Post 49 —What Happens in Manu’a, Stays in Manu’a (Part 3)

Never before had a serious book by an anthropologist been sold with a cover like this.

Never before had a serious book by an anthropologist been sold with a cover like this.

Margaret Mead’s groundbreaking book Coming of Age in Samoa was published in 1928 and was considered a key argument in the nature vs. nurture debate, as well as other issues relating to family, adolescence, gender, social norms, and attitudes. By 1965, the book had done more to put the islands on the national radar than Bob Hope and Dorothy Lamour in a sarong.

Mead wrote that the socialization of children in Samoa results in a generally happy adolescence and easy transition to sexual activity and adulthood. Her findings challenged the widely held belief that biological changes occurring during adolescence were necessarily accompanied by social and psychological stress. Mead described the goal of her research as follows: “I have tried to answer the question which sent me to Samoa: Are the disturbances which vex our adolescents due to the nature of adolescence itself or to the civilization? Under different conditions, does adolescence present a different picture?”

She conducted her study among a small group of Samoans; a village of 600 people on the island of Ta’ū, in which she claimed to have gotten to know, lived with, observed, and interviewed (through an interpreter) 68 young women between the ages of 9 and 20. This research took place over six weeks. She concluded that the passage from childhood to adulthood in Samoa was a smooth transition and not marked by the emotional or psychological distress, anxiety, or confusion seen in the United States.

Mead theorized 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.

The book made Mead an anthropological rock star and gave the islands a bit of a reputation. Challenges were made that her research had been sloppy and unscientific with sweeping generalizations about the culture that could not be proved after such a short time of study. It was suggested that many of her native subjects were simply pulling her leg and agreeing with her as a joke. There was also the consideration that years gone by and many conversions to Christianity may have altered the adolescent’s memories as to exactly how freely they may have behaved when Mead had interviewed them.

Margaret Mead (center) in Samoa.

Margaret Mead (center) in Samoa.

Larry pondered Margaret Mead’s theories as he lay on the deck of the returning ship, watching phosphorescent fish fly out of the water in its’ wake. He had talked to a few Samoans who had known Mead and remembered her visit to Manu’a. One chief had mentioned that they wanted to be polite and so of course they had agreed with her. There was also the problem of a lack of common language that could have led to a lot of head nodding. Making guests feel welcome is a top priority in Samoan culture; Larry could attest to that by the piles of coconuts and bananas his hosts had heaped upon him at his leaving. Was it possible that Mead’s research had been flawed because of the relentless good manners of the island people?

Later, after finally returning to the screened-in house that was home in Tafuna, Larry looked around at his own social experiment that was happening right in front of him. His four subjects had been on the island a year, and were now 13, 11, 9 and 5 years of age. Two were teetering right on the edge of adolescence, and Larry fully expected that teenage angst and tantrums would soon fill the air. And yet the girls seemed well-adjusted in their new environment. They had completely adapted to the Fa’a Samoa way of living and were independent and confident and very tan. It was hard to believe that these were the same four squabbling children who had been unceremoniously yanked out of suburban Detroit and plopped down into this strange new culture. Perhaps Margaret Mead had been on to something after all.

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