Margaret Mead and the Experimental Template

Via Savage Minds, I came across a full text open access link to Margaret Mead’s classic text Coming of Age in Samoa. Never having read it before, I thought to check it out. Imagine my surprise when I read the following, from page 7:

What method then is open to us who wish to conduct a human experiment but who lack the power either to construct the experimental conditions or to find controlled examples of those conditions here and there throughout our own civilisation? The only method is that of the anthropologist, to go to a different civilisation and make a study of human beings under different cultural conditions in some other part of the world.

Here is Margaret Mead letting us know in classic, positivist terms that true experiments are the gold standard, and that “natural experiments” (“controlled examples of those conditions here and there”) can work too.

Now, Mead does go somewhat off the rails in the subsequent sentences:

For such studies the anthropologist chooses quite simple peoples, primitive peoples, whose society has never attained the complexity of our own. In this choice of primitive peoples like the Eskimo, the Australian, the South Sea islander, or the Pueblo Indian, the anthropologist is guided by the knowledge that the analysis of a simpler civilisation is more possible of attainment. In complicated civilisation like those of Europe, or the higher civilisations of the East, years of study are necessary before the student can begin to understand the forces at work within them….Furthermore, we do not choose a simple peasant community in Europe or an isolated group of mountain whites in the American South, for these people’s ways of life, though simple, belong essentially to the historical tradition to which the complex parts of European or American civilisation belong…

Cringeworthy in two ways. First, we no longer think it proper to say that such societies as those found in Samoa are “simple” (heck, we don’t even say Eskimo or Indian anymore). The idea that it would take too long to do such a study in France, but nine months will suffice to figure out the Samoans, is just wrong.

But more importantly, what she is describing is a bad experiment. Rather than isolate one causal variable and manipulate it, she proposes what appears to be a strategy of varying all sorts of variables at the same time (geography, “civilizational complexity,” culture, language, history, the list goes on). Her emphasis on education as a key difference between Samoa and the West is provocative, perhaps, but not something discovered through anything approaching the experimental template that she herself seemed to find so compelling.