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The exposure of Margaret Mead

Leading environmentalist discredited by new research

By MARK COPUS-MESLEY and ALAN DALE

The late Margaret Mead: leading environmentalist and guru of social anthropology

WHEN the famous British psychologist, Sir Cyril Burt, was accused of faking his results, liberals and Marxists claimed that the whole case for the inheritance of intelligence had been discredited. Completely independent research has, however, vindicated Burt's conclusions, irrespective of the validity of his data. Professor Christopher Jencks of Harvard, who always regarded Burt's data as suspect, concluded from his own research that intelligence is at least 60% determined by hereditary factors, while Professor H. J. Eysenck puts it at 75-80%.

Environmentalists themselves have now been thrown onto the defensive, however, following new evidence which throws serious doubt on the research and theories of the late Margaret Mead, a leading environmentalist and the guru of social anthropology.

Pivotal studies

For over fifty years Mead's studies in Samoa and New Guinea have been pivotal in the argument that people are shaped by the culture in which they are brought up rather than by their genetic inheritance. Many sociologists have used her work to bolster their theories on gender and the family. Her cross cultural studies are used to demonstrate that there is no universal masculine or feminine personality, and that the conjugal family is culturally and not biologically derived.

An indication of Mead's influence is given in the current Advanced Level text book for students of sociology which claims that, "Mead's work can be used to show just how much of what is taken for granted in a given society is in fact culturally influenced” [1].

Deliberately misled

Earlier this year the very foundation of Mead's cultural determinism was exploded in an attack by Derek Freeman, Professor Emeritus of Anthropology at the Australian National University in Canberra [2]. He ridiculed her environmentalist theories and claimed that the South Sea Islanders of Samoa had deliberately misled her by conforming to her preconceptions.

Margaret Mead went to Samoa convinced of extreme cultural determinism, and her 1925 survey conveniently confirmed this viewpoint [3].

Mead depicted the Samoans as a gentle, peaceful people without religious conflicts, jealousy or the stresses of adolescence seen in industrial societies. They were easy-going and enjoyed free love. The existence of such a culture would be powerful evidence that human society is not a product of inevitable biological forces. Freeman, however, found no such culture.

With special access to criminal records Freeman discovered the 'gentle, peaceful' Samoans had high rates of murder and assault, and a rape rate (at two-and-a-half times that in the US) amongst the highest in the world. He found that the Samoans were prone to fits of jealousy, that they were intensely competitive, that they live in an "authority system" that regularly results in serious psychological disturbances, and that they carry the "cult of female virginity" to a greater extreme than any other culture.

Errors in methodology

Professor Freeman spent six years in Samoa checking Mead's research. Among the errors in her methodology he identified were her ignorance of the subtleties of the Samoans' language, and the fact that she lived not amongst the Samoans themselves, but with American expatriates. Her research was based entirely on interviews with fifty adolescent girls conducted in the back room of a medical dispensary!

Participant observation, with the researcher living amongst the people studied, has considerable scientific dangers anyway, as it relies on the skill, objectivity and honesty of a single observer. Mead's work was not, however, even based on observation, but on informants.

Yet, for many years, social scientists have used Mead's studies to support the claim that environment determines man's behaviour and have applied this analysis to societies such as our own. Many students have gone through universities and polytechnics where they have been indoctrinated with this environmentalist ideology.

Margaret Mead was one of the many anthropologists who came under the influence of Franz Boas, born of Jewish parents in Germany in 1858. Boas went to America in 1886 and became a lecturer in psychology. In 1899 he became a Professor of Anthropology at Columbia University.

Assertive racial minority

Although untrained in biology, he was largely to determine the course of anthropology in America, endowing it with his own sociological ideas. Before his time, it was the Galtonian tradition of evolutionary anthropology which held sway in America and Britain. Boas was largely, if not single-handedly, responsible for a revolution that reversed the dominant orthodoxy within his own lifetime.

This revolution was not a scientific revolution, but a political revolution that lent pseudo-scientific gloss to the ideological demands of an assertive racial minority and its allies.

Notes

  1. A New Introduction to Sociology by Mike O'Donnell (Harrap, London 1982).

  2. Margaret Mead and Samoa: the Making and Unmaking of an Anthropological Myth by Professor Derek Freeman (Harvard University Press, 1983).

  3. Coming of Age in Samoa by Margaret Mead (New York, 1928).