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Margaret Mead and Coming of Age in Samoa
Different aspects of culture define people over a period of time. It is only human nature that we see differences in culture and ourselves when thrown into a melting pot, a mix of multi-cultures in which we live today. One can only imagine what it must have been like for Margaret Mead as she traveled half way around the world in search of understanding aspects of other cultures, very foreign from our own. In this respect, she was a trail blazer, breaking with convention and expectation of her own role in society by becoming an anthropologist. It is the quest of the anthropologist to observe, discover culture and document aspects of that culture that are unique. With this mind, it is important for one to have a working definition of culture, in order for one to explore rituals embedded within society that define people and their behaviors. Margaret Mead was searching, not for answers to why or how Samoans behave different and create ceremony for different reasons but to find how even primitive culture is very much like our culture. In fact, by studying such rituals like coming of age, she was better able to understand how their way could offer insight to ours.
M.F. Ashley Montagu (1968) defines culture "from the Latin cultura and cultus which means care, cultivation or allowing to grow something" (3). Originally the connotation attributive to "agriculture or cultivation of the soil" (Montagu 3). Only later did the word describe attributes of man and elements of personality within a group of men. From the beginning, the concept of culture was difficult to disseminate. Even today in a world without borders or limits due to telecommunications technology, it is still difficult to grasp the notion of multi-culture. Due its melting pot, we are a culture defined equally by many cultures. Hence, the concept of multiculturalism was born to accept everyone's culture. It can hypothesized that due to an emerging global economy that eventually man will become one as a global cultural in the future.
This paper will take this concept of culture as a framework to examine the ceremony of coming of age, specifically in Samoa as written in Mead's ground breaking book. First this paper will look at how other culture define and celebrate the coming of age passage in a person's life. This will take into account, first the different ways coming of age can be marked and second, what displays are taken to mark the occasion of the person. I think it is surprising in a world of vastly different cultures that this ceremony happens at the same time for many peoples or in other words during adolescence. The impact of what it means to come of age is different for specific cultures but carries the same weight regardless socially. This paper will examine Mead's work by looking at the Samoan coming of age ceremony. It will be noted that while coming of age there may be different than in the western world, their desires for lust, love and family are the same as ours. With that carries a certain amount of accountability and maturity. This paper will also examine the work of Derek Freeman and his views of Mead's work.
Different Types of Coming of Age
Coming of age marks a young person's formal transition from adolescence into adulthood. The age at which this event takes places varies from place to place as does the ritual or ceremony involved. One could argue that today children are far too much in a hurry to grow up and it seems the passage of childhood gets shorter with every generation. It comes down to value systems when a young person reaches that defined moment. It seems in America coming of age is defined differently by the law, accountability and religion. By some cultural standards the American adolescence is prolonged, extending into the early 20's and beyond (Coming of Age par. 2).
One can see the importance of creating ritual and ceremony to define the moment, otherwise, it can be quite confusing and this leads to rebellion and conflict if a person does not know where they stand in society. By providing a ceremony, a society is not only celebrating the event or passage but also allowing that person's identity to transform and create new dimensions of character. By Western standards, one's coming of age can be defined by two aspects of culture: (1) religion and (2) legal accountability. Christian religions define coming of age, the age at which the young person becomes a formal member of the congregation, usually at thirteen years of age. The Jewish faith has a similar passage for both boys and girls also happening about this time. For young men, it is at thirteen that the community recognizes him as a man and therefore of marriageable age. The same goes for a young girl at twelve. Of course in America, the age one is legally able to marry is eighteen (Coming of Age par. 6). This brings up the concept of legal accountability, however, once this passage happens, this does not make the child an adult, although many states are amending that age for the purpose of trying crimes, the legal age child knows right from wrong is twelve. However, most states consider a child legally an adult at eighteen or twenty-one. By this time the child has the same rights to vote, drink and smoke. These are ages that are celebrated with parties and ceremonies throughout the west to mark that a person has grown up (Coming of Age par. 10).
Margaret Mead and Coming of Age in Samoa
This is where the western definition differs from that of the Samoans. Part of Mead's mission was "to investigate to what extent the storm and stress of adolescence is biologically determined and to what extent it is modified by the culture within which adolescents are reared" (Mead Chapter 13). What she found there was vastly differently and shocking to mainstream 1920s America. As vulgar as many would describe her book, it became a bestseller mainly because it dared to discuss what many would not; sex. The book acts an anthropological study of adolescent girls in Samoa. This went into in depth detail of their behaviors and what westerners of the time would consider promiscuity. What is ground breaking about the information is the fact that it describes a culture devoid of teenage stress or sexual impulses, lust and crushes. It describes a culture that encourages young people to act on their hormones if they are willing to respect the responsibilities and repercussions. This is the American point-of-view. The Samoans are considered primitive because they have not adapted to ways of the west or embraced western morales. They are savages for allowing children to have sex.
At the time the book was published Mead believed her alleged cultural relativity helped loosen American morals. What it did was open up our culture to new cultural experiences including rites of passage. She was able to bring their world to ours even if we did not want it. It was her respect for different cultures acquired during her own coming of age that made her ultimately objective to witness coming of age in Samoa. She was able to create a rapport with people and allow them to trust her. What the coming of age in Samoa for a girl means is the time in which she is ready to become sexual and invite male attention. What was shocking to 1920s America was the fact this passage took place earlier than ours are twelve. Instead of creating a stressful convention of courting and dating which leads to miscommunication and conflict or for example gossip and heart break, the teenagers of Samoa had the freedom to be upfront about what they wanted and intentions. The fact that sex was socially acceptable also allowed for an absence of teenage frustration and defined taboos of what was sexually wrong or right. This system made it much easier for teens to embark upon life long relationships and start families earlier. To Mead, these rituals and ceremonies surrounding teenage relationships simple or relative (Dillon 5). It cut through the mess that many teenage Americans spend so much energy on trying to figure out if someone likes them. In this respect Mead came to the conclusion that culture defines the adolescent experience and not genetics. This conclusion has been argued ever since by other anthropologists to follow her work.
Anthropologist and specialist in Pacific culture Derek Freeman disagrees with Margaret Mead's ground breaking work in Samoa. Prior to his own observations of Samoan coming of age ceremonies, he believed in Mead's work. He believes "human behavior is, demonstrably, characterized by the interaction of cultural and biological variables" (New York Times Review of Books 1). In other words, it is a combination of factors that lead one to make decisions. In contrast, Mead…[continue]
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"Ceremonies In Samoa Coming Of Age", 10 November 2005, Accessed.28 October. 2016, http://www.paperdue.com/essay/ceremonies-in-samoa-coming-of-age-70301