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How a Nature vs Nurture Debate Got Ugly

“The Trashing of Margaret Mead”

In 1928 Margaret Mead published Coming of Age in Samoa, a fascinating study of the lives of adolescent girls. The acclaimed book recorded her historic journey in 1915 to American Samoa, taken when she was just twenty-three, where she did her first fieldwork. Here, for the first time, she presented to the public the idea that the individual experience of developmental stages could be shaped by cultural demands and expectations. Adolescence, she wrote, might be more or less stormy, and sexual development more or less problematic, in different cultures. The “civilized” world, she thought, had much to learn from the “primitive.”

The book transformed the anthropologist into an academic celebrity. Time magazine included her on a list of the 20th century’s 100 most influential scientists and thinkers.

In 1983 anthropologist Derek Freeman set off a debate that has rocked cultural anthropology ever since he published his scathing critique of Mead’s Samoan research, arguing that Mead had been “hoaxed” by Samoans whose innocent lies she took at face value. The debate was widely covered by the mainstream media, even making it on to the Phil Donahue Show.

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.

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

Join Menorah for “The Trashing of Margaret Mead” with Professor Paul Shankman on Thursday, May 13, at noon.  Shankman is a professor of anthropology at the University of Colorado at Boulder and co-founder of the Program in Jewish Studies.  He has conducted fieldwork in Samoa periodically since 1966 and has written a number of articles on the Mead-Freeman controversy.

At the Boulder JCC (3800 Kalmia, Boulder). $8 for lunch and lecture. Reservations appreciated:, 303-998-1021.

About Kathryn Bernheimer

Director of Menorah: Arts, Culture and Education at the Boulder JCC. The former film and theater critic for the Boulder Daily Camera, Kathryn is the author of "The Fifty Greatest Jewish Movies" and "The Fifty Funniest Films of All Time."

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