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Margaret Mead made me do it

May 21, 2013


A while ago I mentioned that an anthropologist had written a blog post in response to my blog post, and that got me reminiscing.

When I took my undergraduate degree at Edinburgh University you were required to take a number of outside courses, and I took Social Anthropology 1.  A lot of people saw Social Anthropology 1 as their ‘easy’ subject (even though at the time you needed higher grades to get in than you needed for medicine) and it was full of loud private school kids who had spent the summer digging wells in Africa and continued to wear the hat that had been woven from goats wool by an elderly blind woman to thank them for their diligence.  I loved it.  It was all about people and society and how things are the same and different across cultures around the globe.

It all came together for me by chance in the last essay of the year, which was actually one I picked from the list at random.

For the essay I was required to research the controversy/debate of the conflicting work of Margaret Mead and Derek Freeman.  Margaret Mead was a graduate student who went to Samoa to study the people, living with a Western naval family and concentrating on the subject of adolescence.  She used observation and interviews as her methodology and concluded that the Samoans sailed through adolescence and were a sexually free group of people.  Freeman, on the other hand, went across and threw himself into the culture and language, living together with the Samoan people.  Afterwards, he claimed that Mead had been hoaxed by the Samoan people and that her conclusions were consequently not valid.  He said that because she was too far removed from the culture she was unable to tell when the Samoans that she interviewed were joking with her.  I’m simplifying, of course, and the debate goes on.

This stuff was so fascinating for me.  I had learned about research methodologies before, of course, and about choosing the right methodology for the task at hand.  But what I hadn’t considered was the difference that it could make to use two alternate methodologies to look at exactly the same thing.  How you could get a completely different outcome, and what a big hoo ha doing so could cause.

It’s funny, when I am asked in job interviews (or the pub) why I got into research I usually say it is because I am nosy interested in people.  But I guess that’s not the whole story.  I first became captivated by research when I discovered the power of methodology and considered the delicate balancing act that research actually is.  I wanted to get in on that.

And Margaret Mead made me do it.

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