Margaret Mead and Derek Freeman : bibliography of a controversy
Derek Freeman's 1983 attack on Margaret Mead's classic Samoan ethnography, Coming of age in Samoa, aroused an unprecedented level of interest in the world of anthropology and among the educated public. That interest continues, over a decade later, with the publication of a play based on the lives of Mead and Freeman, and a major new book. The issues, of the nature of humankind and human society, are central to our understanding of humanity and the establishment of good relationships among the peoples of the world. Mead's Coming of age in Samoa is probably the best known anthropological work ever written and has had a major influence on popular perceptions of Western society and indigenous cultures. Freeman's claims, that Mead deliberately exaggerated the differences between Samoa and the West in order to advance a particular political agenda, that all human cultures are rooted in a particular biological human nature which is an inheritance from our primate ancestors, and that the study of cultures should have reference to this universal set of human proclivities and tendencies (which different cultural structures and institutions have evolved to guide and restrain) has serious implications for an anthropology which has generally abandoned attempts to explain similarities to concentrate on differences. At this theoretical level there has been much debate about Boas' commitment to physical anthropology. The critical point is surely that a commitment to cultural determinism does not preclude an interest in biological variables. It is a question of which direction of influence is studied. One of Boas' main contributions appears to have been to attempt to prove that even such apparently biological variables as head shape are determined by environmental rather than inherited factors. Unlike the early years of the 20th century, it is now the believers in cultural determinism who are insisting on dramatic differences between different societies and those proposing a greater role for biological factors who are arguing the fundamental unity of the human species.