Anthropology Magazine
The Problems With Coming of Age
Unit 11

Unpacking the Mead-Freeman Controversy

An older white woman poses in a studio. She has short-cropped hair and thick glasses, and has her head leaning gently against one upraised hand.

In this unit (to accompany the SAPIENS podcast S6E6), students will revisit the Mead-Freeman controversy in depth. They will reassess how Freeman critiqued and refuted Mead, then study the resulting controversy within the field of anthropology. Finally, they will apply lessons from the Mead-Freeman controversy to current research and theories.

Learning Objectives
  • Summarize the timeline of the Mead-Freeman controversy.
  • Review the key points of the critique and controversy.
  1. Written or spoken communication or debate.

Professor Talking Points
  • Freeman was trained in cultural anthropology. He fully immersed himself in the Iban culture during his 1940-1943 visit. Only after studying anthropology for more than two decades did he begin to question the validity of cultural anthropology and study more biologically based subjects, such as psychology, ethology, psychoanalysis, and neuroscience, building an interdisciplinary background and perspective to view cultures. 
  • On Freeman’s dispute with Mead, critics often pointed out, “Derek’s vehemence and persistence beyond a decent point of disagreement often outweighed the virtue of what he had to say” (Hempenstall 2017, 116). Before making public criticisms of Mead’s work, Freeman’s colleagues often found disagreeing with him tedious and difficult.
  • In 1964, Freeman published “Psychiatry, Anthropology and the Doctrine of Cultural Relativism.” It was the beginning of his decades-long mission to refute the emphasis anthropologists placed on the influence of culture on human behavior. He believed culture was “projections of the human animal’s impulsive phylogenetically given nature,” whereas human nature was foundational and drove culture (Hempenstall 2017, 131).
  • After meeting Mead in his office at the Australian National University on November 10, 1964, and then attending a seminar with Mead the following day, conflicting accounts of the emotions held by Freeman and Mead worked their way into modern literature. Mead supporters claimed she “won” the encounters, pointing to her unshaken stature and composure. Based on Freeman’s comments during the seminar, some speculate that he was caught off guard. Based on his diary entries, an apology letter to Mead, and comments in a 1996 interview about meeting Mead, Freeman expressed respect for Mead and thought their 1964 meeting was productive. In his letter, he politely states he believes she made some mistakes in her Samoan work, and he plans to research her errors, to which Mead responded with her now well-known phrase, “Anyway, what is important is the work” (Hempenstall 2017; Shankman 2009).
  • Mead rose to popularity long before Freeman published his critique of her work. An anthropologist and former student of Freeman described Mead as “successful, optimistic, with a fervent belief in the future, she reaffirmed the hope of all Americans that through education everyone could become what he or she wanted to be” (Hempenstall 2017, 194).
  • In her work, Mead “acknowledged adolescent stress but argued that the lives of Samoan adolescent girls were relatively less stressful than the lives of American girls in the 1920s” (Shankman 2021, 180). She acknowledged that puberty was a universal, biological experience but positioned her argument into how the process was “managed” among differing cultures. Yet Freeman labeled Mead an “absolute cultural determinist” (Shankman 2021, 176).
Academic Articles
  1. Freeman, Derek. “Social Anthropology and the Scientific Study of Human Behaviour.” Man 1, no. 3 (1966): 330-342.

  2. Scheper-Hughes, Nancy. “The Margaret Mead Controversy: Culture, Biology, and Anthropological Inquiry.” Human Organization 43, no. 1 (1984): 85-93.

  3. Shankman, Paul. “Culture, Biology, and Evolution: The Mead-Freeman Controversy Revisited.” Journal of Youth and Adolescence 29 (2000): 539-556.

Student Discussion Questions
  • If Freeman began to question Mead’s work after his 1943 trip to Samoa (as described by Hempenstall [2017] and in various interviews), why do you think he did not publish his misgivings until twenty years later?
  • Freeman attributes the events at Kuching as career-altering in terms of his intellectual pursuits; however, colleagues and other professionals began to see Freeman in a mentally unstable light. If Kuching’s events had not occurred (or were kept quieter), would the field of anthropology have been more accepting of Freeman’s new ideas? How much does “mental stability” and how an individual expresses their ideas play a role in accepting those ideas?
  • Read the SAPIENS debate articles under “Why Are Humans Violent?” Do any of the essays sway your thinking in answering the question more than the others? Why?
  • Why do you think the Mead vs. Freeman controversy has lasted decades, with works still published in 2000 on the matter?
  • New research continuously changes the way people think about the world. Take the revelation that Homo floresiensis did not light fires (see: “Extinguishing the Idea That Hobbits Had Fire”). How is this change similar to the Mead-Freeman controversy? How is it different?
  • Read Freeman’s New York Times Obituary (written by John Shaw in Additional Resources). How did the New York Times explain Freeman’s work and his controversy with Mead? Now read a letter to the New York Times editor from Professor Louise Lamphere, published on August 12, 2001. Discuss how the media played a role in developing and prolonging the controversy between Mead and Freeman.
  • In a group setting, split the group into Mead supporters and Freeman supporters. Have the groups present their anthropologist’s points regarding Samoa to the class.
  • Select a current controversial topic. Examine what the supporters of both sides say using credible sources. Write what both sides have to say about each position. Consider if the media or advocacy groups played a role in promoting one or both sides. Is there a clear “winner”? Why or why not?
Additional Resources
  1. Article: John Shaw’s “Derek Freeman, Who Challenged Margaret Mead on Samoa, Dies at 84

  2. Book: Derek Freeman’s Margaret Mead and The Heretic

  3. Video: Documentary Educational Resources’ “Odyssey Series: Margaret Mead – Taking Note – PREVIEW

Unit By

Catherine Torres, Freedom Learning Group

The Problems With Coming of Age
Unit 12

The Influence of Freeman and Mead

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