Margaret Mead, the Sociological Illusionist

By Carl O. Nordling


In 1928 the American cultural anthropologist Margaret Mead (1901-78) published her thesis for a doctorate, titled Coming of Age in Samoa.[1] This had been approved by her teacher Franz Uri Boas (1858-1942), who had also written the preface. The book was going to acquire the highest possible importance for the disciplines called "sociology" and "anthropo­logy". It was to take about 60 years before Derek Freeman finally was able to expose Mead by telling the truth about the Samoan customs[2].

                             In 1925 newly married Mrs. Mead had got a scholarship for field­work in American Samoa aimed at studying the behavior and develop­ment of typical Samoan girls from puberty to marriage. She expected to find a community with sexual morals that permitted free liaisons between puberty youths, contrary to the restrictions enjoined by the American morals.

Professor Boas had instructed Mead first to verify the existence of the free morals in Samoa and then to establish how the behavior and development of the Samoan youths had been affected by these morals.

With regard to her assignment, the young doctoral candidate could hardly have chosen a place less suited to the fieldwork required. The prevalent sexual mores in American Samoa of the 1920's were considerably more rigorous than those of the United States. At the wedding the bride had to prove her virginity in public. Girls who had experienced premarital sexual intercourse were punished and disgraced. Although Mead was informed about these customs by local authorities she remained firmly resolved to pursue her original plan. This implied profound interviews with a sample of 66 Samoan puberty girls.

The planned interviews did not materialize, however, but Mead nevertheless considered having got useful data about 25 of the girls. She mentions that thirteen of them had no heterosexual experience whatsoever.  None of the other twelve (who had menstruated altogether 350 times) had ever been pregnant - a fact that even Mead herself found remarkable. She suggested that promiscuity might have a contraceptive effect! Among the twelve supposedly "promiscuous" girls, Mead mentions one having had sexual intercourse with her uncle. The Samoans held this to be a criminal act. It remains uncertain what exactly was known about the "heterosexual experiences" of the other eleven.

Even these scanty data should have convinced a scholarly-trained researcher that Samoa was not a place suited for carrying out the prearranged assignment. A study of previous reports on Samoan customs would also have shown that the expected common promis­cuity was quite simply non-existent. On the contrary, the girls were keen on preserving their virginity until marriage, lest they be branded as inferior. In Samoa, the bridegroom took pride in marrying a virgin, and the bride felt happy to be able to give him the precious gift of her virginity, the finishing touch added to her grandiosely displayed sexuality.

Mead, anyway, remained still some months in the colony in order to apply herself to gathering ethnographical material for an American museum. While visiting a couple of minor islands she one day took a walking-tour jointly with two Samoan girl friends of her own age. These twenty-five-year-old women were still unmarried - contrary to Mead who however concealed her marriage during her Samoa sojourn. The girl friends were full of fun and joked gaily with Mead about her erotic preferences. Mead, on the other hand, asked her friends questions about their sexual life. Since there was nothing to tell and since it was customary for Samoan girls not to discuss their sexual life, they instead invented cock-and-bull stories about having indulged in debaucheries - just as "everybody else". One of the friends incidentally possessed the rank as "ceremonial virgin", implying that she (with preserved virginity) was worthy of marrying some highborn man. These Samoan women did not imagine that they actually contributed to a sociological investi­gation. They just found it amusing to indulge in the kind of jocular pranks that is a popular leisure pursuit in Samoa.

Although Mead understood and spoke some Samoan, she was ignorant about the Samoan ways of expressing humor. And before all, she was anxious to get some confirmation of her notion about the promiscuous life among the Samoan youth.  Therefore she swallowed uncritically the jokes of her friends, taking them for the truth pure and simple. She accepted that adolescents (and even a ceremonial virgin) regularly stayed the night with youths of the opposite sex - without this giving rise to any intervention or sanction.  She must have thought that the ceremonial proving of virginity was a farce with most of the principals wangling.

After having obtained these pieces of "information" Mead wrote off definitely the plan to carry out profound interviews with a number of girls. In her book she nevertheless dwells on alleged "promiscuous customs" without any account for the actual source (which was of course her two joking friends). Incidentally, the lack of accounting for sources is a general feature of her thesis.

Mead pretends to account for three types of premarital "affairs": 1) clandestine date "under the palms", 2) public escape (leading to marriage) and 3) ceremonial wooing. As a matter of fact she reckons with yet another type, 4) insidious rape on a sleeping girl (who thereby is supposed to lose her possibility to marry any other than the perpetrator). Mead provides no data about the relative frequency of the various types, but she constantly intimates that type 1 is the normal and generally accepted pattern.

At the same time she notes quite correctly that a proposed bride convicted of lost virginity was punished with stone-throwing that could seriously injure or even kill the victim. At least this had been the custom before Christianity and American law mitigated the methods of punishment.

The only basic data accounted for in Mead's thesis are found in the table of the 25 girls mentioned above. Among the scanty data in the table is a dubious statement about 17 girls having "homosexual experience" without any specification of what it means. The text lacks any description of homo­sexual activities. The nearest thing is the observation that girls coming together in a group often playfully snatch after one another's genitals. Beside data on homo- and heterosexual experience the table contains data only on menstruation and residence.

                             The unconstrained attitude and the free morals that Mead mista­kenly ascribes to the Samoans, she combines with the absence of stress and neurotic reactions that she alleges to have noticed. This unverified allegation forms a glaring contrast to her very circumstantial descrip­tion of a number of maladjusted individuals, noted suicides, runaways, etc.

                             Besides the almost total want of documentation of source data, the thesis also lacks the account of previous research that forms an elementary part of every normal doctoral thesis within the humanities. For instance, she does not mention Charles Wilkes's observation in 1839 that "there was no indiscriminate intercourse in Samoa"[3]. The reader is left in total ignorance about which of the observations were made by Mead and which that were collected from previous literature. A thesis with such serious wants is nor­mal­ly not accepted, and 26-year-old candidate Mead hardly expected anything else.

                             But the miracle did happen. Professor Boas accepted this deficient composition without calling for any revision, nay not even for the least amend­ment. He cannot have escaped the wants, and if he read the text fairly critically, he must have been stricken by the many contradictions and unfounded conclusions. We must assume that Boas was motivated not by scientific conscientiousness but rather by a political ambition.

                             "The foremost anthropologist of America" thus vouched for Coming of Age in Samoa being a "painstaking investigation". He asserted that the book was based on a study of teenage girls in Samoa that aimed at determining to what extent certain social attitudes are due to physio­logical conditions and to what extent to cultural ones. And he established that Mead had found that "with the freedom of sexual life, the absence of a large number of conflicting ideals, and the emphasis upon forms that to us are irrelevant, the adolescent crisis disappears." Such declarations induced most anthropologists to accept Coming of Age in Samoa as a carefully scientific work. Even Bronislaw Malinowski (1884-1942) consi­dered the book as a first-rate example of descriptive anthropology, an excellent reading beyond criticism, convincing for the professional and fascinating for the layman. (Coming of Age in Samoa is still used as a course book at the Stockholm University.)

                             The laity readers were naturally just as shortsighted and uncritical, as was the great Malinowski. A publisher anticipated this and published the corny trash with an alluring get-up. Margaret Mead became famous. The criticism was reduced to articles in stray journals with limited circulation.

                             Mead got her doctor's degree and learnt a useful lesson. By feigning to present science one can wield political power. Real scientism is not necessary. More important is to display opinions that are well-timed and held by the authorities. Referring to source material that others are unable to check makes it still easier to produce the desired conclusions. Mead was not slow to use this new knowledge.

A few years after the sojourn on Samoa, we find her in the interior of New Guinea once again engaged in fieldwork. This resulted in a book titled Sex and Temperament in Three Primitive Societies.[4] This work was seen in many quarters as the definite confirmation of the anti-Darwinist theories that had been launched by John Broadus Watson (1878-1958), by Boas and to a certain degree by herself in Coming of Age in Samoa. It was well known that Darwin had contrived to explain the origin of species through favored reproduction by the fittest individuals in a certain environment. Darwin had also shown that the first step in this process implied the emergence of various races, each one in some way adapted to the environment of its members. Boas had publicly pleaded that this mechanism did not apply to the species Homo sapiens, save in the case of some superficial qualities such as skin pigmen­tation. And J.B. Watson asserted that practically any child could be brought up to any kind of adult person, doctor, lawyer, artist, manager and, why not, beggar or thief, all irrespective of his or her congenital talents.

Now let us examine the content of Sex and Temperament in Three Primitive Societies, a book that the professionals let pass without subjecting it to anything like real criticism. The book describes the behavior of men and women among three primitive tribes living in the interior of New Guinea. Regarding the tribe called Tchambuli Mead reports the following facts: "Until the Tchambuli boy and girl reach the age of six or seven the two are treated exactly alike." After that age "the girl is rapidly trained in handicrafts and absorbed into the sober, responsible life of the women, the boy is given no such adequate training for his future role".

This was of course an excellent opportunity to study the effect of possible genetic differences between the sexes, since the environment factor was identical for boys and girls during the important childhood days. Mead herself stresses the importance of this period when she states: "The differences between individuals within a culture are almost entirely to be laid to differences in conditioning, especially during early childhood." According to Mead there was no difference in conditioning and the culture was of course one and the same for all the children. Anyway, we find that although the men were physically stronger, just as in most races, the Arapesh people depended on the fishing of the women. The men were permitted to do the "shop­ping", i.e. the intertribal trade. "For fifty quarrels among the men there is hardly one among the women." ... "Solid, preoccupied, powerful, with shaven unadorned heads, they sit in groups and laugh together."

To be preoccupied and at once laugh with the group is something of a feat that few (if any) except Mead have had the opportunity to witness. Unfortunately the reader is bereft of a detailed description of this rare phenomenon.

The men were theoretically and legally the rulers, but emotionally they were subordinate. They were the conspicuous maladjusted, subjects to neurasthenia, hysteria, etc - all according to Mead. A better example of sexually inherited traits would be hard to find. In spite of the identical upbringing until the age of seven, the girls were simply "absorbed" into the sober life of the typical individual of a mentally solid character. The boys, on the other hand, were apparently less susceptible to training, they did not even learn faultless execution of the big flutes until later and they frequently disobeyed their seniors. In other words, there is nothing that speaks against the possibility that a certain hysteroid trait was established already in the boy of seven. Anyway, the boys apparently accepted the idle hanging-about life just as naturally as the girls accepted diligence after the period of identical upbringing. Every indication seems to point at a case of sex-linked heritage. Since it is well known that color-blindness and hemo­philia are inherited in a way that makes the male sex much more susceptible to these diseases, a hysteroid trait could of course follow the same pattern - especially within such a small tribe with much in-and-in marry­ing.

Mead's conclusion was, however, that she had found evidence proving that the temperamental difference between men and women in the Western society are nothing but "artificial standardization's" and "social fictions for which we have no longer any use".

Another thing that Mead noticed was that "the society" (i.e. the traditional norm) decrees that the men ruled the women, but in practice it was the other way round. In other words, people did not care a damn about what that "society" had told them to do. In spite of her own observation of this gross deviation from the norm, Mead maintains that it is "the society" or "the culture" of the tribe in question that "selects" the temperament that becomes typical of the members of each sex.

The two other tribes that Mead studied in New Guinea were Arapesh and Mundugumor, between which she noted a remarkable difference in the average temperament. She also noted that the Aarapesh were "slight, small-headed, and only sparsely hairy", contrary to their nearest neigh­bors (and "linguistic relatives"), who are "squatter, heavier, with huge heads and definite beards".

The Mundugumor resided a hundred miles away and talked another language. Among them the percentage of twin births was reported to be higher than among other New Guineans and even childless women were able in a few weeks to produce milk nearly enough to rear a child. Now, as far as we know, the size of the head, the growth of hair and beard, the frequency of twin births and the ability to lactate before child-bearing are typical racial characters inherited from generation to generation by means of the genes. Therefore, there is little doubt that Arapesh and Mundu­gumor were of different hereditary stock. In other words, they repre­sented two distinguished sub-races.

A careful study of Mead's reported observations reveals part of the mechanism that caused the temperamental differences. To begin with, the Arapesh territory was not exposed to the raids of the headhunters since it was a barren and infertile mountain land almost devoid of fish and game. No wonder, then, if the slight, vegetarian inhabitants led a life characterized (by Mead) as "primarily maternal, cherishing, and oriented away from the self towards the needs of the next generation". This in turn would have permitted even weaker children to survive, thus upholding and strengthening the non-aggressive, unselfish temperament.

The Mundugumor apparently had a higher birthrate, since among them "only the strongest children survive". Moreover, not all newborn babies were allowed to live. Among the members of the tribe there was a small number of "really bad men who are aggressive, gluttons for power and prestige; men who have taken far more than their share in women" etc. All this would of course tend to increase the proportion of genes for toughness and aggressivity. Quite natural that the survival and excess reproduction of the strongest and most violent in Mundugumor had eventually produced a people that was held in such terror "that no other people will venture to occupy" their territory, although it was "a good coconut and tobacco land". To be sure, they were rich too, "they have a superabundance of land, their fishing barads are filled with fish", as Mead assures us. The Mundugumor temperament had not always been quite so aggressive, Mead found good evidence for a previous state less ravaged by violence.

Pure chance in combination with certain differences in soil and topography apparently have produced genetic differences between tribes in the interior of New Guinea, similar to those that Darwin noted in other species in the Galapagos.

Mead, however, drew an entirely different conclusion than did Darwin. She stated: "The same child can be brought up to a member of any of these three societies." She paid no attention to the obvious differences in racial traits and in diet, and appears happily surprised that "two people who share so many economic and social traits, who are part of one culture area [...] can present such contrast in ethos, in social personality". She concludes that there is no longer any basis for regarding such traits as passivity, responsiveness, and a willingness to cherish children as sex-linked. These traits are just "set up as the masculine pattern in one tribe" and outlawed for all in another. "There is no other explanation of race, or diet or selection that can be adduced to explain" the differences between Arapesh and Mundugumor. "Only to the impact of the whole of the integrated culture upon the growing child can we lay the formation of the contrasting types."

Mead thought that there were hereditary differences between individuals, so that the enigmatic "culture" in a certain tribe could pick up one distinctive character and reshape all the members after this model. In another tribe the "culture" would pick up another character as model, hence the temperamental differences between tribes. We must assume that the "culture" was a kind of deus ex machina that just appeared out of nothing and without any cause chose now one model, now another.

It was to elapse some years after the death of Dr. Mead before the New Zealander Derek Freeman could publish the result of his many years' work on checking the factual information and the conclusions in Coming of Age in Samoa. Only then it was revealed how immensely Mead had misrepresented the mores of American Samoa. But even if all her factual information had been correct, her lack of scientific method should have sufficed to make at least trained professionals realize that her study did not prove anything out of what it pretended to prove.

                             The same applies to her study of the three tribes in New Guinea, the factual information of which has not been checked even now.

                             But even an uneducated layman can realize that Sex and Tempe­rament is about three genetically distinctive tribes with different diets and to some extent practicing genetic selection. Therefore the typical tempe­ra­ments of these three tribes are absolutely useless for drawing conclu­sions about any "culture" as a causative factor. To draw conclu­sions from this material about the origin of typical male and female temperament in the Western society is sheer hypocrisy.

                             The sociological establishment has certainly pilloried itself by cherishing Coming of Age and Sex and Temperament for more than half a century.




[1] Margaret Mead, Coming of Age in Samoa, 1928.

2 Derek Freeman, Margaret Mead and Samoa, London 1983.

3 Freeman, op.cit., p.227.

4 Margaret Mead, Sex and Temperament in Three Primitive Societies, London 1935


[1] Margaret Mead, Coming of Age in Samoa, 1928.

[2] Derek Freeman, Margaret Mead and Samoa, London 1983.

[3] Freeman, op.cit., p.227.

[4] Margaret Mead, Sex and Temperaament in Three Primitive Societies, London 1935