An Anthropological Daisy Chain

Not being as firmly cathected as an anthropologist as I should be to comment on this, I nonethless take a certain amount of gossipy, self-regarding prurient interest in the story of Margaret Mead, Derek Freeman and now, Hiram Caton. The article in the Chronical of Higher Education “Archival Analysis” (not sure if that’s available without reg/payment), tells the story of the story of Derek Freeman’s high-profile and maddening quest to debunk Margaret Mead’s work, through the low-profile and maddening quest of Hiram Caton, “political psychologist” to understand what maddened and drove Freeman. The unfortunate fact of this story is that no one is reading Mead, much less Freeman or Caton, but everyone will have an opinion about it. The fun part is that Caton has gone to Freemanesque lengths to uncover material about him that might help shed light on what Caton calls a “clinically diagnosable narcissistic-personality disorder”.

I think it should be Savage Mind’s second foray into investigative journalism to uncover what kind of diagnosis Caton should have… Perhaps we should all do it together bourbaki-style so that we can subsequently be diagnosed with multiple personality disorder…

But seriously, in some ways the portrait Caton paints of Freeman seems to bear many marks of a bogey-man that haunts many anthropologists: obsessesed with “his people”; unnecessarily ad hominem in his critiques; abandoning his own field work; unable to complete a planned synthetic theory of anthropological everything… I don’t know whether he is a cautionary tale or something for the cabinet of curiosities.

Even more seriously, I find it depressing that this article is in the Chronicle, and was forwarded to me by colleagues, with varying degrees of schadenfreude, from History, English and Computer Science. This is what we get in the Chronical–not a heroic story of new research, but a rehash of controversy replete with various sexual and psychological antics. Not the best press..


Christopher M. Kelty is a professor at the University of California, Los Angeles. He has a joint appointment in the Institute for Society and Genetics, the department of Information Studies and the Department of Anthropology. His research focuses on the cultural significance of information technology, especially in science and engineering. He is the author most recently of Two Bits: The Cultural Significance of Free Software (Duke University Press, 2008), as well as numerous articles on open source and free software, including its impact on education, nanotechnology, the life sciences, and issues of peer review and research process in the sciences and in the humanities.

One thought on “An Anthropological Daisy Chain

Comments are closed.