Hello again ladies and gents. This is my first topic starter, and it’s related to our class discussion today about Luker, anthropology and participant observation. One of the most interesting subjects Luker touches on is the idea of trust in anthropological methods. This reminded me of a study conducted by famed anthropologist Margaret Mead. Her classic anthopological study Coming of Age in Samoa involved both participant observation and interviews, but also the building of relationships and trust. Mead lived in a Samoan village of about 600 people for her study, and got to know people very well. She concluded that Samoan girls transitioned into adulthood with relatively little turmoil (compared to American girls) because they had strong rolemodels and belonged to a community where they were well educated about sexuality, bodily functions, and death. She claimed that Samoan girls were free to explore their sexuality until they settled down and married later on. This quite shocked the American public when her study was first published. Mead’s work was later criticized by Derek Freeman, who returned to the Samoan village she lived in and concluded that her research was based on falsehoods. He even wrote a book attacking her findings, Margaret Mead and Samoa: The Making and Unmaking of an Anthropological Myth.
However, Freeman’s work was also criticized, because his evidence was based on interviewing the same women Mead had spoken to years earlier. These women were now mothers and grandmothers, who had converted to Christianity in the meantime. Freeman’s critics argued that this conversion and the adoption of American cultural practices had changed Samoan life to the point that it was relatively incomparable to the culture Mead had lived in previously. Others pointed out that Freeman’s gender (male) could have made the female participants hesitant to tell him truths about sexuality that they had been willing to reveal to Margaret Mead, because she was female but also because she had spent time earning their trust, and was of a similar age to them.
I think this tale illustrates the issue of trust and participant observation. It seems to me that Margaret Mead’s approach was to surround herself in the culture and even make friends with the Samoan girls who were the “subjects” of her study. Freeman’s work was later criticized more thoroughly, with some scholars suggesting he had some kind of personal vendetta against Mead.
Can you think of other examples, from Anthropology or other fields, where these issues of trust/gender/participation might have effected the outcomes of studies? I think this is a really interesting topic to navigate, and hope you’ll join me in discussing it.