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Mead's Samoan Research - Mead Presents Boas with an Absolute Answer

Derek Freeman

Extrait du chapitre 5 de

Margaret Mead and Samoa:
The Making and Unmaking of an Anthropological Myth

Harvard University Press


This, then, became Mead’s homespun approach to the immeasurably complex problem that Boas had required her to study. Having failed, in her perplexing predicament, to investigate scientifically the actual interaction of biological and cultural variables in Samoan behavior, she turned instead to the purported invalidation of a preexisting theoretical generalization by a “negative instance.” That this was the method she adopted Mead confirmed in an interview in 1970 with T. George Harris and J. Diener, during which there occurred this ex-change, referring specifically to her Samoan researches:

Harris : You had a beautiful technique going. There were all these theories around — piled up by centuries of philosophers and added to by psychologists — that claimed to apply to all mankind. You went after the single negative, one culture in which the theory broke down.

Diener : Sure, one negative is worth a thousand positives. It kills the theory.

Mead : That was the first stage of anthropology really. Up until 1939 we used primitive cultures — conveniently simpler than our own — to challenge assertions.

Again, a few years later in another interview Mead remarked, “in anthropology you only have to show once that it is possible for a culture to make, say, a period of life easy, where it is hard everywhere else, to have made your point.” Here also, Mead is alluding to her Samoan researches, and in particular to her conclusion that among the Samoans adolescence is the age of maximum ease, in a society “replete with easy solutions for all conflicts.”30

This exemplary society in which, in conspicuous contrast to the United States, growing up was “so easy” became her negative instance, and, clutching it like a talisman, she swept on to an unequivocal answer to the general question she had posed in the introduction to Coming of Age in Samoa : “Are the disturbances which vex our adolescents due to the nature of adolescence itself or to the civilization?” Certain of the absolute truth of cultural determinism, and having attributed what she claimed to be the untroubled character of adolescence in Samoa to the ease of Samoan culture, Mead went on to pronounce her main theoretical conclusion :

If it is proved that adolescence is not necessarily a specially difficult period in a girl’s life — and proved it is if we can fend any society in which that is so — then what accounts for the presence of storm and stress in American adolescents? First, we may say quite simply that there must be something in the two civilizations to account for the difference. If the same process takes a different form in the two different environments, we cannot make any explanations in terras of the process, for that is the same in both cases.31


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