The Trashing of Margaret Mead

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.

Alex Golub is an associate professor of anthropology at the University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa. His book Leviathans at The Gold Mine has been published by Duke University Press. You can contact him at

7 thoughts on “The Trashing of Margaret Mead

  1. It would be great if this book could be reviewed in journals like Science or Nature (which have covered the Freeman-Mead debates in the past). This might help counteract the perception, among non-anthropologists, that Mead was a politically-correct liar (I heard this comment from a biologist).

    Why does anthropology always seem to come out looking bad after these public debates? The Tierney-Chagnon affair is another case of this. Alice Dreger’s paper on this episode, focusing on the role of the AAA, is going to make us look pretty bad:

  2. This looks like an interesting read. But where does this leave us in terms of what we see, record and report? I would be interested in what this new book about the “debate” says about anthropology 20 years later….

  3. Thanks for the review – I was thinking of checking this book out. Have you seen the BBC Anthropology Series ‘Tales from the Jungle’? It has an episode on Margaret Mead, part of which revolves around the ‘debate’, and includes Freeman and Shankman. I thought it was fairly evenly done as well, and was thinking of using it in class – as they also re-enact Margaret Mead’s journey to Samoa and how she did her field work – which is useful for students to see.

  4. Susan asks “but where does this leave us in terms of what we see, record and report?” I think the answer is: in a very good place. Occasionally people will see the Mead-Freeman controversy as somehow proof that anthropology is not a real science, that its results are hopelessly subjective. that scholarly consensus never emerges regarding research findings, etc. etc. In fact the opposite is true in this case: two scholars disagree, other scholars weigh the evidence, and there is now a relatively coherent answer. Appropriately, there is no completely hegemonic answer — as in all areas of scholarship there are outliers and people who disagree with the majority position. As a crisis of epistemology the debate is nonstarter, frankly.

    I do think it will be interesting to see what a full scholarly treatment of the controversy would look like 50 years down the road when, to be frank, everyone involved is dead and we can go through all their papers. Of course over time people’s interests and research focii shift, so no one will really care, but I think Shankman’s work will stand the test of time pretty well if anyone wants to return to it down the road.

  5. “In fact the opposite is true in this case: two scholars disagree, other scholars weigh the evidence, and there is now a relatively coherent answer.”

    As it should be. I would like to note that this argument also makes it clear how important the issue of measurement and data collection are for anthropology. Rarely, are studies replicated in any of the social sciences, but it’s harder for anthropologists. I think that shines a light on the fact that we simply have to strive for consistency and precise data collection, documentation and measurement. You can tell when reading a study or ethnography if the researchers really thought about biasing factors, and took into account the most robust methods and theories. It creates a deeper level of trust and feeling of reliability for the reader.
    Also, a greater use of quantitative methods wouldn’t hurt at all and improve the ability for the replicated testing of theory.

  6. One of the most interesting parts of Shankman’s book, to my mind, is his assessment of the status of Coming of Age today. As if to show that Freeman’s critique was a tempest in a teapot, he points out that anthropologists today don’t take COAS to be her greatest achievement or very central to her legacy. But it seems to me that this is largely Freeman’s accomplishment. While he (somewhat tragically) managed to convince anthropologists that he was unhinged in the process (and may well have been), the deep flaws of her work on the Samoans may not have been openly discussed if not for his intervention.

    I preferred Martin Orans’s Not Even Wrong to Shankman’s book because it sticks to the question of how right and how wrong Mead and Freeman were. Shankman it seemed to me had his eye fixed too much on the reputations of the people involved. And the title is quite odd, to my mind, given the reputations of Mead and Freeman when the dust settled. Freeman did anthropology a service by showing anthropologists how “profoundly unscientific” (Orans’s phrase) Mead’s work was and by forcing them to discuss it. Anthropology is healthier for it, even if it took a “nutcake” (your word) to do it.

  7. To me –as a none anthropologist- the big question is: Can Margaret Mead be considered a Scientist. I can not accept any field to be called a field of science which is based on so flimsy evidence/research as Margaret Mead’s works.
    Journalism presently is not considered science, and for very good reasons.

    This question, however, has nothing to do with two facts:
    1, Margaret Mead was a successful writer and individual.
    2, Throwing mud on Derek Freeman will not whitewash Mead.

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