Anthropology Magazine
The Problems With Coming of Age
Unit 7

Mead Versus Freeman

A gray-haired man stands outside with his hands in the front pockets of his buttoned-up sweater coat.

In this unit (to accompany the SAPIENS podcast S6E4), students will learn counterarguments to Mead’s 1920s Samoan research from her harshest critic, Derek Freeman. Taking into consideration Freeman’s experiences and how he presented his research and conclusions, students will critically consider if his arguments hold weight and what lessons scholars can garner from the Mead versus Freeman controversy.

Learning Objectives
  • Identify the significant milestones in Freeman’s career.
  • Investigate Freeman’s critique of Mead’s work.
Cultural determinism
  1. The idea that an individual’s culture influences their personality, emotions, and behaviors.

Evolutionary anthropology
  1. Studies the biological and cultural evolution of human beings from the past to the present. This all-encompassing field includes archaeology, behavioral ecology, psychology, primatology, and genetics.

  1. A sharing of characteristics or origins, also used to describe a blood relationship.

  1. A way of thinking that states laws and rules deride their truth from scientific or mathematical proofs. Positivism dismisses moral considerations.

  1. A treatment based on the idea that our past shapes our present. The treatment aims to tap into unacknowledged meanings and emotions from past events that influence our current moods and relationships.

Professor Talking Points
  • Explain Derek Freeman’s early career experiences, including his study of the socialization of children ages 6 to 9 in New Zealand and his 1940–1943 stay in Samoa.
  • Early in his career, Freeman believed in the idea of cultural determinism. However, this changed after his study of the Iban people. He studied the Iban to glean insights into their social organization and learned about their kinship system, which he deemed “utrolineal” (“utro” means either/or). In the 1960s, on the heels of his breakdown in Kuching, Freeman struggled to answer questions about the Iban people’s behavior despite his study of them and realized that “to fully understand Iban religion and ritual, he would have to master the psychological ramifications of unconscious symbolism” (Hempenstall, 2017). Freeman called his breakdown a revelation in his thinking and issues. Combining these insights with his Iban research led him to pursue a more biological explanation of human behavior.
  • Freeman had two major public psychological crises: one in 1961 in Kuching and again in 1966 in Samoa when he embarked on the task of refuting Mead’s work. Colleagues commented that Freeman worked himself to exhaustion and was prone to disorientation during these times. Following these episodes, Freeman privately received a bipolar diagnosis in the 1970s (Hempenstall, 2017).
  • Freeman wrote two books criticizing Mead’s work. In the first book, Freeman focused on “the scientific import of these actual researches” and applied a scientific lens to Mead’s claims. In his second book, Freeman includes evidence pertaining to his belief that Mead was hoaxed by an informer who merely joked about her sexual relations. Freeman alleged that Mead did not have a solid grasp of the Samoan language and, therefore, could not differentiate jokes from honesty. Mead also excluded discussions on topics such as the violence in the Samoan culture, painting a picture of a violence-free utopia that did not align with the true Samoan culture.
  • In 1985, the American Anthropological Association denounced Freeman’s Margaret Mead and Samoa: The Making and Unmaking of an Anthropological Myth as “poorly written, unscientific, irresponsible, and misleading.” It seemed the negative reviews from the Association only spurred Freeman in his purpose to find fault in Mead’s findings—he went on to contribute to the documentary “Margaret Mead and Samoa” in 1988 and, in 1998, published The Fateful Hoaxing of Margaret Mead: A Historical Analysis of Her Samoan Research.
  • Although Freeman found some support among other anthropologists, multiple anthropologists have reviewed Mead’s work and concluded the solidity of her findings over time. Anthropologist Paul Shankman thoroughly reviewed notes from both Freeman and Mead, putting his conclusions of the controversy in his 2009 book, The Trashing of Margaret Mead: Anatomy of an Anthropological Controversy. Shankman leaned toward Mead’s work, claiming her points were better researched and presented than Freeman’s. In 2017, historian Peter Hempenstall published Truth’s Fool: Derek Freeman and the War Over Cultural Anthropology, which sought to use facts to depict a picture of Freeman’s complexity.
Academic Articles
  1. Appell, George. “Freeman’s Refutation of Mead’s Coming of Age in Samoa: The Implications for Anthropological Inquiry.” The Eastern Anthropologist 37 (1984): 183-214.

  2. Heppell, Michael. “Freeman and the Abuse of Authority.”  Journal of the Humanities and Social Sciences of Southeast Asia and Oceania 174, no. 4 (2018): 450-471.

  3. Lougheed, Marion. “‘Truth’s Fool: Derek Freeman and the War Over Cultural Anthropology’ by Peter Hempenstall.” History of Anthropology Review 44 (2020).

  4. Shankman, Paul. “The ‘Fateful Hoaxing’ of Margaret Mead.” Current Anthropology 54, no. 1 (2013): 51–70.

Student Discussion Questions
  • Derek Freeman said, “The science of man must be biologically based.” To what extent do you agree or disagree? (Quote is taken from “The Life and Meaning of Margaret Mead.”)
  • Boasian principles tried to move past nineteenth-century evolutionary theory principles. Freeman criticized Mead for pushing her professor’s agenda by making her research fit into the mold of cultural determinism. Do you agree? Why or why not?
  • How has Freeman’s critique of Mead’s work evolved or remained steadfast from his early essays in the 1960s and 1970s to his 1983 book and then to his 1998 book?
  • What lessons can be gleaned from how Freeman presented his findings initially versus how he presented them later?
  • How did Freeman’s early work as an ethnographer impact the anthropology field?
  • In his article, “Freeman and the Abuse of Authority,” Michael Heppell states, “Controversy is important because it can result in inaccuracy being purged and issues being nuanced so that their presentation is more accurate” (p. 452). How does this statement apply to the Mead and Freeman controversy? (Consider the importance of criticism and counterarguments.)
  • Create a timeline of the significant events in Freeman’s professional life.
  • Investigate how Freeman researched his critique of Mead’s work and subsequent presentation of his findings.
  • List the reasons Freeman believed Mead’s research was flawed.
Unit By

Catherine Torres, Freedom Learning Group

The Problems With Coming of Age
Unit 8

Nature Versus Nurture

In soft focus, a woman's lips gently kisses the tip of a baby's nose.