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Life Cycle

AdolescenceAnthropological Critique

The most important anthropological critique of the social evolutionary model came from Franz Boas, who published The Mind of Primitive Man in 1911. Boas used extensive ethno-graphic data to make an argument for the separation of culture from biological determinism and the importance of diffusion, rather than evolution, in the formation of cultural traits. Boas became best known for the concept of "cultural relativism," which argues against judging a culture by outside standards. As he states in the conclusion of The Mind of Primitive Man, "Then we shall treasure and cultivate the variety of forms that human thought and activity has taken, and abhor, as leading to complete stagnation, all attempts to impress one pattern of thought upon whole nations or even upon the whole world" (1932 ed., p. 272). Over time, Boas attracted a wide range of students who studied with him at Columbia University and by the 1920s his theory that culture is historically created, not evolutionarily structured, became the dominant paradigm in American anthropology.

By 1924 Boas had successfully argued for the importance of cultural diffusion—the sharing of ideas between cultures—as an important mechanism of culture change, but he was still looking for ethnographic data to demonstrate how culture specifically influences the psychological development of individuals and creates distinctive patterns of behavior. In particular, Boas decided that a study of adolescence would be a useful way to demonstrate how culture, not nature, patterns human behavior. He chose one of his young graduate students, twenty-three-year-old Margaret Mead, to conduct a study in Samoa; her assignment was to determine whether adolescence was filled with the same troubles in the South Seas as it was in America. Mead was trained in psychology and she knew Hall's work well. As she explains in her book Coming of Age in Samoa (1928), she embarked on that research to answer the question: "Are the disturbances which vex our adolescents due to the nature of adolescence itself or to civilization?" In other words, what takes primacy? Nature or nurture?

While Mead did not overly concern herself with defining "adolescence," it is clear from many of her conclusions that she closely associates adolescence with the years directly surrounding puberty; nevertheless, her conclusion that "there are no great differences" between girls in adolescence and those about to enter it or who have just left it, downplays its significance as a Samoan life stage. Noting the general "casual" nature of Samoan society, Mead argued that adolescence is not filled with "storm and stress" but rather this was a period of orderly maturing interests and activities (1961 ed., p. 157). Maturing girls in Samoa had few restrictions placed on their sexual encounters, few judgments passed on the behaviors, and negligent pressure to prepare for an unseen future. This, she argued, created an adolescence that was peaceful and enjoyable. Comparing the United States to Samoa, Mead noted that American youths "grow up in a world of dazzling choices" and that all choices are "the half-ripened fruit of compromise" (p. 205). Addressing educators directly, Mead used her Samoan research to call for changes in the expectations and pressures put on American adolescents.

Mead's book, which was intentionally written for the "educated layman," became a best-seller and positioned Mead to become one of the most important and influential voices in American anthropology, and in American society, for the next five decades. Among Mead's most noteworthy contributions were her works on childhood (Growing Up in New Guinea, 1930) and gender roles (Sex and Temperament in Three Primitive Societies, 1935) both of which continued the argument that cultures create patterns of behaviors in consistent and holistic ways.

Mead's conclusions about the role that culture plays in shaping the experience of adolescence were never seriously challenged until 1983 when Derek Freeman, an Australian anthropologist, wrote Margaret Mead and Samoa: The Making and Unmaking of an Anthropological Myth. Freeman, who studied Samoa, albeit several decades after Mead, argued that Mead was a "cultural determinist," who ignored any ethnographic evidence that did not support her contention that culture (not biology) is primarily responsible for human behavior. Freeman argued that adolescence was in fact stressful in Samoa and defended an "interactionist" perspective that interpreted behavior as a result of the intersection of biology and culture. Freeman's book sparked controversy both in anthropology and outside because it directly attacked Mead's evidence but also because it attempted to reinvigorate the nature/nurture debates that had remained relatively sidelined in cultural anthropology. Mead was dead by the time Freeman's book was published so could not defend her own work. However, her reputation, which was only partially constructed from her early work, was never seriously in jeopardy.

By 2000 the dust had settled, with no one on either side effectively convincing the other of the truth of their sides' claims. Given the importance, or at the very least, the prominence of Margaret Mead in the development of American anthropology, it is paradoxical that the study of adolescence in anthropology did not flourish at all in the second half of the twentieth century. In fact, it stagnated. While the study of childhood was continued in a limited but impressive fashion (most notably at Harvard), and gender studies blossomed after the 1970s, the systematic study of adolescence all but disappeared in anthropology until the 1990s. While mention might be made of youths or adolescents in longer ethnographic studies, there were no titles in anthropology focusing exclusively on adolescents for several decades. Indeed, even Freeman's attack on Mead was directed toward her conclusions about the primacy of culture in human development, and was never intended as a serious contribution to the study of adolescence. The study of adolescents did not disappear from academia, but was continued by psychologists, child development specialists, historians, and sociologists. Two important sociological studies about teens in America that furthered Mead's general sociocultural orientation were Hollingshead's Elmtown Youth, which focused on teenagers in 1942 and 1943, and Growing Up in River City, a longitudinal study of teens in the postwar boom.

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Science EncyclopediaScience & Philosophy: Laser - Background And History to Linear equationLife Cycle - Adolescence - Conceptualizing Adolescence, Anthropological Critique, Contemporary Perspectives, Bibliography