As a child, I read a series of books on famous American and European people — Louis Pasteur was one of them, and Margaret Mead was another. Although Mead’s early work was focused on sexuality, I remember that the book skipped carefully around the topic and emphasized her interest in allowing children to develop and grow at their own pace. The book on Pasteur, with a graphic illustration of the transmission of rabies from a dog to a child, was far more striking.
Mead had a storied career in anthropology and strong influence on generations of Americans. She is still highly regarded today; Derek Freeman’s attempt to critique Mead’s methodology and what he described more or less as her gullibility has received fierce attacks. What should primarily be critiqued, however — and has been critiqued from several different perspectives — is Mead’s problematic assumption that she could speak for Samoan culture, analyze Samoan culture, and represent Samoan culture.
Mead’s 1928 Coming of Age in Samoa — a sweeping study that became a popular bestseller — was based on a sample size of twenty-five “little girls” and a time period of only around nine months living in a couple of islands that are part of Samoa. She was the quintessential blind outsider bowling into a society and presuming to understand it, criticize it, and use it for her own political ends.
Margaret Mead is often understood as exploring Samoan mores out of a desire to find a society that was sexually freer. However, Coming of Age in Samoa contains statements that are profoundly homophobic: “Native [Samoan] theory and vocabulary recognised the real pervert who was incapable of normal heterosexual response.”
Coming of Age in Samoa shows no knowledge of the age-old Samoan tradition of the fa’afa’fine, which predates contact with Western culture. Rather, Mead speaks of homosexual and intersex people in the same breath as those who have mental disorders.
I cannot take Coming of Age in Samoa seriously as an academic study. It is irredeemably contaminated by a populist, unexamined, undefended aggregate of racist, colonialist, and homophobic obsessions, explicitly deployed.
These problems with Mead are systematic and endemic. You can find a collection of even more reports on the renowned anthropologist at this blog, including links to critiques by Samoan people themselves.
Samoan novelist, artist, and professor Albert Wendt:
“We need to write, paint, sculpt, weave, dance, sing, and think ourselves into existence. For too long other people have done it for us – and they’ve usually stereotyped us, or created versions of us that embody their own hang-ups and beliefs and prejudices about us. So we have to write our own stories!”
I include that quote at the beginning of most literature syllabi I give my students. I want them to have that attitude — not to wait for someone else to tell them what to think about themselves.