I recently finished reading The Trashing of Margaret Mead: Anatomy of an anthropological controversy by Paul Shankman. I’m reviewing the book for Anthropological Forum and a full write-up will appear there, but I wanted to take a second to write up my impressions for Savage Minds since I think the book is definitely worth a nod.
Trashing of Margaret Mead is to date the most definitive and thorough analysis of the Mead-Freeman ‘debate’ that has been published so far. Most readers of the blog will be familiar with this debate: After Mead’s death Freemon wrote a scathing critique of her book Coming of Age in Samoa which claimed that she had totally misunderstood Samoa and (to make a long story short) this proved that a more sociobiological version of anthropology was needed. Things got extremely ugly, extremely personal, and extremely well-publicized as some people claimed Mead’s defenders relied on a knee-jerk political correctness, while others claimed the Freeman was an evil lunatic. And then…
Well as it happened the entire affair ground more or less to a halt under an increasingly heavy weight of arguments, counter-arguments, and evaluations. The take-away for most anthropologists was “Mead was right” and the take-away for everyone else was “Mead was wrong”. But it was difficult to see the forest from the trees as the literature surrounding the debate grew and grew.
Paul Shankman’s book is first book which steps back and covers the entire debate, rather than taking part in it. Or at least mostly. The book is half a history of the debate and half an analysis of the claims made in it — i.e. the book attempts to decide whether Freeman or Mead was ‘right’. Shankman, who works in Samoa, was involved in the debate and this work benefits from that involvement. As a result he demonstrates a thorough — really, comprehensive — knowledge of it from an insider’s perspective, and the piece reflects his own position within the debate. But his reflexive tone and mastery of the literature convinces me, at least, that he has written an impartial overview.
Impartial, but not noncommittal. Shankman describes the personal stakes and intimate social networks on both sides of the debate, and is frank in his assessment of how people’s personal commitments and backgrounds influenced their arguments. In addition, a major part of the book deals with the question of who is right about Samoa and this involves making judgments about the scholarly adequacy of Mead and Freeman’s work. As judicious as Shankman is, then, you still get a sense of where he stands.
And where he stands is overwhelmingly against Freeman. Freeman’s bizarre personal life — including his mental breakdown — is documented here in a scholarly monograph by a major press for (as far as I know) the first time. The stories that had been circulating about his atrocious behavior, such as contacting universities and demanding that they revoke the Ph.D.s of his opponents, finally get their full airing. Freeman’s arguments about Mead are shown not to hold very much water, and his own claims about Samoa don’t seem to stand close scholarly scrutiny either. At times one feels the book should be called The Trashing of Derek Freeman. But Shankman’s criticisms never seem vindictive and his discussion of Freeman’s psyche never degenerate into ad hominems — despite how easy it would be to do so. In reality, Freeman’s own worse enemy is himself — or at least himself and a scholar willing to rigorously document his actions.
Shankman is not uncritical of Mead and points out the ways in which Coming of Age reaches conclusions about American life that Mead quite liked but which were not really supported by the Samoan data. Still, it is clear from his book that Mead was basically a decent fieldworker and a careful scholar while Freeman was, frankly, a nutcake.
One of my favorite parts of the book is the middle section that deals with the reception of Coming of Age in Samoa in Samoa. Here Shankman documents how Mead’s book was received and understood both amongst people who read it (not very many) and those who heard of it secondhand (most). Although not exactly a Pacific Island voice (since Shankman is not himself a Pacific Islander) it is great to see the community where Mead worked get some coverage. Most Samoans, apparently, are pretty upset that Mead portrayed them as frisky and promiscuous since Samoa is really a pretty church-going kind of a place. What is nice about Shankman’s book is he demonstrates the difference between Mead’s presentation of the Samoan past, the Samoan past as Samoans imagine it, and as it looks through the lens of the broader scholarly literature. He does more than just report on the book’s reception: he explains the complex patterns that have shaped it.
At some point in the future some scholar may sit down and write an extensive archive-based analysis of the Mead-Freeman debate and all of the participants therein. But until that day comes, Shankman’s book is the closest thing we have to a definitive account of the controversy and, frankly, the more scholarly version might not read as well as The Trashing of Margaret Mead. If you’re interested in getting to the bottom of Mead-Freeman, this is the place to look.