Anthropology Magazine
The Problems With Coming of Age
Unit 5

Samoan Voices

Three young men stand on a beach, wearing island-style shirts.

In this unit (to accompany the SAPIENS podcast S6 E3), students will compare the different responses of Samoans to Margaret Mead’s work and her publications on Samoa. Using Mead as a guide, students will inspect how “outsider” anthropologists and ethnographers examine cultures different from their own and the significance this has on global views of various cultures. Students will examine the way Samoans, being the insiders in the culture, viewed an outsider’s perspective on their culture and the conclusions Mead drew. This concept of insiders and outsiders will be further examined to explain how conclusions made by outsiders shape the global view of non-Western cultures.

Learning Objectives
  • Compare the different responses Samoans had to Mead’s work.
  • Inspect how “outsider” anthropologists represent “the other” and the consequences of this on global views.
  1. An approach in anthropology where an anthropologist studies a culture from inside the culture, also known as an insider perspective.

  1. An approach in anthropology where an anthropologist studies a culture from outside the culture, also known as an outsider perspective.

  1. Meaning many voices; an approach to archeology and anthropology that emphasizes the voices of experts from different ethnicities, genders, classes, etc.

Professor Talking Points
  • Mead asked, “Are the disturbances which vex our adolescents due to the nature of adolescence itself or to the civilization? Under different conditions, does adolescence present a different picture?” Discuss the conclusions Mead drew based on this question. Ask students if they believe the disturbances are due to nature or civilization, and ask them to expand on their answers.
  • Seemingly, many Samoans have not read Mead’s book or Freeman’s work. Yet they have opinions on the conclusions drawn by both anthropologists. Discuss why some Samoans may be unfamiliar with these works, and why others may have chosen not read them. More broadly, discuss the problems of drawing conclusions based on hearsay.
  • Discuss the problems of categorizing a culture based on an “outsider’s” writing on the culture and compare the two conclusions and means of reaching them.
  • Many Samoans rejected Mead’s conclusions and felt hostile after hearing what was written about them. Mead wrote about the less restrictive attitudes in Samoa around sex and sexual conduct compared to Western cultures. Some Samoans argued that Mead neglected to examine the ceremonial importance of virginity in some sectors of Samoan society. Discuss how two opposite claims can be made about the same culture. Discuss how being an “insider” (emic) or an “outsider” (etic) can influence the perspective.
  • Both Mead and Freeman used Samoan society as the basis of their research. Missing from the debate was the voice of Native Samoans themselves. Based on The Trashing of Margaret Mead chapter nine, and the SAPIENS podcast, share some of Samoans’ reactions to the anthropologists’ works, and how  they categorize adolescence and the adolescent experience on their island.
Academic Articles
  1. Miller, Daniel. “How Can Anthropological Research Impact the Populations It Studies? Six Steps for Creating Inclusivity and Accessibility with Ethnographic Monographs.” Impact of Social Sciences (blog), August 18, 2020.

  2. Naaeke, Anthony, Anastacia Kurylo, Michael Grabowski, David Linton, and Marie Radford. “Insider and Outsider Perspective in Ethnographic Research” Proceedings of the New York State Communication Association 2010, no. 9 (2012).

  3. Pink, Sarah, and Vaike Fors.  “Ethnography, Stakeholders, and Audiences: Toward Openness and Inclusivity.” Sociological Research Online 22, no. 4 (2017): 169-173.

  4. Shankman, Paul. “The History of Samoan Sexual Conduct and the Mead-Freeman Controversy.” American Anthropologist 98, no. 3 (1996): 555-567.

Student Discussion Questions
  • What does it mean to be an outsider? What are the benefits of an outside anthropologist studying another culture? What are the disadvantages?
  • How did Samoan people react to Mead’s published work?
  • How has Mead’s work and writing influenced the West’s view on Samoa and the Samoan people?
  • Who gets to tell the story of a people? Whose voices are elevated, and whose are often buried? What effect does that have on the story?
  • Create a Venn diagram to compare and contrast at least two Samoan responses to Mead’s writing.
  • Create a trifold to compare three Samoan responses to Mead’s work.
  • Write an essay comparing and contrasting Mead’s ideas in her book and the Samoan people’s response to her ideas.
  • Who should tell the story? Write an argumentative essay explaining who should write about a culture and why. In your essay, explain what an “outsider” anthropologist is and why you think they should or should not be the one writing on a culture different from their own.
  • Write a description of how Samoan culture was viewed based on anthropological works on Samoa. Include Mead’s perspective in this description.
Additional Resources
  1. Article: New York Times’ “Samoan Leader Declares ‘Both Anthropologists are Wrong

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

  3. Exhibition: Library of Congress’ “Margaret Mead: Human Nature and the Power of Culture

Unit By

Jasmine Rubel, Freedom Learning Group

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.