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Coming of Age in Samoa is a book by American anthropologist Margaret Mead based upon her research and study of youth — primarily adolescent girls — on the island of Ta'u in the Samoan Islands. First published in , the book launched Mead as a pioneering researcher and as the most famous anthropologist in the world.
The book has sparked years of ongoing and intense debate and controversy on questions pertaining to society , culture , and science. It is a key text in the nature versus nurture debate, as well as in discussions on issues relating to family, adolescence, gender, social norms , and attitudes. In the s, Derek Freeman contested many of Mead's claims, and argued that she was hoaxed into counterfactually believing that Samoan culture had more relaxed sexual norms than Western culture.
It is instructive to know that standards differ in the most unexpected ways. Boas went on to point out that, at the time of publication, many Americans had begun to discuss the problems faced by young people particularly women as they pass through adolescence as "unavoidable periods of adjustment".
Boas felt that a study of the problems faced by adolescents in another culture would be illuminating. Mead introduces the book with a general discussion of the problems facing adolescents in modern society and the various approaches to understanding these problems: religion, philosophy, educational theory, and psychology. She discusses various limitations in each approach and then introduces the new field of anthropology as a promising alternative science based on analyzing social structures and dynamics.
She contrasts the methodology of the anthropologist with other scientific studies of behavior and the obvious reasons that controlled experiments are so much more difficult for anthropology than other sciences.
For this reason her methodology is one of studying societies in their natural environment. Rather than select a culture that is fairly well understood such as Europe or America, she chooses South Sea island people because their culture is radically different from Western culture and likely to yield more useful data as a result. However, in doing so she introduces new complexity in that she must first understand and communicate to her readers the nature of South Sea culture itself rather than delve directly into issues of adolescence as she could in a more familiar culture.
Once she has an understanding of Samoan culture she will delve into the specifics of how adolescent education and socialization are carried out in Samoan culture and contrast it with Western culture. Under different conditions does adolescence present a different picture? To answer this question, she conducted her study among a small group of Samoans.
Mead studied daily living, education, social structures and dynamics, rituals, etiquette, etc. Mead begins with the description of a typical idyllic day in Samoa. She then describes child education, starting with the birth of children, which is celebrated with a lengthy ritual feast. After birth, however, Mead describes how children are mostly ignored, for girl children sometimes explicitly ritually ignored, after birth up to puberty. She describes the various methods of disciplining children.
Most involve some sort of corporal punishment , such as hitting with hands, palm fronds, or shells. However, the punishment is mostly ritualistic and not meant to inflict serious harm. Children are expected to contribute meaningful work from a very early age. Initially, young children of both sexes help to care for infants.
As the children grow older, however, the education of the boys shifts to fishing, while the girls focus more on child care. However, the concept of age for the Samoans is not the same as in the West. Samoans do not keep track of birth days, and they judge maturity not on actual number of years alive, but rather on the outward physical changes in the child. As a child gets bigger and stronger, he or she gets more work and responsibility. Mead describes some specific skills the children must learn related to weaving and fishing, and then almost casually interjects the first description of Samoan sexuality, saying that in addition to work for adolescent girls: "All of her [additional] interest is expended on clandestine sex adventures.
Male adolescents undergo various kinds of both encouragement and punishment to make them competitive and aggressive. Males have many different possible jobs e. Status is also a balance between prowess and achievement and appearing humble.
Also, "social prestige is increased by his amorous exploits". For the adolescent girls, status is primarily a question of whom they will marry. Mead also describes adolescence and the time before marriage as the high point of a Samoan girl's life:. It is better to live as a girl with no responsibility, and a rich variety of experience.
This is the best period of her life. The next section describes the structure of a Samoan village: "a Samoan village is made up of some thirty to forty households, each of which is presided over by a head man". Each household is an extended family including widows and widowers. The household shares houses communally: each household has several houses but no members have ownership or permanent residence of any specific building.
The houses may not all be within the same part of the village. The head man of the household has ultimate authority over the group. Mead describes how the extended family provides security and safety for Samoan children. Children are likely to be near relatives no matter where they are, and any child that is missing will be found quite rapidly. The household also provides freedom for children including girls. According to Mead, if a girl is unhappy with the particular relatives she happens to live with, she can always simply move to a different home within the same household.
Mead also describes the various and fairly complex status relations which are a combination of factors such as role in the household, the household's status within the village, the age of the individual, etc. There are also many rules of etiquette for requesting and granting favors.
Mead describes the many group structures and dynamics within Samoan culture. The forming of groups is an important part of Samoan life from early childhood when young children form groups for play and mischief.
There are several different kinds of possible group structures in Samoan culture. Relations flow down from chiefs and heads of households; men designate another man to be their aid and surrogate in courting rituals; men form groups for fishing and other work activities; women form groups based on tasks such as child caring and household relations. Mead describes examples of such groups and describes the complex rules that govern how they are formed and how they function.
Her emphasis is on Samoan adolescent girls, but as elsewhere she needs to also describe Samoan social structures for the entire culture to give a complete picture. Mead believes that the complex and mandatory rules that govern these various groups mean that the traditional Western concept of friendship as a bond entered into voluntarily by two people with compatible interests is all but meaningless for Samoan girls: "friendship is so patterned as to be meaningless.
I once asked a young married woman if a neighbor with whom she was always upon the most uncertain and irritated terms was a friend of hers. The ritual requirements such as being able to remember specifics about family relations and roles are far greater for men than women.
This also translates into significantly more responsibility being put on men than women: "a man who commits adultery with a chief's wife was beaten and banished, sometime even drowned by the outraged community, but the woman was only cast out by her husband".
Mead devotes a whole chapter to Samoan music and the role of dancing and singing in Samoan culture. She views these as significant because they violate the norms of what Samoans define as good behavior in all other activities and provide a unique outlet for Samoans to express their individuality. According to Mead there is normally no greater social failing than demonstrating an excess of pride, or as the Samoans describe it, "presuming above one's age".
However, this is not the case when it comes to singing and dancing. In these activities, individuality and creativity are the most highly praised attributes, and children are free to express themselves to the fullest extent of their capabilities rather than being concerned with appropriate behavior based on age and status:. The attitude of the elders toward precocity in On the dance floor the dreaded accusation "You are presuming above your age" is never heard.
Little boys who would be rebuked or whipped for such behavior on any other occasion are allowed to preen themselves, to swagger and bluster and take the limelight without a word of reproach. The relatives crow with delight over a precocity for which they would hide their heads in shame were it displayed in any other sphere Often a dancer does not pay enough attention to her fellow dancers to avoid continually colliding with them.
It is a genuine orgy of aggressive individualistic behavior. Mead describes the psychology of the individual Samoan as being simpler, more honest, and less driven by sexual neuroses than the west. She describes Samoans as being much more comfortable with issues such as menstruation and more casual about non-monogamous sexual relations.
Conflicts that might result in arguments or breaks within a traditional Western family can be defused in Samoan families simply by having one of the parties to the conflict relocate to a different home that is part of the household within the village.
Mead describes how one of the things that made her research difficult was that Samoans would often answer just about every question with non-committal answers, the Samoan equivalent to shrugging one's shoulders and saying: "Who knows? Mead concludes the section of the book dealing with Samoan life with a description of Samoan old age. Samoan women in old age "are usually more of a power within the household than the old men.
The men rule partly by the authority conferred by their titles, but their wives and sisters rule by force of personality and knowledge of human nature. Mead concluded that the passage from childhood to adulthood adolescence in Samoa was a smooth transition and not marked by the emotional or psychological distress, anxiety, or confusion seen in the United States. Mead concluded that this was due to the Samoan girl's belonging to a stable, monocultural society, surrounded by role models, and where nothing concerning the basic human facts of copulation, birth, bodily functions, or death, was hidden.
The Samoan girl was not pressured to choose from among a variety of conflicting values, as was the American girl. Mead commented, somewhat satirically:. But her mother's father may be a Low Episcopalian, a believer in high living, a strong advocate of States' Rights and the Monroe Doctrine , who reads Rabelais , likes to go to musical shows and horse races. Her aunt is an agnostic, an ardent advocate of women's rights, an internationalist who rests all her hopes on Esperanto , is devoted to Bernard Shaw , and spends her spare time in campaigns of anti-vivisection.
Her elder brother, whom she admires exceedingly, has just spent two years at Oxford. He is an Anglo-Catholic, an enthusiast concerning all things medieval, writes mystical poetry, reads Chesterton , and means to devote his life to seeking for the lost secret of medieval stained glass.
Her mother's younger brother On publication, the book generated a great deal of coverage both in the academic world and in the popular press. Mead's publisher William Morrow had lined up many endorsements from well known academics such as anthropologist Bronislaw Malinowski and psychologist John Watson.
Their praise was a major public relations coup for Morrow and drew popular attention to the book. Academic interest was soon followed by sensational headlines such as "Samoa is the Place for Women" and that Samoa is "Where Neuroses Cease".
For most anthropologists before Mead, detailed immersive fieldwork was not a common practice. Although subsequent reviews of her work have revealed faults by the standards of modern anthropology, at the time the book was published the idea of living with native people was fairly ground breaking. The use of cross-cultural comparison to highlight issues within Western society was highly influential and contributed greatly to the heightened awareness of anthropology and ethnographic study in the United States.
It established Mead as a substantial figure in American anthropology, a position she would maintain for the next fifty years. As Boas and Mead expected, this book upset many Westerners when it first appeared in Many American readers felt shocked by her observation that young Samoan women deferred marriage for many years while enjoying casual sex before eventually choosing a husband. As a landmark study regarding sexual mores, the book was highly controversial and frequently came under attack on ideological grounds.
Although Coming of Age received significant interest and praise from the academic community, Mead's research methodology also came in for criticism from several reviewers and fellow anthropologists.
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Margaret Mead was born the oldest of four children on December 16, , in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, as the first baby to be delivered in the newly built West Park Hospital. Her parents were educators in the social sciences with family roots in the mid-west. Mead grew up in a somewhat socially unconventional atmosphere where she was led to believe that women could have their own careers and was encouraged to play with children of all racial and economic backgrounds.
She also learned to paint and dance. The family moved frequently during her youth. Mead later recalled that she "took pride in being unlike other children and in living in a household that was in itself unique. Here, she was associated with a group of girls who called themselves the "Ash Can Cats. In a class with the famous anthropologist Franz Boas, she learned of the importance of studying cultures that were rapidly disappearing around the world.
After graduating in the September of Mead married Luther Cressman, in a little Episcopal church where she had been baptized of her own accord, and entered Columbia University graduate school in New York City. Two years later Mead took up a course-related opportunity to do some field work and left for a nine-month stay in Samoa, an island in the southwest central Pacific Ocean, to study adolescence and biological and cultural influences on behaviour.
Mead lived with the villagers during the day and at night, giving her an advantage in observing and understanding behaviour and customs that otherwise would have remained unknowable to a person from the United States.
For instance, she discovered that monogamy marriage to one person and jealousy were not valued or understood by the Samoans, and that divorce occurred simply by the husband or wife "going home. Her book Coming of Age in Samoa published in based on her studies of adolescent behavior in a Polynesian society became a best-seller and brought its author to the forefront of American anthropology, where she would remain for half a century.
A second field trip in the late s led to the publication of Growing Up in New Guinea and Sex and Temperament In Mead went to the Indonesian island of Bali with her third husband Gregory Bateson, also an anthropologist, which resulted in their innovative book Balinese Character: A Photographic Analysis. Although her doctors repeatedly advised she could never expect to have children, she persisted despite the upset of several miscarriages such that she gave birth to a daughter, Mary Catherine Bateson, in Benjamin Spock, a then largely unknown young pediatrician who had innovative ideas about child rearing.
Spock advocated "demand feeding" of infants - giving babies their bottles whenever they seemed hungry - and picking them up whenever they cried. His theories were directly opposed to the more rigid practices that were generally being recommended at that time, Mead agreed that her newborn daughter should be raised in line with Spock's ideas. Benjamin Spock published in began a revolution in the way American parents brought up their children.
Committee on Food Habits and worked on a national character study that examined British and American relations. In this work she compared American culture with the cultures of seven other countries. She was director of research in contemporary cultures at Columbia University from to and adjunct professor of anthropology there after Perhaps the most profound and far-reaching impact that Margaret Mead had was as a counselor to American society - usually on family related issues.
Such advice often appeared in a popular monthly column that she and Rhoda Metraux contributed to Redbook over 17 years Amongst her concerns were the decline of the extended family, the isolation often felt by people living in cities, and the generation gap. She was one of the earlier feminists, Mead wrote in about the need for a transformation gender roles without any anti-male prejudice.
She was also an early proponent of birth control, an advocate of the repeal of anti-abortion laws, and a supporter of the right to die. Though married and divorced three times, Mead firmly stated, "I don't consider my marriages as failures. Its idiotic to assume that because a marriage ends, its failed.
She also served on various government and international commissions and was a controversial speaker on modern social issues. Mead's association with the American Museum of Natural History continued with her being appointed curator emeritus, an honorary title, in She has also served as president of major scientific associations, including the American Anthropological Association and the American Association for the Advancement of Science, and she was awarded 28 honorary doctorates.
Mead died of cancer on November 15, , in New York City. She was then probably the most famous anthropologist in the world. She was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom following her death in Her voluminous archives are now housed in the Library of Congress. Stephen Hawking Black Holes. Robert Winston Human Instinct.