Cultural Wars

By Brunton, Ron | Review - Institute of Public Affairs, September 2001 | Go to article overview

Cultural Wars


Brunton, Ron, Review - Institute of Public Affairs


Misguided Views from Defenders of the Clever Country

How are distinguished dissident scholars treated by the defenders of `Knowledge Nation', the `Clever Country', or whatever other slogan marketing men coin for the ideal of a scientifically literate Australia?

Badly, if the Canberra Times' reaction to the death of Professor Derek Freeman on 6 July offers any guide. Just seven days later, the paper's editor Jack Waterford wrote that Freeman, one of Canberra's most eminent academics, was `barking mad', and that a previous editor had banned most coverage of the professor's activities `because it was not good form to make fun of the insane .

Waterford's comments immediately raised two significant questions. Since when has it been `good form' to cause gratuitous distress to the grieving family of an honourable man? And are any other prominent individuals being subjected to the Canberra Times' self-imposed censorship?

Professor Freeman was an anthropologist who achieved international fame in the early 1980s for showing that Margaret Mead's idyllic portrayal of a sexually permissive adolescence in Samoa was false. Many people, including anthropologists who had previously dismissed Mead as more of a popularizer than a scholar, could never forgive him.

It may seem strange to make such a fuss about research on teenagers in a remote South Pacific country carried out by a woman at the beginning her career. But the results of that research, published in 1928 as Coming of Age in Samoa, had an influence far beyond the confines of anthropology, popularizing a view about human culture that is fundamentally misguided, although still remarkably prevalent.

The book launched Margaret Mead on the path towards her eventual status as an American icon. Time magazine once declared her `Mother to the World'; she appeared on a recent United States stamp commemorating the 20th century; and the committee celebrating this year's centennial of her birth is chaired by former US President Jimmy Carter.

Mead went to Samoa with a task that had been set for her by her teacher, Franz Boas, who wanted to test his conviction that it was culture, and not biology, that was the overwhelming determinant of human behaviour. She would investigate whether the emotional turbulence and crises that were a common characteristic of adolescence in America were also present in societies with very different patterns of culture.

Mead's research supposedly showed that Samoans went through an adolescence that was `peculiarly free' of stress. And this was because in Samoa-unlike what was then the practice in Western countries-- the community did not attempt to curb teenage sexual activity.

This was great news for the then-young discipline of cultural anthropology, struggling to establish the autonomy of its subject matter. There was no biologically-- based human nature, for human beings were almost infinitely plastic, capable of being `relentlessly shaped and moulded' by cultural forces, which of course, were the very phenomena that anthropologists specialized in studying.

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