FWD: RE: Margaret Mead and Derek Freeman

John Cole. (jrc@TEI.UMASS.EDU)
Mon, 25 Mar 1996 21:13:21 -0500

John R. Cole writes:

>More later, perhaps, but a couple of notes from JRC---
JC> re Mead and Freeman:
JC> A prime part of
JC> the reaction by Amer Anthro Assoc members (nor "AAS") was the apparrent
JC> cruelty of kicking her right after the funeral!
AP> I believe the meeting was in '82 or '83, and Mead died in '78. Surely four
AP> or five years is long enough.
>JC: I *meant* Freeman's attack was seen as dancing on her grave, not the AAA
>session which came later; it typically takes a couple of years to organized
>such a session for the AAA!!

I understand the *book* was published in 1982 and the meeting in 1983,
but I may be mistaken. This still leaves the reaction of the AAA as
apparently extraordinary.

(BTW: what about this thread promotes such strong language as "dancing
on someone's grave", "slamming" them, etc.? I thought scientific
truth would promote less emotive terminology)

>And note that this was one simposio out of
>perhaps 350 at that one meeting; your fictionalized verfsion probably skipped
>coverage of the session I participated in at the time dealing with materialist
>interpretations of dietary rules....!

No, it was all there... just kidding.

How many people would have attended the Freeman symposium, out of how
many attendees? It might just be those who were particularly indignant
about Freeman, hyping each other into a frenzy.

JC> Inn any case, Freeman quoted selectively from old-timers who perhaps
JC> were insulted by Mead 50 yrs earlier, or who knows what...for example,
JC> some were "born-agains" who were repelled by her reports of greater
JC> sexual freedom in Samoa than they now approved of (One can imagine
JC> them telling grandchildren, "OF COURSE grandma never did the stuff
JC> in that dirty book you're reading!!").
AP> I am not sure what you are saying here. Was Freeman's material improperly
AP> selective, and is there reason to think that his informants were
AP> deceiving him? Or does this refer to the alleged confession of Mead's
AP> original informant?
>JC: I referred to some of the arguments made by critics of Freeman. There ARE
>those who wonder why only Mead could have been deceived and not Freeman, for

Such a problem would have to be solved by considering the evidence, not
by a vote of censure of one of the participants. Given that Mead had
only visited Samoa for 6 months; only had two (2!) informants, both
teenage girls who could easily be in collusion; had internal inconsistencies
in her account; and had quite possibly gone to Samoa with the aim of
finding evidence for her position; one would have to think the possibiliy
of deception was rather high. Freeman had visited Samoa on several
occasions over many years, had more sources, and (initially at least)
had believed Mead's account but become skeptical later. All this would
have been known in 1982/3.

>My argument seems pretty straight-forward, and it was one of the
>critiques of Freeman's sweeping conclusions.

Were Freeman's conclusions any more sweeping than Mead's? I'd
be surprised.

>At the time I think everyone
>accepted the fact that researchers could be wrong, mislead, etc., yet Freeman
>suddenly DISCOVERED this and seemingly attributed such problems solely to Mead
>and other cultural relativists.

I haven't read Freeman's book, but is this fair? I understand he was
just saying that Mead, on this one occasion, had been deceived and
the conclusions drawn from her Samoan work were unfounded. Surely it
is normal practice to point out when you have evidence that someone
was in error or was deceived?

JC> Before she died Mead was aware of the pending attack and told people
JC> "I wish I had the bad taste to respond in kind...". Unfortunately I
JC> only heard some comments second-hand.
AP> A neat way of accusing Freeman of bad taste, while avoiding any
AP> substantive issues. What puzzles me is, what was so bad about what
AP> Freeman was doing? Surely the challenging of accepted data with new
AP> information goes on all the time.
>JC: What was so "bad" was not challenging data or interps which happens all of
>the time. What was CONTROVERSIAL was his seeming to challenge an extremely
>politically-sensitive aspect of anthropology--its championing of "cultural
>relativism" in favor of a hard-right political turn. (And relativism is NOT
>what Pat Buchannan and the like claim, but it--and anthro--has (have?) been
>targeted in the US at least by a combination of the Religious Right and its
>moral absolutism, the political right and its "American (or Western) values
>are best" views, etc.

If this is correct, it would appear to be quite different from his
rebuttal of Margaret Mead on a point of fact. Perhaps I will have to
read his book and see what the fuss was about.

I do not understand why scientific truth (if Freeman was correct) should
be subservient to American political sensitivities. It is just as bad
as if science teaching, say of Evolution, should be subservient to
religious sensitivities.

Further, Freeman was *not* an American: he was a New Zealand- born
Australian citizen. Political concerns in Oz are quite different from
the US (thank the system administrator) and the religious-right
problems you mention are not a consideration here.

>As well as the burgeoning field of sociobiology and the
>underlying ideology which says "people can't do very much to be different than
>they are" of the Bell Curve book, *The End of Racism,* etc. Freeman was seen
>by a lot of people at the time of, in effect, reviving an old and reactionary
>charge against anthropology--that its relativism was anti-Western, politically
>corrupt, etc (it had earlier been accused of being a form of Jewish plot
>against Christianity and capitalism, for example; I don't mean by Freeman but
>by conservatives, antisemites and, of course the literal Nazis. Freeman's
>attack was political and it was seen that way.

But was it political? I said above that Freeman is not American, and
perhaps motives are being imputed here which assume he holds some
position on the American political spectrum.

I don't understand the part that cultural relativism plays in this.
I gather (correct me if I am wrong) that Mead was a leading figure
promoting cultural relativism, which is opposed in the US to
religious absolutism, and that an attack on Mead is interpreted as
giving aid and comfort to the religous right...

Where this leaves scientific truth, or the position of those such
as myself who reject both cultural relativism (in its extreme forms)
and religious absolutism, is a mystery.

>At the time no one knew the
>future trend, of course, but a neo-conservative anti-social science trend was
>in its infancy, and motives aside, people TOOK sides.

It strikes me as a dangerous business to determine scientific issues
on political grounds, which appears to be what you are describing here.
Perhaps the problem arises because the liberal case was bolstered
by what was effectively pseudo-science, which cannot allow its
precepts to be questioned.

>JC: This week's issue of the *Nation* has an excellent article on this
>phenomenon, by the way--?Patterns of Culture Wars" by Micaela di Leonardo,
>prof at Northwestern U. (April 8, pp 25-29). She leads with: "In the public
>sphere, the New Right's having hissy fits,
>Talking of Boas and Mead and Herskovits.
> (with apologies to T.S. Eliot)"

I don't think we get "Nation" over this side of the pond... is in on-line
anywhere? This is getting interesting...

>I recommend her article for a good overview of the ongoing "culture war"--and
>perhaps one reason the play in question was written and produced in the first
>place, so long after the fact of what was at the time a minor quirky footnote
>but turned out to be possibly one of a number of assaults on the very nature
>of anthropology and a push on it in a conservative ideological direction.

I doubt the play was produced for that reason: such issues were barely
touched on, and US and scientific politics are quite foreign to Australians.
It was more an Australian-underdog-takes-on-the-Establishment-and-wins-
in-the-end story, except Freeman is nor portrayed heroically or even
terribly sympathetically, nor is Mead made a villain.

>Not only is scientific debate normal, I think it very often has political
>underpinnings--which is why I was not in the Mead camp at Columbia when I was
>a student!

Do I understand from this that the anthropological position one adopts
depends upon one's political convictions? I'm sure that's wrong.

>>>JC: What I wrote was that I had rejected the "psychological causation"
>>>approach in favor of a materialistic one as a student.

>The debate over her work--and Freeman's--was much more "normal
>science" than the fictional drama may have suggested. Freeman was NOT silenced
>or censured--just debated and critiqued. "Debate" need not occur in the form
>of 2 sides facing off before a judge; in fact, it normally is not done that
>way ever since Huxley and Wilberforce.

The events at the AAA were not dramatised, just mentioned, with the
implication that they were extraordinary and reprehensible. (This point
being made by the character representing Mead). This is what prompted
my original question, because of the lack of detail and possibility of
a slanted interpretation of events.

I do not see the logic in saying it is normal for Freeman's work
to be criticised when he is not invited to respond while it is
suggested that Freeman is wrong to criticise Mead after she is dead
and cannot defend herself (though she has no lack of adherents).
A debate needs both sides presented to be reasonable: the implication
is that no-one was present to put Freeman's case. Is this correct?
I know that journals, when printing highly critical reviews, give
the author a chance to respond: isn't this normal practice elsewhere?
And what was the nature of the vote that was taken on the occasion
(mostly by people who had not read the book)? The play did imply it
was one of censure on Freeman...

I am quite aware that the events as portrayed in the play may be
unbalanced or wrong or exaggerated for dramatic effect: I just want to
find out what happened.

Andrew Parle aka Bruce