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The Fateful Hoaxing of Margaret Mead: An Historical Analysis of Her Samoan Researches Paperback – 17 Sep 1999
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About the Author
Derek Freeman is a fellow of the Academy of Social Sciences in Australia. For over forty years he has been either a professoral fellow or a professor in the Research School of Pacific and Asian Studies in the Institute of Advanced Studies at the Australian National University. He has made a lifelong study of the people of Samoa and, during recent years, has done major historical research in Samoa, the Library of Congress, and elsewhere on Margaret Mead's Samoan fieldwork of 1925-1926.
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A summary of Mead's errors and weaknesses in Samoa:
1. She spent a total of five months in Samoa. This is NOT enough time to learn the language, even with "total immersion."
2. She did not live with Samoans but with other Americans. Therefore she avoided "total immersion" and learned even less of the language.
3. She did not carry out the work assigned to her by her employers (a study of adolescent girls).
4. She assumed, not once but three times, the role of a ceremonial virgin in Samoa, even though she was a married woman. (Her husband was not in Samoa at the time.) This was a very serious betrayal of the trust the Samoans placed in her, and could have destroyed all of her friendships with Samoans had it been discovered through some mishap.
5. That she would act so carelessly in hoaxing the Samoans may be explained by her reference to them as "alien, primitive, and economically backward."
6. She was particularly allergic to taro, the staple of the Samoan diet. This was one of the reasons she refused to live with Samoans. But it seems to me that she could easily have perpetrated a minor hoax (perhaps with the collusion of her doctor friends), simply letting it be known that she was "allergic to taro" and that it would poison her. This would have obliged her Samoan hosts to provide other food for her, a great inconvenience, but it might well have worked.
In summary, then, she was arrogant and foolish while she was in Samoa. That being the case, she deserved everything she got.
I told me family about this book and my BIL summed it up 'About time! Palagi's will believe anything!'
This was a generous if implausible explanation. Generous, because it avoided taxing her with outright fabrication. Implausible, because Mead's depiction of Samoan promiscuity drives whoredom into the core of the social psyche. She claimed that Samoans have no sense of sin despite their regular church attendance and the admonitions of pastors ('They are able to count [sex] at its true value. . . [they recognize] the essential impersonality of sex attraction which we may well envy them']. She reported masturbation, homosexuality, and lesbianism as common practices that were regarded as 'simply play' between casual heterosexual liaisons. In other words, Mead's Samoans, like Mead herself, were bisexual. She attributed the relaxed attitude to pre-marital sex and to adultery to the fact that Samoans have no deep attachments or strong emotional feelings. There is no parent-child bonding for the same reason. These and like claims construct the cultural 'pattern' of a society untroubled by the storm and stress of adolescence. Such thinking was the trendy utopianism of the sexual reformers of her era, but it had nothing to do with Samoa until Mead's arrival from New York.
Freeman's book is a mighty effort to convert the Samoan belief in duping into a well-founded conclusion. He touts two 'smoking guns'. One is the sworn testimony of Mead's dear friend during her field trip, Fa'apu'a Fa'amu, to the effect that she did indeed tell Mead fibs in reply to her questions about her relations with men. The other is correspondence between Mead and the supervisor of her Samoan research, Franz Boas.
The first smoking gun is a dud. Fa'amu testified only that she told Mead that 'We spend nights with boys, yes, with boys!' and similar non-specific allusions. There is no express admission that intercourse occurred. There is no hint whatever of lesbianism. The duping hypothesis predicts that Mead's field notes would record the information given her by Fa'amu. In fact, the notes never attribute any information to her. The natural conclusion is that despite the affection, Mead did not regard her friend as an informant. It is improbable, in any case, that Mead credited Fa'amu's tease, partly because her notes show that she was alert to tall tales and partly because Fa'amu's status as a taupou, or ceremonial virgin, meant that she was never unchaperoned and hence had no opportunity for 'spending nights with boys'. Finally, Fa'amu's non-specific allusions added nothing to what Mead's notes show she already believed she knew about Samoan promiscuity. In sum, the duping episode is irrelevant to understanding how Mead managed get Samoan moeurs so desperately wrong. Since the second smoking gun depends on the first, it too is a dud.
Did she make it up then? Although he repeatedly defends Mead's research integrity, Freeman destroys his noble defense by cataloguing deceit after deceit in things small and great. Mead indeed seems to have been a gamester who got a buzz from pulling the wool over people's eyes. And this was her reputation among her colleagues, who called her 'the lady novelist', a 'mythmaker', given to exaggeration and hyperbole, to sloppy and impressionistic description of no great reliability. The eminent Edward Sapir bluntly called her a 'pathological liar'.
Freeman shows that Mead's fieldwork was premised on two strategic deceits. She concealed from her hosts her married status. By passing herself off as a virgin, she was honored by three villages with title of taupou, which conferred a great advantage-she had, as she said, 'rank to burn' and could 'order people about'. She second strategic deceit was perpetrated on her supervisor, Franz Boas and indirectly on her funding sponsor, the National Research Council. Boas and the Council expected her to research the personality of adolescent girls, to determine the extent to which nature (puberty) or culture influenced adolescent conflict. But Mead wasn't interested in this project. She accepted it because it got he a ticket to the field. Her real interest was ethnography. Unbeknownst to Boas, Mead struck an agreement with the Bishop Museum (Honolulu) to prepare a monograph on Samoa. Freeman shows by a meticulous reconstruction of her activities that she spent no more than four or five weeks on the funded project, hardly time enough for a systematic investigation of this complex and demanding subject. This is confirmed by her sparse field notes on the adolescent project.
Her strategic impostures led to the massive fraud that made her famous. Having little data, she just made it up and pretended, in the appendices of Coming of Age, to have found it. Mead seems to have delighted in slipping mickies as a kind of sport. She says, for example, that Samoa was untroubled by natural disasters. Yet it's common knowledge that no island is spared the ravages of storm, flood and occasional tsunamis. In fact, a hurricane devastated Manu'a in January of the year of her visit. She says that Samoan children alternately crawl or walk until the age of 'three or four'. Every caregiver knows that once the child learns to walk, next it runs and never returns to crawling. She seems to have been supremely confident that no one would call her hand on such whoppers. Deception was so habitual that she lied gratuitously. Thus she told Boas that she was seasick for six weeks (!!) on her return voyage, while in fact she was romancing a new beau-love sick, not seasick. It's not surprising that her epistemological mottoes were: 'The truth isn't out there, you know' and 'If it isn't [true], it ought to be'.
Freeman's claim that the hoax 'effectively solve[s] the 'enigma of Margaret Mead's research' unfortunately follows the fashion of substituting victimhood for active will. He would have us see her as the unwitting pawn of a mythopoetic fate. Fiddlesticks! Mead's behavior in Manu'a was a disgrace to herself and to her profession. Such conduct had no logical relation to Boasian anthropology. It was entirely her doing. Having deceived her hosts, she disgraced the sacrosanct taupou title by having affairs. That too was her personal choice. She went on to invent a salacious bisexual Samoa as a preamble to the part of Coming of Age that made her famous--her advocacy of educational, family, and sexual reform in America.
Mead's research presents no enigma. She always went to the field to find what she wanted to find-an uplifting story to boost a current social reform. As for those 'primitives' who served as fodder, well, they were expendable in the great struggle to reform the world.
Hiram Caton Editor, The Samoa Reader: Anthropologists Take Stock. University Press of America, 1990.
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