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The “Fateful Hoaxing” of Margaret Mead: A Cautionary Tale

Paul Shankman
Current Anthropology
Vol. 54, No. 1 (February 2013), pp. 51-70
DOI: 10.1086/669033
Stable URL:
Page Count: 20
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In the Mead-Freeman controversy, Derek Freeman’s historical reconstruction of the alleged hoaxing of Margaret Mead in 1926 relied on three interviews with Fa’apua’a Fa’amū, Mead’s “principal informant,” who stated that she and another Samoan woman had innocently joked with Mead about their private lives. In turn, Freeman argued that Mead believed these jokes as the truth and that they were the basis for her interpretation of adolescent sex in Coming of Age in Samoa. The unpublished interviews with Fa’apua’a became the centerpiece of Freeman’s second book on the controversy, The Fateful Hoaxing of Margaret Mead (1999). Yet an analysis of Mead’s relationship with Fa’apua’a demonstrates that she was not an informant for Mead on adolescent sex, and an examination of the three interviews used by Freeman does not support his interpretation of them. In fact, responding to direct questioning during the interviews, Fa’apua’a stated that Mead did not ask her questions about her own sexual conduct or about adolescent sexual conduct. Nor did she provide Mead with information on this subject. Crucial passages from these interviews were omitted by Freeman in his publications on the alleged hoaxing. Based on the interviews themselves, there is no compelling evidence that Mead was hoaxed.

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