Table of contents
Podcast S6 E1 | 23 min

Coming of Age … Today

17 Oct 2023
Does the transition from childhood to adulthood have to be so difficult? This question sent famed anthropologist Margaret Mead to American Samoa in 1925—and ignited decades of controversy.

Being a teenager can be hard. Very hard. Our co-hosts Kate Ellis and Doris Tulifau recount the tough parts from their adolescence to ask whether being a teen is difficult in every culture.

It’s the question that inspired Margaret Mead, one of the most influential figures in American anthropology, to begin her research in American Samoa in 1925. And it’s the question that has sparked years of debate about human sexuality, nature versus nurture, and whether we can ever fully understand cultures different from our own.

A map shows the Pacific Ocean in blue with American Samoa detailed in an orange rectangle, with a black dot for Pago Pago. Nearby on the map are Papua New Guinea, Australia, and New Zealand.

In 1925, anthropologist Margaret Mead traveled to American Samoa to pursue fieldwork on the nature of adolescence.

Encyclopedia Britannica/Getty

An asphalt street extends into the distance, past a house surrounded by a lush green forest.

American Samoa is composed of lush islands with a rich cultural history.

Ari Daniel

See the companion teaching units,“Margaret Mead in American Samoa” and “Adolescence as a Social Category.”

This episode is included in Season 6 of the SAPIENS podcast, which was made possible by a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities.


Correction: November 1, 2023:
The episode shares a famous quote attributed to Margaret Mead, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.” The quote’s first sentence has been documented, while the second sentence has only been attributed.

Read a transcript of this episode .

Coming of Age … Today

[introductory music]

Kate Ellis: When I was in sixth grade, I’d sometimes hang out with a group of girls and boys after school. We were starting to get crushes on each other, or at least some of us were, but what stands out to me—or what I really remember—is that the boys started talking about what we, the girls, looked like. I started learning from the boys that what my body looked like and what the bodies of my friends looked like was an important matter. I mean, they would talk about it openly, and I remember that being this kind of painful dawning of awareness. And I think in hindsight, the question I have is: Where do boys learn—at least, the boys of my generation—where did they learn that was kind of their birthright to evaluate girls’ looks out loud and in front of them and to other people? You know, like, who looks good and who doesn’t look good, you know, what’s attractive and what’s not attractive.

[music introduction]

Kate: Welcome to the new season of the SAPIENS podcast: The Problems With Coming of Age. This season is all about adolescence, sex, [and] growing up for young people in different worlds. Nature versus nurture. And colonialism and Christianity to boot.

All while we try to answer the thorny question: Can we ever truly know each other?

The Problems With Coming of Age is a podcast about the controversial research of anthropologist Margaret Mead in American Samoa, and what her work tells us about growing up, becoming a teenager, and being human.

I’m Kate Ellis, trained as an anthropologist and now an editor at the public radio program The World.

Doris Tulifau: Hello. [Introduction in Samoan] I’m Doris Tulifau, a Samoan activist and anthropologist. And Kate and I are going to be your hosts this season.


Doris: What else do you remember about growing up as a young woman, Kate?

Kate: In eighth grade, I had this adviser. She said, like, “You better watch yourself because girls can develop a reputation,” which was another way of saying, don’t be promiscuous, like, do not mess around too much. You will be judged. It always felt like such a strange warning to me.

I was clearly hitting puberty, and I don’t know if she picked up on something in me that made her want to warn me about developing a reputation. But I think that does say a lot about the climate. You know, this was like, the late 1970s, heading into the ’80s, you know, theoretically, the sexual revolution had already happened. And yet it was still an intensely sexist society, including in progressive Cambridge, Massachusetts.

It’s really brutal in terms of those expectations of what is good behavior in a teenage girl.


Kate: Doris, I’m curious, what kinds of expectations did you encounter as a teenager?

Doris: I mean, I was the eldest girl of the grandchildren. All 33 of us. Which meant everyone looked up to me. But that’s the culture, you know?

Though my parents grew up in New Zealand, and our extended family was there, my grandfather got called to San Francisco to build the first Samoan Congregational Christian Church. So I grew up in California, in the Bay Area.

And because my family was deeply embedded in the church, that’s where I learned to be Samoan.

Kate: And Doris, you sat down with the producers of this podcast to talk about what it was like growing up Samoan, didn’t you?

Doris: Yes, that’s right. This isn’t everyone’s story in Samoa, but it’s mine.

When I think about my adolescence, becoming an adult, I don’t think about, like, any teenage fun or going off with my friends and drinking a beer. I never had that, but if you were, like, the top reader in the Bible and you, knew how to speak Samoan and you knew the Samoan culture, that was always better than anything else.

My cousins, siblings, and I, we all felt the pressure to be “the most Samoan” because we had expectations from other Samoans as well.

We had plenty of opportunities to visit Samoa, though. My dad used to work for the airlines, and my mom for the hotels, so my family took advantage, and my life was kind of split between the two places.

Every summer, I’d leave the Bay Area and fly to the islands to be with my family and help out with their different businesses. We’d spend a month in Samoa and a month in American Samoa. Growing up, I constantly tried to prove that I was Samoan because I never wanted to be out of place.

That’s because I was proud to be Samoan, without ever really questioning what that meant.

I did all the Samoan stuff: religious things, ceremonial things, like, presenting mats.

Kate: Mats?

Doris: Yeah. Fine woven mats, or ‘ie tōga, were once used as currency across the South Pacific. Growing up, I was involved in presenting them on special occasions.

But there’s also different types of mats. They’re different names, and you had to grab the right one. And if you grab the wrong one, you’re making that chief think you’re lower. And a lot of times, we’re just grabbing cuz we’re scared that we’re gonna get yelled at.

Kate: That must have been stressful.

Doris: Totally. Growing up, the expectations I felt from my family, my community were overwhelming.

I was like, just think of it as like, you’re never enough. Think of fa’asamoa as, you’re never enough. No matter what you do, it’s never gonna be enough. You’re never gonna get it correct. And we all learn it this way.

Kate: That’s what it was like growing up Samoan for you? That you’re never enough?

Doris: Don’t get me wrong, there are plenty of Samoans who find joy and feel supported in traditions like these. Handing out the mats is a community event and doing your duty is part of how to show alofa—love. But for many of us in the Bay Area Samoan church community—my siblings, my cousins—these events were stressful.

Being Samoan to me was about doing these things right. And I figured it was that way for most Samoans—there were rules to follow.


Doris: Every summer when I went to Samoa, I’d get to visit one of my cousins. She was my number one protector. Everyone knew who she was, and I would’ve done anything to be like her because no one messed with her. And I always wanted to be around her.

One summer when I was 13, early in the morning, she invited me to go on a trip for Samoan pancakes.

[sound of car starting]

Doris: So, we went to the market, and I remember just waiting to eat pancakes. And then I remember there was something small that she was holding in her hand, and I was like, “Where’s the pancakes?” And she was like, “Oh, we didn’t come to get pancakes.” I was like, “Oh, what are we doing?” And she was like, “We’re getting drugs.”

I was shocked. In my mind, every Samoan kid was perfect, spoke perfect Samoan and knew the culture inside and out. I didn’t even think there were drugs in Samoa. So, I never thought my cousin would use drugs. And to me, at 13, any drug was a big deal.

Kate: Right.

Doris: I think she realized at that moment that I had no clue. Or even though I was from, and I think kids in Samoa think you’re from America and you’re, like, a drug dealer, gang banger. Cuz I was, my eyes was, like, drugs. Like, for what? And she just looked at me. She didn’t even explain.

In that moment, the scales fell from my eyes.

Kate: Wow.

Doris: Seeing my cousin do drugs changed the perspective I grew up with. She and I both had ideas about each other. Ideas that weren’t right. Things weren’t what they seemed. I realized that regardless of where you grew up—be it Samoa or San Francisco or anywhere else—you weren’t protected from … growing up.

Does being a teenager have to be so damn hard? Because it’s not just Kate and me that had complicated adolescent years.

Kate: There’s the roller coaster of hormones. Trying to fit in but often feeling left out. Peer pressure.

Doris: But the question we have is: Is there something universal about the hardship of adolescence?

Kate: Or do culture and context shape whether the experience of being a teenager is hard or easy?

[overlapping voices from news snippets:]

Voice One: According to the CDC, nearly 14 million children and teens in the U.S. are now considered obese. That increases their risk—

Voice Two: There’s so much going on with teens right now. Honestly, I think it’s just harder to grow up now. If you think about social media, it’s just this constant access to information. A lot of it’s hurtful—

Voice Three: Schools on a day-to-day basis are dealing with a whole range of issues, sometimes mental health issues. I would argue, there’s a public health issue, really—

Voice Four: According to POPCOM, around 1.2 million teens begin childbearing every year, raising concerns that existing legislation—

Margaret Mead: Mothers were warned that “daughters in their teens” present special problems.

Doris: This one isn’t recent. These words were written almost 100 years ago, in 1928.

Mead: As your daughter’s body changes from the body of a child to the body of a woman, so inevitably will her spirit change, and that stormily.

Doris: By a young anthropologist named Margaret Mead. She was curious about the same questions still in play today surrounding adolescence. Is it tough everywhere? Or is adolescence shaped by local context?

Nancy Lutkehaus: Margaret Mead was an anthropologist. She was part of a group of young, modern women who were forging their way doing new, exciting things.

Doris: This is Nancy Lutkehaus, former assistant to Mead way back and a professor at the University of Southern California today.

Mead had traveled to American Samoa to do her first bit of fieldwork when she was 23 years old. And what she said she discovered there went on to arm generations of American parents with insights into the inner workings of their teenagers.

Sevanne Martin: She had a much greater sensitivity to potentially the impact she was having on people and learning about them. And she cared deeply about it.

Doris: This is Sevanne Martin, Mead’s only grandchild.

During her career, Mead published some 1,500 articles, books, and manuscripts. After she died, she received the U.S. Presidential Medal of Freedom for mastering and transcending the discipline of cultural anthropology.

Charles King is a professor of international affairs and government at Georgetown University.

Charles King: She wanted to be a public intellectual. She wanted to be taking on the big issues of her day as a public scientist.

Doris: Mead stood about 5’2”. And starting in her 60s, she usually wore a long flowing cape and carried a long staff. The combination created a persona that was instantly recognizable. Margaret Mead had become a public icon.

But before all that, before she became a towering intellectual of the 20th century, Margaret Mead grew up during the Progressive Era near Philadelphia at the turn of the 20th century, a period of intense social and political reform aimed at making the world a better place. Women secured the right to vote, and people fought for the welfare of the poor.

Mead earned her bachelor’s degree at Barnard College in New York City. And while she was there, she found her way across the street to Columbia University and fell in with a circle of students learning revolutionary ideas. That’s after the break.

Kate: Welcome back to The Problems With Coming of Age. We left off with Margaret Mead wrapping up at Barnard College, starting to explore new ideas.

Charles: Mead was parachuted into a community of experimentation. Um, women fell in love with women. Women were in positions of power and in charge of the world at Barnard in ways that I think Mead had never really experienced before.

Kate: Charles King, who we heard from earlier, is also the author of Gods of the Upper Air: How a Circle of Renegade Anthropologists Reinvented Race, Sex, and Gender in the 20th Century.

Doris: These “renegades” were mostly women, and they were pupils of Franz Boas, a former curator at the American Museum of Natural History who helped create Columbia’s anthropology department and became its first professor. When Mead got to Barnard, she took classes in anthropology with Boas.

Kate: Boas is known as the “Father of American Anthropology.” He’s got a complicated legacy: Some of us in the field today see his work as part of anthropology’s problematic colonial history, but he was also advocating for what was a pretty radical thought at the time.

Charles: Here was a new social science being created from scratch, a social science that took as its foundational idea that this time, this place, America in the 1920s, is not the high point of civilization. It’s not the end point of any civilizational progress. It’s just another way of seeing the world. And if you travel, if you go to other parts of the world, what you’ll find is a local genius.

Kate: Boas was a German Jewish immigrant who moved to the U.S. in his 20s.

Over the course of his academic career, he studied families and communities in the Arctic, Native American art traditions, and the changes in people’s bodies during immigration to the United States.

He came to believe that different cultures shape people differently. Something he called “cultural relativism.” Nancy Lutkehaus again.

Nancy: Cultural relativism was a position within anthropological theory that was saying that we need to look at all cultures as a whole and understand their behavior and their values within a larger system.

Doris: The idea that culture and behavior weren’t fixed—and that one culture wasn’t necessarily better than another—opened up possibilities for social change. At Columbia, a number of young women embraced Boas’ ideas, including Margaret Mead. She dropped onto Boas’ doorstep at Columbia University at a time when she was learning that most women were largely limited to just a few kinds of jobs due to their gender.

Kate: Secretary, nurse, teacher—

Doris: But at Columbia with Boas, some of those constraints fell away.

Charles: And this was liberating. It was revelatory, and beyond everything else, it was just exciting to the people who encountered those ideas at the time.

Kate: Perhaps even more so than Boas, it was anthropologist Ruth Benedict who persuaded Mead to continue her work in the discipline. Benedict was getting her Ph.D. at Columbia and worked as a teaching assistant for Boas while Mead was still a student at Barnard. The two became friends, colleagues, and lovers. But Benedict was a peer and colleague whereas Boas was a mentor, so when Mead decided to continue her education, she asked Boas to act as her adviser. He accepted.

When Mead was trying to narrow down her research topics, Boas encouraged her to examine adolescence among Native American populations in the U.S. But Mead was adamant about exploring the topic through a Polynesian lens. This would help her begin examining whether teenagers in America are the same as in other parts of the world.

If so, was that universal experience brought about by biology? And if not, were those differences based on their environment and cultural upbringing? In other words, she wanted to know: Was adolescence shaped by nature or nurture?

In his research, Franz Boas had a larger goal: To reframe the way we view cultures across the world. What makes us the same, and what differentiates us.

Doris: And Mead ate it up. It propelled her deep into the field of cultural anthropology.

Charles: Boas suggested that she go to a place where she could have good health care, plenty of contacts with local Americans. And that place turned out to be American Samoa. And this was her chance to do it. First time out of the United States when she got on a train to travel across the U.S. and then board a ship for Samoa.

Doris: Margaret Mead broke ground in the burgeoning field of cultural anthropology to conduct field research on Indigenous people outside of North America.

Nancy: She went there wanting to understand Samoans and wanting to understand what it meant to be an adolescent boy or girl in Samoa.

Doris: Mead’s decision to go to American Samoa set off a chain of events that would change the course of her life and how many would view their cultures, communities, and adolescence.

Kate: Her collaboration with Boas made the two of them renegades of a sort.

Charles: They were renegade in the sense that they were inventing an entire field of human knowledge more or less from scratch. We now call it “cultural anthropology,” but they were the first to do it in exactly this way with the Boasian idea of cultural relativism at its core.

Kate: This was at a time when racist ideologies were being taught in classrooms and where scientific theory was used to justify racial discrimination and white supremacy. Through their work, Mead and Boas challenged those ideas—sometimes, well, often imperfectly.

And Mead’s research would go on to inform our understanding of childhood, motherhood, gender, sex, psychology, and, of course, adolescence. Mead was a pioneer in the field of anthropology. Driven and hardworking, she was an ambitious, determined, insightful, and fairly self-reflective woman. Someone with celebrity status. Margaret Mead was a change-maker.

One day, she would say, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.”

It’s Mead’s work and her legacy in American Samoa that we’ll explore this season on the SAPIENS podcast.

Doris: We’ll consider Mead’s life and what her work means to us today. We’ll look at the controversy that arose when a brazen critic—a firebrand from New Zealand—attacked Mead and what she stood for. The debate unfolded in the pages of The New York Times and on major TV networks. It attracted major anthropologists, and it became a part of the culture wars brewing at the time and beyond. And we’ll hear what Samoans have to say about the whole thing.

To produce this season, we went to the Samoan islands, my home, to retrace Mead’s journey and talk to Samoans.

And so we begin with Mead at age 23, making her way across the South Pacific. About to land in the place that would remake her, the field of anthropology, and how Americans conceived of adolescence.

That’s next time on The Problems With Coming of Age.


Kate: The Problems With Coming of Age is a co-production of SAPIENS and PRX Productions. Be sure to check out the season’s college curriculum, historic photographs, and so much more on our website:

Doris: This episode was written and produced by Rithu Jagannath, Ashraya Gupta, and Ari Daniel. This season was hosted by Kate Ellis, and me, Doris Tulifau.

Kate: From SAPIENS, we were supported by Chip Colwell, Tanya Volentras, Esteban Gómez, Sia Figiel, Salamasina Figiel, Sophie Muro, and Christine Weeber. The season’s humanities advisers were Danilyn Rutherford, Lisa Uperesa, Nancy Kates, David M. Lipset, Nancy Lutkehaus, Agustín Fuentes, Don Kulick, and Paul Shankman.

Doris: And fa’afetai to the more than three dozen people we interviewed in American Samoa and Samoa for helping to shape our understanding of this story.

Kate: The executive producer of PRX Productions is Jocelyn Gonzales. The project manager of PRX Productions is Edwin Ochoa. The business manager is Morgan Church.

Doris: Dan Taulapapa McMullin created the season’s cover art. Celina T. Zhao was the fact checker. Nancy Madden was our voice actor playing Margaret Mead.

Kate: Audio mastering by Terence Bernardo.

Doris: Music by APM, with additional tracks by Malō Fa’amausili recorded at Apaula Studio, as well as songs kindly provided by Bobby Alu.

Kate: SAPIENS is part of the American Anthropological Association Podcast Library.

Doris: SAPIENS is an editorially independent podcast funded by the Wenner-Gren Foundation, which has provided vital support. Our thanks to the foundation’s entire staff, board, and advisory council. Season 6 of the SAPIENS podcast was made possible by a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities.

I’m Doris Tulifau.

Kate: I’m Kate Ellis.

[sound of ocean waves]


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