The Coming of Age in Ethnography

The Coming of Age in Ethnography

In 1928, American anthropologist Margaret Mead wrote her groundbreaking doctoral dissertation, Coming of Age in Samoa. Mead, then a student of Frank Boas the 'Father of American Anthropology' and Ruth Benedict, was schooled in the concept of 'cultural determination'. This, theoretical background inspired and gave direction to her study of the Samoan societal structure.

In Coming of Age in Samoa, Mead focused on female youth development in the Manu'an Islands. She attempted to demonstrate that adolescence is not universally stressful and "that much of what we ascribe to human nature is no more than a reaction to the restraints put upon us by our civilization." The mode of academic inquiry Mead used was that of a subjective semi-attached scholar, utilizing a social constructionalist perspective. Her study took place over a period of nine months. In this limited time frame she tried to minimize the differences between herself and the Samoan girls. Her goal was to facilitate free flow of information giving her raw material to underpin her study. Founded on her extemporaneous interviews in a rather loose framework of deductive research methodology, Mead then argued that 'culture' was the most influential factor of adolescent development, not the innate influences of biology. Her etic point of view thus validated her mentor's hypothesis.

In organizational analysis of Mead's work, it is worthy to note (as the title alludes), the material therein is structured in a 'rights of passage' contextual format. This can most readily be exemplified in her chapter organization; as the Samoan ethnography in earnest commences with chapter II,"A Day in Samoa" and closes with chapter XII "Maturity and Old Age". The chapters between these are then organized into key cultural themes and how they relate to female adolescence development: such as education, household, community, sex relations, dance, individuality and conflict.

Thereafter in chapter XIII, Mead compares and contrasts Samoan cultural education with that of western civilization. As "knowledge of one other culture should sharpen our ability to scrutinize more steadily, to appreciate more lovingly, our own." Unfortunately, the book does not end there. A final chapter is given that in context and structure seems out of place of the larger content in "Coming of Age in Samoa".

Chapter XIV "Education for Choice", is philosophical preaching on values and standards with a new futuristic worldview being proposed. Herein Mead comes to a rather grandiose idealistic conclusion that individual choice and universal tolerance is the high point that a civilization can achieve. This is clearly a marked point of departure from Mead's analysis of the stresses of adolescent development, since she did not premise such a worldview until the final chapter.

Overall, Mead's work is generally coherent and her structure and organization is complementary to the content. The prose is clear, lively and engaging for academics, students of anthropology as well as anyone with an interest in ethnography and culture. One must merely overlook her misplaced final chapter to enjoy the relative ease with which this book flows.

In assessing the content therein, from Mead's standpoint she ultimately proved her goal that socialization caused most behavior and that this behavior was determined within individual cultures. However, it is important to understand that Mead entered the field with a predetermined hypothesis, which greatly influenced her point of view. She found the predisposed conclusion that she sought. Her research methodology has been strong critiqued as being raw, ad hoc and based on simple interactions. This alone does not mean her proposed hypothesis of 'cultural determinism' was wrong. However, her methodology does not validate her claims either from a critical reader's perspective.

Nevertheless, Mead's line of reasoning flows logically to her conclusion of cultural determination. Although, it is important to note she relies heavily on hidden assumptions. She assumes (as Freedman points out) that her material acquired from informal interviews of Samoan girls was honest and truthful. The potential for such false data collection to be apart of her already imprecise research methods leads one to question the merit of her work. For example, Mead writes of clandestine sex under palm trees in a virtual erotic paradise , as there is, "no frigidity, no impotence and the capacity for intercourse only once in a night is counted as senility." However, by going outside of the text, one can find Samoans who lived in the same cultural epoch Mead studied who contradict such assertions.

Moreover, one also uncovers an actual Mead informant who stated openly that she and others lied to Mead about their sexual activities. Certainly, such confessions may now have credibility questions. Nevertheless, surely native Samoans must possess greater ethos with regard to their culture than any 'green' fieldwork anthropologist. In addition, Mead's inexperience in the field and young age is further hindered by a brief timeframe for her study.

Mead's work is further criticized in her reference to the church. She states that the role of missionaries was to simply offer a 'diluted Christianity'. As Samoan adolescents, merely participated in church activities without reverence, need or want of it. The church's influence was marginal at best and "the concept of celibacy [was] absolutely meaningless to [the Samoan people]." Yet, Freeman holds that Mead completely misinterprets the Samoan attitude and values with regard to sex and the Christian church. His view was that Samoans were rigorous adamant Christian believers that strongly believed in the churches teachings of morals and ethics.

Mead even contradicts herself when she refers to her data on female virginity. As she discusses defloration ceremonies that were ultimately banned by the government and of girls having their heads shaved and/or being beaten for breaking the prescribed sexual conduct rules. This is clearly contradictory to her claims of open casual sexual relations, be they homo or hetro in nature.

Nonetheless, Mead's book was very well received. She offered the world a place that could only exist in fantasy. A Samoan society that is almost completely clear of stress and full of leisure. Adolescence without pressures often found in a modern industrialized teenager's life. Large families where privacy, taboos and restrictions are few. Where sex is open and never hard to procure. And where violence and conflict are virtually eliminated through mere negotiation of a few fine mats. This state of 'felicitous relaxation' to which Mead refers one may argue is a superimposed vision, brought about by her problematic methodology and her intention to prove the validity of cultural determinism. As a result, to the well-educated reader, her arguments are not well supported from evidence internal or external to the text; thus, Coming of Age in Samoa is not very persuasive.

Mead's book is badly flawed. It contradicts itself. It makes grandiose claims to information weakly supported through her studies. She is unable to present a significant amount of objective representative data, to come to as precise conclusion as she did. Adolescence in and of itself is not a universally stressful time as it is determined by cultural influences. In my opinion, she was too concerned with proving her mentors hypothesis on cultural determination right, instead of focusing on the methodological process of her study.

Nonetheless, Mead's work was extremely beneficial. It put anthropology on the map, both socially and academically. Her work made a tremendous impact on the thinking of social scientists and greatly influenced the American women's movement of the 1960s.

Further, she made an important contribution to our understanding of issues related to anthropology. As her book is a useful tool to demonstrate the scientific method for data acquisition. It is an example of how a system of research methodology can be abused and manipulated by not only the researcher but also potentially by the subjects themselves. Anthropologists must never forget their subjective eyes and should question even what they assume to be a "truth".

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