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The Trashing of Margaret Mead

Anatomy of an Anthropological Controversy

Paul Shankman; Foreword by Paul S. Boyer

Publication Year: 2009

In 1928 Margaret Mead published Coming of Age in Samoa, a fascinating study of the lives of adolescent girls that transformed Mead herself into an academic celebrity. In 1983 anthropologist Derek Freeman published a scathing critique of Mead’s Samoan research, badly damaging her reputation. Resonating beyond academic circles, his case against Mead tapped into important public concerns of the 1980s, including sexual permissiveness, cultural relativism, and the nature/nurture debate. In venues from the New York Times to the TV show Donahue, Freeman argued that Mead had been “hoaxed” by Samoans whose innocent lies she took at face value.
    In The Trashing of Margaret Mead, Paul Shankman explores the many dimensions of the Mead-Freeman controversy as it developed publicly and as it played out privately, including the personal relationships, professional rivalries, and larger-than-life personalities that drove it. Providing a critical perspective on Freeman’s arguments, Shankman reviews key questions about Samoan sexuality, the alleged hoaxing of Mead, and the meaning of the controversy. Why were Freeman’s arguments so readily accepted by pundits outside the field of anthropology? What did Samoans themselves think? Can Mead’s reputation be salvaged from the quicksand of controversy? Written in an engaging, clear style and based on a careful review of the evidence, The Trashing of Margaret Mead illuminates questions of enduring significance to the academy and beyond.
2010 Distinguished Lecturer in Anthropology at the American Museum of Natural History

Published by: University of Wisconsin Press


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pp. vii-viii

List of Illustrations

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pp. ix

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pp. x-xiv

On August 30, 1850, Dr. John White Webster, a lecturer in chemistry at Harvard Medical School, was hanged for murder. The victim was his colleague Dr. George Parkman, a wealthy and socially prominent professor at the medical school, from whom Webster had...

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pp. xv-xvii

The Mead–Freeman controversy has been raging for more than twenty-five years, and many people—anthropologists, scholars in a variety of disciplines, Samoans, journalists, commentators, political figures, filmmakers, and others— have discussed, written, and...

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pp. 3-20

She was the most famous anthropologist of the twentieth century. At the time of her death in 1978, Margaret Mead was America’s first woman of science and among the three best-known women in the nation.1 For many people, she was the embodiment of anthropology itself. As a successful professional woman, Mead was also...

Part 1: The Controversy and the Media

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1 The Controversy in the Media

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pp. 23-30

A cliche has it that journalists write the first version of a story. Other professionals then follow up with more thorough and perhaps more accurate versions. Yet for the general public, a journalist’s version may not simply provide the first version they....

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2 Selling the Controversy

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pp. 31-44

Because Freeman's critique of Mead was so widely reported and so hotly contested in the media, it is reasonable to assume that his books were best sellers, or at least that they were widely read. Yet they were not. Margaret Mead and Samoa received excellent...

Part 2: Derek Freeman

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3 Derek Freeman, the Critic

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pp. 47-56

Fame came late in life for Freeman, and it was almost entirely based on his role as Mead’s critic, a term that often accompanied his obituaries. 1 His name would be forever linked to hers. For most of his career, though, Freeman was not famous or even well...

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4 Psychoanalysis, Freeman, and Mead

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pp. 57-70

In the early 1960s, following the events in Sarawak, Freeman’s growing interest in psychoanalysis had both personal and professional dimensions. Psychoanalysis might help Freeman the scholar unlock the mysteries of Iban ritual symbolism that neither British....

Part 3: Margaret Mead and Coming of Age in Samoa

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5 Young Margaret Mead

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pp. 73-86

Having discussed Freeman's life and his connections to Samoa and Mead, we now turn to Mead’s life and her connections to Samoa. How did her career begin? What led her to study adolescence in Samoa and to write the book that made her...

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6 First Fieldwork in Samoa

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pp. 87-100

Mead's professional goal of fieldwork abroad took precedence over her personal life. And fieldwork for a young woman traveling abroad and working alone was not easy in the 1920s. Mead had never visited another culture prior to Samoa. She had never been west of the Mississippi. She had not spent a day alone before her fieldwork....

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7 Writing Coming of Age in Samoa

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pp. 101-115

In early May 1926, Mead boarded a ship in Pago Pago to begin the long voyage home. During her fieldwork in Samoa she had ended her relationship with Sapir, but her relationships with Cressman, Benedict, and others had largely been placed on hold. With her research completed, the unfinished business of Mead’s personal life...

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8 Mead’s American Audience in the 1920s

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pp. 116-132

As Mead was departing for New Guinea, Coming of Age in Samoa reached the shelves of American bookstores. William Morrow had invested $1,500 to advertise and promote the book, a substantial sum for a small publisher. The first edition had the enthusiastic...

Part 4: Sex, Lies, and Samoans

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9 What the Controversy Meant to Samoans

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pp. 135-150

By the 1920s the south seas had become part of American consciousness. As Mead wrote Coming of Age, she thought about what the islands might mean to her American audience. But she did not anticipate what her book would mean to Samoans.....

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10 Samoan Sexual Conduct: Belief and Behavior

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pp. 151-159

The controversy over Coming of Age gave Samoans opportunities to respond to the representation of their culture and especially of Samoan sexual conduct. It also provided anthropologists opportunities to discuss what they saw as the issues in the controversy...

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11 Under the Coconut Palms

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pp. 160-174

Given the difference between belief and behavior, how did young Samoans learn about sex, and to what extent did they engage in sexual relationships? Here Mead’s descriptions...

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12 Virginity and the History of Sex in Samoa

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pp. 175-190

The Taupou system occupies a central place in the Mead– Freeman controversy. Its very existence, according to Freeman and many Samoan critics of Mead, showed that virginity was more than an abstract value; it was part of...

Part 5: The Broader Issues

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13 The Many Versions of the Hoaxing Hypothesis

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pp. 193-205

With a better understanding of the complexity of Samoan sexual conduct and the decline of the taupou system, we can now return to Freeman’s hoaxing hypothesis, the most damning part of the controversy for Mead’s reputation as an ethnographer. After all, what could be worse for an anthropologist than to be fooled...

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14 The Nature-Nurture Debate and the Appeal of Freeman’s Argument

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pp. 206-224

Had the controversy been confined to the details of Samoan culture, it would have had little importance beyond the narrow playing field of academia. For Freeman, however, Coming of Age in Samoa mattered a great deal because of its relevance to the nature-nurture debate. Mead allegedly had tried to demonstrate that nature...

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pp. 225-238

Over the course of the controversy, Derek Freeman became increasingly frustrated with his colleagues in American anthropology: Why were they unable to see that Mead had been misled by Samoans? He thought that his refutation had made this obvious. And why were they unable to appreciate the magnitude and...

Appendix: True Confessions

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pp. 239-248


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pp. 249-270


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pp. 271-288


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pp. 289-299

E-ISBN-13: 9780299234539
Print-ISBN-13: 9780299234546

Page Count: 299
Publication Year: 2009