Margaret Mead and Samoa
a book by Derek Freeman
(our site's book review)
Many people responded strongly to the works of Margaret Mead, the liberal anthropologist. She tromped on a few toes in her time, and shook up some people’s beliefs. But Derek Freeman did more than just disagree and then circle the conservative wagons against her undermining of their cherished universalist beliefs about the cultural, psychological, social and anthropological nature of mankind. He took on a legend: Margaret Mead. Did he succeed? What are the ramifications of his discoveries to steep- versus flat-gradient nurturance? And what about attachment theory and bonding?
Derek Freeman disagreed with Margaret Mead and then circled the conservative wagons against her undermining of his cherished beliefs
What remained when most social tasks were exteriorized in the 1950s was the isolated ‘nuclear family,’ held together less by the functions its members performed as a unit than by fragile psychological bonds that are all too easily snapped
(Steep-gradient nurturance is an historically aberrant childcare style where mostly one person [female] cares for a family's kids in an isolated nuclear family that pretty much kept to itself with neighbors being seen as people to gossip with or borrow a cup of sugar from. It was invented in the 1950s in the United States due to the forces of mobility, paternalism, sexism, individualism, and self-sufficiency obsession. Steep-gradient nurturance in which the mother got respite by use of a nanny, neighbor or babysitter was still steep-gradient nurturance—with a single caregiver in a context of isolation. Flat-gradient nurturance, on the other hand, is an historically normal childcare style where several people care for a family's kids so the caregiving duty is spread among a small group. It operated either in extended families with a group of adults [parents, relatives, nannies, etc.] present, or in groups of cooperating families with quite a few adults participating in childcare. In no case were families isolated, as people recognized the critical value of community to empower their lives to work acceptably.)
Freeman, during the 60s (Mead studied Samoans during the 20s), studied Samoan culture—especially attachment behavior—and concluded that infants there bonded to whomever cared for them the most, which was usually their mothers. This differs markedly from Mead’s reports, in which she saw so many instances of raising by nonmothers. But both authors agree on the prevalence of and frequent utilization of extended family and nonfamily members in caregiving. Mead thought that kids were not getting strongly attached to one person in Samoa, while Freeman saw that they most certainly were doing just that. On the other hand, he looks at the flat-gradient nurturance in which nonmother caretakers are extensively utilized, acknowledging these as bonds of major significance.
Freeman falls short, betraying himself a bit too eager to dethrone Mead, when it gets to his testing of Mead’s assertion that “filial affection is diffused among a large group of relatives.” His experiment consisted of all the women in an extended family leaving an infant, one at a time. Distress was evidenced only when the mother left. This shows only that proper mother-child bonding occurs there. It by no means shows what Freeman asserts it shows: that filial affection is not diffused among many members of a child’s extended family. That’s not just reaching, that’s turning into Plasticman!
On the other hand, it’s good that he straightened out—and disproved—this idea of Mead’s that the kids don’t bond with their mothers. All kids need this type of bond, but Freeman admits that it’s not always with the mother in this (or any) society (nor need it be), and we can learn in comparative studies with our primate relatives just how profoundly important such attachment is, was and probably always will be. Bowlby was right. So are Ainsworth and Brazelton.
When relationships got bad in Samoan families, kids often chose to live with a different relative, and this choice option is much more important than Freeman seems to have perceived. But, interestingly, after presenting evidence that kids can leave bad situations and relocate (which Mead did as well), he made a point of disputing Mead’s claim that kids can choose to relocate “as a powerful deterrent to specific adult tyrannies.” He exposed a right-wing conservative extremist view of children as property at this point, and he was not apparently able to take Mead’s point that this wonderful child-abuse preventative would be a godsend in any culture, as he “proved her wrong,” simultaneously showing the “importance of children obeying their parents” no matter what abuses are occurring.
We felt that Freeman’s political and Culture War affiliations were exposed when he made a special point of discussing the extreme authoritarian and punitive forms of child-rearing he witnessed. One could virtually smell his agenda as he reported the “stringent discipline” of these kids. The kids are taught to be violent and vengeful, and end up repressed and stressed out. Obedience and not showing emotion during painful beatings are the two keys of Samoan discipline, according to Freeman. There is much hatred, and only a little love, with many kids wishing their parents were dead. Abuse is the rule, and kids are terrified and traumatized during these episodes. Ambivalence is therefore basic to the structure of Samoan character.
Could this culture have changed that extensively since Mead’s 1920’s work? It’s unlikely and improbable, but possible. Did she misperceive much of what she saw as idyllic and unpressured? Again, unlikely. But did he, in his eagerness to dethrone the queen of anthropology, notice only violence, stress, hate, punishments and ambivalence in his subjects? (These are the mainstays of authoritarian thinking and these are mostly what he found. Hmmm . . . ) Most of the statistics needed to thoroughly back his claims were missing from his book, leading one to conclude that there are no such statistics. The statistics that show the existence of mother-bonding and biological families imbedded in the Samoan extended families seem of significance, but the evidence of violence, hate and abuse is scant at best. Was it representative or anomalous? Did she see liberal childcare while he saw conservative, authoritarian childcare because of their own personal beliefs? Is the truth somewhere in between? (Reminds one of Maslow's deficiency cognition—in which perceptions are colored by beliefs.)
He managed to point out, probably unintentionally, that flat-gradient nurturance is still alive and well there, and, at the same time, that authoritarian parenting is extremely dysfunctional, and the more extreme it is, the more dysfunctional. His entire account is an advertisement for the avoidance of threats and violence in child-rearing. It takes no rocket scientist to see that the vital connection between flat-gradient nurturance and abuse in such a culture of frequent abuse(?) is the possibility of mitigating the abuse via alternate caregivers. Many studies have shown that such an alternate caregiving entity often makes the difference between serious emotional scarring and minor emotional scarring, in potentially abusive environments. But in Freeman’s book we saw no such connections made.
When this conservative said that authoritarian parenting he saw in Samoa was extremely dysfunctional, he was shooting himself in the foot without realizing it
There’s a deterministic, win-lose subtext to his entire chronicle. He should have looked at the issue of whether abuse tendencies precipitated flat-gradient nurturance in which various relatives participated in childcare (which has nothing to do with the required mother-child bonding period) to mitigate parent-child conflicts, or whether flat-gradient nurturance was there first and the authoritarianism-based dysfunctionality came later. This latter seems to be the case, as Freeman reports that in the 1800s the Samoans were taught the “spare the rod and spoil the child” admonitions directly from the Bible (probably by missionaries). One imagines that social dysfunctionality began to fester at this point, as bad child-training advice was followed blindly out of “faith.” Further support for this is gleaned from studies of Polynesian cultures with flat-gradient nurturance that experienced virtually no abuse until the Second Wave of industrialism hit with all its win-lose values and isolated nuclear families replacing extended ones as steep-gradient nurturance replaced flat-gradient nurturance. Abuse skyrocketed. Without a doubt, the early Samoans should have been the ones teaching the missionaries, not the other way around.
As Samoans adopted authoritarian missionaries' discipline ideas, abuse skyrocketed: the Samoans should have been the ones teaching the missionaries!
In the 1800s missionaries taught Samoans the Bible's misleading axiom: 'spare the rod and spoil the child'
The rods used in the Bible were shepherds' tools for guiding sheep (not violence implements), so sparing the rod is failing to guide the sheep gently with the rod and staff, which are a comfort, in other Bible passages. A bit ironic—it's easy to imagine how authoritarianist missionaries would have read child spanking into the meaning!
In The Great Transformation, Mead says that “We may be able to arrange it so that the more you love your family, the more you love your community, and the more you love the world. That is a possible sequence, whereas we now build a sequence that says: The more you love your family, the more you hate your neighbors, and want to beat [outshine] them; the more you care about your nation, the more you denigrate other nations.” She says we need to “. . . get the old people out of the golden ghettos and get them back into the community and give them each a child to think about [which would give families some of the extra support they need].” Compare this compassionate and enlightened outlook to the negative win-lose outlook of Freeman—he sees hate, abuse, negativity, and win-lose everywhere, in spite of the fact that the flat-gradient nurturance both he and Mead saw in Samoa is INTRINSICALLY win-win. It is only steep-gradient nurturance that produces hate, abuse, negativity, and win-lose everywhere—leaving us all to find ourselves concluding that authoritarian steep-gradient nurturance defines the childhood of Freeman.
If one reads between the lines at what wasn’t but what should have been said in his book, the concept of the godsend of all abuse-prevention measures—allowing kids to chose to be elsewhere (with a different caregiver) and avoid the abuse—presents itself with brilliant clarity and intuitive benevolence. If one of the reasons for the science of anthropology is, like all science, to learn things that will help us better our lives, then one could reasonably conclude that Mead’s “misperceptions” have been more successful in that regard than Freeman’s ostensibly more accurate observations. Furthermore, his book’s unintentional messages upstaged his intentional ones targeted at dethroning Mead. These were the messages about the inappropriateness of Bibles as child-raising guides (they’re intended as spiritual guides, not child-raising textbooks), the authoritarian-abuse connection, and how cultures usually seem better off if we leave them alone—as in Star Trek’s “prime directive”—than if we “save” them, install Western religions and values, and substitute our “knowledge” for their “ignorance.” Do they really need all the hate, violence, steep-gradient nurturance, and win-lose contexts?