Anatomy of an Anthropological Controversy

In 1928 Margaret Mead published Coming of Age in Samoa, a fascinating study of the lives of adolescent girls that transformed Mead herself into an academic celebrity.

On January 19, 1979, President Jimmy Carter posthumously awarded her the Presidential Medal of Freedom. The award for her important contributions was presented to her daughter at a ceremony sponsored by the American Museum of Natural History.

In 1983 anthropologist Derek Freeman published a scathing critique of Mead’s Samoan research, badly damaging her reputation. Resonating beyond academic circles, his case against Mead tapped into important public concerns of the 1980s, including sexual permissiveness, cultural relativism, and the nature/nurture debate.

In this book Paul Shankman explores the many dimensions of the Mead-Freeman controversy as it developed publicly and as it played out privately, including the personal relationships, professional rivalries, and larger-than-life personalities that drove it.
Providing a critical perspective on Freeman’s arguments, Shankman reviews key questions about Samoan sexuality, the alleged hoaxing of Mead, and the meaning of the controversy.
  • Why were Freeman’s arguments so readily accepted by pundits outside the field of anthropology?
  • What did Samoans themselves think?
  • Can Mead’s reputation be salvaged from the quicksand of controversy?
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