Reassessing Mead versus Freeman in their studies of Samoa

A new look at anthropologist Derek Freeman’s critique of Margaret Mead’s famous study of sex in Samoa suggests Freeman may have manipulated data:

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…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…

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.

I wonder if Shankman’s work is the start to a solution to this debate. If two anthropologists disagree so much, wouldn’t bringing in other anthropologists to review the data or conduct their own fieldwork a possible answer to adjudicating who got it more right? There is a time factor here that makes the issue more complicated but people in addition to Shankman could review the notes and comparisons could be made to other societies which might be similar and offer insights.

More broadly, I wonder how much incentive there is for researchers to follow up on famous studies. Freeman made a name for himself by arguing against Mead’s famous findings but what if he had gone through the trouble and then found Mead was right? He likely would not have gotten very far.