The correspondence between

Margaret Mead and Franz Boas

exchanged during Mead’s 

1925-26 Samoan research project

(and related material)

 

Special Issue of the 

Journal of Youth and Adolescence

"The Mead-Freeman Controversy in Review."

 

Orientation:

Margaret Mead carried out her first field study in the mid-1920s, reporting her general findings to the world in the book Coming of age in Samoa: A psychological study of primitive youth for Western Civilization. Published in 1928, this was the best-selling book in anthropology of the 20th Century. In 1983, the Australian anthropologist Derek Freeman began the "Mead-Freeman controversy" with the publication of his book Margaret Mead and Samoa: The making and unmaking of an anthropological myth

More recently, in 1999, Freeman published the book, The fateful hoaxing of Margaret Mead: A historical analysis of her Samoan research, claiming that Mead was hoaxed by her informants. In that book, Freeman relies heavily on the letters exchanged between Mead and her project supervisor, Franz Boas, claiming that these support his hoaxing theory, especially the March 14 letter to Boas. Although he provides nine of the letters in an appendix of that book, he does not provide them all. This website has been created to make all of the letters available to the public (some two dozen letters), along with additional material referred to by Freeman, but generally unavailable to the public. Readers can find brief summaries of the controversy in the references listed below, especially in Côté (1998), Hellman (1998), and Shankman (1998).

Based on his interpretation of these letters (and other sources) Freeman (1999) claims that: (1) Mead’s Samoan study was in "a severe crisis" because she spent too much time doing ethnographic research, rather than investigating her informants’ sexual behavior; (2) "she wanted, above all else, to reach a conclusion that would gratify" Franz Boas her research supervisor (p. 14); (3) "it is customary for Samoans ... to resort to joking behavior ... when interrogated about sexual behavior" (p. 14), and this led to her supposed hoaxing on Mar. 13, 1926; and (4) Mead never undertook a "systematic, first-hand investigation of the sexual behavior" of her adolescent informants (p. 146).

With the letters on this website, readers can judge for themselves to a degree the validity of Freeman’s claims. The full set of letters (available here for the first time) shows: (1) Boas’s instructions and advice to Mead before and during her study (this includes her fellowship and employment prospects for the year following her stay in Samoa); (2) the progress of Mead’s work on her research problem (the prevalence of adolescent storm and stress in Samoa or "A study in heredity and environment based on an investigation of the phenomenon of adolescence among primitive and civilized people," as she officially called it in her application to the National Research Council); (3) her movements around American Samoa and her ethnographic "diversions"; (4) the methodological questions Mead posed to Boas regarding how to present her findings; and, (5) revisions of her departure time, showing that she did not suddenly decide to leave Samoa after the alleged hoaxing on Mar. 13, 1926.

The letters:

There are a number of typos and missing words in the letters, as one would expect from first-draft composition. I have corrected obvious spelling errors, but have marked missing words that have significance for the meaning of a sentence. About one half of Mead’s letters are hand-written, and several words are barely legible in some of these letters. In cases of marginal legibility, I have used the most reasonable words given the context of the phrase, but have marked my selection with a "[?]." Readers can compare some of these transcriptions with the letters Freeman (1999) has reproduced.

Letters transcribed and edited by Professor James Côté  cote@uwo.ca

Boas to Mead:  

July 14, 1925

July 17, 1925

November 7, 1925

January 4, 1926

January 25, 1926

February 15, 1926

February 24, 1926

April 20, 1926

Mead to Boas:

July 17, 1925

July 19, 1925

July 24, 1925

August 29, 1925

September 17, 1925

October 11, 1925

November 15, 1925

November 29, 1925

December 13, 1925

January 5, 1926

January 6, 1926

January 14, 1926

January 16, 1926

February 9, 1926

February 15, 1926

March 7, 1926

March 14, 1926

March 19, 1926

April 7, 1926

May 30, 1926

July 13, 1926

Documents involving Mead's funding

from the National Research Council:

Proposal 

Interim Report 

Final Report (Introduction and Conclusion)

Other material relevant to points Freeman has raised:

Excerpts from "LIFE AS A SAMOAN GIRL" by Margaret Mead in ALL TRUE! The Record of Actual Adventures That Have Happened to Ten Women of Today. Brewer, Warren & Putnam: New York, 1931.

Mead's account of Fa'apua'a - the woman who allegedly hoaxed her

Links:

The Mead Centennial

The Samoa Scrapbook

 

Acknowledgments:

I am grateful to Mary Catherine Bateson for permission to reproduce her mother’s letters and reports, and to the American Philosophical Society for permission to reproduce Boas’s letters. In addition, I would like to thank Mary Wolfskill of The Library of Congress Manuscript Division and Janice Goldblum of the National Academy of Sciences for their help and diligence in tracking down and providing me with archival material relevant to the correspondence between Mead and Boas, and Mead's dealings with the NRC and the Bishop Museum.

    Also included are excerpts from several of Mead’s general "bulletins" available in Letters from the Field, which show that Mead was reporting many of the same things to others as she was to Boas, especially the progress of her study in February and March of 1926. Those interested should consult the relevant chapters in Letters from the Field and Blackberry Winter for Mead’s reminiscences of her Samoan research.

Related references:

CÔTÉ, JAMES E. 1992. Was Mead wrong about coming of age in Samoa? An evaluation of the Mead/Freeman Controversy for scholars of adolescence and human development. Journal of Youth and Adolescence 21:499-527.

-----. 1994. Adolescent Storm and Stress: An Evaluation of the Mead/Freeman Controversy. Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.

-----. 1998. Much Ado About Nothing: The 'Fateful Hoaxing' of Margaret Mead. Skeptical Inquirer 22:29-34.

-----. 1999. No evidence offered relevant to points raised [response to Freeman]. Skeptical Inquirer 23:61-63.

-----. 1999. Review of The fateful hoaxing of Margaret Mead: A historical analysis of her Samoan research. Pacific Affairs 72:308-309.

CÔTÉ, JAMES E.(Ed.) 2000. Special Issue of the Journal of Youth and Adolescence: The Mead-Freeman Controversy in Review, October.

FEINBERG, RICHARD. 1988. Margaret Mead and Samoa: Coming of age in fact and fiction. American Anthropologist 90:656-663.

FREEMAN, DEREK. 1983. Margaret Mead and Samoa: The making and unmaking of an anthropological myth. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press.

-----. 1989. Fa'apua'a Fa'amu and Margaret Mead. American Anthropologist 91:1017-1022.

-----. 1999. The fateful hoaxing of Margaret Mead: A historical analysis of her Samoan research. Boulder, CO: Westview Press.

HAYS, TERENCE E. 1997. Sacred texts and introductory texts: The case of Mead's Samoa. Pacific Studies 20:81-103.

HEIMANS, FRANK. 1988. Margaret Mead and Samoa. New York: Brighton Video.

HELLMAN, HAL. 1998. Great feuds in science: Ten of the liveliest disputes ever. New York: John Wiley & Sons.

MEAD, MARGARET. 1928/1973. Coming of age in Samoa: A psychological study of primitive youth for Western Civilization. New York: Morrow Quill Paperbacks.

-----. 1969. Social organization of Manu'a. 2nd ed. Honolulu: Bernice P. Bishop Museum.

-----. 1972. Blackberry winter: My earlier years. New York: Morrow.

MURRAY, STEPHEN O. 1990. Problematic aspects of Freeman's account of Boasian culture. Current Anthropology 31:401-407.

ORANS, MARTIN. 1996. Not even wrong: Margaret Mead, Derek Freeman, and the Samoans. Novato, CA: Chandler and Sharp.

-----. 1999. Mead misrepresented (Review of The fateful hoaxing of Margaret Mead). Science March 12:1649-1650.

SHANKMAN, PAUL. 1996. The history of Samoan sexual conduct and the Mead-Freeman controversy. American Anthropologist 98:555-567.

-----. 1998. Margaret Mead, Derek Freeman, and the issue of evolution. Skeptical Inquirer 22:35-39.

STOCKING, GEORGE. 1989. "The ethnographic sensibilities of the 1920s and the dualism of the anthropological tradition," in Romantic motives: Essays on anthropological sensibility. Edited by G. W. Stocking. Madison: The University of Wisconsin Press.