Friday, 14 August 2009

Our Fateful Hoaxing

Patrick O’Brien reviews ‘The Fateful Hoaxing of Margaret Mead: A Historical Analysis of Her Samoan Research’ by Derek Freeman.

Patrick O’Brien. Population and Environment. New York: Nov 1999.Vol.21, Iss. 2; pg. 247

Derek Freeman’s thoroughly researched latest work on Margaret Mead’s classic study of adolescent females in Polynesia, Coming of Age in Samoa, amply demonstrates the degree to which Mead was wrong in her understanding of life in that part of the world. The issue for Freeman in this book is to explore why Mead got it so wrong: were her methods and fieldwork merely inadequate, or did she deliberately mislead the anthropological world. The question is of no little import since Mead’s 1926 study, as The Dictionary of Cultural Literacy put it, set ‘new standards for anthropological fieldwork’ and ‘revolutionized the field of anthropology’ (p. 1).

In some ways Freeman’s investigation of Mead’s education and fieldwork strongly imply that Mead knowingly fabricated data and conclusions about adolescent girls and other aspects of life in Samoa. For instance, Freeman notes that Mead had recorded two cases of forcible rape, yet wrote in a paper submitted to the National Research Council that ‘the idea of forceful rape or of any sexual act to which both participants do not give themselves freely is completely foreign to the Samoan mind.’ Mead’s notes also contain unambiguous information on virginity and ritual defloration both for taupou (ceremonial female virgins) and for ordinary girls, yet Freeman shows that in Coming of Age Mead ‘invents the supplementary fiction that the taupou alone was ‘excepted’ from ‘free and easy experimentation’ in ‘love affairs,’ while parents of lower rank ‘complacently ignore their daughters’ experiments.’

Also, Mead had attended a court case which concerned two adolescent girls, ‘one of whom had bitten off the other’s ear in a fight.’ Her conclusion in Coming of Age: prohibitions against such violence ‘had worked like a yeast.’ Similarly, in one of her letters Mead describes how a Samoan boy had, in a dispute over a girl, shot and killed another boy. Freeman’s comments: “Yet in defining the pattern of their culture, she claims of the Samoans that ‘they never hate enough to want to kill anyone and that there is no jealously among them.’ In each instance, an imagined ‘cultural pattern’ completely supplants realities that, as the relevant historical sources show, were, in fact, well known to Mead.” Finally, Mead, who lived through a terrifying New Year’s Day hurricane in 1926, one that, she noted, ‘destroyed every house’ and induced severe famine, massaged this fact into a portrayal of ‘the general casualness’ of Samoan society by stating that ‘neither poverty or great disasters’ threaten Samoans (pp. 187-188).

Such misrepresentations have prompted at least one serious researcher to conclude that Mead was guilty of deliberate falsifications. While Freeman agrees that this researcher, Martin Orans, may be correct ‘when one limits one’s attention, as does Orans, to Mead’s field notes and published texts,’ he believes that it ‘cannot be sustained when her Samoan research is analyzed in its full historical context’ (pp. 211-212). After all, Freeman reasons, if Mead were deliberately misleading us, she never would have ‘preserved with such thoroughness the very extensive documentation of her Samoan research of 1925-1926.’ Freeman is convinced that ‘this action of hers conclusively confirms Margaret Mead’s professional integrity, for, in lodging her papers in the Manuscript Division of the Library of Congress she has . . . made all of the field notes and other documents concerned with her Samoan fieldwork available for critical evaluation’ (p. 9).

Despite the weight of evidence suggesting Mead’s duplicity in these cases, Freeman is of the opinion that other, more complex factors explain Mead’s errors. Chief among these is the education she received under famed anthropologist Franz Boas and one of Boas’s prized proteges, Ruth Benedict. In essence, when Mead began her work in cultural anthropology, she stepped into a field that ‘had many of the characteristics of a belief system,’ one in which Mead’s own work was soon ‘standing in the checkered history of cultural anthropology as a deeply instructive instance of the way in which human understanding can be misled by uncritical adherence to a cherished dogma rather than to the demanding discipline of impartially objective scholarly inquiry’ (pp. 209-210).

In becoming one of Franz Boas’s students, Margaret Mead was exposed to the powerful ideology of cultural determinism - the view that human nature is completely plastic and that biological universal and human genetic differences can be safely ignored in our thinking about cultures and differences between cultures. ‘It was as late as 1934,’ Freeman writes, ‘that Franz Boas asserted that “the genetic elements which may determine personality” were “altogether irrelevant as compared with the powerful influence of the cultural environment . . .” ’ Freeman’s verdict: Boas ‘was massively mistaken’ (p. 213). In a fascinating Afterword, perhaps the best part of the book, Freeman makes a brief for biological influences on human nature, though he never insists on their exclusiveness. Anthropology is indeed evolving into an increasingly exact science but it is now evident ‘that the way in which this is likely to be achieved is by the emergence of a new anthropological paradigm in which full recognition is given to both biological and cultural variables and to their complex interaction’ (p. 217).

Freeman is at pains to show how influential Boas’s ideology was on both Ruth Benedict - one of Mead’s mentors - and Mead herself. Boas’s mission was to separate the issues of biological and cultural inheritance, and he did this by persistently excluding the ‘nature’ side of the nature-nurture debate. At Columbia University he was to unflaggingly propagate this dogma among his students, many of whom, like Alfred Kroeber, went on to establish the preeminence of cultural determinism in the field of anthropology. Mead dutifully obliged Boas, so that when Boas examined her work, he accepted it despite its glaring flaws. ‘Convinced, as he was, of the “truth” of his ideas, all that mattered to him was that he had “won” ’ (p. 178).

Had Boas won merely a war within the discipline of academic anthropology? Although Freeman is quite aware that there was in fact a war going on, he does not really describe the combatants or their motivations. Many of Boas’s proteges were Jewish, and were motivated by their perceptions of Jewish interests, especially the eradication of anti-Semitism, which was thought to be nurtured by the evolutionary and genetic theories they combated so strongly (Frank, 1997; MacDonald, 1998), The Jewish core of the Boasian movement included Alexander Goldenweiser, Melville Herskovits, Robert Lowie, Paul Radin, Edward Sapir, Leslie Spier, Alexander Lesser, Ruth Bunzel, Gene Weltfish, Esther Schiff Goldfrank, Ruth Landes and others. (Two of the most illustrious non-Jewish students of Boas, Mead and Benedict, were outsiders for other reasons, Mead because of her bisexuality and Benedict because of her lesbianism. Curiously, Freeman chooses only to note that Mead and Benedict had ‘an intimate sapphic relationship.’)

Boas’s battle was thus an aspect of ethnic conflict over the construction of culture. Boasian anthropology was one front in a larger critique of culture - one in which prominent Jewish intellectuals and activists such as Freud, those of the Frankfurt School, and later the sixties radicals, strove to combat anti-Semitism, often portraying gentile culture as essentially pathological (MacDonald, 1998). The following description of Stephen Jay Gould applies equally as well to Boas and others: ‘The point here is that Gould’s career of intellectual dishonesty has not existed in a vacuum but has been part and parcel of a wide-ranging movement that has dominated the most prestigious intellectual areas in the United States and the West’ (MacDonald, 1998, p. 38).

As with his reticence regarding the issue of Mead’s sexual orientation, Freeman largely refrains from discussing the pivotal role of Jewish or gentile identities, which is a pity since the list of social scientists overshadowed by Boasian anthropologists reads like a Who’s Who of WASP America: Frank R. Lillie, T.H. Morgan, E.L. Thorndike, R.S. Woodworth, Edward Craighill Handy, Herbert E. Gregory and others. Mead’s early professional life indicates how she emerged from a highly functional WASP network that served to advance the careers of its members and, presumably, to maintain dominance over other ethnic groups. For example, when Mead arrived in Honolulu to consult with officials of the Bishop Museum, she ‘was met with “necklaces of flowers” by Mrs. May Dillingham Frear. May Dillingham, who came from one of Hawaii’s old missionary families and who had been a friend of Mead’s mother at Wellesley College, had returned to Honolulu to marry Walter F, Frear, the governor of the Hawaiian Islands from 1907 to 1913” (p. 67).

Also, Mead’s first husband’s father-in-law, ‘a country doctor,’ wrote on Mead’s behalf to Rear Admiral E.R. Stitt, ‘who had been his friend at the Medical School of the University of Pennsylvania.’ Finally, when she arrived at the United States Naval Station on the South Seas island of Tutuila, she was fortunate enough ‘to meet Lieutenant G.R. Veed and his wife, whose sister she had known at Columbia. They introduced her to naval station life by taking her back to their quarters’ (p. 79). Such connections among WASPS are later mirrored by those among Jews in the social sciences.

In addition to the role ideology played in Mead’s inaccurate depictions of life in Samoa Freeman also documents her devious acceptance of a secondary task from the Bishop Museum in Honolulu, Hawaii - a task that Mead kept secret from her mentor and overseer Boas, which is understandable, given his explicit warnings against doing more generalized ethnological work. Freeman (p. 53) cites the college undergraduate Mead’s love of these lines from an Edna St. Vincent Millay poem to explain Mead’s deviousness:

My candle burns at both ends;
It will not last the night;
But ah, my foes, and oh, my friends-
It gives a lovely light

Later, when Mead was pressed to complete her investigation of the behavior of sixty-six Samoan girls, she devoted almost all of her time to the Bishop Museum’s ethnology study, ‘ostentatiously burning her candle at both ends . . .’

Ultimately, the fulcrum around which Mead’s errors (and deceptions) pivot is summed up in the title of the book itself: The Fateful Hoaxing of Margaret Mead. The combined pressures of doing two not wholly related projects, of working in a foreign climate and eating foreign food, of the very time constraints Mead imposed on herself, set the stage for ‘the hoaxing,’ which occurred when two of Mead’s close acquaintances, Fa’apua’a and Fofoa, misled her about their sexual activities.

Nearing the end of her stay in Samoa, Mead took advantage of time alone with Fa’apua’a and Fofoa to bluntly ask them about their sexual experiences. Embarrassed by this question - a ‘preposterous proposition (so it seemed to them) that despite the great emphasis on virginity in the traditional taupou system of Samoa and within the Christian church to which all Manu’ans were adherents at that time, unmarried Samoan girls were, in secret, sexually promiscuous’ - the two girls resorted to ‘recreational lying,’ which researchers have found to be a common form or entertainment among Samoans (p. 139). Freeman himself witnessed the deposition Fa’apua’a gave some sixty years after her acquaintance with Mead, a deposition in which Fa’apua’a admitted that she and Fofoa had only been joking. For Mead, however, the ‘hoax’ was exactly what she had been looking for, since it gave her the ‘cultural pattern’ she so desperately needed to provide a solution to ‘the problem Boas required her to investigate under the terms of her research fellowship.’

In an earlier book, Margaret Mead and Samoa: The Making and Unmaking of an Anthropological Myth, Freeman ignited a firestorm in the world of anthropology by challenging, in one professor’s words, ‘the Mother-Goddess of American Anthropology.’ From the publication of that book in 1983, Freeman ‘was subjected to a highly emotional and, at times, flagrantly ad hominem campaign that reached its apogee in Chicago during the Eighty Second Annual Meeting of the American Anthropological Association, when . . . there was a special session (to which [he] was not invited) devoted to the evaluation of [his] book.’ Descriptions of the meeting from those who attended ranged from ‘a sort of grotesque feeding frenzy’ to ‘I felt I was in a room with 200 people ready to lynch you’ (pp. 208-209). Amidst all this controversy, what was Mead’s classic work if it was not a scientifically objective, detached example of anthropology? Here, Robin Fox’s (1989, p. 3) description is of use: ‘If . . . we were to treat Margaret Mead’s Coming of Age in Samoa as Utopia, not as ethnography, then we would understand it better and save a lot of pointless debate.’

A more general lesson which may be drawn from Freeman’s work on Mead is that some social scientists have at best sometimes misled their readers, mainly in the Western world, in many important ways, and at worst may have abandoned scientific objectivity in favor of an aggressive intellectual critique of established Western society. That so many of the classic works of social science have now been shown to be of dubious scientific value, or have been revealed as extremely ideologically motivated - as was Mead’s Coming of Age in Samoa - suggests a healthy dose of skepticism is long overdue when considering many of these ‘classic’ works.

First and foremost of these ‘classic’ works must be what was, at least until recently, a highly influential strand of 20th-century social science, the work of Sigmund Freud. In recent years, his work has come into critical doubt, as shown by books such as E. Fuller Torrey’s Freudian Fraud, Yosef Yerushalmi’s Freud’s Moses: Judaism Terminable and Interminable, Kevin MacDonald’s The Culture of Critique, and, most tenaciously, Frederick Crews’ blistering essays in The New York Review of Books and his edited volume Unauthorized Freud: Doubters Confront a Legend.

Another example might be what we now know of Alfred Kinsey, once hailed for his ground-breaking Sexual Behavior in the Human Male. In ‘The Secret Life of Alfred Kinsey,’ Joseph Epstein (1998) explores how the lives of social scientists can grossly distort their work in a way that is less likely to happen in the hard sciences. Presented as a dispassionate scientist at the time, Kinsey has since been exposed as ‘a voyeur, an exhibitionist, a homosexual, and a masochist,’ (which would not, of course, disqualify him today as a scientific researcher.) According to Kinsey’s biographer, ‘The beauty of sex research [was] that it allowed Kinsey to transform his voyeurism into science.’ For instance, he encouraged nude field trips with his male graduate students, hired his young homosexual lover as a full-time assistant, and conducted ‘research’ trips to Chicago that were actually homosexual ‘assignations’ of the ‘quick-hit’ variety. What made this behavior so egregious was not that it represented a moral lapse on Kinsey’s part, but that he portrayed many of these fringe acquaintances as typical American males of the time.

One more case worth considering, while not part of academic social science proper, is that of Betty Friedan and her classic feminist work The Feminine Mystique. In an essay that appeared in American Quarterly (and has since been published as a book), Daniel Horowitz (1996) explores how Friedan deceptively portrayed herself well into the 1970s as someone who, prior to writing The Feminine Mystique, ‘wasn’t even conscious of the woman problem,’ a woman still ‘in the embrace of the feminine mystique.’ In fact, Friedan had been a labor journalist with more than two decades of experience with ‘the woman problem.’ Horowitz’s findings practically suggest that a conscious effort has been made to misrepresent Friedan’s life. In 1991, for example, Donald Meyer, a historian of feminism, ‘skipped over’ Friedan’s years as a labor journalist and portrayed her as ‘the exemplary victim of the feminine mystique.’ Similarly, David Halberstam, in his 1993 book The Fifties, described Friedan’s nine-year journalism career with this one uninspiring line: ‘Betty Goldstein [Friedan’s maiden name] worked as a reporter for a left-wing paper’ (in Horowitz, p. 8).

The ideologies present in so much social ‘science,’ if not the unapologetic activism of many social scientists, seems to preclude the possibility of their advancing knowledge through what is normally thought of as scientific method. Witness, for example, anthropologist Gelya Frank, who, in the opening paragraph of an otherwise important article concerning the importance of Jewish identity for Boas and other icons of anthropology, announces that her article is directed at anthropologists, ‘especially ones concerned with turning multiculturalist theories into agendas for activism’ (1997, p. 731). Such explicit advocacy simply undermines any attempt to maintain scientific objectivity. Should not such partiality a priori disqualify one as a scientist?

Frank’s article on Boas elliptically asks whether or not anthropology has ‘a Jewish problem.’ One might just as profitably ask ‘Do the social sciences have a social activism problem?’ Reading Derek Freeman’s critique of Margaret Mead, one is strongly inclined to answer in the affirmative.

Crews, F. (1998,) Unauthorized Freud : Doubters Confront a Legend. New York: Viking Press.
Crews, F., ed. (1995) The Memory Wars: Freud’s Legacy in Dispute. New York: New York Review of Books.
Epstein, J. (1998). The Secret Life of Alfred Kinsey. Commentary 105(1), 35-39.
Fox, R. (1989). The Search for Society: Quest for a Biosocial Science and Morality. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press.
Frank, G. (1997). Jews, Multiculturalism, and Boasian Anthropology. American Anthropologist 99(4), 731-745.
Horowitz, D. (1996). Rethinking Betty Friedan and The Feminine Mystique: Labor Union Radicalism and Feminism in Cold War America. American Quarterly 48(1), 1-42.
MacDonald, K. B. (1998). The Culture of Critique: Jewish Involvement in Twentieth-Century Intellectual and Political Movements. Westport, CT: Praeger.
Torrey, E. Fuller. (1992) Freudian Fraud: The Malignant Effect of Freud's theory on American Thought and Culture. New York: HarperCollins.
Yerushalmi, Y. (1991). Freud's Moses: Judaism Terminable and Interminable. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

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