Author: Phillip Jensen

Margaret Mead, Derek Freeman and intellectual leadership

An article from kategoria magazine, Issue 2, with thanks to K. Birkett for her editorial and research assistance.

David Williamson’s new play, Heretic, is a play about ideas: in particular, the anthropological controversy between Margaret Mead and Derek Freeman. Margaret Mead’s research on the islands of Samoa launched her into international fame as an anthropologist in the 1920s; in the 1990s, the play has publicised the fact that Australian anthropologist Derek Freeman thinks her work was almost entirely wrong. The play has itself been controversial, with disagreements between the playwright and the director providing much newsprint. Because of Williamson’s views about intellectual life, which he has openly discussed, it has also brought to public attention issues of academic integrity and intellectual leadership.

Background to the play

The play has transformed an academic debate into public entertainment. In fact, the debate was already fairly public. In 1983 Derek Freeman launched a book not just into academic halls, but into the general media, especially in America. The publicity surrounding the launch basically claimed that the book would completely destroy Margaret Mead’s credibility. Freeman did not just criticise Mead’s theory; he insisted that her research was so poor that her evidence was virtually non-existent. It made marvellous media conflict, for Mead had been tremendously influential for years, and members of the public could legitimately consider themselves stakeholders in the debate. Although the media might have loved Freeman, the anthropological community rejected him, and defended its heroine. It appears, in the eyes of several commentators at least, that more was at stake than just the evidence each of them cited.

This is not the place to analyse in detail the politics of the Mead-Freeman debate.[1] It is still difficult to determine who ‘won’, though Williamson’s play comes out fairly firmly in favour of Freeman. In the meantime, however, with the play and Williamson’s comments about intellectual life so much in public view, we can throw a few ideas about intellectual leadership into the melting pot.

Mead and Freeman: the play and real life

David Williamson’s plays have grown in popularity and significance in Australia, and he is usually regarded as Australia’s leading playwright. He has remained on the cutting edge of the community’s thinking and mood shifts, and presented complex ideas in a popularly acceptable form. Heretic, which opened in early 1996 at the Sydney Opera House, is a well researched and entertaining attempt to present a controversy that has been at work in anthropological circles for many years now.

Derek Freeman, the emeritus professor of anthropology at the Australian National University, is the heretic of Williamson’s play. It is an appropriate title, for in one sense Freeman is formally a heretic; in Chicago, in November 1983, the American Anthropological Association passed a motion denouncing his work as “unscientific”. Williamson also puts Freeman in the broader context, as one who stood against the anthropologists’ credo of cultural relativism. Derek Freeman took sides on the nature/nurture debate and argued for nature, against the overwhelming tide of anthropological opinion which was in favour of nurture.

Margaret Mead was one of the champions of the nurture argument. Her research in Samoa in the 1920s is presented in the play as a critical demonstration of the teachings of Mead’s mentor, Franz Boas. Boas, who wrote the forward to her book, Coming of Age in Samoa,[2] argued for cultural relativism rather than the absolutes of nature. In particular, Boas and Mead challenged the view that the ‘storm and stress’ of adolescent development is an inevitable part of growing up—simply part of human ‘nature’. By examining a society largely unaffected by our Western culture and nurturing—one which, in Mead’s view, showed no signs of the stress of adolescent development—Mead sought to demonstrate that adolescent turmoil is not a function of our nature, but our nurture. In Boas’ forward we read:

In our own civilisation the individual is beset with difficulties which we are likely to ascribe to fundamental human traits. When we speak about the difficulties of childhood and of adolescence, we are thinking of them as unavoidable periods of adjustment through which everyone has to pass. The whole psycho-ana- lytic approach is largely based on this supposition.

The anthropologist doubts the correctness of these views, but up to this time hardly anyone has taken the pains to identify himself sufficiently with a primitive population to obtain an insight into these problems. We feel, therefore, grateful to Miss Mead for having undertaken to identify herself so completely with Samoan youth that she gives us a lucid and clear picture of the joys and difficulties encountered by the young individual in a culture so entirely different from our own. The results of her painstaking investigation confirm the suspicion long held by anthropologists, that much of what we ascribe to human nature is no more than a reaction to the restraints put upon us by our civilisation.[3]

Freeman against nurture 

This book became the anthropological best seller of the century. In it Mead claimed to have found such difference in culture between Samoa and the west that it would explain fundamental differences in adolescent experience. Nature, she hoped to have demonstrated, is not the determinant of our behaviour; we are products of cultural nurturing.

Derek Freeman, on the other hand, did not accept that nurture is so overwhelmingly important. In his view, Mead’s theory was the end result of philosophical presuppositions that go back to the British philosopher John Locke. It is a commitment to the idea that humans are born with minds that are “tabula rasa”; that is, “…empty tablets capable of receiving all sorts of imprints but having none stamped on them by nature”.[4] In other words, Freeman considered that social anthropologists were working not out of evolutionary scientific understanding, but out of a philosophical commitment to this egalitarian ideology, in seeking to establish the importance of nurture over nature. He argued that their conclusions did not arise from observational data; rather, anthropologists were confirmed in their presuppositions by Mead’s Samoan study.

Freeman was not totally opposed to the concept of nurture as determinative. He acknowledged that nurture and culture both have some part to play in governing the

direction of human behaviour. He wanted, however, to argue for the existence of natural determinants of behaviour. Freeman insisted upon an interactionist model of human behaviour, with nature and nurture affecting each other as humans make choices: “Heredity and environment interact and modify behaviour at every stage of development”.[5] We are not empty tablets as John Locke expected, and Mead’s “extreme environmentalist conclusions of 1928 cannot conceivably be correct”.[6] For Derek Freeman, “the making of choices is…one of the crucially significant biologically given capacities of members of the human species, and so becomes a quite fundamental element in any interactionist paradigm.”[7]

Freeman’s fight

Most of Derek Freeman’s adult life is portrayed in David Williamson’s play as directed against the predominant ‘nurture’ paradigm of his professional colleagues. The point of conflict was his study of Samoa and controversy with Margaret Mead. Hers was the flagship of anthropological cultural relativism. Hers was the work that he studied and from his own experience found inadequate. While he challenged her in writing and in person, it wasn’t until 1983 that he produced his major work on the subject.[8] Here he exposed the empirical inadequacies of Mead’s work in Samoa. Here also the controversy came down upon his head, for while the media and many scholars came to accept his critique, if not demolition, of Margaret Mead’s studies, the anthropological community of North America gathered in her defence and attacked Derek Freeman critically and personally.

The controversy continued through the 1980s with one significant point of advance in 1987. Fa’apua’a Fa’amu, the Samoan woman on whose testimony Mead had based some of her conclusions about Samoan culture, came forward in 1987 and testified that, as a game, she and a friend tricked Mead back in 1925 and 1926. The two girls were apparently telling Mead lies that fitted in with the kinds of questions she was asking. Fa’apua’a Fa’amu was by that time an elderly woman who gave testimony on television and whose testimony has since been given in sworn deposition.

While to Freeman and many in the world this testimony was the clinching piece of evidence, the debate has continued to this day, with people casting doubts even on the

evidence of Fa’apua’a Fa’amu.[9] However, Williamson’s play reaches its climax with the testimony of Fa’apua’a Fa’amu and accepts that Freeman got it right.

The personalities

For a play to be written on such an abstract debate requires a focus on the personalities and conflict between the two major characters. Even though Mead and Freeman rarely met, Williamson still manages to present the play as a story about people. Mead is presented as more than a research scientist writing reports; she is a personality, a networker, a media persona, an advocate of ideas for change within the American society based on her research into primitive cultures. Freeman is a personality who studies and struggles, with a well publicised breakdown in mid-life which gives rise to questions as to why he wanted to take on the academic establishment. Williamson as playwright works out the controversy between these two personalities, particularly in relationship to their lifestyle, contrasting Mead’s high profile frequent marriage and sexual promiscuity with Freeman’s struggling, monogamous relationship.

This may seem to be artistic license; a playwright creating personal tension in order to convey abstract ideas in conflict, for an audience that can only grasp the concrete realities of people in conflict. However, Williamson’s portrayal has a basis in fact. The Mead-Freeman controversy indeed was one that went beyond ideas into the very people involved in The production controversy them. Margaret Mead was a ‘larger than life’ personality, who purposely wrote up her research for popular reception and openly entered into public debate. Freeman’s controversy with her did point to the inadequacies of Mead the person, and not just of the research of Samoa. He wrote in a forceful, and what many found abrasive, style. Consequently, in the book by James E. Côté which analyses the debate, the personalities of the two combatants form a key part of the discussion and evaluation of their controversy.

The production controversy

The Sydney production of this play was given a further controversial edge by a public falling out between the director and the playwright. The director introduced elements into the production which displayed Margaret Mead as Marilyn Monroe, introduced 1960s music and dance in which she was seen to be ‘the mother of us all’, and presented Fa’apua’a Fa’amu in a grotesque, inhuman and unreal puppet head. Williamson objected strongly to these elements which it seems he thought trivialised his work, even misrepresenting it.[10]

It can only be a subjective evaluation, but on the evening which I attended the play it seemed to me that both play wright and director were correct. The audience came to life at the very elements that the director had introduced to the play. It lifted the performance from a serious and intellectual debate into a lively and commercially exciting presentation. However, it did seriously undermine the point of the play. The audience was not really left open to listen to the weight of Freeman’s critique of Mead’s gospel of sexual liberation. Instead of history and data demonstrating Freeman’s thesis in the testimony of a real historical person, strange, humorous stagecraft gave final verdict. The curtain call was a joyous tribute to 60s sexual liberation. Without the director’s trappings, the evening’s experience would have been a more serious and powerful controversy of world views, but would no doubt have been far less entertaining. The audience response itself showed how much the members of the audience were the children of the Margaret Mead generation and philosophy; how influential Mead’s views were and continue to be.

The play was enjoyable, its plot tensions interesting. As Williamson has pointed out, however, the issue is more than just a dramatic controversy between public characters. “Derek’s life has been the battle to establish the primacy of truth”, Williamson commented at one point.[11] The play and its presentation express a certain disquiet that is beginning to be felt about the intellectual leadership given to our societies by the academic community. Leadership is provided by the academic community. Despite the indulgent portrayal of the ivory-tower professor, who is divorced from the ‘real’ world, the public pays a great deal of respect to academic opinion. “University tests prove” that anyone in a white coat can add considerable credibility to anything from washing powder to face cream.

Within the academic world that people rely upon, however, things are often not so clear-cut. It is common to speak of scientific ‘paradigms’. This word, popularised in the philosophy of science by Thomas Kuhn, though it has proved extremely difficult to define,[12] is a useful short-hand for the general over-arching theory under which a community of scientists works. It is the general assumption behind most of the work of scientists in that community. As long as a paradigm is strong, minor discrepancies in specific experiments or case-studies can be explained away. For a paradigm to break down requires the scientists to be convinced of major errors in their work; and humans, being the stubborn creatures that they are, sometimes hold onto cherished assumptions unreasonably. Freeman considers that his fight with Mead and her supporters is a matter of paradigms in conflict.

Mead popularised her paradigm

Margaret Mead was a—possibly the—leading anthropologist of her time. One anthropologist described her as “the preeminent leader of our field for decades”.[13] The anthropological community, and indeed the academic community at large, relied upon her scholarship, and the paradigm she supported consequently became very strong. The academic backlash against Derek Freeman is a demonstration of the community’s commitment to Mead’s paradigm. For example, James Côté rejects the evidence of Fa’apua’a Fa’amu on the grounds of “mental acrobatics”. He sees her as a Christian woman defending her own honour, who had not realised that her private confessions to an anthropologist about premarital sex would be broadcast across the world.[14] Also Freeman, in Côté’s opinion, is motivated by his position as a matai rather than any intellectual pursuit of truth.[15]

Mead was a great advocate and populariser of her own ideas. She took her message directly to the public. She wrote her major book on the Samoan culture in such a fashion that the public at large could understand it. She encouraged the world to learn from her discoveries in Samoa and apply those lessons to other cultures. Hers was not the quiet intellectual debate advancing our understanding while recognising the severe limitations of our inquiries. She publicly preached and proclaimed cultural relativism with a subtext “anthropological tests prove…”.

It is easy to see in popular culture that this paradigm of the pre-eminence of nurture, and cultural relativism, still finds acceptance at popular levels. A demonstration of its influence can be found in the movie Circle of Friends, based on the novel by Maeve Binchy. The movie is set in Ireland in the late 1950s, when three young women attend their first year at university. During this year, their Irish Catholic world view is to be shaken by their experiences and their classroom anthropological studies. Their handsome professor, a striking contrast with their hook-nosed and ugly Catholic priest, seeks to broaden their frame of reference by telling of the Trobrian Islanders in the works of Bronislaw Malinowski; a study parallel to Mead’s work in Samoa. These anthropology lectures do not appear in the novel; they are inserted as a sub text to explain what is taking place as the women go through their first sexual encounters. The lecturer assures them that there is complete freedom of access between the sexes in the Trobrian Islands, from puberty to adolescence, and the people are “very happy and contented people”. He speaks of the ways in which societies regulate the behaviour and conduct of their members by the use of the law, shame, guilt and fear. These ‘vices’ are amply illustrated, of course, in the portrayal of the Irish Catholic church. The film ends with the heroine writing a paper comparing the Irish Catholic mating rights with those of the Trobrian Islanders, and implying that she has entered into a premarital sexual relationship with her boyfriend (again in contrast to the novel) with a voiceover ending the film, “Bless me, Father, for I have sinned”.

Why was this anthropological background inserted into the story? It could be argued that the late 1950s experience of university life was dominated by such anthropological teaching to young men and women, who were struggling with their own sexual discoveries. Yet it can also be argued that its inclusion in the 1990s film—without comment, criticism or even implied challenge to these ideas—is an endeavour to perpetuate a particular ideological commitment.[16]

This movie also demonstrates what is easily observable in Western culture: that this particular scientific paradigm was not a neutral intellectual matter. It had direct consequences for society and the decisions of individuals. The academic world clearly provided leadership which indicated that this paradigm was correct. If Mead’s actual research was wrong, as Derek Freeman has suggested, then the critical judgement of the scholarly consensus needs to be called into question. How and why have so many people of high academic standing been duped? Mead’s study on Samoa is a world-wide best-selling book, and possibly the most famous piece of anthropological research ever done. Why has it found such ready acceptance and been held up as a model for others to follow if, as Freeman suggests, it is so profoundly and fundamentally flawed?

The academic anthropological community has shown some prevarication—quick to defend itself and jump to Margaret Mead’s aid, even while admitting privately that Mead was wrong. Professor Lowell Holmes, described by James Côté as the most qualified anthropologist to consult in this case,[17] said personally to Freeman that, “I think it is quite true that Margaret finds pretty much what she wants to find…While I was quite critical of many of her ideas and observations…I was forced by my faculty adviser to soften my criticisms”. He added “the only tragedy about Margaret is that she still refuses to accept the idea that she might have been wrong on her first field trip”.[18] Yet Lowell Holmes wrote (at the time of Freeman’s attack) in immediate defence of Margaret with titles such as, “South Seas squall; Derek Free man’s long nurtured, ill-natured attack on Margaret Mead.”[19]

Perhaps an anthropological study on anthropologists is due. Under what cultural norms are they operating, whereby they think that moving majority motions in society meetings is a method of establishing the truth or error, the scientific value or lack of scientific value, of the published work of fellow academics?[20] At this point questions must be raised about the wider political factors involved in decision making.[21] Why did the anthropological community believe Margaret Mead’s Samoan story? Was it because it confirmed their paradigm of cultural relativism? Did it reinforce their ‘nurture’ view of the debate which gave legitimacy to their own discipline? Of course, this assumes that Mead was wrong. Many commentators have raised similar questions about Freeman and his motives and political agenda. Was he trying to score points by bringing down the tallest poppy in the land? Was he defending a traditional Samoan society because of his political status within that culture? Was his use of Freudian psychiatry to help him in his personal problems, a biasing factor against the anti-Freudian views of Boas and Mead?

Intellectual leadership

What is the social responsibility of academic leaders? Obviously there is a degree to which scientists cannot be blamed for holding inaccurate theories, if they are merely taking the most plausible explanation for the evidence available. Mead did far more than that, however. She set about popularising her views and agitating for social change on the basis of them. It is this that has made the attack on her work such a public matter. This is no internal debate of scientists over competing theories; the general public, who believed Mead, has become involved. The anthropological community has been very annoyed at the way in which Freeman made his attack. Certain anthropologists have complained that it was unacademic, and overly sensationalist, for Harvard University Press to play up the popular conflict and debate the issue in the newspapers before it had a chance to reach the anthropological journals.[22] Nevertheless, the popularising Mead did herself could be taken to justify Freeman’s public attack. Although aca demic protocol may have been breached, it was a larger population than just the academic community who were concerned in the truth or otherwise of her conclusions.

The main concern is that Freeman has thrown into severe doubt whether Mead’s theories were based on good evidence at all. This is the crucial point. If Freeman’s criticisms are correct, then the Mead-Freeman debate raises more than just questions of changing paradigms; it raises questions of academic integrity. The evidence on which an academic leader bases major theories should be sound, and the method for gathering that evidence beyond reproach.

It is worth pointing out that the Christian understanding has always asserted the inevitability of bias. As creatures in rebellion against our creator, we are not impartial beings, and especially we do not have moral autonomy. Belief in the value of investigation and the reality of the external world has always, in the Christian world-view, been tempered by a knowledge of our immense capacity for self-deception. Intellectual life is not the bastion of objectivity and detachment that our positivist heritage would like to think. Our bias is, moreover, most likely to show itself in the human sciences, for at this point we most want to justify our own moral systems.

It comes as no surprise to a Christian viewpoint, therefore, that Mead’s discoveries have come under such questioning. Commentators who wish to throw doubt on Fu’apua’a Fa’amu’s testimony, or on Freeman’s conclusions, because of their personal social position, must equally take into account Mead’s own sexual promiscuity. It may well be no coincidence that the theory she developed was one which justified sexual license, and declared the moral restrictions of her Western society to be unnecessarily harsh human constructs.

If Mead was wrong, we have been sold a personally and socially damaging lie. We trusted, and were encouraged to trust, views which were based on highly questionable data, which should not have taken several decades and a public attack to uncover.[23] Mead’s openly promoted views should have been subjected to a scrutiny proportional to the public emphasis she gave them, and we can ask questions about the self-justificatory nature of the academic community that did not do so. At the end of the day, academic discourse cannot hold itself completely aloof from responsibility to the people who are affected by it.

[1] One book which attempts to analyse the debate is James E. Côté, Adolescent Storm and Stress: An Evaluation of the Mead-Freeman Controversy, Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Publishers, Hillsdale, New Jersey, 1994.

[2] Margaret Mead, Coming of Age in Samoa: A Study of Adolescence and Sex in Primitive Societies, Penguin Books, Harmondsworth, 1928.

[3] Franz Boas, Forward, in ibid., p. 6.

[4] Derek Freeman, Paradigms in Collision, Research School of Pacific Studies, ANU, 1992, pp. 3-4.

[5] Ibid., p. 16.

[6] Ibid.

[7] bid., p. 17.

[8] Derek Freeman, Margaret Mead and Samoa; the Making and Unmaking of an Anthropological Myth, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Mass., 1983.

[9] Côté, op. cit., p. 28; also see Nicole J. Grant, ‘From Margaret Mead’s field notes: what counted as “sex” in Samoa?’, American Anthropologist, 1995, 97, 678-682, p. 681.

[10] See ‘Ungodly row over Heretic’, and ‘Question of belief as writer, di rector split over Heretic’, Sydney Morning Herald, 2/4/96; ‘Fighting white males’, Sydney Morning Herald, 6/4/96; ‘Some like it hot…but I don’t’, and ‘Heretic brawl, Act 2: the plot thickens’, Sydney Morning Herald, 9/4/96. A summary is in ‘Whose play is it anyway?’, Good Weekend, 6/7/96.

[11] ‘Sex, lies and anthropology’, Good Weekend, 9/3/96.

[12] Thomas Kuhn, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, The University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 1962, second edition enlarged 1970. Kuhn’s work created a great deal of discussion—partly because he did not himself define ‘paradigm’ strictly enough—and it has become obvious that real life does not fit into neat paradigms, one succeeding the other. Nevertheless, the word remains useful as a general term for the framework of assumptions that lie behind a person’s specific work.

[13] Theodore Schwartz, ‘Anthropology: a quaint science’, in Ivan Brady (ed) ‘Speaking in the name of the real: Freeman and Mead on Samoa’, American Anthropologist, 1983, 85, 908-947, p. 920.

[14] Côté, op. cit., p. 28.

[15] A matai is a titled family head, or chief. Ibid., pp. 5-6.

[16] That this is common is the argument of Michael Medved in his study Hollywood vs America, Harper Perennial, New York, 1992. Medved argues that the film-makers of Hollywood have not been motivated by art, integrity or even money but by a desire to attack traditional values of family life in American culture. From his perspective, the inclusion of the anthropological debate within the film Circle of Friends would be typical of the use of films to promote an anti-family, sexually libertarian philosophy of life. 

[17] Côté, op. cit., p. 48. Holmes has also studied Samoan culture first hand.

[18] Quoted by Derek Freeman, ‘“O Rose thou art sick!”: a rejoinder to Weiner, Schwartz, Holmes, Shore, and Silverman’, American Anthropologist, 1984, 86, p. 404.

[19] The Sciences , 1983, 23, pp. 14-18.

[20] Freeman’s work was judged “unscientific”. While a society could possibly have decided, on evidence, that he was wrong, the fact that he presented arguments based on researched data hardly qualifies for the pejorative “unscientific”.

[21] Such questions are asked in the philosophy and social studies of science. (Editor’s note: introductory books in this area are Alan Chalmers, What is this thing called science? University of Queensland Press, St Lucia, 1976 and Science and its Fabrication, Open University Press, Milton Keynes, 1990.) The Mead-Freeman controversy is certainly worthy of a case-study.

[22] Lowell Holmes wrote at the time “The Harvard University Press pro motion of this book involved virtually every shoddy trick known”, adding that if this is the way to present a scientific study he is glad his work remained unnoticed on archive shelves rather than becoming a bestseller. ‘A tale of two studies’, in Ivan Brady (ed.) ‘Speaking in the name of the real: Freeman and Mead on Samoa’, American Anthropologist, 1983, 85, 908 947, p. 934.

[23] Freeman’s ideas continue to be criticised in anthropological journals even though it is acknowledged that he had valid points to make against Mead. For instance, one writer in an article criticising Freeman’s way of presenting his argument makes the comment “…Freeman’s rhetorical overkill detracts from the valid criticisms he does make about Mead’s Samoan research.” Mac Marshall, ‘The wizard of Oz meets the wicked witch of the East: Freeman, Mead, and ethnographic authority’, American Ethnologist, 1993, 20, 604-17, p. 612.

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