Anthropology Magazine
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.

In this unit (to accompany the SAPIENS podcast S6E2), students will learn through Mead’s fieldwork examining Samoan culture, the facets of ethnography, and the impact that Mead’s work made in the field. By examining the cultural findings from Mead’s work in Samoa, students will be able to analyze the bigger picture of her impact through an anthropological lens.

Learning Objectives
  • Define the processes of ethnographic fieldwork.
  • Analyze the impact of Mead’s ethnographic work and findings in Samoa.
  1. A historic parochial school building in Afao village on the island of Tutuila in American Samoa.

  1. The practice or quality of including or involving people from a range of social and ethnic backgrounds and of different genders, sexual orientations, etc.

  1. The scientific description of the customs of individual peoples and cultures.

  1. A ceremonial hostess selected by a high chief of a Samoan village from the young girls of his household, elevated to a high rank, and charged with the formal reception and entertainment of visitors

Professor Talking Points
  • Consider the concepts of sexuality as a learned behavior in relation to cultural pressure and societal norms in Mead’s Coming of Age in Samoa, specifically, the findings Mead had concerning young Samoan women in contrast to young American women, and discuss the relevance those concepts have to today’s societal pressures concerning sexuality.
  • Many scholars have debated whether Mead’s conclusions were valid at the time she worked in Samoa, and allege that her findings are not valid today because Samoan society has changed immensely since the 1920s. Discuss what it means for ethnographers to capture an “ethnographic moment” that seems to be invalid with the passing of the years.
  • Define the skills gained in ethnographic research—participation, communication, and record keeping—and consider how those skills can be integrated with current technological advancement. Discuss how a modern ethnographic excursion would differ from Mead’s studies of Samoa.
Academic Articles
  1. Feinberg, Richard. “Margaret Mead and Samoa: Coming of Age in Fact and Fiction.” American Anthropologist 90, no. 3 (1988): 656-663.

  2. Jones, Janice, and Joanna Smith. “Ethnography: Challenges and Opportunities.” Evidence-Based Nursing 20, no. 4 (2017): 98-100.

  3. Côté, James E. “Was Mead Wrong About Coming of Age in Samoa? An Analysis of the Mead/Freeman Controversy for Scholars of Adolescence and Human Development.” Journal of Youth and Adolescence 21, no. 5 (1992): 499-527.

Student Discussion Questions
  • Given the breadth of human diversity, what role can ethnography play in illuminating it?
  • How does Mead’s study of the cultural practices of Samoans coming of age give insight into your own culture’s coming-of-age traditions?
  • Some have said that Mead romanticized her life in Samoa. For the sake of argument, defend the value of her findings, giving three examples of what you learned about ethnography, human cultures, or yourself from her work.
  • In what way can scholars use Margaret Mead’s research to guide their own study of culture through the ethnographic approach?
  • What questions should you be asking about your own culture, as Mead asked in her book concerning American culture—for example, she challenged how young women approached their sexuality. If someone immersed themselves in your culture, what societal norms might they challenge?
  • Mead’s use of the term “primitive” in her book title is deeply offensive to many people, especially Samoans. Why did Mead use this term, and what are its problems today?
  • After reading the Sapiens article, “The Life and Meaning of Margaret Mead,” create a definition of ethnography with specific examples from Mead’s work in Samoa.
  • Using Mead’s book, Coming of Age in Samoa, divide the class into sections, assigning each section two to three paragraphs. Have the group collaborate to narrow down each given paragraph into a central concept Mead was trying to convey.
  • Have students choose an identifiable culture (e.g., Basque, Japanese, Navajo). Compare and contrast possible ethnographic experiences in the chosen culture with Mead’s experiences. Devise a plan wherein an ethnographic trip could take place, and Mead’s methods could be used.
Additional Resources
  1. Article: Chris Drew’s “15 Great Ethnography Examples

  2. Article: The Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica’s “Ethnography

  3. Article: Park Ethnography Program’s “What is Ethnographic Research

  4. Exhibition: Library of Congress, Samoa: The Adolescent Girl’s “Margaret Mead: Human Nature and the Power of Culture”

  5. Video: CrashCourse’s “Social Development: Crash Course in Sociology #13

  6. Video: The School of Life’s “The Ancient Origin of Sexual and Gender Identity – Margaret Mead

Unit By

Casie Gray, Freedom Learning Group

The Problems With Coming of Age
Unit 4

Margaret Mead’s Remarkable Career

In a grainy black-and-white image, women sit in a row, with an older woman to the left holding a staff in one hand and papers in another, speaks with dignity.