Precis on Margaret Mead’s Coming in Age of Samoa: A Psychological Study of Primitive Youth for Western Civilisation

Posted on May 23, 2012 by


Mead, Margaret (1961)  Coming in Age of Samoa:  A Psychological Study of Primitive Youth for Western Civilisation. William Morrow & Company 234 pages + (304 total) by Brian J. Delas Armas

Margaret Mead’s Coming of Age in Samoa is a 14-chapter book about an ethnographic study based in Samoa aimed at proving that stress in adolescent girls, was induced by “cultural conditions” and not a universally-experienced phenomena.  She attempted to outline those cultural conditions: spelling out a typical day in Samoa, the educational and familial structure of Samoa, the nexus of relations between a girl, her peers, her community, the opposite sex, and pervading customs and norms governing the experience of a growing Samoan girl.  We read an etic, third-person perspective written for objectivity;  we do not read about the participant point of view.  Names of participants only come up if a larger point is to be illustrated.  Her investigation shed light on a simpler lifestyle contrasting the complex and stressful trajectory of Western “civilization” (Mead 1961: 1-2).

Her study provided a piece in the popular and academic conversations about adolescents in 1920s America. Recommendations had suggested that parents simply had to deal with the inevitability of wayward adolescents. According to Mead however, most recommendations had been based on studies conducted by psychologists, concerned with securing ideal testing conditions and solidifying the studies as science (4).   In the absence of ideal experimental conditions, the discipline of Anthropology offered the best method to find out if being an adolescent-aged girl was universally stressful.  The discipline of Anthropology for her meant studying “simple peoples”, those without long and “complex” histories (7-8).

Her methods were an attempt at an “intensive investigation” with a qualitative investigation on what psychology would be consider a small sample of people (259).  She spent six months of field work in three villages in the Island of Tau, which for her made up “one small locality”, a population numbering 600 (260).  Through a Samoan interpreter, whom we do not learn about, Mead interviewed 68 girls between the ages of 9-20 (260;  282).  While it appears she did observations, it is not clear how she engaged as a “participant-observer.”   She triangulated her research first through interviews with chosen informants, and checking their statements with other informants (262).  She did a cross-sectional investigation which consisted of categorizing study participants into three different development periods of different age groups:  1)  28 children showing no signs of puberty  2)  14 children who would mature within the next year or year and a half  3)  25 who had passed puberty within the last four years but were not yet classified as adults.  The categorizations were an attempt to fortify observations of characteristics of the different groups.

Concerned with outlining the daily lives, events, and informal rules of living in the island of Tau as a girl, she concluded her book with an analysis: adolescent girls in Samoa lived stress-free lives because growing up was so “easy”, “so simple a matter” (198).  As evidence, she noted negative realities from her experience in “civilization” (America) and the lack thereof within Samoa: no one would suffer grave consequences if they had acted in deviance, there were no wars, Samoans lacked neuroses (198-215).  She posited that Samoans lacked these features existed because of the general casualness and unity of Samoan society (198).

Mead’s data does not appear to support her argument that an adolescent growing up in Samoa is an “easy” and “simple” a matter.  For one, there was no formal gauge of what constituted “easy” and what constituted “simple.”  Relative to American lifestyle in the 1920s and from an American point of view, the Samoan life may have appeared easy and simple, but there were no measurements only descriptions of this other lifestyle.  Secondly, It is not clear that she asked if the adolescent participants actually thought that their experience was “easy” or “simple.”  As example, she cited cases of Fala, Tolu, Namu, and Luna as girls who could experiment with their sexuality, make friends, and be at ease with each other (151-152).  She makes mention of the activities they were able to engage in, but there does not appear to be a gauge of whether they enjoyed these lifestyles or choices.

Margaret Mead and her work in Samoa has remained a topic of conversation and has sparked different debates over the years. The book brought Mead and Anthropology to the public’s attention in the 1920s and drew controversy because of its methods (Skankman 2009:  113-114).  In the 1980s, an Anthropologist named Derek Freeman who had done fieldwork in Samoa and located one of Mead’s original informants claimed that much of what Mead reported was untrue, based on the idea that her informants had been “joking” with her.   While Freeman’s work, also written for a popular audience, did overturn some of the stereotypes of Samoa as “noncompetitive” and “peaceful”, anthropologists have criticized his methodologies and have questioned the intention of his criticisms (Skankman 2009:  9).


Mead, Margaret

1961  Coming in Age of Samoa:  A Psychological Study of Primitive Youth for Western Civilisation.  William Morrow & Company

Shankman, Paul

2009 The trashing of Margaret Mead: anatomy of an anthropological controversy. Univ of Wisconsin Press.