Margaret Mead’s reputation, which has taken a professional beating in the last twenty years, has just received another body blow. In the current issue of The American Anthropologist, Jim Roscoe, a specialist in New Guinea and a professor of anthropology at the University of Maine, returns to Mead’s famous claim that the Mountain Arapesh were a people innocent of warfare. That claim, which is central to Mead’s book, Sex and Temperament in Three Primitive Societies (1935), has raised eyebrows before. When Mead’s ex-husband and fellow researcher, Reo Fortune, saw the claim in print, he went back to the Arapesh to “check a point or two.” As Roscoe puts it, Fortune then published his own article in which he “courteously but flatly rejected Mead’s claims about Arapesh pacificity.”
Roscoe himself has followed this trail for twenty years. I knew him in graduate school at the University of Rochester, as he was preparing for his field research among a tribe that neighbors the Mountain Arapesh; he visited Alitoa, the remote hamlet where Mead and Fortune lived; and he delved into the unpublished papers of Professor Fortune in search of a fuller explanation. Roscoe’s article thus falls into the genre of sleuthing into the “cold case” files. Mead, Fortune, and the Arapesh they interviewed in the 1930s are all long dead. Should we care whether a tribe of yam gardeners who eked out a marginal existence on the serrated edges of some mountains fought wars?
One reason to care is that Margaret Mead remains an influential figure in American life. Sex and Temperament itself remains in print and is studied in college courses around the country—and not just as a demonstration of fanciful stories masquerading as scholarship. Mead’s writing continue to seduce students into an ideology that combines cultural relativism with a view that sex roles and gender are arbitrary social constructions. The Mountain Arapesh’s supposed pacifism plays a crucial part in that ideology.
In her book, Mead contrasts the Arapesh with two other northern New Guinea tribes, the Mundugumor and the Tchambuli. Among the Arapesh, both men and women are warm and nurturing—feminine in the traditional Western sense—and the business of life is essentially raising children and helping others. Among the Mundugumor, men and women are both harsh and aggressive—masculine in the Western sense—and the business of life is war and domination. Among the Tchambuli, men are artistic, vain, and gossipy, and women are tough-minded competent managers. Voila! We have evidence that Western sex roles are arbitrary impositions. Other cultures fit men and women to different stereotypes; and there is no reason to think one arrangement is any more “natural” than another.
This was, in principle, good news to those, like Mead herself, who had some trouble conforming to her society’s expectations about gender. If a social arrangement is founded on convention and nothing deeper, it can be changed. Mead’s argument in other words dovetailed with the views of social progressives in the 1930s and opened the door to a new kind of universalizing claim. Mead was teaching the Left how to appropriate the idea of “cultures” into its intellectual polemics. Her success continues to resonate. Roscoe’s article in The American Anthropologist, for example, is followed by a rejoinder from Professor Micaela Di Leonardo at Northwestern University, enriched with sneering references to “global capitalism” and “the preemptive war against Iraq.” Di Leonardo attacks Roscoe’s essay for “its anachronism, its radical lack of a sense of historical shifts in anthropology and the world.”
Mead’s work is to be defended, as always, because, despite its empirical flaws, she was on the right side of the fight in “gender relations.” Di Leonardo also goes hard on Roscoe for his references to a previous critic of Mead, Derek Freeman. The outlines of the Freeman-Mead controversy are well-known, but by way of reminder, in 1983, Freeman, an anthropologist from New Zealand, published a scathing book, Margaret Mead and Samoa: The Making and Unmaking of an Anthropological Myth, in which he disputed the central ethnographic claim of Mead’s first book, Coming of Age in Samoa (1928). Mead had claimed that Samoan teenagers practiced an easy-going sexual license and that, as a consequence, Samoans were spared the turmoil of adolescence that was (and is) the typical pattern in the United States.
Freeman countered that Mead was just plain wrong on the facts: that the Samoans placed a high value on premarital chastity. Freeman adduced plenty of ethnographic evidence for his points, but Mead had defenders, and the Freeman-Mead controversy rumbled on nearly two decades. Freeman’s last word on the subject, before his own death in 2001, was a short book, The Fateful Hoaxing of Margaret Mead: A Historical Analysis of Her Samoan Research (1999). Having gone back to Mead’s field notes, Freeman had attempted to figure out how exactly she had gone so dramatically wrong. He concluded that late in Mead’s fieldwork two Samoan girls, alerted by Mead’s persistent questions on the matter, played a mischievous trick by telling her what she wanted to hear.
Freeman made a pretty good case, which is all the more plausible in light of Mead’s life-long habit of jumping to conclusions and avidly accepting as evidence anything that conformed to her preconceptions. That said, we probably will never know for sure how Mead wandered astray of the facts in Samoa. Few anthropologists seem to think that she intentionally lied, but we are left with gradations from culpable negligence to inadvertent error. On the other hand, as Di Leonardo reminds us, some dozen scholars have devoted effort to picking apart Freeman’s criticisms. If Mead’s work cannot withstand disinterested scrutiny, it at least has a phalanx of committed apologists.
By attacking Roscoe’s work as an “anachronism,” Di Leonardo shows how much Sex and Temperament in Three Primitive Societies still matters to the Left. Roscoe’s criticisms of Mead are, in fact, mild-mannered and temperate. He proffers explanations. Though Fortune found that half of adult males had killed people in warfare and though at least ten percent of all Arapesh deaths, 1900-1925, were casualties of war, the Mountain Arapesh probably were less bellicose than many other New Guinea tribes. So maybe, says Roscoe, Mead just turned a relative observation into an absolute in making the Arapesh “a paragon of nonviolence.”
Roscoe offers a further gesture toward getting Mead off the hook of intentional deception by suggesting that she had fallen under the spell of her colleague Ruth Benedict, whose theory of culture smoothed the way toward finding a simple encompassing explanation of a culture, and who also offered some expedient ways of ignoring countervailing evidence. Thus when Mead heard about or saw fierce and aggressive Arapesh, she wrote them off as “deviants.” But on close reading, it seems that she classified more than one in five of the men in Alitoa as deviant—surely a social scientific record.
Roscoe’s article, in a way, completes the discrediting of Sex and Temperament in Three Primitive Societies. Other researchers have revisited the Mundugumor and the Tchambuli, or, more accurately, the people descended from the tribes that Mead and Fortune studied, and who now call themselves the Biwat and the Chambri. Nancy McDowell’s account of the Biwat and Deborah Gewertz’s accounts of the Chambri are circumspectly respectful of Mead, but end up undermining most of her original account. Those feminized Tchambuli men, for example, turn out to have been headhunters whose regular occupation had been disrupted by colonial rule.
We are left with Margaret Mead as an extraordinary myth maker, someone who persistently ignored or distorted the factual record in an effort to advance her theories. During her life, when she was confronted by expert witnesses who contested the accuracy of her ethnography, she succeeded in brushing them aside. In death, she seemingly has even greater authority. When Roscoe finally came within sight of where the village of Alitoa had stood, one of his two Mountain Arapesh guides exclaimed, “Jim, this is where our ancestors used to fight Kumip!” Roscoe told him that Mead wrote “your ancestors had no warfare.” And Roscoe continues: Aton was stunned. “What?” he protested. “Our ancestors had power! Our ancestors fought Kumip. Our ancestors fought Liwo. Our ancestors fought everybody!”
There was a momentary silence, and then Justin quietly interjected: “But, you know, if Margaret said our ancestors didn’t have warfare, they couldn’t have had warfare.” As I am sure Jim Roscoe is about to find out, there a lot of Justins in American academe. For some, Mead’s stories are just too good to give up.