Mead and the invention of etnography

The intriguing aspect of etnography is of course to wonder which part of the norms I am living by are defined by the culture I am living in and could thus have been otherwise.

Long ago I found out about “Coming of Age in Samoa” by Maragret Mead about how they live in the Pacific and about how it is one of the most widely read etnographic books. Eight years ago I finally found it and read it in Dutch. Mead was in Samoa in 1925 studying adolescent girls. The book gives what you expect. What we expect by Freda Kirchwey: “somewhere in each of us, hidden among our more obscure desires and our impulses to escape, is a palmfringed South Sea Island … a languorous atmosphere promissing freedom and irresponsibility .. Thither we run … to find love which is free, easy and satisfying.”

Last October I finally found the book in which Mead has been criticized by Derek Freeman: “Margaret Mead and Samoa”. Freeman gives us insight into the history of part of etnography. It starts with Charles Darwin, who in 1859 published his evolution theory. It seems logic that people started thinking from that time on about how the differences between people can be explained by selection. His nephew Galton was the inventor of the nature-or-nuture-question. His answer was: nature. This developed around 1915 in the US into a movement to improve the US by eugenics. Some opponents to this then defined the completely opposite view: how people behave is completely defined by culture. Mead was sent by Boas to Samoa to find proof for this by showing that adolesence, by it’s nature biological, doesn’t need to be so difficult. And that’s what she did. In two months time, without much knowledge about the rest of the culture, without staying with Soamoans in their house, by only talking to the girls, she painted this beautiful picture about how life on a pacific island should be.

In Part 2 of the book by Derek Freeman really every single description of Margaret Mead is falsified. Samoa is a very hierarchical, very strict, unpleasant culture. Virginity is very important. Children of three years old are beaten. And as a result the suicide rate was much higher than in other countries.

From judicial records: “when the man came to me as I was sleeping he held me down and put his fingers in my private parts … then I sat up and wept, and as it was no use for me to remain in my own family, we went to his family.”

So much for science. Pretending to state facts, where all that is being done is defend ideologies. So what is first? First you think and then you see, or first you see and then you make up what reality is?

Interesting how any new step is a reaction to the previous development. After the eugenics in the US they applied them in Germany. Then a period of absolute tabu on eugenics. In the last decade or two the human genome project, in vitro fertilization and the research of the brain have made it more accepted again to talk about controlling the outcome.

And indeed being human is nothing else than controlling this humanness. But based on what? We don’t understand nothing.

But is does always seem to boil down to a fight fought based on visions, ideas, ideology and not facts, truth, arguments.