The University of Wisconsin Press

Anthropology / History / American Studies / Women’s Studies


The Trashing of Margaret Mead
Anatomy of an Anthropological Controversy
Paul Shankman
Foreword by Paul S. Boyer

Studies in American Thought and Culture
Paul S. Boyer, Series Editor

"[A] balanced portrait of this complex and often vitriolic anthropological controversy. Well researched and thoroughly documented, this should be of interest both to anthropologists and to educated lay readers with interests in Mead and her legacy."
—Library Journal

"A superbly crafted and highly readable book that essentially lays the Mead-Freeman controversy to rest."
—James Côté, author of Adolescent Storm and Stress: An Evaluation of the Mead-Freeman Controversy

In 1928 Margaret Mead published Coming of Age in Samoa, a fascinating study of the lives of adolescent girls that transformed Mead herself into an academic celebrity. In 1983 anthropologist Derek Freeman published a scathing critique of Mead’s Samoan research, badly damaging her reputation. Resonating beyond academic circles, his case against Mead tapped into important public concerns of the 1980s, including sexual permissiveness, cultural relativism, and the nature/nurture debate. In venues from the New York Times to the TV show Donahue, Freeman argued that Mead had been “hoaxed” by Samoans whose innocent lies she took at face value.

In The Trashing of Margaret Mead, Paul Shankman explores the many dimensions of the Mead-Freeman controversy as it developed publicly and as it played out privately, including the personal relationships, professional rivalries, and larger-than-life personalities that drove it. Providing a critical perspective on Freeman’s arguments, Shankman reviews key questions about Samoan sexuality, the alleged hoaxing of Mead, and the meaning of the controversy. Why were Freeman’s arguments so readily accepted by pundits outside the field of anthropology? What did Samoans themselves think? Can Mead’s reputation be salvaged from the quicksand of controversy? Written in an engaging, clear style and based on a careful review of the evidence, The Trashing of Margaret Mead illuminates questions of enduring significance to the academy and beyond.

"There is simply no other book like it. What Shankman does, very successfully, is analyze the nature of the controversy in meticulous detail, examine the main participants in the debate, and evaluate the quality of the arguments on both sides. Valuable to anthropologists and other academics, the book is also eminently accessible to any interested layperson."
—Nancy McDowell, author of The Mundugumor: From the Field Notes of Margaret Mead and Reo Fortune

Paul Shankman, professor of anthropology at the University of Colorado at Boulder, has conducted fieldwork in Samoa periodically since 1966. He has written a number of articles on the Mead-Freeman controversy.

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The cover of Shankman's book is brown, black and purple, with an inset sepia photo of a young Mead in native dress with two Samoan girls.

December 2009

LC: 2009008197 GN
360 pp.   6 x 9 
11 b/w photos, 1 map

Paper $29.95 t
ISBN 978-0-299-23454-6
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“A compelling read about the controversy. Shankman, whose anthropological engagement with Samoa covers forty years and who met both Freeman and Mead, presents measured accounts of their careers, reasons for studying Samoa, and personal lives.”
—Roger Sanjek, author of
The Future of Us All: Race and Neighborhood Politics in New York City

The Trashing of Margaret Mead reminds readers of the pitfalls of academia. It urges scholars to avoid personal attacks and to engage in healthy debate. The book redeems Mead while also redeeming the field of anthropology. By showing the uniqueness of the Mead-Freeman case, Shankman places his continued confidence in academia, scholars, and the field of anthropology.”
 —H-Net Reviews October 2011

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