Coming of Age in Samoa

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Coming of Age in Samoa
Coming of age in Samoa title page.jpg
Coming of Age in Samoa title page
Author Margaret Mead
Country United States
Language English
Genre Samoan culture and society
Publisher William Morrow and Company
Publication date
Media type Print (Paperback)
Pages 297

Coming of Age in Samoa is a book by American anthropologist Margaret Mead based upon her research and study of youth on the island of Ta'u in the Samoan Islands, primarily focusing on adolescent girls. First published in 1928, the book launched Mead as a pioneering researcher and as the most famous anthropologist in the world. Since its first publication, Coming of Age in Samoa was the most widely read book in the field of anthropology until Napoleon Chagnon's Yanomamö: The Fierce People overtook it. The book has sparked years of ongoing and intense debate and controversy on questions pertaining to society, culture, and science. It is a key text in the nature and nurture debate, as well as in discussions on issues relating to family, adolescence, gender, social norms, and attitudes.[1]Although Mead's work has been very influential some of her most significant claims about Samoan culture have been criticized and contradicted by subsequent research. Particularly the anthropologist Derek Freeman has contested many of Mead's claims, and argued that she was hoaxed into counterfactaully believing that Samoan culture had more relaxed sexual norms than Western culture.[2]


In the foreword to Coming of Age in Samoa, Mead's advisor, Franz Boas, wrote of its significance that:

Courtesy, modesty, good manners, conformity to definite ethical standards are universal, but what constitutes courtesy, modesty, good manners, and definite ethical standards is not universal. It is instructive to know that standards differ in the most unexpected ways.

Boas went on to point out that, at the time of publication, many Americans had begun to discuss the problems faced by young people (particularly women) as they pass through adolescence as "unavoidable periods of adjustment". Boas felt that a study of the problems faced by adolescents in another culture would be illuminating.

Margaret Mead
Samoan girls, c. 1902


Mead described the goal of her research as follows: "I have tried to answer the question which sent me to Samoa: Are the disturbances which vex our adolescents due to the nature of adolescence itself or to the civilization? Under different conditions does adolescence present a different picture?" To answer this question, she conducted her study among a small group of Samoans; a village of 600 people on the island of Ta'ū, in which—over a period of only six weeks—she claimed to have gotten to know, lived with, observed, and interviewed (through an interpreter) 68 young women between the ages of 9 and 20. She concluded that the passage from childhood to adulthood (adolescence) in Samoa was a smooth transition and not marked by the emotional or psychological distress, anxiety, or confusion seen in the United States.

Mead concluded that this was due to the Samoan girl's belonging to a stable, monocultural society, surrounded by role models, and where nothing concerning the basic human facts of copulation, birth, bodily functions, or death, was hidden. The Samoan girl was not pressured to choose from among a variety of conflicting values, as was the American girl. Mead commented, somewhat satirically:

... a[n American] girl's father may be a Presbyterian, an imperialist, a vegetarian, a teetotaller, with a strong literary preference for Edmund Burke, a believer in the open shop and a high tariff, who believes that women's place is in the home, that young girls should wear corsets, not roll their stockings, not smoke, nor go riding with young men in the evening. But her mother's father may be a Low Episcopalian, a believer in high living, a strong advocate of States' Rights and the Monroe Doctrine, who reads Rabelais, likes to go to musical shows and horse races. Her aunt is an agnostic, an ardent advocate of women's rights, an internationalist who rests all her hopes on Esperanto, is devoted to Bernard Shaw, and spends her spare time in campaigns of anti-vivisection. Her elder brother, whom she admires exceedingly, has just spent two years at Oxford. He is an Anglo-Catholic, an enthusiast concerning all things medieval, writes mystical poetry, reads Chesterton, and means to devote his life to seeking for the lost secret of medieval stained glass. Her mother's younger brother...


As Boas and Mead expected, this book upset many Westerners when it first appeared in 1928. Many American readers felt shocked by her observation that young Samoan women deferred marriage for many years while enjoying casual sex but eventually married, settled down, and successfully reared their own children.

The use of cross-cultural comparison to highlight issues within Western society was highly influential and contributed greatly to the heightened awareness of anthropology and ethnographic study in the United States. It established Mead as a substantial figure in American anthropology, a position she would maintain for the next fifty years.

As a landmark study regarding sexual mores, the book was also highly controversial and frequently came under attack on ideological and academic grounds. The National Catholic Register argued that Mead's findings were merely a projection of her own sexual beliefs and reflected her desire to eliminate restrictions on her own sexuality.[3] The traditionalist conservative Intercollegiate Studies Institute listed Coming of Age in Samoa as #1 in the list of what it thinks are the "50 Worst Books of the Twentieth Century".[4] Anthropological critics—most notably Derek Freeman—claimed that Mead failed to apply the scientific method and that her assertions were unsupported.[5]

The Mead-Freeman controversy[edit]

Margaret Mead and Samoa[edit]

Derek Freeman

In 1983, five years after Mead had died, Derek Freeman—a fluent Samoan speaker who was inducted into Samoan tribal society—published Margaret Mead and Samoa: The Making and Unmaking of an Anthropological Myth, in which he challenged all of Mead's major findings. In 1988, he participated in the filming of Margaret Mead in Samoa, directed by Frank Heimans, which claims to document one of Mead's original informants, now an elderly woman, swearing that the information she and her friend provided Mead when they were teenagers was false:[citation needed]

"She must have taken it seriously," one of the girls would say of Mead on videotape years later, "but I was only joking. As you know, Samoan girls are terrific liars when it comes to joking. But Margaret accepted our trumped up stories as though they were true." If challenged by Mead, the girls would not have hesitated to tell the truth, but Mead never questioned their stories. The girls, now mature women, swore on the Bible to the truth of what they told Freeman and his colleagues.

Another account of Mead which Freeman attacked particularly was her claim that Samoan girls could and do lie about their status of virginity by the use of chicken blood.[6] Freeman pointed out that virginity of the bride is so crucial to the status of Samoan men that they have a specific ritual in which the bride's hymen is manually ruptured in public, by the groom himself or by the chief, making use of chicken blood impossible. On this ground, Freeman argued that Mead must have based her account on (false) hearsay from non-Samoan sources.[7]

The argument hinged on the place of the taupou system in Samoan society. According to Mead, the taupou system is one of institutionalized virginity for young women of high rank, and it is exclusive to women of high rank. According to Freeman, all Samoan women emulated the taupou system, and Mead's informants denied having engaged in casual sex as young women and claimed that they had lied to Mead.[8]

Anthropological reception and reactions[edit]

After an initial flurry of discussion, most anthropologists decided to claim that Freeman systematically misrepresented Mead's views on the relationship between nature and nurture, as well as the data on Samoan culture. According to Freeman's colleague Robin Fox, Freeman "seemed to have a special place in hell reserved for Margaret Mead, for reasons not at all clear at that time."[9]

Moreover, many field and comparative studies by anthropologists have since found that adolescence is not experienced in the same way in all societies. Systematic cross-cultural study of adolescence by Schlegel and Barry, for example, concluded that adolescents experience harmonious relations with their families in most non-industrialized societies around the world.[10] They find that, when family members need each other throughout their lives, independence, as expressed in adolescent rebelliousness, is minimal and counterproductive. Adolescents are likely to be rebellious only in industrialized societies practicing neolocal residence patterns (in which young adults must move their residence away from their parents). Neolocal residence patterns result from young adults living in industrial societies who move to take new jobs or in similar geographically mobile populations. Thus, Mead's analysis of adolescent conflict is upheld in the comparative literature on societies worldwide.[11]

First, these critics have speculated that he waited until Mead died before publishing his critique so that she would not be able to respond. In 1978, Freeman sent a revised manuscript to Mead, but she was ill and died a few months later without responding.

Second, Freeman's critics point out that, by the time he arrived on the scene, Mead's original informants were old women, grandmothers, and had converted to Christianity, so their testimony to him may not have been accurate. They further allege that Samoan culture had changed considerably in the decades following Mead's original research, that after intense missionary activity many Samoans had come to adopt the same sexual standards as the Americans who were once so shocked by Mead's book. They suggested that such women, in this new context, were unlikely to speak frankly about their adolescent behavior. Further, they suggested that these women might not be as forthright and honest about their sexuality when speaking to an elderly man as they would have been speaking to a woman near their own age.[11]

Some anthropologists criticized Freeman on methodological and empirical grounds. For example, they claimed that Freeman had conflated publicly articulated ideals with behavioral norms—that is, while many Samoan women would admit in public that it is ideal to remain a virgin, in practice they engaged in high levels of premarital sex and boasted about their sexual affairs among themselves.[12] Freeman's own data documented the existence of premarital sexual activity in Samoa. In a western Samoan village he documented that 20% of 15-year-olds, 30% of 16-year-olds, and 40% of 17-year-olds had engaged in premarital sex.[13] In 1983, the American Anthropological Association held a special session to discuss Freeman's book; to which they did not invite him. Their criticism was made formal at the 82nd annual meeting of the American Anthropological Association the next month in Chicago, where a special session, to which Freeman was not invited, was held to discuss his book.[14] They passed a motion declaring Freeman's Margaret Mead and Samoa "poorly written, unscientific, irresponsible and misleading." Freeman commented that "to seek to dispose of a major scientific issue by a show of hands is a striking demonstration of the way in which belief can come to dominate the thinking of scholars."[15]

In the years that followed, anthropologists vigorously debated these issues. Notable scholars who published on the issue include Appell, who stated "I found Freeman’s argument to be completely convincing",[16] Brady, "Freeman's book discovers little but tends to reinforce what many anthropologists already suspected" regarding the adequacy of Mead's ethnography, Feinberg, Leacock, Levy, Marshall, Nardi, Patience, Paxman, Scheper-Hughes, Shankman, Young and Juan.[17]

Much like Mead's work, Freeman's account has been challenged as being ideologically driven to support his own theoretical viewpoint (sociobiology and interactionism), as well as assigning Mead a high degree of gullibility and bias. Freeman's refutation of Samoan sexual mores has been challenged, in turn, as being based on public declarations of sexual morality, virginity, and taupou rather than on actual sexual practices within Samoan society during the period of Mead's research.[18]

Lowell Holmes—who completed a lesser-publicized restudy—commented later: "Mead was better able to identify with, and therefore establish rapport with, adolescents and young adults on issues of sexuality than either I (at age 29, married with a wife and child) or Freeman, ten years my senior."[19]

In 1996, Martin Orans examined Mead's notes preserved at the Library of Congress, and credits her for leaving all of her recorded data available to the general public. Orans concludes that Freeman's basic criticism—that Mead was duped by ceremonial virgin Fa'apua'a Fa'amu (who later swore to Freeman that she had played a joke on Mead)—was false for several reasons: first, Mead was well aware of the forms and frequency of Samoan joking; second, she provided a careful account of the sexual restrictions on ceremonial virgins that corresponds to Fa'apua'a Fa'amu's account to Freeman; and third, that Mead's notes make clear that she had reached her conclusions about Samoan sexuality before meeting Fa'apua'a Fa'amu. He therefore concludes—contrary to Freeman—that Mead was never the victim of a hoax. Orans points out that Mead's data supports several different conclusions, and that Mead's conclusions hinge on an interpretive or fabricated, rather than positivist, approach to culture. Taking the positivist stance, Orans concludes that—because of Mead's interpretive approach, which is common to most of contemporary cultural anthropology—her hypotheses and conclusions are essentially unfalsifiable, and therefore "not even wrong".[20]

In 1999, Freeman published the book The Fateful Hoaxing of Margaret Mead: A Historical Analysis of Her Samoan Research, including new material, in particular interviews that Freeman called of "exceptional historical significance" and "of quite fundamental importance" of one of Mead's then adolescent informants by a Samoan chief from the National University of Samoa in 1988 and 1993, and of her daughter in 1995.[21] Correspondence of 1925-1926 between Franz Boas and Margaret Mead was also newly available to Freeman. He concludes in the introduction to the book that "her exciting revelations about sexual behavior were in some cases merely the extrapolations of whispered intimacies, whereas those of greatest consequence were the results of a prankish hoax."

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Felder, Deoborah G. (2003). A Century of Women : The Most Influential Events in Twentieth-Century Women's History. Citadel Press. pp. 135, 135. ISBN 0-8065-2526-6. Retrieved 29 August 2010. 
  2. ^ Pinker, Steven (June 22, 2009). How the Mind Works. W. W. Norton & Company. ISBN 0393334775. Retrieved 15 September 2014. "Margaret Mead disseminated the incredible claim that Samoans have no passions -- no anger between parents and children or between a cuckold and seducer, no revenge, no lasting love or bereavement,... no adolescent turmoil. Derek Freman and other anthropologists found that Samoan society in fact had widespread adolescent resentment and deliquency, a cult of virginity. frequent rape, reprisals by rape victim's families,... sexual jealousy and strong religious feeling." 
  3. ^ Wiker, Benjamin (May 19, 2002). "Margaret Mead's Flights of Fancy in Samoa". National Catholic Register. Retrieved 29 September 2014. 
  4. ^ Henrie, Mark; et al. (Fall, 1999). "THE INTERCOLLEGIATE REVIEW — Fall 1999 3 The Fifty Worst (and Best) Books of the Century". The Intercollegiate Review. Retrieved 29 September 2014. "So amusing did the natives find the white womanís prurient questions that they told her the wildest tales and she believed them! Mead misled a generation into believing that the fantasies of sexual progressives were an historical reality on an island far, far away." 
  5. ^ "Mead ignored violence in Samoan life, did not have a sufficient background in—or give enough emphasis to—the influence of biology on behavior, did not spend enough time in Samoa, and was not familiar enough with the Samoan language." Library of Congress, "Afterward: Derek Freeman and Margaret Mead."
  6. ^ Freman, Derek (March, 1972). "Social Organization of Manu A (1930 and 1969) By Margaret Mead: Some Eratta". The Journal of the Polynesian Society 81 (1). Retrieved 29 September 2014. 
  7. ^ "In 1943, knowing what I did of the rite of fa'amasei'au, I felt certain that Mead's account was in error and could not have come from any Samoan source.Derek Freeman, "All Made of Fantasy": A Rejoinder to Paul Shankman, American Anthropologist 100 (4): 972-983, 1999.
  8. ^ Derek Freeman (1983). Margaret Mead and Samoa. Cambridge, London: Harvard University Press. ISBN 0-674-54830-2.
  9. ^ Fox, Robin 2004 Participant Observer: Memoir of a Transatlantic Life New Brunswick, New Jersey: Transaction Publishers, page 339.
  10. ^ Scheper-Hughes, Nancy (1984). "The Margaret Mead Controversy: Culture, Biology, and Anthropological Inquiry". Human Organization 43 (1): 85–93. 
  11. ^ a b See Appell 1984, Brady 1991, Feinberg 1988, Leacock 1988, Levy 1984, Marshall 1993, Nardi 1984, Patience and Smith 1986, Paxman 1988, Scheper-Hughes 1984, Shankman 1996, and Young and Juan 1985.
  12. ^ Brad Shore 1982 Sala'ilua: A Samoan Mystery New York: Columbia University Press.
  13. ^ Freeman, 1983: 238-240.
  14. ^ Shaw, John (2001-08-05). "Derek Freeman, Who Challenged Margaret Mead on Samoa, Dies at 84". The New York Times. 
  15. ^ Shaw, John (2001-08-05). "Derek Freeman, Who Challenged Margaret Mead on Samoa, Dies at 84". The New York Times. Retrieved 2010-04-30. 
  16. ^
  17. ^ Appell 1984, Brady 1991, Feinberg 1988, Leacock 1988, Levy 1984, Marshall 1993, Nardi 1984, Patience and Smith 1986, Paxman 1988, Scheper-Hughes 1984, Shankman 1996, Young and Juan 1985, and Shankman 2009.
  18. ^ Shankman, Paul (1996). "The History of Samoan Sexual Conduct and the Mead-Freeman Controversy". American Anthropologist 98 (3): 555–567. doi:10.1525/aa.1996.98.3.02a00090. 
  19. ^ Holmes & Holmes, 1992.
  20. ^ Orans, Martin 1996 Not Even Wrong: Margaret Mead, Derek Freeman, and the Samoans.
  21. ^ The Fateful Hoaxing of Margaret Mead: A Historical Analysis of Her Samoan Research, Acknowledgments


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