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Margaret Mead and Samoa : the making and unmaking of an anthropological myth

CollectionsANU Press (1965- Present)
Title: Margaret Mead and Samoa : the making and unmaking of an anthropological myth
Author(s): Freeman, Derek
Date published: 1983
Publisher: Canberra, ACT : Australian National University Press
In 1928 Margaret Mead announced her stunning discovery of a culture in which the storm and stress of adolescence do not exist. Coming of Age in Samoa has since become a classic - and the best-selling anthropology book of all time. Within the nature-nurture controversy that still divides scientists, Mead's evidence has long been a crucial "negative instance," an apparent proof of the sovereignty of culture over biology. In Margaret Mead and Samoa, Professor Freeman presents startling but wholly convincing evidence that Mead's proof is false. On the basis of years of patient fieldwork and historical research, Freeman refutes Mead's characterization of Samoan society and adolescence point for point. Far from the relaxed transition to adulthood that Mead ascribed to permissive childrearing and tolerant sexual attitudes, Samoan adolescence, Freeman demonstrates, is a time of frequent stress in an authoritarian society with punitive methods of childrearing and restrictive regulations against premarital sex. Freeman's book thus corrects a towering scientific error. His aim is not to blame Margaret Mead but to understand how her error could have occurred and become basick to the doctrine of cultural determinism The result is a detective story in the history of science, one filled with engrossing details about cultural anthropology's battle with the eugenics movement, about Mead's relationships with her most important colleagues, Ruth Benedict and Franz Boas, and finally about her poor preparation for the field and the likelihood that she was duped by her adolescent informants. Beyond these particulars lie painful but important generalizations about how the truth in Science can sometimes be obscured by theory and how theory can sometimes be twisted by ideology.


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