Anthropology Magazine
The Problems With Coming of Age
Unit 6

Positioning the Anthropologist

Two legs in flipflops hang off a cliff, taken from the perspective of the person sitting there. The ocean is soft focused in the distance. The overall effect is topsy-turvy.

In this unit (to accompany the SAPIENS podcast S6E3), students will track the changes in anthropological scholarship by looking at the study of anthropology before and after Mead’s groundbreaking publication, Coming of Age in Samoa. Students will plot the major theories in anthropology in the 19th and 20th centuries. Students will evaluate the movement in the field of anthropology to be more inclusive and to consider positionality, self-reflexivity, and multivocality.

Learning Objectives
  • Describe the study of anthropology prior to Mead and the changes in anthropological scholarship after the release of Mead’s early work.
  • Evaluate the movement toward inclusivity, the positionality of the ethnographer, self-reflexivity, and multivocality in anthropology and ethnography.
  1. The practice of providing equal opportunities and resources to people from different backgrounds, especially those from marginalized communities who may otherwise be left out.

  1. An approach to data collection and interpretation that includes multiple perspectives and worldviews.

  1. The anthropologist’s awareness of their position, power, and perspective compared to the culture they are studying.

  1. The practice of self-criticism and reflection to acknowledge and understand the way the anthropologist’s own culture and personal experiences influence their views and biases.

Professor Talking Points
  • Discuss the strides anthropology has made toward inclusivity and the movement to collaborate and elevate indigenous voices when studying different cultures.
  • During the 19th century and early 20th century, anthropology was often dominated by anthropologists who came from colonizing nations. The debate between Freeman and Mead includes both of their conclusions about Samoan people. However, absent from the conversation was the voice of native Samoans and their conclusions about adolescence.
  • Since Mead’s publication in 1928 and the later Mead-Freeman controversy, there has been a shift in anthropology work that moves to include native voices and emphasizes collaboration between native voices and anthropologists.
  • Inclusivity within the study creates a better understanding of the culture being studied. A movement to decolonize anthropology brings to the forefront the debate over who gets to tell the story and the accuracy and truth found if only those from colonizing nations are given the microphone.
  • Discuss the major theories of cultural anthropology from the 19th to the 21st centuries. Explain how Boas, Mead’s mentor, believed in cultural relativism and how this theory shaped Mead’s work and publication. What conclusions did Mead draw from being immersed in the culture?
  • Why is inclusivity important in anthropology? Explain the need for multivocality and the insider perspective brought by Indigenous voices. Discuss how Indigenous voices were missing in anthropology in the 19th and early 20th centuries and the impact that had on anthropology.
  • Allow students to debate if enough strides have been made in inclusivity and why.
Academic Articles
  1. Narayan, Kirin. “How Native Is a ‘Native’ Anthropologist?” American Anthropologist 95, no.3 (1993): 671-686.

  2. Nelson, Peter. “Where Have All the Anthros Gone? The Shift in California Indian Studies from Research ‘On’ to Research ‘With, For, and By’ Indigenous Peoples.” American Anthropologist 123, no.3 (2021): 469-473

Student Discussion Questions
  • What does inclusivity look like in anthropology and ethnography? What does multivocality entail within the field of anthropology? How successful do you think the field has been in moving toward inclusivity?
  • Read the SAPIENS article “Unsung Native Collaborators in Anthropology.” The author points out that Native peoples have often collaborated in anthropology but often did not receive the same recognition as their white counterparts. This was also true for Mead’s work. Have anthropologists improved in this area, and in what ways are anthropologists still lacking?
  • What are the key theories of anthropology over time? Describe the ways anthropology changed in the 20th century.
  • How has anthropology changed to be more inclusive since the 20th century? How is collaboration cultivated to encourage inclusivity?
  • What are the roles of the positionality of the ethnographer, self-reflexivity, and multivocality in anthropology and ethnography?
  • Create a timeline of the relevant theories in anthropology from the 19th century to the 21st century.
  • Write a descriptive essay on the study of anthropology prior to Mead and discuss the changes that occurred after Mead’s publication. Compare the approaches.
  • Find three recent examples of anthropological studies that are inclusive. Write a paper evaluating the inclusivity, the positionality of the ethnographer, and the self-reflexivity in each study.
Additional Resources
  1. Book: Margaret Mead’s Coming of Age in Samoa

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

  3. Podcast: Anthropological Theory: A Podcast Created by Anthropology Students “Postcolonialism

  4. Video: Manufacturing Intellect’s “Margaret Mead Interview on Cultural Anthropology (1959)


  5. Video: Smithsonian Education’s “Anthropologies of Inclusion: Recognizing a Common Humanity

Unit By

Jasmine Rubel, Freedom Learning Group

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.