Margaret Mead and the Arapesh

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”: 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!


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

10 thoughts on “Margaret Mead and the Arapesh

  1. Thanks so much for this, Rex. I’m in the middle of reading it now and I’m fascinated by the image of Maggie never leaving the village. Wow. (I admit to an edgy relationship to the image of Mead as a female anthropologist who started fieldwork in the South Pacific in the late 1970s — I just couldn’t get away from her ghost for a while).

  2. Rex, can you recommend any good reading on the whole Freeman-Mead thing? A concise, measured assessment of the merit of Freeman’s critique?

  3. Paul Shankman had a related article in Ethnohistory a couple of years ago. Here is the BibTeX record if anyone is so inclined:

    title = {Virginity and veracity: Rereading historical sources in the {Mead-F}reeman controversy},
    volume = {53},
    number = {3},
    doi = {10.1215/00141801-2006-002},
    abstract = {In the Mead-Freeman controversy, Derek Freeman argued that historical sources support his view that the traditional values of the Samoan system of institutionalized virginity (or taupou system) were preserved and reinforced throughout the colonial era. A closer examination of two sources used by Freeman, authored by Augustin Kramer and Newton A. Rowe, demonstrates that the taupou system, as well as many of the values and practices associated with it, were in decline during this period. This latter interpretation, favored by Margaret Mead, is also supported by Freeman’s own postgraduate diploma thesis, a source hitherto unused in the controversy.},
    journal = {Ethnohistory},
    author = {Paul Shankman},
    year = {2006},
    pages = {479–505}

  4. You might want to check out Roy Rappaport’s, “Desecrating the holy woman: Derek Freeman’s attack on Margaret Mead,” American Scholar 55, Summer 1986. It’s brilliant and beautifully written.

  5. Both of those sources are good, although the problem with most summaries of the Mead-Freeman debate is that they are _part_ of the Mead-Freeman debate. I honestly am not an expert in the area and my knowledge of this is derived mostly by listening to those who are. One of the most recent and exhaustive accounts of the debate is Serge Tcherkezoff’s “Le mythe occidental de la sexualite polynesienne: 1928-1999” but it is also _very_ hard to find and, of course, requires French.

  6. A good article. We really ought to get a HAN subscription here. Any idea what the individual subscription rates are? The only website I can find is doesn’t have much useful information on that sort of thing.

  7. If you look at the PDF that I linked to in the body of the post it contains subscription information — it is less than US$10 a year for institutions and less for individuals, iirc. I have not followed the publication for some time but I have always loved its ‘Clio’s Fancy’ section. In an earlier number Bashkow documents colonial officers in Papua New Guinea and their reaction to their ‘applied anthropology’ courses under Radcliffe-Brown. Wonderful little nuggets of history there.

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