Mead Publishes Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022
Summary of Event

In 1911, Franz Boas, Margaret Mead’s mentor, published his landmark book The Mind of Primitive Man, which freed anthropology from the stigma of racism. Before that time, “higher” and “lower” races were considered to exist, rated on a scale of intellectual capacity. Boas’s book was the cornerstone of a new view of humans and led to the controversy between two schools of thought in anthropology that is sometimes dubbed the “nature versus nurture” debate. Those on the side of “nature” contended that innate racial differences account for differences in individual intellectual abilities, whereas those on the side of “nurture” (Boas’s followers) argued that the abilities of members of the human species often differ because of cultural differences in their upbringing as well as differences in their heredity. Boas believed that researchers needed to study this problem so as to determine the relationship between hereditary factors and environmental factors. [kw]Publishes Coming of Age in Samoa, Mead (Aug., 1928) [kw]Coming of Age in Samoa, Mead Publishes (Aug., 1928) Coming of Age in Samoa (Mead) Anthropology;cultural Cultural anthropology [g]United States;Aug., 1928: Mead Publishes Coming of Age in Samoa[07070] [c]Anthropology;Aug., 1928: Mead Publishes Coming of Age in Samoa[07070] [c]Publishing and journalism;Aug., 1928: Mead Publishes Coming of Age in Samoa[07070] Mead, Margaret Boas, Franz

Margaret Mead.

(Library of Congress)

Margaret Mead was only twenty-three years old when she set out on her great adventure to the South Seas, where she hoped to study what remained of primitive cultures before they disappeared forever. In her autobiography, Mead later described her thoughts as she left for Samoa—thoughts of urgency to study and record the ways of life in remote parts of the world. She had a sense that such ways of life were vanishing before the onslaught of modern civilization. She believed that she must be one of the scientists to record these unknown ways before they were lost forever.

Mead had been married to Luther Cressman, a theological student, in September, 1923. She retained her maiden name for professional purposes, a relatively uncommon practice in those days. Two years later, however, she and Cressman agreed to go off on separate paths of study—he to Europe and she to Samoa. She had many misgivings about what she was setting out to do, because she really did not know much about fieldwork. Her course on methods with Boas was not about fieldwork, but about theory, how to organize material so as to refute or support some theoretical point. She had consented to Boas’s suggestion that she study the adolescent girl, but she persisted in her determination to do the study in the South Seas, against Boas’s recommendation that the study be made in some safer location, such as among a group of American Indians.

On arrival in Samoa, Mead’s first problem was to learn the language. She had been warned that the reports others had made were “contaminated by the ideas of European grammar,” and even the recorded descriptions supposed to have been given by local chiefs were weighted by European notions about rank and status inserted by the researchers doing the recording. Therefore, she moved into the household of a “chief who enjoyed entertaining visitors.” She slept with the chief’s daughter on a pile of sleeping mats on a sleeping porch. Mead learned much from the family about Samoan habits and etiquette. She even had to bathe in public, in full view of crowds of children and passing adults, under the village shower. She learned to wear a saronglike garment, which she could slip off before a shower and exchange for a dry one afterward.

Mead learned enough of the Samoan language in her first six weeks to give her the confidence to look for a place to stay among the natives of the island of Tau, about 240 kilometers (149 miles) east of Pago Pago in American Samoa. The western half of the Samoan Islands, which contains by far the greater part of the land area, is a United Nations Trust Territory, administered by New Zealand. She moved into the household of the only American family on Tau, a pharmacist’s mate in the U.S. Navy, Edward Holt, his wife, and children. From November, 1925, to June, 1926, Mead lived with the Holts while she conducted interviews with a group of about fifty teenage girls and kept notes on her findings. By entertaining crowds of adolescent girls on her porch day after day, she gradually built up a census of the whole village and worked out the background of each of the girls she was studying.

In June, 1926, Mead ended her Samoan sojourn and boarded a small ship in Pago Pago bound for home by way of Sydney, Australia, and then through Ceylon, Aden, Sicily, and Marseilles, where her husband met her. They traveled to New York, where she worked as assistant curator of ethnology at the American Museum of Natural History, where she was to remain the rest of her professional life. Mead soon completed all but the last two chapters of Coming of Age in Samoa, which she subtitled A Psychological Study of Primitive Youth for Western Civilization. In the foreword she asked Boas to write for the book, he described the difficulties that beset the individual in civilization, difficulties likely to be ascribed to fundamental human traits. Boas noted his doubt about the correctness of this assumption, but said that hardly anyone had yet set out to identify him- or herself with a primitive population in sufficient depth to obtain insight into these problems. Mead had confirmed, he believed, the suspicion long held by anthropologists that “much of what we ascribe to human nature is no more than a reaction to the restraints put upon us by our civilisation.”

Coming of Age in Samoa was published in August, 1928. When Mead returned from Samoa, she was asked to give lectures about her work. Audience members often asked her what the meaning was of what she had found in Samoa. She then wrote the last two chapters of her book, one comparing the lives of Samoan girls with their American counterparts and the other titled “Education for Choice.” Mead soon left for the Admiralty Islands to conduct a new study, and it was months before she learned that her book had become a best seller. Mead would write many more books, but none brought her the phenomenal success of Coming of Age in Samoa. By 1968, the book had gone through a new edition and at least five more printings. In the early twenty-first century, Coming of Age in Samoa remains among the most frequently sought books in many libraries, despite some ongoing controversy about its contents.


The publication of Coming of Age in Samoa broke new ground in anthropology, making Mead one of the most famous American scientists and bringing recognition to the science of anthropology. In 1970, Mead was honored with one of the most prestigious offices in American science, the presidency of the American Association for Advancement of Science. The New York Times was moved to editorialize on anthropology shortly after the book came out, in its June 4, 1929, edition, under the headline “American Race Types.” Mind of Primitive Man, The (Boas) Nature versus nurture debate [kw]Mead Publishes Coming of Age in Samoa (Aug., 1928)

Although the book’s reception was favorable for the most part, some have questioned Mead’s clear support for the “nurture” side in the “nature versus nurture” controversy in anthropology. In 1983, Derek Freeman, Freeman, Derek an emeritus professor of anthropology at the Australian National University, criticized Mead in an unabashedly polemical book, Margaret Mead and Samoa: The Making and Unmaking of an Anthropological Myth. Margaret Mead and Samoa (Freeman) The debate over Freeman’s book began two months before its publication, when a copy of the text brought on an editorial in The New York Times in January, 1983, headlined “New Samoan Book Challenges Margaret Mead’s Conclusions.” The controversy even made the cover of Time magazine. More recently, anthropological work among several New Guinea tribes has suggested that Mead inaccurately portrayed these groups as pacifistic in her book Sex and Temperament in Three Primitive Societies (1935), raising again the question of the reliability of her data and her descriptions of traditional societies. Supporters of Mead have responded with publications of their own, and debates about her work continue in anthropological circles. Coming of Age in Samoa (Mead) Anthropology;cultural Cultural anthropology

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Freeman, Derek. The Fateful Hoaxing of Margaret Mead: A Historical Analysis of Her Samoan Research. Boulder, Colo.: Westview Press, 1998. Detailed analysis of Mead’s training and her research in Samoa, written after the uproar caused among anthropologists by the author’s earlier work on Mead (cited below). Argues that Mead’s findings in Samoa resulted from a hoax perpetrated by some of her informants.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">_______. Margaret Mead and Samoa: The Making and Unmaking of an Anthropological Myth. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1983. Controversial book sets out its purpose in the first paragraph: the refutation of Mead’s Samoan work and her defense of cultural determinism. Written in a polemical tone.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Holmes, Lowell D. The Quest for the Real Samoa: The Mead/Freeman Controversy and Beyond. South Hadley, Mass.: Bergin & Garvey, 1987. Written in response to Freeman’s 1983 book, cited above, by an anthropologist who began fieldwork in Samoa in 1954. Presents conclusions that, for the most part, corroborate Mead’s.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Howard, Jane. Margaret Mead: A Life. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1984. Definitive Mead biography is complimentary for the most part but addresses some of the criticisms of her work as well. Discussion of her private life includes information about her three marriages—the first to an American clergyman, the second to a New Zealand psychologist, and the third to the father of her only daughter, Mary Catherine Bateson, who became an eminent English anthropologist.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">McGee, R. Jon, and Richard L. Warms. Anthropological Theory: An Introductory History. 3d ed. New York: McGraw-Hill, 2003. Presents classic and contemporary readings in anthropology along with introductions and commentary to help students understand the history of theory in the field. Includes bibliography and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Mead, Margaret. Blackberry Winter: My Earlier Years. New York: William Morrow, 1972. Autobiography vividly describes Mead’s fieldwork in Samoa, New Guinea, and Bali and the opposition she met and overcame as a young woman in a profession dominated by men. Mead describes herself as a child, student, wife, mother, and grandmother. Illustrated.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">_______. Coming of Age in Samoa. 1928. Reprint. New York: Harper Perennial, 2001. The book that “put anthropology on the map.” In addition to the original text, reprint edition includes a brief introductory piece by Mead’s daughter and the preface to the 1973 edition.

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Categories: History