Let’s discuss a rich and exotic culture, the beautiful islands of the South Seas. It is long past time to go deeply in-depth into the theories of one Margaret Mead–and of course, we’ll discuss how they were wrong, and why people just keep on believing in them anyway. We will also discuss how Mead’s true believers make our lives just a little bit more unpleasant.
Flashing back to 1925, World War 1 has ended; Germany has lost its territory in Samoa; and Eastern Samoa still remains under American control (to this very day, it is known as American Samoa). Various Western influences had existed in Polynesia for centuries, in particular missionary activity, and it is in this spirit that young Margaret Mead arrives to American Samoa, seeking to do research for her doctoral thesis in anthropology, a doctorate that was done under the one and only Franz Boas.
As I’ve discussed previously, this was the first inkling of the “new anthropology,” which did good in challenging the blatantly racist/eugenic ethnography of the time (very good), but in doing so created the “everybody is exactly the same” precedent (not good).
(Yes, indeed, prepare yourself for another anthropology article–I mean it when I say that this is a cornerstone of why the modern world is the way it is!)
So, to discuss this whole issue, we should of course start with what Ms. Mead wrote, interspersed with how it was right or wrong.
I specify “right or wrong” because I am not afraid to admit that some of what she said is not only accurate, but also aligns with some of what we say in the reactosphere. But almost immediately afterwards, she would send forth some poz that can be directly linked to what makes the world suck today. And then she would follow that up some more poz, but hey, what would you expect from a 23 year old college girl, whom even her fans admit was a sexually progressive lass who tinged her research with a political agenda? It’s honestly a bit frustrating how she comes so very close to making a legitimate anthropological inquiry, but then ruins it with the idealism that she wears on her sleeve–and if you don’t believe me, take a look at the foreword, written by Boas himself.
“Courtesy and good manners are universal, but what constitutes those things are radically different in each culture”–That’s absolutely true.
As you can tell, Mr. Boas is very much a man of nurture rather than nature when he claims that “the results of her investigation confirm that what we attribute to human nature is in fact a reaction to the constraints of civilization.”
With this, Mead made it rather clear she wanted to change the world in the social justice tradition primarily and maybe, kind of, secondarily, form an accurate anthropology. That much is clear from the subtitle of the book “a psychological study of primitive youth for Western civilization.” To her credit, she did fluently learn the language and live amongst her subjects, which is more than we can say for many anthropologists of the time…or even now.
Shortly thereafter, however, Mead said that she concentrated on the girls of Samoa, because of her own sex and because of a paucity of information on it. While focusing on a specific subgroup of a culture isn’t inherently bad, the problem with this is that she infers much based on this somewhat limited world view. She even admitted that she “spent more time playing with children than in the councils of their elders.” In fact, she was barred from chiefly consortiums specifically because she was a woman, which kind of puts to pat some of the conclusions she draws, but we’ll get to that later.
The “noble savage” hagiography, that thing which I’m repeatedly told by angry cultural anthropologists isn’t a thing, is pretty evident as early as Chapter 2’s A Day In The Life of Samoa. Mead wrote, “The night is populous with ghosts, and as day breaks they shout lustily to each other as they hasten in their work.” Women were described as “half clad and unhurried,” and later on in the day, Mead described the “soft and barbaric singing of Christian Hymns.”
As the chapters go on, and she discusses the various aspects of Samoan society and child rearing, we see it has the same balance of accurate and inaccurate information as illustrated by contrasting these two quotes. On the one hand she mentions that “a girl’s chances of marriage are slim if she is believed to be lazy and inept in domestic tasks.” That’s something Samoa has in common with most other places. But on the other hand, Page 66 says “…it is better to to live as a girl with no responsibility and a rich variety of emotional experience. This is the best period of her life.” And one doesn’t have to look hard to see which of these two quotes Western women have taken to heart.
From there, we get something blatantly wrong like the following quote:
“The inferiority feeling as we know it is very rare in Samoa, the only two inferiority feelings I saw was clumsiness on the dance floor and clumsiness in sex.”
This is a very unusual thing to say considering classical Polynesian society had a very well-documented caste system.
But rather than go into every chapter, let us skip to the end, where Mead discusses how her findings can be applied to American and Western society.
Firstly she asks, “Is adolescence inevitably a period of mental and emotional stress for girls? Following the Samoan girl, we can answer that question in the negative. Look how the Samoan girl defers marriage with as many years of casual sex as possible.” Citations are needed for the Samoan casual sex claim, but as luck would have it we do have a few case studies of American women deferring marriage for as many years of casual sex as possible…it’s not so hot.
“We must say quite simply that there must be some difference in the two civilizations that accounts for the difference in results,” Mead wrote. Undoubtedly, different cultures produce different lifeways and peoples, and unlike your average leftist, I appreciate the uniqueness all cultures and peoples.
Quoth Mead, “There are two important components that cause the differences, one component that is inherently Samoan, and one that is general to primitive societies.”
“The thing that makes coming of age in Samoa such a simple process is the casualness of the whole society. Samoa is a place where no one plays for high stakes, no one pays a heavy price, no one suffers for his convictions or fights to the death for some end,” Mead wrote. Once again, that is objectively wrong. And bear in mind, that last link is from a Mead fan.
She went on to claim that “there are no implacable gods, angry and punishing, to disturb the tenor of the days.” In fact, 10 minutes of Wikipedia-ing reveals Oro, Tumatauenga, Ku-Nui-Akea, Kukailimoku, Ku-keoloewa, Ku ho’one’enu’u, Kamapua’a, Fe’e, and Nafanua, all of whom are Polynesian (albeit not explicitly Samoan) deities that are at least partially associated with warfare.
There is some grain of truth to what she said, in that during their years of wayfinding, the Polynesians avoided the Malthusian conflict of small island life by moving out, but that doesn’t mean they’re the peaceful matriarchal goddess worshipers Mead likely wanted them to be.
“The gifted and precocious are held back until the slow have matched their level,” Mead wrote. So she’s claiming they don’t care about rank, which is, again, strange for a culture with a caste system.
Then oddly enough, in the midst of all this progressive falderal she said something that was almost reactionary.
She describes how the abundance of choices and diversity in modern society might make things more difficult, whereas all primitive societies (not just Samoa) have one set of gods and behaviors and so on, which means that they are psychologically more stable than Westerners. That much is true, and the positive effects of a monoculture and tribal cohesion has been well-documented.
“We pay for our heterogenous rapidly changing civilization–deliquency, crime, neuroses,” Mead wrote. Again, she’s not wrong.
“Hopefully, we will have realized the high points of individual choice and universal tolerance that only a high heterogenous culture can attain,” Mead wrote. “Samoa knows one way of life and teaches it to her children. Will we, with the knowledge of many ways, allow our children to choose?”
In other words, she seems to think that we can learn some things from Samoan culture, and I’m certainly not adverse to learning about, and learning from other peoples, BUT…
As I’ve already said, her information is less than accurate.
First of all, as she herself admits, the majority of her time was spent interviewing little girls rather than the chiefs of the tribe who just might know a bit more about what goes on. Then she couldn’t, possibly because AS A WOMAN SHE WAS NOT ALLOWED INTO CHIEFLY CONSORTIUMS.
Ignoring the Freeman controversy (which claimed that her informants deliberately misled her for their own amusement), and ignoring all of the discrepancies I’ve already pointed out, we can point out even more objective inaccuracies. As many have pointed out, she lived with a Western missionary family in a Western household during her time in Samoa, and thus her research was likely not thorough.
Steven Pinker points out that far from the sexually nonchalant utopia Mead portrays, Samoan men (more so in the past, perhaps not nowadays) take the virginity of their brides VERY seriously, and can become abusive if they find out otherwise, and a cuckolded husband may very well engage in the old fashioned “eye for an eye” blood feud against the other man.
I think what illustrates it best is the fact that when later anthropologists gave translations of Mead to Samoan men, particularly those passages where Mead discusses how Samoan society has no esteem for masculine men and warriors, the men became quite enraged. Far from the happy and peaceful cuckolds Mead wrote about, Samoan men are in fact strong, prideful, and valiant fighters.
In other words, as I have said in previous writing, Vince McMahon has a stronger grasp on Samoan culture than Margaret Mead.
Briefly, I’d like to also touch upon some other cultures that Margaret Mead wrote about. In her 1935 book Sex And Temperament In Three Primitive Societies, Mead traveled to New Guinea to look at some tribes and (surprise!) get perfunctory research to form around her pet theories. Even though Papuans are not Samoans, or even Polynesians at all (they’re actually Austronesians), this is still quite relevant to this discussion.
One, the Arapesh, was described as having both males and females being graceful, cooperative, and all things that Western society refers to as feminine. Another, the Mundugumor, described both males and females being belligerent, swaggering, and assertive (traditional masculine stereotypes), and the third, the Tchambuli, being a complete inversion of “Western” gender roles–men described as being emotional, gossipy, etc. and women as being domineering, practical, and other masculine traits. The conclusion that was sought was that traditional gender roles were, of course, “socially constructed,” and that there was no real/practical basis to them at all, “no more than the headdresses of chiefs signify masculinity or femininity.”
The problem with this was that the data was completely false. Far from the gentle androgynes Mead really, really, wanted them to be, the Arapesh in fact had a long tradition of wife-stealing and other intermittent tribal battles (somewhat suppressed at the time by German occupation, but it still occurred). The old men bragged of their exploits, and men organized themselves in hierarchies of masculine strength and accomplishment, as almost every other culture of men on the planet do (or, we can cite the Arapesh proverb…”men’s hearts are different, women’s hearts are different”).
The data on the other two tribes were not quite as falsified, but still misinterpreted: there had been economic depression in the area (by the standards of these peoples), and the women were working similar labors to the men simply because all hands were needed. When observed at other times, these two tribes were similarly patriarchal to the Arapesh. And indeed, women doing hard labor is certainly not unusual throughout world history–whenever large numbers of people are needed to labor, as in non-mechanized agriculture, you will inevitably find women working alongside the men.
With ALL this being said, I cannot totally hate Margaret Mead. The 1920’s was just starting to liberalize sexually and culturally, and undoubtedly she saw a good thing and wanted to aid it. She was naive and idealistic, as many college students are, and could not have realize that in 2017, her research would have the adverse effects it has. Most importantly, she was pretty much the only anthropologist of note who defended my man Napoleon Chagnon when he was being keelhauled by the establishment.
And finally, there’s the quote from the featured image. I absolutely agree with this…after all I am waging a one man crusade to reform the field of anthropology, am I not?
This is such a big topic, in fact, that my article next week will deal with the long-term repercussions of these academic writings.