Despite the decades that have passed, Margaret Mead remains the Anthropologist You Are Most Likely To Be Asked About By The Person Sitting Next To You On The Plane. Her legacy is, to put it mildly, mixed. Many view her as the last really good ‘public anthropologist’ and an exemplar for female scientists everywhere. Others are much more critical — Michaeala di Leonardo (whose name I can never spell right) works hard to debunk the image of Mead as a proto leftist-feminist in Exotics at Home, for instance, and many anthropologists have taken issue with her fieldwork. The most obvious here is Derek Freeman, who spent much of his career launching extremely critical work on the fieldwork that resulted in Mead’s classic Coming of Age in Samoa.
To keep a long story very, very short: it appears that although Mead’s work on Samoa was problematic to the point that she probably ‘got it wrong’, Freeman himself was so vitriolic and (probably) mentally ill, that it is difficult for anyone to write a measured, reflective criticism of Mead without sounding like they are allying themselves with Freeman.
All of which is to say that if you are looking for a measured, reflective criticism of Mead, look no further than Ira Bashkow and Lise Dobrin’s “The Historical Study of Ethnographic Fieldwork: Margaret Mead and Reo Fortune among the Mountain Arapesh” which is “available free and open access for anyone to read”:http://www.virginia.edu/anthropology/faculty/Bashkow-Dobrin-2007.pdf. It is a great piece and I recommend it to all and sundry. It is very clearly written, short, and elegantly relates their analysis of Mead’s Arapesh research (which she got wrong) to a more fruitful discussion of how the fieldsite is co-constructed by anthropologists and their hosts.
So… if you only read one 7 page PDF on the history of Melanesian anthropology before World War II today… make it this one!