Thursday, July 07, 2011

Genre 2012

Please consider attending the upcoming conference on genre at Carleton University:

Genre 2012--Rethinking Genre Twenty Years Later: An
 International Conference on Genre Studies
 Location: Carleton University, Ottawa, Ontario, Canada
 Date: June 26-29, 2012

 Call for Proposals:  

I've already agreed to be there. Deadline for your proposal is October 15. Thanks very much to the conference co-organizers for putting this on: Natasha Artemeva, Jaffer Sheyholislami, and Graham Smart (Carleton University).

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.

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.