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Posted by on Mar 11, 2013 in Culture, Debate, Skepticism | 8 comments

Sex in Samoa – Margaret Mead not so wrong after all?

In her famous 1928 book, Coming of Age in Samoa, Margaret Mead notoriously wrote about an island paradise in the Pacific with much more carefree attitudes to pre-marital sex than existed in Western countries at the time, and she was apparently motivated, at least to an extent, by something of an ideology of free love. She believed that a relaxation of sexual restrictions in her own society would have utilitarian benefits, that the restrictions did more harm than good.

Whether or not she was right about that, it is now popularly believed that she made egregious errors about the actual practices in Samoa, misled by a mixture of her own wishful thinking and the mischievous attitudes of her Samoan interlocutors, some of whom were happy to play her along with jokes or tall stories about their sexual adventures. The New Zealand anthropologist Derek Freeman made something of a career of debunking Mead’s work, and as a result of his efforts her scholarly reputation is currently in eclipse.

What is, I suspect, less well known to the public is that Freeman’s own work has been closely scrutinised by scholars for nearly two decades now, and that he apparently overreached in some of his key claims. This leaves more doubt than the public is probably aware of – i.e. Mead’s work on adolescent sexuality in Samoan society may have merit after all. Almost 100 years after she did her field work, it is difficult to reconstruct how much of it may have been of value, though it does seem to have had more evidential support than Mead is (as a result of Freeman’s numerous public criticisms) popularly credited for. Given this state of difficulty and uncertainty, not to mention an unfortunate lack of time machines, controversy will probably continue.

I’m not sure what to make of such a sorry situation. Here is a new article by Alice Dreger published in The Atlantic. It summarises some of the problems, and it links, in turn, to a scholarly article by Paul Shankman, who has also written an entire book on the subject. It is worth reading Shankman’s article in its entirety to get a grasp of the detailed issues. He argues that there is no conclusive evidence that Mead was hoaxed, and that Mead actually did have a deep and detailed understanding of Samoan society in the 1920s.

Whether or not Mead’s interpretations of adolescent sexual conduct ultimately stand is another matter: there still seem to be questions of methodology and interpretation, even if she was not actually hoaxed. She certainly had a bias, but then again Freeman appears to have had some sort of axe to grind of his own.

If there’s a lesson here, surely it is about maintaining a mixture of caution and open-mindedness when faced with surprising, but not necessarily extraordinary, claims. (Not necessarily extraordinary because nothing about our general understanding of the world rules out either that Samoan culture could have been as Mead described it, or that a young anthropologist could have made serious mistakes, or that someone like Freeman might have committed logical fallacies and/or used unfair argument in his rebuttals.)

Someone who took Mead’s work entirely at face value might have been naive, but the same applies to someone who is very quick to accept that it must be entirely without merit. With an issue like this, it is very easy to jump one way or the other, depending on what confirms our particular ideological biases, or perhaps our wishes about how the world should be.