Anthropology Magazine
The Problems With Coming of Age
Unit 2

Adolescence as a Social Category

Portrait of two female friends with arm around outdoors on sunny day. One friend has dark curly hair and lots of jewelry, while the other girl has bangs and short cropped hair.

In this unit (to accompany the SAPIENS podcast S6E1), students will examine the idea of adolescence as a focus of anthropological research. Students will investigate the creation of the social category of adolescence. They will explore Margaret Mead’s ideas and contentions about adolescence that resulted from her work in American Samoa.

Learning Objectives
  • Investigate the emergence of “adolescence” as a social category in the 20th century and how anthropologists have studied it
  • Assess Mead’s ideas regarding adolescence
  1. The phase of biological and social growth and development during which the transition from childhood to adulthood occurs. The age range for this transition is typically 10 through the early 20s.

Coming of Age in Samoa
  1. A 1928 book written by American anthropologist Margaret Mead. The book focused on Mead’s research on adolescence in American Samoan culture.

Nature vs. Nurture
  1. A debate involving the extent to which particular aspects of behavior are a direct result of inherited biological makeup (sometimes referred to as genetic predisposition) or learned influences.

  1. The concept of sexuality refers to the sociocultural identities associated with erotic thoughts and practices, and the complex experiences humans have regarding their bodies and perceptions of gender.

Professor Talking Points
  • Adolescence has only been identified as a stage of development separate from childhood since the late 19th/early 20th century. Prior to this period, and in most cultural contexts, people were categorized as either children or adults. Explain how anthropologists have approached the study of adolescence as a social category and the ways in which the anthropological study of adolescence has changed over the last 100 years.
  • The era in which Margaret Mead came of age was a time of significant change for women and women’s rights in the United States and beyond. Women in the United States gained the right to vote in 1920, when Mead was 19 years old. Despite these changes, American women were still operating within a political, economic, and social world dominated by men. Lead students in a discussion about how the events and trends of the time may have impacted Mead’s choices and area of study.
  • Mead studied under the tutelage of anthropologist Franz Boas and believed that nurture and the environment and culture a person grows up in influences their personality. Present students with this statement: Personality is never a result of nature, rather it results only from nurture, which comes through culture, family, and the environment and culture of a person’s upbringing. Lead students in a discussion on how this claim could be affirmed or negated.
  • Mead spent significant time in American Samoa, engaging in the culture and practices. She interviewed adolescent girls as part of her research and went on to write about her findings in her well-known book Coming of Age in Samoa. Lead students in an examination of Mead’s findings in Samoa. Have students compare the observations she made about adolescence in Samoa to the stresses of adolescence they see today, or experienced themselves, in the United States.
  • Mead said, “Human nature is almost unbelievably malleable, responding accurately and contrastingly to contrasting cultural conditions.” Give examples to explain how cultural conditions mold human nature and influence personalities. Discuss with students examples  Mead saw in her research that may have influenced her views and led to her conclusions about the malleability of human nature. Have students discuss if they believe this statement is true about all stages of life.
Academic Articles
  1. Freeman, Derek. 2000. “Margaret Mead’s Coming of Age in Samoa and Boasian Culturalism.” Politics and the Life Sciences 19 (1): 101–103.

  2. Sanday, Peggy Reeves. 1980. “Margaret Mead’s View of Sex Roles in Her Own and Other Societies.” American Anthropologist 82 (2): 340–348.

  3. Zorbaugh, Harvey W., and L. Virgil Payne. 1935. “Adolescence: Psychosis or Social Adjustment?” The Journal of Educational Sociology 8 (6): 371–377.

Student Discussion Questions
  • Why should adolescence be considered a cultural category of interest in terms of anthropological study?
  • Why have few anthropological studies focused on adolescence?
  • What are the major contributions Margaret Mead made to the anthropological study of adolescence?
  • What elements of biological and emotional development set adolescence apart as a focus of anthropological study?
  • The nature vs. nurture debate centers on whether genetically inherited traits or environmental and cultural influences are more impactful in personality development. Take a side (nature or nurture) and create a case consisting of a claim supported by three points. Then, indicate whether Margaret Mead would agree or disagree with your case and why.
  • In a two-page essay, outline Mead’s assumptions, observations, and conclusions about adolescent girls based on her time in American Samoa.
  • G. Stanley Hall was one of the first to study and identify adolescence as a physiological stage. He contended that adolescent behavior was related to physiological changes. He described the turbulence of the stage as “sturm und drang” (storm and stress) that would end with the dawn of adulthood. Create a table or other graphic to compare and contrast this view with that of Mead.
Additional Resources
  1. Article: Gary Schwartz and Don Merten’s “The Language of Adolescence: An Anthropological Approach to the Youth Culture

  2. Article: Meredith W. Reiches’Adolescence as a Biocultural Life History Transition

  3. Article: Suet Lin Hung and Kwok Kin Fung’s “Social Constructionist View of Adolescence”

  4. Book: Margaret Mead’s Coming of Age in Samoa

  5. Video: Adriana Galván’s “The Adolescent Brain: A Thriving Look

Unit By

Aimee L. Richards, Freedom Learning Group

The Problems With Coming of Age
Unit 3

Margaret Mead’s Ethnographic Work in Samoa

A black and white photograph of a woman wearing an elaborate headdress and necklace, with bare shoulders exposed.