Coming of Age in Samoa: A Psychological Study of Primitive Youth for Western Civilisationby Margaret Mead, Mary Pipher, Mary Catherine Bateson Published 20 Feb 2001
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Rarely do science and literature come together in the same book. When they do -- as in Charles Darwin's On the Origin of Species, for example -- they become classics, quoted and studied by scholars and the general public alike.
Margaret Mead accomplished this remarkable feat not once but several times, beginning with Coming of Age in Samoa. It details her historic journey to American Samoa, taken where she was just twenty-three, where she did her first fieldwork. Here, for the first time, she presented to the public the idea that the individual experience of developmental stages could be shaped by cultural demands and expectations. Adolescence, she wrote, might be more or less stormy, and sexual development more or less problematic in different cultures. The "civilized" world, she taught us had much to learn from the "primitive." Now this groundbreaking, beautifully written work as been reissued for the centennial of her birth, featuring introductions by Mary Pipher and by Mead's daughter, Mary Catherine Bateson.
"Coming of Age in Samoa: A Psychological Study of Primitive Youth for Western Civilisation" Reviews
During childhood summers spent at grandmother's cottage in SW Michigan there was little to do but go on walks with the dog, play solitaire, knit, assemble puzzles or read. I read a lot. Some of the books I obtained myself with money earned from doing chores. But even at a penny per cigarette butt collected from around the house, earning enough for a fifty cent paperback took a while, especially after the grounds had been scoured a couple of times. Consequently, I depended a lot on the books at the house or brought up by guests.
Coming of Age in Samoa had been in the living room bookshelf as long as I could remember. Initially, of course, is seemed too grown-up. However, as I grew older and explored more and more of the adult books in the resident collection, they became less intimidating. Indeed, a perusal of this particular title suggested a lot of material about girls and sex on some tropical island. The first two topics had been interesting me more and more over the last few years. The third, the tropical setting, was just iceing on the cake. I'd seen movies about tropical islands!
The book was not at all as sexy as I'd hoped, but it was informative. As obessively neurotic as I'd become about the subject, it was refreshing to read about a culture that seemed both relatively free of hang-ups and liberal as regards youthful erotic behavior. Alas! My culture wasn't like that, but it did serve a bit to liberate my imagination if not my behavior.
Years later, in seminary in New York, I became close friends with Mead's Episcopal confessor and actually crossed paths with the great woman herself on the Columbia University campus. She looked disconcertingly like my grandmother.
Mead’s book, one of the most popular anthropological books, controversial as it is, is about adolescence. More precisely, she ponders whether or not adolescent is a universally turmoil or a result of the environment in which the Western children grow up - a question worth pondering. To answer this question, she analyzes the life of teenage Samoan girls with which she lives for 9 months. Frankly, I knew little of Mead’s book before I finished it so my reading wasn’t influenced in anyway by the entire critique that surrounds it.
However, even without being biased, this book didn’t feel too scientific. That’s not a bad thing, not at all, but I wouldn’t go that far to call it an anthropological masterpiece, a must read. This book is a must read only if you like descriptive writing (very descriptive!) and straightforward speculation. Or if you’re interested in reading the work of one of the few female anthropologists that are regarded as classics. Also, bear in mind that she was only 27 when she published the books so don’t be too harsh.
With that being said, I enjoyed reading Mead’s book and I would lie if I said that I didn’t fancy the idea of growing old in a society precisely like the Samoan one, a society in which life isn’t regarded as “a battle-field where each group is fully armoured in a conviction of the righteousness of its cause”.
The first time I encountered Margaret Mead was in a biography about Norbert Wiener. I was very impressed that Mead had written a well received book at the age of 27 in 1928 when at that time science was dominated by men. So, when I came across this book, Coming of Age in Samoa, sitting on the shelf in the local bookstore I decided to give it a go.
Coming of Age in Samoa details the lives of adolescent Samoan girls in the early 1920s. Mead spent time observing the girls and provides an interesting look at their lives from birth to old age. Though the descriptions of the Samoan culture circa 1920 is certainly fascinating, the portion of the book that really captured my interest was the last two chapters, where Mead asks the question, “What can we learn about our society from studying the lives of the Samoans”. Mead makes some insights that are just as relevant today as they were in 1928.
Mead set the stage for these latter two chapters in the beginning of the book when she asks the question, “Must adolescence always be a stormy time of rebellion and angst or is that a unique feature of Western culture?”. Throughout the rest of the book the answer become clear. Adolescent girls in Samoa do not have the same turmoil and strife that adolescent girls (and boys) in America have. Mead hypothesizes that this is due to a lack of choice in Samoan culture. In Samoa, everyone believes the same things and the opportunities that a teen girl has for the future are relatively few. In comparison, an American teen is beset with limitless opportunities, and unlimited choices, which her parents, friends, and society constantly pressure her to choose from.
Mead makes a great point at the end of Chapter 13: “In all of these comparisons between Samoan and American culture, many points are useful only in throwing a spotlight upon our own solutions, while in others it is possible to find suggestions for change. Whether or not we envy other peoples one of their solutions, our attitude towards our own solutions must be greatly broadened and deepened by a consideration of the way in which other peoples have met the same problems. Realizing that our own ways are not humanely inevitable nor God-ordained, but are the fruit of a long and turbulent history, we may well examine in turn all of our institution, thrown into strong relief against the history of other civilizations, and weighing them in the balance, be not afraid to find them wanting.”
This is a point I think is vital to how we live and raise our children. The struggles of our youth or our culture in general are due to the details of our culture, not fate or some inevitable part of the human process.
Mead’s words 80 years ago haunt me, because she saw the same problems we face today. “At the present time we live in a period of transition. We have many standards but we still believe that only one standard can be the right one. We present to our children the picture of a battle-field where each group is fully armored in the conviction of the righteousness of its cause. And each of these groups makes forays among the next generation. But it is unthinkable that a final recognition of the great number of ways in which man, during the course of history and at the present time, is solving the problems of life, should not bring with it in turn the downfall of our belief in a single standard."
Unfortunately, it is now eighty years since Mead has written those words and I believe that our society still is filled with these battles between camps of righteousness. Mead stated that:
The children must be taught how to think, not what to think.
And I don’t think we do that.
In Mead’s words, “Education, in the home even more than at school, instead of being a special pleading for on regime, a desperate attempt to form one particular habit of mind which will withstand all outside influences, must be a preparation for those very influences…And even more importantly, this child of the future must have an open mind. The home must cease to plead an ethical cause or a religious belief with smiles or frowns, caresses or threats. The children must be taught how to think, not what to think And because old errors die slowly, they must be taught tolerance, just as today they are taught intolerance. They must be taught that many ways are open to them, no one sanctioned above its alternative, and that upon them alone lies the burden of choice.”
I wish this was how our education system functioned. I long for the day when raising a child to be racist is viewed the same as physically abusing a child. I hope that I can raise my children to be tolerant and to not try and force my beliefs upon them.
Of course, the tricky part is finding where you draw the line. Obviously you need to instill in a child the idea of right and wrong. However, I would argue (and I believe Mead’s writing supports this) that right and wrong are very subjective things and culturally based. So how can I teach a child right and wrong without also inflicting upon them whatever “regime” (as Mead calls it) I subscribe to?
So the questions are:
1.)How can you teach a child to think and to keep an open mind while also teaching them the values that are near and dear to your heart?
2.)Should society as a whole get involved with how you teach your child these things? We as a society already step in where there is evidence of physical or sexual abuse. Should society step in for mental abuse as well? Should we consider it just as neglectful when Dad teaches Little Johnny to hate as when he beats Little Johnny?
As as result of Derek Freeman's "debunking" of this book, this is a very complicated book to read. Freeman, who had sociobiological inclinations, was not seeking merely to debunk this book, but the agenda of cultural anthropology to treat human behavior as culturally determined. COMING OF AGE IN SAMOA is one of the key texts in making the claim of culture trumping biology.
What this means to anyone seeking to read this book or Freeman's critique is that both books should be treated as not really being about Samoa, but about the larger issue of the relative weight of culture and biology on human behavior.
As as far as I can ascertain from people I know who have done research in Samoa, the truth is FAR more complicated than what either Freeman or Mead suggest.
Mead's seminal work is used by many sociology classes (including one I took during my undergraduate years) to show that many of the cultural practices we might assume are universal among humankind in fact depend upon our social context. By showing that the natives of Samoa engaged in social and sexual practices we consider to be unusual or harmful, Mead sought to highlight the malleability of humankind, and the power that culture has in shaping us into who we ultimately become.
Unfortunately for Mead, and for the millions of people who read this book and take away that lesson, Mead's work utterly fails. Much of Mead's information about island life came from her interviews with young island girls, who later admitted that they told Mead outrageous lies about sexual exploits as part of a game. Later research confirmed that the Samoan natives did not lead lives so very different from other groups, and the sociologist's love of the 'Tabula Rasa' mind has slowly given ground to the scientific fact that human societies are largely preset due to the social forces in which our species evolved.
Just prior to taking off for Tahiti to help a friend sail his boat from there to Apia, Samoa, I bought this book hoping to learn more about Samoan culture.
Even though it was written a long time ago it could still have been interesting, and parts of it were. But for me it was slow-going and ultimately I gave up about half way through.
Samoan culture today is far from what it was back then, and judging by some of the other reviews here, what Mead was told and reported about the culture back then may not have been accurate. So if you are headed for Samoa and wanting to learn more about the islands and their people, I would look elsewhere.