Anthropology Magazine
The Problems With Coming of Age
Unit 1

Margaret Mead in American Samoa

A dark-haired woman sits cross-legged in a dress and black Mary Jane shoes, leaning against a wall imprinted with leaves and other designs.

In this unit (to accompany SAPIENS podcast S6E1), students will be introduced to anthropology, focusing on the field in the early 20th century. Students will examine Margaret Mead as a historical figure, her work in American Samoa, and her impact on the discipline of anthropology.

Learning Objectives
  • Summarize the development of anthropology
  • Explore the significance of Margaret Mead’s work in American Samoa
American Samoa
  1. A U.S. territory situated 40 miles east of Samoa and comprised of seven islands and atolls.

  1. The broad field of anthropology—comprised of the fields of archaeology, biological anthropology, cultural anthropology, and linguistic anthropology—is the study of humanity with a focus on “everything human.” It seeks to understand what makes different people human in their own distinctive ways.

  1. The customary norms, values, beliefs, rituals, and traditions of a social group that are handed down to succeeding generations.

  1. Now discredited for its racist assumptions and flawed scientific foundations, eugenics is the belief or study of the potential for improving hereditary qualities of a human species or population, specifically by the discouragement of reproduction by those with certain inheritable traits.

Franz Boas
  1. (1858–1942) A late 19th- and early 20th-century German-born American anthropologist. Boas founded the relativistic, culture-centric American anthropological school of thought that developed as a dominant 20th-century paradigm.

Margaret Mead
  1. (1901–1978) The renowned American cultural anthropologist who studied under Franz Boas. Mead wrote several noteworthy works, starting with Coming of Age in Samoa, with expertise on gender, sexuality, and motherhood. She became a famous public figure through her popular writing and radio and TV appearances. Mead was known for her commentaries on race relations, environmental protection, and nuclear nonproliferation.

Participant Observation
  1. A research methodology wherein the researcher is immersed in cultural activities as equally a participant and an observer.

  1. Officially known as the Independent State of Samoa. It is a Polynesian island country consisting of two main islands and several smaller islands. “Samoa” can also broadly be used to describe both the Independent State of Samoa and American Samoa, and its culture and people.

Sociocultural Anthropology
  1. The branch of anthropology that deals with human culture, specifically social structure, language, law, politics, religion, art, and technology. Many sociocultural anthropologists document the meanings humans make of the different worlds they inhabit.

Professor Talking Points
  • Anthropology is the study of the development of human biology, language, material objects, society, and culture. The four fields of anthropology are archaeology, biological anthropology, cultural anthropology, and linguistic anthropology.
  • Modern anthropology has its roots in 18th-century Europe as part of the cultural movement to advance knowledge and reason to help European societies develop.
  • Like in many other fields of science, theories that were once considered sound or the definitive conclusion on a subject have changed or even been rejected as anthropologists gain more and more information. Anthropology is continually evolving.
  • Margaret Mead was a student of Franz Boas, who is credited as the “father” of modern American anthropology and who famously advanced the theory of cultural relativism. Discuss Mead’s time under Boas’ tutelage and how he may have impacted her work.
  • In 1925, Mead traveled to American Samoa to explore how culture and biology impacted the experience of adolescence. She sought to discover if the experience there was as traumatic and stressful as it was for adolescents in the United States or whether a different culture would shape the experience.
Academic Articles
  1. Garver, Kenneth L., and Bettylee Garver. 1991. “Eugenics: Past, Present, and the Future.” American Journal of Human Genetics 49 (5): 1109–1118.

  2. Rubin, Vera. 1979. “Margaret Mead: An Appreciation.” Human Organization 38 (2): 193–196.

  3. Willis, Matthew. 2019. “The Life and Times of Franz Boas.” JSTOR Daily.

Student Discussion Questions
  • In her book, Coming of Age in Samoa, Margaret Mead describes her research method as, “speaking their language, eating their food, sitting cross-legged upon the pebble floor, I did my best to minimize the differences between us.” This type of participant observation was a relatively new method at the time. How do you think this approach helps reveal a culture and its dynamics? And what are this method’s limitations.
  • In your own words, define “anthropology.”
  • How has anthropological research helped people from different parts of the world understand cultures and societies that are not their own?
  • Watch the video, “An Introduction to the Discipline of Anthropology,” which can be found under Additional Resources. Create a timeline with four points that summarize the development of the field of anthropology over time. Describe each point and how it has helped anthropology evolve.
  • In a two-page essay, explain how Mead’s methods in Samoa differed from those used prior to that period and how they impacted future anthropological study.
  • An anthropologist from the mid-19th century is debating an anthropologist from the early 20th century. Explain one point of likely disagreement in their approach to how they would compare societies. You may use “History and Branches of Anthropology” in the Additional Resources as a reference.
Additional Resources
  1. Article: National Geographic’s “History and Branches of Anthropology

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

  3. Book: Paul Shankman’s The Trashing of Margaret Mead

  4. Film: Frank Heimans’ “Margaret Mead and Samoa

  5. Video: Macat iLibrary’s “An Introduction to the Discipline of Anthropology

  6. Video: Prof. Alan Macfarlane—Ayabaya’s “Coming of Age: Margaret Mead

Unit By

Aimee L. Richards, Freedom Learning Group

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.