Margaret Mead is best known for her book ‘Coming of Age in Samoa’ which she wrote when she was just 27. She wanted to investigate whether adolescence was a stressful process due to biology or cultural context. How could you analyze this phenomenon within the discipline of psychology? According to Mead you would need to raise a child ‘cultureless’ in order to determine the effects of biology which is virtually impossible. That’s why Mead argued that anthropology could step in and solve problems beyond the field of psychology. In order to understand the role that American culture had on adolescences; she chose to look at a distinctly different culture. In Mead’s eyes Samoa ‘set the stage’ for the perfect experiment. Over the course of 9 months she observed and interviewed 50 Samoan girls aged 9 – 20.
What were her conclusions?
In 1928 when Mead’s work was published her conclusions were seen as pretty revolutionary. Her findings challenged the previous belief in the ‘biologically superior’ individual. Instead an individual’s ability to thrive or succumb to stress during adolescence was seen as the result of cultural forces. Mead surmised that the ‘simplistic’ and ‘laidback’ attitude of Samoan culture made adolescence a ‘simple’ matter. In contrast, the overwhelming amount of choice and freedom in American contributed to a great deal of stress and uncertainty for American adolescences. It is important to keep in mind that Mead did not suggest America become more like Samoa in order to solve this issue, but rather that comparison between cultures can illuminate the effect that culture has on an individual.
“One girl’s life was so much like another’s, in an uncomplex, uniform culture like Samoa, I feel justified in generalizing although I studied only 50 girls in three small neighboring villages.” P. 16
Now this is where it gets really intriguing (and just a ‘bit’ unethical) …Since its publication, Coming of Age in Samoa has been met with a number of allegations. There is one section where Mead describes teenage boys masturbating in groups, but it is unclear whether she observed this herself. It is also unclear whether Mead sought parental consent (probs not) from the children’s parents before asking questions about their sexual experiences.
“There were only three little girls in my group who did not masturbate.” P. 113
Perhaps most notably is that the girls Mead interviewed are believed to have lied and told her what they thought she wanted to hear. While Mead’s work was revolutionary at the time because it challenged the popular theories in Evolutionary Anthropology (such as the idea that some people’s genes are more superior than others), Mead portrayed America as culturally advanced.
“Our society shows a greater development of personal.” P. 166
Why is this important?
While Mead’s actual findings have been proven flawed for countless reasons, her work is still a valuable source for future anthropological inquiry. At the time Mead’s work was seen as progressive confronting and so it’s important to not fall into the trap of judging her methods by today’s standards. What we can learn from past ethnographies is how the discipline has evolved over time. In addition, we can see how some of the assumptions made in early ethnographies have influenced future works, including our own. For example, Mead attempted to portray the totality of Samoa after the short 9 months she lived there. She also did not disclose her own positionality nor think critically about her own biases and how this impacted the research. Personally, reading Mead’s work has reminded me of the danger when trying to represent the entirety of a situation and to keep in mind that each ethnography is like a limited snapshot of the researcher’s interaction with their subjects. Despite the limitations, the insights are nonetheless valuable as long as we think critically and reflexively about the processes involved.
Mead, M 1928, Coming of Age in Samoa: A Psychological Study of Primitive Youth for Western Civilisation, Blue Ribbon Books, New York.
Want to know more about anthropology’s unethical past? See also: