[Journals]: Is the “Fateful Hoaxing of Mead” a hoax?

New investigation debunks the theory that Margaret Mead’s writings on adolescent sex in Samoa were the result of an innocent prank

Contact: Rachel Wiseman / 773-834-1793 / rwiseman@press.uchicago.edu
Source Contact: Paul Shankman / paul.shankman@colorado.edu


Margaret Mead’s reputation took a devastating hit in 1989 when anthropologist Derek Freeman announced that Mead’s description of permissive adolescent sex in Samoa was the result of joking by two Samoan women. Using interview testimony from one of the women named Fa’apua’a, Freeman stated that they had told Mead innocent lies about their private lives, which she believed and published as the truth in her bestseller Coming of Age in Samoa (1928).


According to Freeman, Mead was “fatefully hoaxed” because of her lack of understanding of Samoan custom and therefore easily fooled by mischievous Samoans. This unflattering portrayal of Mead has been widely embraced by a number of intelligent people. There is just one problem: the interviews with Fa’apua’a do not support Freeman’s argument.


Paul Shankman, an anthropologist at the University of Colorado-Boulder, reexamined the transcripts of the interviews Freeman arranged with Fa’apua’a and found a number of inconsistencies in Fa’apua’a’s answers and strong evidence of manipulation of her testimony by Freeman. Shankman gives a full account of the problematic nature of Freeman’s “fateful hoaxing” argument in a paper published in the February issue of Current Anthropology.


Freeman claimed that Fa’apua’a was Mead’s main informant, but this claim finds no support in Mead’s field notes. More gravely, Freeman left out crucial passages from the interviews with Fa’apua’a that did not support his belief that Mead had been thoroughly hoaxed. When asked if Mead inquired about her sexual conduct or that of adolescent girls in Samoa, Fa’apua’a said “No!” She also denied providing Mead with information on adolescent sex.


Had the interviews with Fa’apua’a been available for other scholars to examine at the time of publication of The Fateful Hoaxing of Margaret Mead, his argument would not have seen the light of day. Based on the interviews themselves, the alleged hoaxing of Margaret Mead never occurred.





Shankman, Paul. “The ‘Fateful Hoaxing’ of Margaret Mead: A Cautionary Tale” Current Anthropology 53:7. February 2013.


Current Anthropology is a transnational journal devoted to research on humankind, encompassing the full range of anthropological scholarship on human cultures and on the human and other primate species. The journal is published by The University of Chicago Press and sponsored by the Wenner-Gren Foundation for Anthropological Research. For more information, please see our website: journals.uchicago.edu/CA.





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