The Margaret Mead and Derek Freeman Debate

Ann M. Bender Trevor Humphries Trevor Michael

During the first half of the twentieth century, Margaret Mead rose to prominence as an anthropologist for her work in the South Pacific. Mead was born in Philadelphia in 1901 and received her education from Columbia University earning degrees in Psychology and Anthropology. Her career began with field studies in the South Pacific on the islands of New Guinea, Bali, and Samoa. While conducting fieldwork in Samoa, Mead became interested in local adolescent behavior compared to the behavior in Western Culture. Her studies led her to the conclusion that adolescent behavior was affected by the culture that surrounded it. While Mead's findings in her book "Coming of Age in Samoa,", which was published in 1928, made a great impact on thinking of social scientists of the time, her studies have come under much recent scrutiny, most notably, by the criticism of anthropologist Derek Freeman.

Freeman claims that from his investigation of Mead's fieldwork in Samoa that her conclusions of the adolescent behavior are at odds with relevant facts. He believes that her findings are the result of a hoaxing pulled over on her by native Samoans. In 1989 filmmaker Franz Heimans visited Samoa to make a film about Mead's fieldwork there in 1925 and 1926. Freeman accompanied Hiemans with hopes of finding someone to speak with about what Mead had done while she visited Somoa. Freeman came across two people who had direct connections with Mead. Galea'i Poumele, son of Fofoa who was one of Mead's closest friends at the time, and Fa'apua'a Fa'amu, who was her best friend while she was in Samoa.

When Freeman interviewed these two people he came across some interesting information. Fa'apua'a told him that Mead had questioned her and Fofoa about what they did at nights and they had jokingly said they spent their nights with boys. Fa'apua'a said she never thought Mead would have believed them, but had realized when she read Mead's account of Samoa, that it was faulty and Mead's conclusions had based on the fibs that Fa'apua'a and Fofoa had told her. Fa'apua'a adamantly explained to Freeman that she had not intended to mislead Mead, but it is custom for Samoan's to exaggerate and joke when asked about sexual behavior. Fa'apua'a said her far-fetched tales mislead a great many people and she wanted to set the record straight.

After Freeman recorded Fa'apua'a's answers and told her how important to anthropology her claims were, he asked her to swear on the Bible that her testimony was true to the best of her knowledge. The swearing of oaths is a common practice in Samoa and devout Christians like Fa'apua'a believe swearing falsely upon the Bible will result in immediate sickness or death along with eternal damnation. Samoans generally believe it is one of the most serious of actions and believing this, Fa'apua'a took an oath confirming everything she had told Freeman. (The Fateful Hoaxing of M.M." Freeman, 1999; pgs. 3-7).

In addition to Fa'apua'a's interview Freeman went to great lengths organizing Mead's documentation's and correspondence of her time spent in Samoa to see how she spent her time there. He came up with five different ways that Mead's account of Samoan adolescence was inaccurate. First, she brought with her to Samoa a belief in ideology, impressed upon her by her mentors Franz Boas and Ruth Benedict, that human behavior is determined by cultural patterns. Second, her involvement with ethnology studies for the renowned Bishop Museum created a crisis on her original research of adolescence and she turned to Fa'apua'a and Fofoa in hopes of finding a cultural pattern that would allow her to solve the problem that Boas had sent her to Samoa investigate. Third, she arrived in Samoa with a false preconception from Edward Handy, director of the Bishop Museum, that she would find premarital promiscuity as the cultural pattern in Samoa. Fourth, she idolized Franz Boas and wanted to reach a conclusion that he would find acceptable. Fifth, Mead had inaccurate knowledge of the responses she received from Fofoa and Fa'apua'a when she asked them about their sexual behavior. ("The Fateful Hoaxing of M.M." by Freeman, 1999; pgs. 12-15)

By the 1960's it was being revealed that studies done on the Samoan culture by other ethnographers was creating a contradiction between what they were finding and what Mead had found ("M.M. and the Heretic" by Freeman; pg. 107). Lowell Holmes was an anthropologist who believed in cultural determinism and was a follower of Boas and a friend of Mead. He wrote a doctoral dissertation called " A Restudy of Manu'an Culture," and found that Mead's conclusions had serious errors. Holmes's studies were in complete disagreement with Mead, but Mead's reputation was so towering against Holmes that he testified in his final paper that the comparison's between his fieldwork and Mead's were remarkably similar (pg. 105).

Although these were originally strong criticisms of Mead's work in Samoa, the studies of Holmes were done forty years after Mead had finished her work. The 1960's were a time when Samoa was being heavily westernized, and because of the urbanization, the crime rates and amount of social disorder began to rise. By the early 1990's, "Western Samoa [had] one of the highest youth suicide rates in the world"(Cote, xiii). The reason this information cannot be used as a way of contending Mead's findings is the time barrier. Mead conducted her research in Samoa at a time when there was hardly any outside influence on the islands. Because of the natural purity Samoa had during Mead's stay, it was a more docile and serene civilization than during the 1960's and beyond.

Dr. Morgan Maclachlan, professor at the University of South Carolina Department of Anthropology , said he thinks Mead's "Coming of Age in Samoa" is not taken too seriously as a source of factual research. "The book was read as a popular media on subways and bus stops but it was not and is not really used as a reference for research. The book is generally regarded as a lightweight, but many of the ideas that the book had were very popular at the time," (Maclachlan, 2000). Another interesting point Maclachlan made was that Mead adamantly said she could speak Samoan. Although she knew a few words and phrases, she never learned how to actually speak the language (Maclachlan, 2000).

There have been numerous discussions about the scientific worth of Mead's book, "Coming of Age in Samoa." Her famous book was published when she was a twenty-seven years of age and a relative unknown to the public. When she came back from Samoa with years of information on the adolescent females of Samoa, she wanted it to be published. "To make the book marketable, her publisher apparently urged her to write additional chapters in a popular, and it is primarily the content of these chapters that has been the object of criticism"(Cote, 9). Although these chapters may have added to the readability of the book, they were not scientifically based findings or observations of the Samoan culture and, as a result, have weakened her case.

Patrick Nolan works in the sociology department at the University of South Carolina and said he was "very persuaded" by what Derek Freeman had said in terms of Margaret Mead's desire to receive confirmation of the preconceived ideas she had before visiting Samoa. He said that even defenders of Margaret Mead will not back up the book for having a factual basis. (Nolan 2000) Nolan said the "Coming of Age in Samoa" became so popular because at the time "there was a strong movement towards sexual freedom in this country and people wanted to believe what she had to say." (Nolan 2000) Nolen added that Freeman was "heavily criticized" for undermining Mead because she had become such an icon for anthropology. Another reason for the resistance to what Freeman had to say was due to the strong prejudice against socio-biology in the anthropology field at the time. (Nolan 2000)

Criticism towards Freeman included that his own research into Margaret Mead's work was flawed. Stephen O. Murray wrote in Current Anthropology: "I do not object to "refuting" Mead (1928) but I do object to the account of the history of anthropology in Freeman's writings about Mead and Samoa". (On Boasians and Margaret Mead: Reply to Freeman, Current Anthropology 32:4, 1990 pg.451) He also says that "Freeman vastly overrated the importance of Mead's findings about Samoan adolescence to Boasian anthropology" (pg. 449) In refuting Mead's study of Samoan society, Derek Freeman believes that Mead was so terribly wrong that he rarely makes an effort to compromise or bend in any way. This fierce effort to prove Mead wrong has brought about critics of Freeman's work.

A student at Penn State University writes in her dissertation, "The analyses reveal that despite Freeman's explicit disclaimer that he was only interested in the scientific import of Mead's research, his implicit arguments attack Mead personally"(Weimer, 1990). This critic of Freeman's book, "Margaret Mead and Samoa: The Making and Unmaking of an Anthropological Myth", goes on to say that, "The textual analyses reveal Freeman's refutation to be dissatisfying on its own scientific terms where expectations of accuracy, objectivity, and critical rationalism are explicit." (Weimer, 1990). These three terms are mandatory for a paper to be totally critical and are needed to take out subjectivity. Since they are not present in Freeman's book, it is hard to count his book as part of a scientifical argument.His fierceness comes from the closeness he feels to the Samoan society and culture personally. Apparently, during his stay with a Samoan family during the 1940's, Freeman was given an honorary title of matai, which is a family head or chief. Freeman states, "By the time I left Samoa in November 1943 I knew I would one day face the responsibility of writing a refutation of Mead's Samoan findings"(Cote, 6). Freeman felt a special bond with the Samoans after being honored with the matai title and felt that Mead was dishonoring the Samoan culture and in a way dishonoring him in "Coming of Age in Samoa." Because of this honorary title and personal bond with the Samoan people, critics believe that Freeman is unable to give an objective critique of Margaret Mead's work. Freeman holds his claim that he was totally objective in his critique of Mead's work by stating in a LIFE Magazine article that, "My book is a formal refutation of Mead's work, but it is not an attack on Margaret Mead," he says. "She has an honored place in the history of Samoa. I have nothing against her at all"(Owen, 32).

After examining the evidence it is our conclusion that Margaret Mead was a victim a circumstance. There were many factors influencing her book that were beyond her control such as publishers, society, and her superiors. Although she clearly made some mistakes in her research, the effects of her errors were exagerrated by the popularity of the book and the critcism of Derek Freeman. Likewise, Derek Freeman's analysis of Margaret Meads work was at times harsh, but, this was probably the result of his close emotional ties to the Samoan people. Freeman did succeed in changing the way that many people look at the Samoan culture which was something that somebody had to do. Mead made herself famous by writing a popular book while Derek Freeman gained his reputation and notoriety off of what Margaret Mead had accomplished. Although false scientific research must not go unchecked, Derek Freeman clearly did more than was necessary in refuting Mead's evidence considering the fact that others had already exposed flawa in Meads research decades earlier.


Cote, James E. Adolescent Storm and Stress: An Evaluation of the Mead-FreemanControversy. Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum, 1994.Freeman, Derek.

The Fateful Hoaxing of Margaret Mead. Boulder, CO: Westview, 1999.---.

Margaret Mead and the Heretic. 1983. Toronto: Penguin, 1996.

Klineberg, Otto. Culture and Personality. New York: Holt, 1940.

Maclachlan, Dr. Morgan. Personal interview. 26 Jan. 2000.

"Margaret Mead: Nature or Nurture?" Knowledge Adventure, Inc.(1998): 1pg. On-line.Internet. 5 Feb. 2000. Availiable http:/

Murray, Stephen O. "On Boasians and Margaret Mead: Reply to Freeman." CurrentAnthropology. v.32 (1990): 448-52.

Nolan, Patrick. Personal interview. 26 Jan. 2000.

Owen, Elizabeth, and Harry Benson. "Samoa." Life May 1983: p. 32.Weimer, Donna.

"A Rhetorical Analysis of a Scientific Controversy: Margaret Mead versus Derek Freeman in Cultural Anthropology." Diss. Pennsyvania State University, 1990.

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