John Derek Freeman was born in Wellington, New Zealand. He first studied anthropology when Ernest Beaglehole offered a course on the subject through the Psychology Department of what is now Victoria University of Wellington. In 1940, Freeman took up a position teaching in Samoa, where he remained until 1943. Freeman subsequently studied at both University College London (MA Phil., 1948) and Cambridge University (PhD, 1953), writing a master’s thesis on Samoan social structure and a doctoral dissertation on the Iban of Sarawak, Borneo. This latter work grew out of Freeman’s 1949 to 1951 field study of the Iban. Freeman returned to New Zealand, teaching briefly at the University of Otago in Dunedin, before taking a position at the Australian National University in Canberra in 1957, where he remained until his death.
Thus, while he must have read some American or Boasian four-field anthropology, notably the work of Margaret Mead on Samoa, Freeman was largely trained in and taught within the British tradition of social anthropology.
Despite the quality of Freeman’s Iban work, he was best known for his role in the so-called Mead-Freeman debate. For Freeman, this debate, at heart, concerned evolution. Freeman had become interested in the subject in the mid-1960s, not long before he returned to Samoa to undertake fieldwork. His later, more developed, position held that humanity’s evolutionary history had produced a creature capable of making choices but nonetheless one whose capacities for responding to the world were embedded in biology, hence derived from the evolutionary past. Freeman considered that most modern anthropology had abandoned a concern with evolution and with human biology. He understood his part of the debate as both an exploration of anthropology’s history and a correction of anthropological theory.
Freeman’s first major statement in the debate was his 1983 volume, Margaret Mead and Samoa: The Making of an Anthropological Myth. The book is organized into two broad sections.
The first section advanced a historical argument. According to Freeman, Mead’s teacher, Franz Boas, had become alarmed at the rise of the eugenics movement within the generally racist societies of the United States and Britain. Accordingly, Boas had encouraged his students to gather materials that tended to emphasize the variability of human beings and thereby call into question the notion of an underlying, universal human nature. One of Boas’s nemeses, G. Stanley Hall of Clark University, published a major work arguing that adolescence is everywhere a time of so-called storm and stress. As part of Boas’s general project, Margaret Mead went to Samoa in 1925, intent upon studying female adolescence. In her 1928 book, Coming of Age in Samoa, Mead concluded that the young women and the girls she studied, all things considered, led comparatively stress-free lives.
Mead’s argument attained wide circulation when her publisher, William Morrow, insisted that Mead add two chapters of material comparing Samoan and American adolescence. More important, for Freeman, modern anthropologists, unaware of or indifferent to the shortcomings of Mead’s analysis, would contend that her Samoan findings supported radically culturalist hypotheses, emphasizing the mutability of humanity over and against more biologically grounded theories of an evolving human nature.
In the second section, Freeman undertook what he insisted was a Popperian refutation of Mead’s thesis rather than an ethnographic report per se. Freeman presented a range of materials designed to show that Samoa was considerably more violent than Mead allowed and that female chastity prior to marriage was highly prized. Under the traditional system, some daughters of high-ranking men, identified as taupou, had been publicly deflowered by members of the groom’s family as part of their wedding ceremonies. While Christian missionaries had inveighed against the taupou system, their influence contributed to a subsequent general prudishness. Freeman mentioned briefly that most Samoan women eloped (avaga), asserting that such elopements established the women’s previous virginity.
Beginning with this assertion about female premarital chastity, much of the debate came to be focused around Mead’s accounts of Samoan female adolescent sexuality, especially the inference that adolescents undertook perhaps multiple casual affairs. Much of Mead’s description of Samoan female adolescence receded into the background; for Mead, these young women were generally junior, socially minor members of a highly stratified society, in which not only did they have little of importance to do but also their daily activities were often of little interest to their social superiors. During his second period working in Samoa, Freeman was an older, married man. He had been given chiefly titles by his chiefly interlocutors. He likely would not have had easy access to young women, as Mead clearly did.
Freeman, in his second book, contended that a young and relatively inexperienced Mead had been attempting to undertake two unrelated projects at once: one on female adolescence and the other on Samoan social organization. Rather than having made up her results, he claimed, Mead had more simply fallen victim of a hoax. Two of her informants, Fa’apaua’a Fa’ama and Fafoa, while accompanying Mead on a trip had become embarrassed by Mead’s questions. In a fashion well understood by Samoans, they told Mead what they thought she wanted to hear: They had lovers when, in fact, they did not. According to Freeman, Mead, having gathered her only explicit statements from young Samoans about their sexual experiences, then wrote Boas, claiming to have gathered information supportive of culturalist arguments.
Freeman’s supporting evidence was of two sorts: a filmed statement by an elderly Fa’apaua’a Fa’ama, stating she had hoaxed Mead, and a range of documentary sources, including Mead’s papers. Freeman’s use of both of these sorts of evidences has been criticized.
Some have contended that Fa’apaua’a Fa’ama may have been hoaxing Freeman or, more important, that she may not have been and likely was not, given Mead’s text, Mead’s sole source.
More concretely, Freeman’s chronology of Mead’s fieldwork was not wholly convincing, his arguments were anachronistic, and his use of documentary evidences faulty. He neglected the continuing presence of biological or physical anthropology within the Boasian conception of anthropology’s four fields. Aside from his references to eugenics in his first book, he did not discuss the biology of the pertinent era when Boas and the young Margaret Mead had engaged in the activities he criticizes; rather, Freeman spoke from a perspective defined by the biological understandings of the later 20th century. He largely ignored Mead’s use of the concept of “temperament,” the interest Boasians such as Goldenweiser had in biological ideas such as convergent evolution, as well as the relationship between Benedict’s notion of cultural selection and Darwin’s idea of sexual selection. He repeatedly took quotes out of context, in some cases clearly misrepresenting the apparent or plain meaning of the text quoted.
- Freeman, D. (1983). Margaret Mead and Samoa: The making and unmaking of an anthropological myth. Canberra: Australian National University Press.
- Freeman, D. (1999). The fateful hoaxing of Margaret Mead: A historical analysis of her Samoan research. Boulder, CO: Westview Press.
- Mead, M. (1928). Coming of age in Samoa. New York: William Morrow.