Sex, Lies, and Separating Science From Ideology

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Margaret Mead saw in Samoa the possibility of loosening social strictures on sexuality -- something she suggested could lead to more pleasure, and less pain and suffering. She and her work were attacked and discredited, but nearly a century later, questions of the motives and integrity of her dissenters remain relevant.

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Dr. Margaret Mead, anthropologist, visits with friends on a field trip to Bali, Indonesia, in 1957. [AP Photo]

"You can't make this stuff up," people often say when they read astonishing claims about a major scholar's supposed transgressions. But it turns out you can -- so long as you convincingly pose as a great scholar yourself.

Witness a new analysis from Paul Shankman in this month's Current Anthropology of the controversy over Margaret Mead's Samoan fieldwork. Shankman, a professor of anthropology at the University of Colorado-Boulder, has for several years been doggedly investigating the smearing of Margaret Mead by the anthropologist Derek Freeman.

As Shankman writes in his latest piece, "Freeman's flawed caricature of Mead and her Samoan fieldwork has become conventional wisdom in many circles and, as a result, her reputation has been deeply if not irreparably damaged." Indeed, just this week, a New York Times Magazine article blithely refers to the Freeman-Mead controversy as if Freeman's "exposé" of Mead stands.

But Shankman's new analysis -- following his excellent 2009 book, The Trashing of Margaret Mead: Anatomy of an Anthropological Controversy -- shows that Freeman manipulated "data" in ways so egregious that it might be time for Freeman's publishers to issue formal retractions.

Some background: In her popular 1928 book, Coming of Age in Samoa, Mead presented Samoan culture as a social system that, without much fuss, allowed many adolescents to fool around before marriage. Contemporary scholars of Mead's work agree that, in her presentation of Samoa to American readers, Mead was motivated by a particular political agenda. As a sexually progressive individual, Mead saw (and portrayed) in Samoa the possibility of loosening social strictures on sexuality -- something she suggested could lead to more pleasure, and less pain and suffering.

In 1983, Freeman published Margaret Mead and Samoa: The Making and Unmaking of an Anthropological Myth with Harvard University Press, a book quickly celebrated in the mainstream press. In this and later work, Freeman appeared to conduct precise scholarship showing that Mead was just too gullible to realize that two supposedly "key informants" were pulling her leg about teenage sexual antics -- kidding the none-the-wiser Margaret Mead. In Freeman's words, "Never can giggly fibs have had such far-reaching consequences in the groves of Academe."

As early as 1996, in his book Not Even Wrong: Margaret Mead, Derek Freeman, and the Samoans, the anthropologist Martin Orans used Mead's own field notes to show "that such humorous fibbing could not be the basis of Mead's understanding. Freeman asks us to imagine that the joking of two women, pinching each other as they put Mead on about their sexuality and that of adolescents, was of more significance than the detailed information she had collected throughout her fieldwork."

Now Shankman has delved even deeper into the sources; in 2011, he obtained from Freeman's archives the first key interview with one of the supposed "joshing" informants, a woman named Fa'apua'a. This interview, conducted in 1987, allegedly bolstered Freeman's contention that Mead had based her "erroneous" portrait of Samoan sexuality on what Fa'apua'a and her friend Fofoa had jokingly told Mead back in the 1920s.

But Shankman shows that the interview was conducted and then represented in deeply problematic ways. The 1987 interview with Fa'apua'a was arranged and carried out by Fofoa's son, a Samoan Christian of high rank who was convinced that Mead had besmirched the reputation of Samoans by portraying his mother, her friend Fa'apua'a, and other Samoans as sexually licentious.

Indeed, Shankman finds that Fofoa's son told Fa'apua'a "that the purpose of the interview was to correct 'the lies she [Mead] wrote in her book, lies that insult you all.'" Fofoa's son also told Fa'apua'a -- falsely -- that Mead had reported in her work that, as young women, Fa'apua'a and Fofoa had been "out at night, all night, every night," with unmarried men. This amounted to a particularly scandalous claim about Fa'apua'a, who had been a ceremonial virgin.

In upset response to these misrepresentations, Fa'apua'a, a devout Christian, branded Mead a liar and a woman who had mistakenly interpreted innocent jokes about their lives as the truth, misrepresenting the Samoan people -- and, by implication, misrepresenting humankind.

Although Freeman gave great weight to the alleged tales told to Mead by Fa'apua'a and Fofoa in his portrayal of Mead as a dupe, Shankman notes that, in fact, "there is no information on the sex from these two women in Mead's field notes." Mead cannot have been fooled by women who were never her informants.

What Mead really drew on for her conclusions was data "collected on 25 adolescent girls of whom over 40 percent were sexually active" and from interviews with Samoan men and women. While it is true that, in Coming of Age, Mead downplayed some of the uglier aspects of Samoan sexuality -- including violent rape and physical punishment bestowed on those who violated sexual norms -- it is not true that Mead essentially invented a false cultural portrait from a couple of informants' sexual fish tales.

Shankman concludes, "It seems that Fa'apua'a had become a medium for Freeman's own views about Mead. He constructed a narrative about Mead's hoaxing and carefully culled her testimony for evidence to support it." 

But why did Freeman get it so wrong? Shankman's book suggests Freeman was obsessed with Mead and with what he saw as her dangerous stories about the flexibility of human cultures. He saw himself as a brave "heretic," a man saving true science from Mead's mere ideology.

The current New York Times Magazine article, which alludes to Freeman's claims as if they stand, focuses not on the trashing of Margaret Mead but on the trashing of another anthropologist, Napoleon Chagnon, by the self-styled journalist-activist Patrick Tierney. Just as Freeman's wild misrepresentations of Mead's work grew legs, so did Tierney's misrepresentations of Chagnon and his collaborator, the geneticist James Neel.

One noticeable difference exists, though, in this pair of "controversies." While many in the American Anthropological Association (AAA) rose to defend Mead against Freeman, many turned to join Tierney in the attacks on Chagnon. Why? Hard to say, but it probably has something to do with the relative popularity in leftist anthropology of Mead's story -- more about the happy importance of nurture -- than Chagnon's -- more about unhappy persistence of nature.

I spent about a year researching the Chagnon-Tierney controversy, so I know from my conversations with Chagnon that, on more than one occasion, Mead rose to personally help Chagnon in his work -- most notably when she vocally objected to attempts to ban a session on sociobiology at the AAA meeting that Chagnon had organized. How painful that their reputations have both had to face authors who wove not only false stories about them, but false stories so well supplied with pseudo-documentation that reasonable people believed them. The two cases raise a question I often find myself pondering: How do you effectively face a critic who amply footnotes what amounts to a fantasy?

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Alice Dreger is a professor of clinical medical humanities and bioethics at Northwestern University's Feinberg School of Medicine. She has written for The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and The Washington Post.

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