October 13, 2005

Book review: Coming of Age in Samoa

It's remarkably presumptuous of me to review this book. It's one of the most well-known, well-respected, and oft-cited ethnographies of the twentieth century, and me, I'm barely interested in cultural anthropology in the first place. People who got a watercolor set last Christmas and used it twice do not critique Monet, and undergraduate archaeology majors do not critique Margaret Mead. But just watch me do it anyway.

The issue at hand in the book, as the title suggests, is adolescence. Even in 1928 when Mead wrote it, the pattern in the United States of teenagers coming into massive conflict with their parents, schools, churches, friends, selves, and everything else was not only established but taken for granted as a normal component of adolescence. Mead's research question in going to Samoa was whether the same was true there. In a village, on an island, with limited influence from other cultures, is every girl (she was looking particularly at girls) who hits puberty chafing under authority, confused by the options available to her, rebelling at social expectations of her behavior, and generally not happy with her established lot?

The short answer is no. The long answer is 100 pages of, well, ethnography, which practically by definition varies from enthralling to not enthralling. For instance, the essential philosophy of Samoan child care, The Baby Is Somebody Else's Problem (in which Somebody Else is whichever slightly older child of, say, six years and up who has not already been assigned a baby to haul around) is fascinating. The official protocol for which members of the village should dance to entertain a visiting party from another village falls slightly short of fascinating. Your mileage may vary and you may find the study of dancing protocols to be your calling in life. If you do not, may I suggest that you skim pages 8 to 107 and pick up reading closely again on page 108?

What follows the ethnography part of the book is an evaluation of the difference between various aspects of Samoan and American childhood and adolescence, to try to explain how certain behaviors can be taken for granted in one culture and entirely absent in another. For instance, why aren't Samoan children prone to major fights with their parents? It could well have something to do with the casual approach to residence, in which a child (or any member of a household, really) is considered totally free to live with any relative he or she pleases, and whatever fights do occur just result in someone moving down three houses to live with Aunt Lola until the matter gets dropped. Parents know this, children know this, so what's the point in starting a fight? There isn't any. Why isn't there a major delinquent population, that is to say, adolescents and young adults who refuse to do what's expected of them? It's entirely possible that it's got something to do with the fact that what's expected of them is unarduous by pretty much anyone's standard. "Presuming above one's age", that is, working too hard and knowing too much, is one of the most dreaded criticisms a young person can receive. (Jeez, Mom, get off my back, okay? You're always bugging me to relax and slack off.)

This latter part of the book, the last 30 pages which can really stand alone as a social-commentary essay, is the part that I'd recommend to anyone who isn't particularly interested in anthropology. It's very thoroughly thought-out and looks at each issue -- sex, residence, material dependence, social standards, family relationships, etc -- from as many different angles as Mead can think of, which is a pretty fair number. She's got some impressively progressive ideas for 1928, some of which are still impressively progressive in 2005, and isn't afraid to lambast the hell out of her own culture and its institutions where she finds them comparatively lacking. That last point is a little funny; there's a certain element of what I have to think of as false nostalgia, the idyllic picture of the simple, natural life that's reflexively painted by people from industrial societies talking about preindustrial ones. I'm skeptical, myself. Talk to me about nutrition and healthcare and we'll see who's wistful then.

It might be me, honestly. I'm just saying I don't trust it automatically. Not even on the advice of an excellent, though occasionally overcompensatory, book.

Posted by dianna at October 13, 2005 10:55 AM

Interestingly, there've been some studies that indicate that the transition from hunter-gatherer to agriculture was a really bad trade-off in the short run. I read the articles several years ago, but I believe the gist was that the cultivators got a less nutritionally diverse diet and were more susceptible to random catastrophes that destroyed their crops. I don't know if the studies in question are accepted at all or are considered outliers, but I'll look around and see if I can find a link, or at least a citation.

Posted by: Zach S. at October 13, 2005 12:25 PM

Nonetheless, I agree with you about the idealization the past. I think there's a natural human tendency to exaggerate our own problems and ignore our advantages. We look at the past and notice that, hey! They don't suffer from (over-work/breakdown of the family/drug abuse/high crime rates/ennui/insert problem of modernity here). Therefore, they must have lived happy, pleasant lives. Obviously, though, they had problems of their own, quite probably much bigger than ours, but since we don't suffer from those problems anymore we don't think to examine them too closely. This leaves us with a sense that things were just great in the past, when there's a strong chance that things were much, much worse.

Posted by: Zach S. at October 13, 2005 12:41 PM

Well, as far as your first post is concerned, the Samoa of the 1920s was more agricultural than hunter-gatherer. The villages had communal plantations for yams, taro, and breadfruit, whatever the fuck that is. Granted, though, it's a fair point. When I was studying the archaeology of the American Southwest, I remember hearing that with so much space to move around in relative to population density (which has a pretty big effect on whether people can really do the hunter-gatherer lifestyle), the various tribes developed habits of following foodstuffs -- whatever was in season and not being used by someone else, they'd go and harvest, and then move on to whatever ripened next. Over the course of a couple of years they'd get every native plant and animal in their diet, and you can't get much more variety, or resistance to the possibility of crop failure, than that.

Now I'm trying to imagine a diet that would routinely include every foodstuff that grows in California. It would either make me Superman, or just very rotund.

Posted by: Dianna at October 13, 2005 01:32 PM

It's perhaps a bit strange that the field of cultural anthropology established many of the current misconceptions about human nature. For instance, the notion that gender roles are radically relative and are fixed by culture and not basic human nature. In fact, Mead's work has been largely discredited. To quote a brief passage from How the Mind Works:

"Margaret Mead said that nonchalant sex made the Samoans satisfied and free of crime; it turned out that the boys tutored one another in rape techniques. She called the Arapesh 'gentle'; they were headhunters. She said that the Tshambuli reversed our sex roles, the men wearing curls and makeup. In fact the men beat their wives, exterminated neighboring tribes, and treated homicide as a milestone in a young man's life which entitled him to wear the face paint that Mead thought was so effeminate."

It turns out that people from various parts of the world, despite some cultural differences, are pretty much the same. Men the world over are violent and much more so in primitive societies where homicide rates are universally higher. Pinker cites Human Universals by Donald Brown as his major source for anthropology.

Posted by: dr v at October 14, 2005 12:19 PM

Bullet-point time!

1. Studies which set out not to answer a question but to prove what they already assume will most assuredly find the answers for which they are looking. Counting instances of the number 17 will give you thousands of meaningless occurrences. Looking for universal human behaviors will show you plenty whether they actually exist or not. A work like Brown's should therefore be taken with a grain of salt.

2. "Human universals" is a profoundly patronizing and dismissive view, to which (as you may have just gathered) I personally don't subscribe. But then, we've gotten into this before and I'm well aware that you're as stubbornly insistent that structure trumps all as I am that agency trumps all.

3. I do recall (albeit vaguely) hearing about Mead's mistake about the Arapesh. I haven't read Sex and Temperament yet, though -- it's sitting on my shelf -- so I don't have much more to say about it than that. But keep in mind that you can do seminal work in a field, fuck some of it up, and still be respected for what you did get right. That's what I've found to be Berkeley's attitude toward Mead, at least.

4. I was going to say something about how psychology and anthropology may not necessarily have the same aims, but now I just have Doctor Octagon in my head. "Psychology is not applied biology, nor is biology applied chemistry. Psychology is not applied biology, nor is biology applied chemistry. Psychology is not applied biology, nor is biology applied chemistry. Psychology is not applied biology, nor is biology applied chemistry." And so on.

Posted by: Dianna at October 14, 2005 02:46 PM

In case you can't tell, I'd become considerably less irritated by the time I finished typing that.

Posted by: Dianna at October 14, 2005 03:03 PM

Oh shit, there's a horse in the hospital.

Posted by: sean at October 14, 2005 03:05 PM

A... horse... in the hospital?

I'm assuming this is not a horspital joke?

Posted by: Dianna at October 14, 2005 03:08 PM

Cirrhossis of the eye!

Posted by: Jacob at October 14, 2005 03:34 PM


Posted by: Dianna at October 14, 2005 03:49 PM

There is such a thing as sound science with legitimate empirical evidence. Not every scientific theory is just a personal philosophy with ad hoc evidence invented to support it. Just because Pinker and Brown's work don't fit your personal worldview -- that gender roles, the mind and even reality itself are radically relative and can be whatever we want them to be -- doesn't mean that it isn't absolutely correct. Whether or not you find a theory dismissive and patronizing has nothing to do with its accuracy.

To give an example that I find especially compelling: there are studies of people born with malformed genitals such that their sex is improperly determined by doctors and their parents. These are girls that are thought to be boys, told that they are boys and raised as boys. Indeed, they believe themselves to be male. Eventually the truth is discovered, of course. However, these girls -- despite everything around them guiding them towards a male "gender role" -- still end up with interests and careers typical of females (read: they don't become auto mechanics). It's evidence like this that blows giant holes in popular misconceptions. It's not opinion, it's science.

Posted by: dr v at October 14, 2005 08:54 PM

Regarding the study you describe, that's an example of someone defying their prior gender role to pursue one more in line with their physical sex. For every one of those examples, there must be tens of transvestites (kings *and* queens) who have decided to pursue a gender role opposite their physical sex. To call one right and the other wrong sounds very much like "a personal philosophy with ad hoc evidence invented to support it."

Posted by: Jacob at October 15, 2005 08:08 PM

Me, I'm thrilled that we're living in 1900 now. This last century of people consistently showing interest in roles and activities that are outside what's been prescribed for their gender has really been a bummer.

If you were right, Dr V, and gender roles were universal, rigid, and biologically determined, we wouldn't be having this conversation. I would shut my mouth and accept your clearly superior male wisdom, and go back to the kitchen to make pies. It takes one person to make a "human universal" not universal, and if you can't find one person who doesn't fit his or her prescribed gender role, here in San Francisco, it's because you're trying not to look.

Posted by: Dianna at October 15, 2005 09:00 PM

I'm not saying people can't choose alternative lifestyles and of course life is not black and white. I just reject the tenets of cultural relativism that suggest that culture determines human nature and not the other way around. Even thought itself is presumed to be highly relative to some anthropologists. Previously, there were claims that certain cultures did not even have the concept of more than a few colors...this and other claims have since been proven ludicrously false. Yet the basic philosophy of relativism persists in anthropology and in current "common sense" ideas about the way the mind works.

If there are people who want to be transvestites, it's probably because they were born that way and not because of the culture they were surrounded by. Same thing with female auto mechanics. I'll go out on a limb and say that 90% of them are mannish lesbians -- also born that way.

That's not to say that the difference between the sexes is completely rigid. There's plenty of room for women to have high-paying office jobs and for men to raise children, etc. However, if you believe that women will ever compose the majority or even more than a small fraction of the auto mechanic, CEO, stand-up comedian, etc. jobs in the world, it's just wishful thinking. That's not to say they couldn't do those jobs, they'll just never want to in great numbers. And the evidence really does back me up on this whether you want to accept that or not.

Posted by: dr v at October 16, 2005 10:28 AM

I'd have to see the studies, but I'm inclined to believe they aren't as definitive as you claim, Dr. V. Now, my knowledge of cultural anthropology was pretty well exhuasted with my reference to Hunter-Gatherer nutrition above, but I would tend to think that practically any study on gender identity you could concoct would suffer from a poisoned sample population.

That is to say, we live in a culture in which girls are told from birth "Do X, like X, aspire to X," while boys are told from birth "Do Y, like Y, aspire to Y." It's less prevalent now than it was a century ago, but it's pervasive, in advertising, in books, in television. So then when you conduct a study that, at base, asks the subjects "So, what do you do, X or Y? Which do you prefer, X or Y? What do you aspire to, X or Y?" There's a very strong chance that, even were there no innate gender differences, the majority of girls would pick X, the majority of boys would pick Y.

This is all an elaborate way of saying that it's tough to take any scientific study on nature vs. culture seriously as long as it's conducted in the context of a highly gendered society.

Posted by: Zach S. at October 16, 2005 11:34 AM

I want to make sure everyone caught something here. It's important to take this into consideration when deciding whether to take someone seriously as an authority on human nature and good science.

"Mannish lesbians", folks. Mannish lesbians. Please go back and read that comment carefully.

Posted by: Dianna at October 16, 2005 01:02 PM

I was charitably ignoring that, yes. Nonetheless, it's at precisely that point when I stopped taking Dr. V seriously. I just felt that I would be kicking myself if I didn't use my one opportunity to deploy Susan Okun's gender theories. Who knows when I'll get the chance again?

Posted by: Zach S. at October 16, 2005 01:29 PM

Gender roles used to come up a lot whenever I taught the class on writing humor. The positions were basically: "Girls Aren't Funny"/"Shut Up Jerk". I think the male/female comedy difference only came down to the interest in being *publicly* funny; that is, for whatever reason, 90% of submissions to the humor magazine were from dudes, and open mic particpants were also overwhelmingly male. Submissions from women were generally of a higher quality, but there were a lot less of them. There wasn't nearly the same interest in being published, and the kind of fame you can only get from collegiate humor periodicals.

I think women are far more likely to not be unfunny, if that phrasing isn't too confusing.

Now, I have no idea whether what I've noticed in my informal nature or nurture, and I also never figured out how to talk about it without sounding like a jerk. I wonder if there is an implication for CH blogging, in terms of what audience various people are writing for and how much anyone aims to impress/entertain random strangers.

Posted by: sean at October 16, 2005 02:04 PM

I used that phrasing because I thought you'd be even more offended if I said "butch". What am I supposed to call them then.

Zack, your reponse is that pretty much any study that's "concocted" is bogus so you might as well just go ahead and believe the relativist stuff that there's no evidence for whatsoever...makes sense to me.

Posted by: dr v at October 16, 2005 03:12 PM

First off, Mr. Details, my name is spelled with an H, not a K. FYI.

Second, I believe that what I said was that I would have to see the studies that you (have thus far failed to) cite before I reached a conclusion. I then voiced a potential objection that might color the studies you could cite. The point of this was not to disprove the concept of science (if anything, science, from my understanding, is welcoming of methodological critiques), but merely to assert that the studies might not be so definitive and flawless as you have maintained. Nonetheless, these objections must remain in the realm of speculation because, again, you havent provided any citations for your point of view.

And that leads me to the main point. Now, I'm not a fancy biologist. I'm not even a scientist. I'm just a law student, and where I come from, telling somebody that "All the sources support my argument" isn't worth a god damn if you don't follow that up with actual, genuine citations to the evidence.

And now to wrap up all my loose ends, I will cite this article on the transition from hunter-gatherer societies to agricultural societies. You will note that it is written by Jared Diamond who, while he has recently gained attention for his studies of history and anthropology, is by training a physiologist at UCLA Med. You will also note that he appears to be of the opinion that sexual inequality has its origins in the transition to agriculture. He further argues that the differentiation in gender roles came about largely because of women being the ones that got pregnant, not due to any massive difference in the female versus male psyche. I am just summarizing; read the article for his full view.

This is not to say Dr. Diamond is right or wrong. It IS, however, to suggest that the hypothesis that gender differences are innate and biological is not, perhaps, as monolithic in the scientific community as you would lead us to believe.

Posted by: Zach S. at October 16, 2005 04:28 PM

Here's the problem with this argument.

Side A is saying that there are problems with Side B's sources, namely, biases and confounding factors which make them not good science.

Side B responds by saying that Side A is just talking garbage and doesn't understand that science means looking clear-headed at facts gathered in a controlled and reproducible manner.

This is like responding to someone saying the sky is blue by angrily telling them that no, the sky is NOT red, what the hell are they talking about?

Posted by: Dianna at October 16, 2005 04:44 PM

Poor Margaret Mead. Lost in the shuffle. In any case, I'll put her on my "to read" list, though when I'll get to her is anyone's guess. It's a very long list.

Posted by: Zach S. at October 16, 2005 05:34 PM