Open discussion on the evolution of Australian and New Zealand Thought

Wednesday, 24 October 2007

Anthropology and the Freeman - Mead Controversy



Photo: Derek Freeman. New Zealand anthropologist. Born August 15, 1916 Wellington New Zealand, died Canberra July 6,2001.

In some of my first posts on this blog I spoke of the influence of New Zealand economists on the global stage. The first post in this series can be found here. In this post I want to look in an initial way at another thread in New Zealand and Australian thought, the role of the anthropologist.

My entry point here is the Freeman/Mead controversy.

By way of background to readers who may not be aware of this, Margaret Mead became perhaps the most famous anthropologist of the twentieth century because of her writings on sexuality among young women in Samoa. Dr Derek Freeman later challenged her conclusions, igniting a global controversy that spread well beyond the discipline of anthropology itself.

Nothing like sex to spark interest!

Without debating the rights or wrongs of the case, the controversy centred on the the relations in anthropology between the observer and the observed in interpreting cultural matters.

Did Mead's informants lie to her? Did she allow her own perceptions and values to affect not just the questions she asked, but the way in which she interpreted the answers? And, in any case, how does the very presence of the anthropologist distort cultural patterns?

Conversely, to what degree were Dr Freeman's observations affected by his own close relations with Samoans now aware of Mead's writings? Did the adoption of Christianity itself lead to another distortion?

These questions are all relevant in an Australian context. As I outlined in a post on the Australian anthropologist Malcolm Calley, Australian anthropologists have been very important in raising interest in indigenous issues when the matter was still being largely ignored by other professions, including historians. This remains true today.

In later posts, I will explore in a little more detail the history of anthropology in both countries.

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