Margaret Mead  

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Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel
Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel

Margaret Mead (December 16, 1901 – November 15, 1978) was an American cultural anthropologist who featured frequently as an author and speaker in the mass media during the 1960s and 1970s. She earned her bachelor's degree at Barnard College in New York City and her MA and PhD degrees from Columbia University. Mead served as President of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in 1975.

Mead was a communicator of anthropology in modern American and Western culture and was often controversial as an academic. Her reports (Coming of Age in Samoa, 1928) detailing the attitudes towards sex in South Pacific and Southeast Asian traditional cultures influenced the 1960s sexual revolution. She was a proponent of broadening sexual conventions within the context of Western cultural traditions.


In 1983, five years after Mead had died, New Zealand anthropologist Derek Freeman published Margaret Mead and Samoa: The Making and Unmaking of an Anthropological Myth, in which he challenged Mead's major findings about sexuality in Samoan society. Freeman's book was controversial in its turn: later in 1983 a special session of Mead's supporters in the American Anthropological Association (to which Freeman was not invited) declared it to be "poorly written, unscientific, irresponsible and misleading."

In 1999, Freeman published another book, The Fateful Hoaxing of Margaret Mead: A Historical Analysis of Her Samoan Research, including previously unavailable material. In his obituary in The New York Times, John Shaw stated that his thesis, though upsetting many, had by the time of his death generally gained widespread acceptance. Recent work has nonetheless challenged his critique. A frequent criticism of Freeman is that he regularly misrepresented Mead's research and views. In a 2009 evaluation of the debate, anthropologist Paul Shankman concluded that:

There is now a large body of criticism of Freeman's work from a number of perspectives in which Mead, Samoa, and anthropology appear in a very different light than they do in Freeman's work. Indeed, the immense significance that Freeman gave his critique looks like 'much ado about nothing' to many of his critics.

While nurture-oriented anthropologists are more inclined to agree with Mead's conclusions, there are other non-anthropologists who take a nature-oriented approach following Freeman's lead, among them Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker, biologist Richard Dawkins, evolutionary psychologist David Buss, science writer Matt Ridley and classicist Mary Lefkowitz. The philosopher Peter Singer has also criticized Mead in his book A Darwinian Left, where he states that "Freeman compiles a convincing case that Mead had misunderstood Samoan customs".

In 1996, author 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 point out that Freeman's basic criticisms, 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) were equivocal 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'auma'a'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. Orans points out that Mead's data support several different conclusions, and that Mead's conclusions hinge on an interpretive, rather than positivist, approach to culture. Orans goes on to point out, concerning Mead's work elsewhere, that her own notes do not support her published conclusive claims. However, there are still those who claim Mead was hoaxed, including Peter Singer and zoologist David Attenborough. Evaluating Mead's work in Samoa from a positivist stance, Martin Orans' assessment of the controversy was that Mead did not formulate her research agenda in scientific terms, and that "her work may properly be damned with the harshest scientific criticism of all, that it is 'not even wrong'."

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