top of page

The American Adolescent experience According to Margaret Mead, Author of Coming of Age in Samoa

Anthropology has been a male-dominated field since its conception in the 19th century, and was often used as an academic tool for colonialist endeavors.

Suffice to say, its history is laden with racism, sexism, and questionable practices that actually teach us what not to do today— yet I am still struggling to wrap my head around the importance of socio-cultural anthropology. Why do we need to analyze groups of people like they are specimen in a petri dish? And why must anthropological writing be so esoteric, complex ideas that are not necessarily complex? What I am trying to say is, after a month in my required Anthropology class, I was starting to get a little tired of the readings. But just as I found myself in an academic rut, we arrived at Margaret Mead, a student of Franz Boas (the so-called father of North American Anthropology) and the author of Coming of Age in Samoa. Vivid, and comprehensively written, Mead’s premier work illustrates Samoan life for both anthropologists and the average reader alike, who may have no interest in anthropology at all. What really piqued my interest, and gave me the inspiration for this article, was her research focus — the female adolescent experience. In 1925, at just twenty-four years old, Mead set out to live with women and young girls in Samoa to answer the question of our tumultuous, American “teenage” experience. She proposes to her American readers, “Are the disturbances which vex our adolescents due to the nature of adolescence itself or to the civilization? Under different conditions does adolescence present a different picture (11)?”

Mead’s style engrossed readers with its fairytale quality, with the opening line — “The life of the day begins at dawn (14),” as well as her sexual positivity — “as the dawn begins to fall among the soft brown roofs... lovers slip home from trysts beneath the palm trees.” And it is the immersive experience of her writing, as well as the controversy it created, that turned her into one of the most well-read anthropologists in the world, and subsequently popularized the field. Mead was also a pioneer of feminism, and as we see in Coming of Age in Samoa, a critic of America’s fear of sexuality (greatly influencing the sexual revolution of the 1960’s). Such promotion of sexual liberation in the 1920’s and 30’s was not taken lightly, which only makes Mead’s work all the more impressive from a modern standpoint. While her beliefs on gender and sexuality are paraded today, it is her narrative style of writing that faces the most criticism. She romanticizes the Samoans to a problematic extent in Coming of Age in Samoa, to the point that another anthropologist, Derek Freeman, wrote a book in response, “debunking” Mead’s research (Margaret Mead and Samoa: The Making and Unmaking of an Anthropological Myth). Despite her outdated approach, Coming of Age in Samoa tackles issues of adolescence and American culture that are relevant even a century later.

The education of children in Samoa was not systemized or institutionalized, children were taught by example, and raised by their older siblings rather than parents or teachers. When Samoan girls graduated from child-rearing and their own childhoods, they engaged in more community focused tasks such as fishing, weaving and cooking. As they reached puberty, their changing body only affected their ability to work — a larger girl might be able to carry more than a smaller girl of her age. Puberty did not arrive like the Grim Reaper coming to murder youth with his scythe. Conversely, adolescent girls experienced a smooth transition into womanhood, a transition that Mead believes was aided by the social environment in Samoa. While children are raised in a fantastical sub-reality in America, the truth of sex and death are not hidden from children in Samoa — they are just natural facts of life.

In a much more sex positive culture, it was typical of women to have multiple sexual partners throughout their lifetimes. The kin structure allowed for quarrels to be easily settled, by one or both parties moving to live with other parts of their family or in a different village. Women and men had children both in and outside of marriages, and although marriage was inevitable, there was no rush for women to choose her husband. Another aspect surrounding the casual sexual culture of Samoa was the way people judged one another. Mead had problems getting straight answers from people because they were very reluctant to pass any judgement on one another. When asking why people acted a certain way, or how people felt, she always got a similar response to the English phrase “who knows.” Emotions were felt and dealt with in moderation, while in America we constantly chase passionate emotional highs, but not without the consequence of depressing lows. Although, emotional upheaval is a lot to deal with, moderation presents an equal set of problems for our psychology. Mead explains that, “where no one feels very strongly, the adolescent will not be tortured by poignant situations (200).” However this is also a side effect of our intrinsically different societies — Samoa is a homogenous civilization, while ours is “motley, diverse and heterogeneous.”

From her research, Mead concludes that the tumult of adolescence is unique to American society. “Our children are faced with half a dozen standards of morality: a double sex standard for men and women, a single standard for men and women, and groups which advocate that the single standard should be freedom while others argue that the single standard shall be monogamy (202).” Mead then adds, that while we are presented these moral standards by our community, schools, religious organizations and families — the exact opposite of these standards is feed to us en mass, in advertisements, movies, and in our realities. While the American adolescent is “free” to choose their values — they are consequently bombarded with contradiction, or as Mead says, a “diversity of standards,” that confuse their emotions, senses and morals. 100 years later, Mead’s claim still rings true. For example, as young girls we are taught the fallacious nature of sex — we are educated with Disney-like stories of pure, simple relationships that engrain us with the notion of “true love.” Yet as we grow cognizant, we realize that sex is constantly assailing us — that sex is a commodity to be sold, that we are always sexualized, and that we can exploit ourselves for social gain. It is unwritten code, that if a girl smiles, and presents herself in a certain way, she can get what she wants. She can break into the New York club scene at only seventeen, because underage girls are a hot commodity, because they attract the wealthy, older men —the real target of any club — who will pay anything for a young girl’s sexual naivety.

What Mead is really theorizing I believe, in her chapter title “Our Educational Problems,” is the effect of mass media on growing minds. And now, a century later, I am witnessing first-hand, how our moral standards have been tied to the pyre by social media and our new age of technology. The sort of diversity of standards Mead references is still present, and our confusion is even more poignant now that every possible belief and value is trying to reach us, to sell to us, from our own back-pocket. Our most advanced thoughts, and most primal desires are constantly juxtaposed and exploited. However, the list of advantages and consequences of our burgeoning, virtual culture are both endless. On the other-hand, we are on a New Wave of feminism, and I am glad to say that womanhood in 2018 is exponentially improved from that of 1928 in America — which would not have been possible without the rapid dissemination and comprehension of knowledge through social media.

Returning to the cultural comparison between America and Samoa, Mead effectively used her research to expose the hypocrisy of American morality in regards to sex and gender, which is reflected in the disillusionment and inner turmoil of adolescence (experienced by all genders). However, there is an intrinsic problem with saying that because of this, Samoan adolescence, and therefore society, is better than ours. Mead does not explicitly make this claim, but she definitely romanticizes Samoan womanhood, treating the society like a “cultural garden,” or a beautiful and “primitive” oasis with a definitive boundary to which we can escape. However, the Samoan people were not perfect, and their society was in no way a closed circuit; they had exchange and interaction with Christian Missionaries, and the Chinese and Japanese governments. In Derek Freeman’s book, he discusses the high rate of sexual violence in Samoan culture as well — it was not just lovers in canoes as Mead described. Despite this, Coming of Age in Samoa changes our perspective on the American adolescent experience, for one, we realize that our experience truly is a consequence of our social environment, and two, we realize that as humans we can face puberty, sex and the facts of growing up, without experiencing pain and confusion.


Hannah Calistri is a second-year anthropology student at NYU and a Copy Editor for The Rational Creature.

Related Posts

See All
bottom of page