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Coming of Age in Samoa

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Coming of Age in Samoa, first published in 1928, is a book by Margaret Mead based upon youth in Samoa and lightly relating to youth in America. Mead's findings seemed to show that youth in Samoa are taught to grow together and strengthen the confidence of each other. As a result, their community is much more tightly knit than that of other cultures, and the individuals themselves are more emotionally secure. In contrast, American youth are taught to compete against each other, leaving them isolated within their own cliques. The book also put forward the thesis that Samoan teenagers (with greater sexual permissiveness) suffered less psychological stress than American teenagers (with stricter sexual mores).

"She emphatically criticized the neurosis-inducing nuclear family, including the stress of Christian monogamy, and used her Samoan material to demonstrate an alternative to premarital chastity..." (Hiram Caton, "The Mead/Freeman Controversy is Over: A Retrospect", Journal of Youth and Adolescence 29, 5 (Oct 2000))

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 USA. It established Mead as a substantial figure in American Anthropology, a position she would maintain for the next fifty years.

The book has always been highly controversial, and the debates around it ideologically charged. Some claim that Mead's research was fabricated, and the National Catholic Register has even 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. [1]

Other critiques centre on the lack of scientific method and the unsupported nature of many of Mead's assertions, although this represents the lesser strand of criticism compared to claims of ideological bias and of deliberate public provocation.

Derek Freeman ControversyEdit

Derek Freeman, a New Zealand anthropologist, was inspired by Mead's work, and traveled to Samoa to follow up on her work. He held that Mead had been misled in the extreme by the two girls to whom she spoke or was completely fabricating her research. Harvard University Press published his book, Margaret Mead and Samoa: The Making and Unmaking of an Anthropological Myth in 1983, in which he outlined his case:

"In this and in his 1999 book, The Fateful Hoaxing of Margaret Mead, Freeman explores just how Mead had gotten it all so wrong. As he relates, Mead had dithered around Samoa aimlessly for months before starting her fieldwork. Hopelessly behind schedule, she frittered away much of this remaining time on an unrelated project. Finally, while traveling around the islands with two teenage girls, she had the opportunity to question them privately about their sex lives and those of their friends.
"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. " [citation needed]

It should be acknowledged that much like Mead, 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 tapou rather than on actual sexual practices within Samoan society during the period of Mead's research . (Paul Shankman, "The History of Samoan Sexual Conduct and the Mead-Freeman Controversy", American Anthropologist 98, 3 (1996))

Freeman was also criticised for not publishing "Margaret Mead and Samoa" until after Mead's death in 1978, thus denying Mead a "right of reply".

Considerable controversy remains over the veracity of both Mead's and Freeman's accounts. Lowell Holmes, who completed a lesser publicised 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". (Holmes, L.D. and Holmes, E.R, Samoan Village Then And Now, Harcourt Brace, 1992)

A vigorous defence of the book has been raised by many sections of the Anthropological community [citation needed], both on ideological and methodological grounds, and Freeman remained a polarising figure within the discipline for the remainder of his life[citation needed].

See alsoEdit

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