In the August of 1925, at the age of 24, the young anthropologist Margaret Mead (Philadelphia 1901- New York 1978) sets forth to the Pacific Islands, where she will be spending the following 9 months living with the populations of the Tau island, in the Manu’s archipelago. Here she will be investigating that frail time that separates childhood from adulthood: is this time naturally contentious, or is its conflictuality sparked by the very nature of the culture of belonging? In other words: is adolescent’s particular behaviour an innate reaction drove by the nature of being an adolescent or, rather being an American adolescent? The difficulties that teenager’s face are caused by simply being inevitably adolescents, or by the civilization of belonging?
M. Mead’s research sparks from a starting hypothesis that adolescence is not naturally nor biologically meant to be a phase filled with tormentation, uncertainty, dismay and rebellion as typically seen within the ‘civilized’ population of the Euro-American societies. She advances a view that sees those girl’s ‘stormily’ changes (Mead 1961, 3) as a result of a locally and historically grounded phenomenon that is the direct effect of a specific cultural formation, organization and distinctive traits, belonging to a specific society.
Brought up by the studies of her professors R. Benedict and F. Boas ,also, writer of the introductory foreword that prepares greatly the reader to the book about to begin, Margaret Mead focused on the study of the role of biopsychological, cultural and individual factors in the structuring of individual and social personality, concluding that the natural variability of basic congenital characters is universally identical, but each culture selects and then shapes it in limited and different number of forms.
Moving within the American anthropology’s frame set by F. Boas, and particularly influenced by S.Freud’s studies on psychoanalytic themes, she advanced studies that shifted from the traditional ethnographic work developing theories that would find not to be grounded in the nature of adolescence its agitated essence, rather that these are caused by those inhibiting, pressuring and restraining cultural constructs of our (western) society.
This extremely skilled writer with a strong sensitivity to social and political matters proceeded to a comparative study that quickly made her known as one of the most important figures of modern American cultural Anthropology, together with her engagement with the birth of the feminist cultural movement and pioneering use of cameras during her research.
The journey through the Samoan’s life always begins after dawn, and finishes late after midnight: M.Mead describes charmingly this slow-paced world hinted with young lovers whispering freely.
The book is structured in a discourse that flows from the birth, youth and seniority of the Samoan people, concluding in an analysis of the parallel made with the educational issues of the Western-American society: initially the author provides an introduction to the way the Samoan children are brought up, their role and responsibilities within the society, followed by the explanation of attitude towards sexuality.
From the first chapters is shown to the reader the main variation between the West and the Samoan world in the education system: the newborn is breastfed until he turns 3 and then entrusted to older children of the family aged 6/7. The little nannies are therefore quickly disciplined and socialized when they are given the responsibility for a younger baby: the education of the child can be seen as extremely simple, not rigid, nor based on discipline.
To this follows the analysis of a core difference with the Western society where the child is brought up in a ‘crystal globe’ that protects him from the shocking aspect of life with the fear that these may traumatize him: instead, in Samoa, M.Mead notices that they are not kept far from adult’s world, including at birth, death and during sex being considered natural foundation of life. Because children are included during adult’s most intimate times are therefore exposed in a simple and direct way to all that the West seems to want to preserve their children from, but that sooner or later will hit them unexpectedly.
In this apparent disorganization of the indigenous families, M.Mead sees a lack of opportunity for the girls: they are not given a complete education nor the number of possibilities that the boys encounter when at 17/18 they enter the Aumaga, where pushed by their mentors they are taught to be efficient, competitive and are always urged to perfect themselves aspiring to become a Matai in the future. Girls instead are content to not be lazily remaining in their mediocrity, yet good wavers, sewers and cookers, mainly interested in sex adventures and not particularly stimulated by the environment.
Within this frame, the author finds that the primitive and homogeneous nature of the Samoan society is the reason why their adolescent don’t find themselves facing as many struggles as the Western do: whatever they will decide is pushed by concrete and legitimate reasons that will not be questioned or judged by his group of belonging, differently from the other child that is overloaded with expectations from within his family and the surrounding society.
In addition, the Samoan child, brought up in a less isolating environment, will have stronger tools to face life’s adversity comparing to the Western one that grown in an overly protecting manner, is not prepared to go along and grab the wide range of opportunities that arise from his society, that expect him to choose wisely sentimentally, personally, professionally and spiritually. This easily leads to fear, uncertainty and anxiety, typical traits of behaviour attributed to the American adolescent.
Until the age of 15 boys and girl’s worlds are kept separate, this explains the beginning attitude of girls towards boys of antagonism, combined with the desire to avoid them: it demonstrates how the existing taboo according to which brother and sister shall not be in contact, is applied to the rest of the boys and girls which are strongly bonded by the daily and differentiated tasks. It is later that the two worlds begin to be interested in each other, and dance plays a great role: it’s a freeing vent to individuality that helps to overcome shyness and favours courtship.
Rooted in the Samoan society is the belief that sex is a natural and pleasant act that can be lived freely, hence the reason why wedding is not the only relation recognised by the society: non-married young lovers are allowed to love each other’s both hiding behind the palm trees or officially with the help of a friend that plays the ambassador during the courtship; as well as adultery that doesn’t necessarily implies a break of the marriage. M.Mead claims that the fundamental in the deeply diverse vision of the latter seems deprived of any romantic vision: it is considered a combination of social-economic power, a way through daily life, and strongly influenced by the abilities of the husband and wife, not founded on exclusivity and loyalty between the two. I may argue that this is not manifested only within primitive societies and the picture offered on their sex relation is quite animalistic a simplifying.
In addition to all the above, plays a crucial role in the shaping of the young adult the vision of family in constituting the different social structure that characterizes the Samoan’s life: every village composed of 30+ nuclear family living under the authority of a common Matai, therefore there’s a lack of parents-children structure, hence the reason why the child soon learns not to behave according to his individuality, but as a member of a group, very much deferring from the individualistic self-made adult in the West. In Samoa, the mother and father role is played by aunts, sisters, cousins, grandparents that are not necessarily blood bounded and the child soon learns both male and female hierarchical system that he can count on, and obey to.
It is within this frame that the weather of the Samoa island permeates every aspect of the society, and contributes in creating a peaceful and slow-paced population, where there seems to be no fear of death, nor need to hang on to life or fight for one’s opinion: for these simple and superficial people (as M.Mead seems to describes them) love and hate, rage and revenge, pain and mourning, seems to be easily forgotten, and it is within this particular social environment that the girl grows up, hence the reason why seeing adolescence as a universally difficult time is fundamentally flowed.
Follows in the text a rich description of anecdotes that at times may shock the reader, while learning about husbands ashamed of their wife, young girls falling in love with much older mans, masturbatory homosexual activities that do not seem to be socially condemned, children used to nudity and an almost socially accepted form of rape, but that overall provides a picture of a simple and calm way of living adolescence despite some controversial aspects of it.
As the Samoan way of living, the only way of living the people know and transmit to their children, is rooted in historically and locally founded social structures, and it can’t be exported and implemented as it is to the West countries; M.Mead concludes proposing the ‘Education to the choice’ (XXX): where she encourages adults to make the multiplicity of possible alternatives to choose from the source of stimulation, joy and youthful activity, rather than the only right way taught, and transforming into the cause of difficulties and adversities.
Immediately after its publication all the way until nowadays, M.Mead’s work has been subjecting of numerous critiques from the different schools of thoughts ranging from sociologists, philosophers, scientists, biologist and anthropologist, offering at times strong or flawed points. However, I find that this book well deserves its position as fundamental reading within many disciplines because of its innovative approach to new subjects as well as the source of inspiration to the experts coming after back then, and today. Her great writing skills let softly leak out the picture of a stubborn and rebel author that has the undoubted merit of having kept together passionately both the general public of anthropology back then and a wider variety of scholars today, through an editorial work worthy of his success. Ambitious was her work, but not intended to generalise her conclusions to all the Island of the Pacific, and quite controversial was D.Freeman campaign against her work that accused her of being “hoaxed by her Samoan subjects” (Freeman,1999), and strongly influenced by the movement of cultural relativism of the time, that also left out any biological explanation.
Essential is bearing in mind the historical and frame of thought during which it was composed and that the world described is not a frozen reality untouched by the time and changes: of course the Samoan society we would find flying to Faleolo International Airport, has been thought as many changes are the American Society of the twenty’s that M.Mead refers to. Under this perspective, it will be aged the vision that sees the young adults as subjects of blame from the family and society for behaving in such ways that are always more accepted and common within the modern society. As well I believe that what also pushes the teenager to battle with themselves and their family today against their insecurities and disorientation, can be related to the fact that those rigid boundaries are coming to a deterioration of the core values that were once the source of positive ideals and certainties for the adults too. Despite therefore not being exempted from fierce criticism in the academic field, M.Mead was able to continue her research work with her husband Gregory