wiser today

A man should never be ashamed to own that he is wrong, which is but saying in other words that he is wiser today than he was yesterday.

Derek Freeman

The Fateful Hoaxing of Margaret Mead

Having satisfied herself from her questioning of Fa'apua'a and Fofoa that the Samoans, like other Polynesians, were indeed sexually promiscuous and that they were without 'the neuroses accompanying sex in American civilization' and having also concluded, to her satisfaction, that there was no significant stress from rebelliousness or from 'religious and philosophic development,' Mead went jubilantly on in her letter to Boas of March 14 to declare that the 'sum total' of her evidence was that adolescence is a period of sudden development; of stress, only in relation to sex—and, where the community recognizes this and does not attempt to curb it, there is no conflict at all between the adolescent and the community, except such as arises from the conflict of personalities within the household (and this is immediately remedied, as I have shown, by the change to another relationship group) and the occasional delinquent—any age from 8 to 50—who arouses the ire of the community.

This quite major conclusion of Mead's rests on the mistaken supposition, derived from Fa'apua'a and Fofoa, that Samoa is a place where 'the community' does not attempt to 'curb' the sexual activity of adolescents. With this established, so Mead thought, she had successfully identified a fundamental pattern of Samoan culture. In his farewell letter to Mead of July 14, 1925, Franz Boas had given emphasis to 'the pressure of the general pattern of culture' on the individual, and Mead, like Boas and Benedict, was convinced that cultural patterns 'set the mold' into which 'human nature' flows. In Benedict's words, 'It is in every case a matter of social patterning, of that which cultural recognition has singled out and standardized.' And once a cultural pattern had been identified, the behaviors that did not accord with it were judged to he no more than 'exceptions' or 'deviations.' Thus, in her account in the American Anthropologist of how she had proceeded in Samoa, Mead explicitly stated that she 'used the deviant individuals to delineate the pattern.' This, then, was the way in which Mead proceeded on the island of Ofu in March 1926. She had been led to believe that in Samoa, as in the Marquesas Islands and elsewhere in Polynesia, 'the community' did not attempt to 'curb' the sexual activity of adolescents. With this identified as the 'cultural pattern' that determined adolescent behavior in Samoa, she could dismiss as mere exceptions the instances she had previously recorded that were not in conformity with this primarily important cultural pattern. That Mead proceeded in this doctrinaire way is evidence of the quite extraordinary extent to which she was in the grip of the cultural determinism of her mentors, Franz Boas and Ruth Benedict. According to this ideology, as Mead herself put it, the behavior of the adolescent girls of Manu'a was 'relentlessly shaped and molded' by the 'patterns' of their culture, and in particular, as she claimed in her letter to Boas of March 14, 1926, by the pattern that in Samoa the community did not attempt to 'curb' the sexual activity of adolescents.

Yet as Mead's own field notes and reports clearly demonstrate, in Manu'a in 1926, quite major restrictions were, in fact, placed on the sexual activity of adolescents. In Fitiuta, in February 1926, Andrew Napoleon had told Mead at length of the traditional Samoan practice of testing the virginity of females, whatever their rank, by ritual defloration at time of marriage, and he had indicated how highly valued female virginity was. This major custom Mead had accurately described in her report to the National Research Council of January 6, 1926, on the basis of information she had received on December 16, 1925, from Toaga, the wife of Sotoa, the high chief of Luma. In this same report Mead also recorded that the 'whole emphasis' of the Protestant Church in Samoa, of which all the inhabitants of Manu'a were adherents, was on 'physical chastity.' Further, throughout Manu'a, it was the custom for adolescent girls to be sequestered in the household of the village pastor, where they were, in Mead's words, 'very strictly supervised and their virginity vigilantly safeguarded.' On Mead's own reckoning, in her field notes and in Coming of Age in Samoa, more than one-half the adolescent girls she studied in Manu'a were, at the time of her research, still teine muli, or virgins. Mead's claim, in her letter to Boas of March 14, 1926, that 'sex begins with puberty in most cases,' is—even on her own evidence—manifestly untrue.