The Trashing of Margaret Mead: Anatomy of an Anthropological Controversy

Overview

In 1928 Margaret Mead published Coming of Age in Samoa, a fascinating study of the lives of adolescent girls that transformed Mead herself into an academic celebrity. In 1983 anthropologist Derek Freeman published a scathing critique of Mead’s Samoan research, badly damaging her reputation. Resonating beyond academic circles, his case against Mead tapped into important public concerns of the 1980s, including sexual permissiveness, cultural relativism, and the nature/nurture debate. In venues from the New York ...

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Overview

In 1928 Margaret Mead published Coming of Age in Samoa, a fascinating study of the lives of adolescent girls that transformed Mead herself into an academic celebrity. In 1983 anthropologist Derek Freeman published a scathing critique of Mead’s Samoan research, badly damaging her reputation. Resonating beyond academic circles, his case against Mead tapped into important public concerns of the 1980s, including sexual permissiveness, cultural relativism, and the nature/nurture debate. In venues from the New York Times to the TV show Donahue, Freeman argued that Mead had been “hoaxed” by Samoans whose innocent lies she took at face value.
    In The Trashing of Margaret Mead, Paul Shankman explores the many dimensions of the Mead-Freeman controversy as it developed publicly and as it played out privately, including the personal relationships, professional rivalries, and larger-than-life personalities that drove it. Providing a critical perspective on Freeman’s arguments, Shankman reviews key questions about Samoan sexuality, the alleged hoaxing of Mead, and the meaning of the controversy. Why were Freeman’s arguments so readily accepted by pundits outside the field of anthropology? What did Samoans themselves think? Can Mead’s reputation be salvaged from the quicksand of controversy? Written in an engaging, clear style and based on a careful review of the evidence, The Trashing of Margaret Mead illuminates questions of enduring significance to the academy and beyond.
 
 
2010 Distinguished Lecturer in Anthropology at the American Museum of Natural History
 
The Trashing of Margaret Mead reminds readers of the pitfalls of academia. It urges scholars to avoid personal attacks and to engage in healthy debate. The book redeems Mead while also redeeming the field of anthropology. By showing the uniqueness of the Mead-Freeman case, Shankman places his continued confidence in academia, scholars, and the field of anthropology.”—H-Net Reviews

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
“A superbly crafted and highly readable book that essentially lays the Mead-Freeman controversy to rest.”—James Côté, author of Adolescent Storm and Stress: An Evaluation of the Mead-Freeman Controversy

“There is simply no other book like it. What Shankman does, very successfully, is analyze the nature of the controversy in meticulous detail, examine the main participants in the debate, and evaluate the quality of the arguments on both sides. Valuable to anthropologists and other academics, the book is also eminently accessible to any interested layperson.”—Nancy McDowell, author of The Mundugumor: From the Field Notes of Margaret Mead and Reo Fortune

“A compelling read about the controversy. Shankman, whose anthropological engagement with Samoa covers forty years and who met both Freeman and Mead, presents measured accounts of their careers, reasons for studying Samoa, and personal lives.”—Roger Sanjek, author of The Future of Us All: Race and Neighborhood Politics in New York City

"[A] balanced portrait of this complex and often vitriolic anthropological controversy.Well researched and thoroughly documented, this should be of interest both to anthropologists and to educated lay readers with interests in Mead and her legacy."—Library Journal

“[Shankman] convincingly rebuts Freeman’s certitude that Mead suffered a ‘fateful hoaxing’ in Samoa that changed the course of anthropology and, by implication, society itself.”—Colorado Arts and Sciences

"A fine, funny, discriminating, and at times quite disturbing book. . . . Shankman shows with great gusto and clarity that U.S. media and many academics were predisposed to accept Freeman's claims, however fraudulent. . . . Should be used in college courses ranging from media studies to cultural anthropology to women's studies to Peoples and Cultures of the Pacific. Graduate-level seminars could be wrapped around the many significant issues raised here. Shankman's bulldog-like dedication for many years is as laudable as his prose style is engaging."—James Hamar, The Feminist Review

“Highly recommended.”—Choice

“Shankman’s insights and conclusions are real contributions that will no doubt energise future research. . . . It is the best coverage of the ‘Mead thing’ that we have.”—Peter Hempenstall, The Journal of Pacific History

Library Journal
In 1983, Australian anthropologist Derek Freeman published a devastating criticism of iconic American anthropologist Margaret Mead (1901–78) in which he completely discredited the conclusions she reached during her 1925–26 field study in American Samoa, the basis of her famous and popular Coming of Age in Samoa. Freeman questioned Mead's research methods and asserted that she had been misled into developing totally erroneous ideas about Samoan culture, values, and sexuality. Mead's reputation suffered hugely. Now Shankman (anthropology, Univ. of Colorado, Boulder), who has also done fieldwork in Samoa, provides an in-depth look at the Mead-Freeman controversy, showing that the crux of the matter may have been the nature vs. nurture concept. Mead saw adolescent behavior in both Samoa and America as more heavily influenced by culture (nurture) than by biological factors (nature), while Freeman had the opposite view. Although Shankman admits to being a Mead sympathizer, he provides a balanced portrait of this complex and often vitriolic anthropological controversy. VERDICT Well researched and thoroughly documented, this should be of interest both to anthropologists and to educated lay readers with interests in Mead and her legacy.—Elizabeth Salt, Otterbein Coll. Lib., Westerville, OH
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780299234546
  • Publisher: University of Wisconsin Press
  • Publication date: 12/3/2009
  • Series: Studies in American Thought and Culture Series
  • Edition description: 1
  • Pages: 320
  • Sales rank: 1,325,029
  • Product dimensions: 6.00 (w) x 8.90 (h) x 0.90 (d)

Meet the Author

Paul Shankman, professor of anthropology at the University of Colorado at Boulder, has conducted fieldwork in Samoa periodically since 1966. He has written a number of articles on the Mead-Freeman controversy.

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Table of Contents

List of Illustrations       
Foreword by Paul S. Boyer   
Acknowledgments       

Introduction   

Part 1: The Controversy and the Media
1. The Controversy in the Media   
2. Selling the Controversy   

Part 2: Derek Freeman
3. Derek Freeman, the Critic   
4. Psychoanalysis, Freeman, and Mead   

Part 3: Margaret Mead and Coming of Age in Samoa
5. Young Margaret Mead   
6. First Fieldwork in Samoa   
7. Writing Coming of Age in Samoa   
8. Mead's American Audience in the 1920s   

Part 4: Sex, Lies, and Samoans
9. What the Controversy Meant to Samoans   
10. Samoan Sexual Conduct: Belief and Behavior   
11. Under the Coconut Palms   
12. Virginity and the History of Sex in Samoa   

Part 5: The Larger Issues
13. The Many Versions of the Hoaxing Hypothesis   
14. The Nature/Nurture Issue and the Appeal of Freeman's Argument   

Conclusion   

Appendix: True Confessions   
Notes   
References   
Index   

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