, where she lived at the US Naval Dispensary. According to Freeman, she greatly preferred the food and sleeping arrangements of the Dispensary to that of the villages, so she decided to sleep there. Boas, who himself had elected to sleep in hotels when performing fieldwork among the Native Americans, agreed with her decision via letter.

In Manu'a, according to Freeman, Mead tried to serve two masters - her study of adolescents and her ethnological study of Samoa - and in the meantime greatly enjoyed being treated as a visiting dignitary and ceremonial virgin. Freeman also claims that Mead was unaware of the deep tensions between the US Navy and the US-appointed native government, which made trust-building difficult. Essentially, Freeman says, Mead frittered her time away with ceremonies and unsystematic ethnological study, and ran out of time on her study of adolescents. This set the stage for the unintentional hoax. As she traveled with two other ceremonial virgins or taupou (they were ceremonial, but according to Freeman, they were also actually virgins), Mead asked them about their sexual practices (Ch.11). Embarrassed by this line of questioning, the taupou engaged in what is alternately known as ula, tausua, taufa'alili, or taufa'ase'e, depending on the intention. Freeman loosely translates it as "recreational lying" (p.139). They claimed that at night they would slip out to see boys - a claim that, according to Freeman, they thought was too outrageous to be believed. Mead, primed by the literature she had read and her discussions with Handy, and desperate for evidence that would allow her to deliver to Boas the proof he wanted, believed them. She left the islands soon after, a month ahead of schedule, her goal accomplished.

This story is riveting. But just as Mead's book seems in some places marred by hearsay, so does this one. Freeman often characterizes Mead in very negative ways, ways that go well beyond her methodological missteps. He emphasizes how young and idealistic she is, how she idolizes Boas, and how ambitious she is. He betrays her as spoiled, unwilling to tolerate Taro or nights in the village. He goes into detail about extraneous and uncomplimentary information such as how her first marriage failed and her second one began. He uses snatches of her poetry and her favorite parts of others' poetry to characterize her idealism and single-mindedness. He portrays her as dithering, nervous, excitable, unreliable, and treacherous. And he repeats these character attacks throughout the book, often in italics. These attacks made me suspicious of his conclusions. That's the dross.

There's much less gold, but it comes in the close analysis of Mead's correspondence with Boas and her bulletins sent to friends and colleagues as well as the close analysis of contradictions within the book itself. Here, Freeman is on firmer ground, showing that Mead had been presented with, and recorded, claims that directly contradict her thesis that Samoan adolescents were expected to be promiscuous.

Overall, I am glad that I read this book - but I'm also glad that I bought it used. As a popular book, it's gripping and interesting, but also gossipy and rather unfair. As an academic book, it is too black-and-white, brooking no middle ground between Mead's claims of free love among the Samoans and Samoan authorities' claims of rigorous chastity. If you're interested in Mead's works, consider reading it, but with a healthy dose of caution and skepticism.

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