Coming of age with Dr. Mead
A number of important questions rise out of the latest controversy over the work of anthropologist Margaret Mead. The controversy has been set off by a forthcoming book in which an Australian anthropologist sharply challenges the findings in Dr. Mead's celebrated 1928 study, ''Coming of Age in Samoa.'' The questions echo from South Seas villages, to adolescence in America, to the world problems which Dr. Mead eventually saw as requiring a change in human thinking.
The new book, ''Margaret Mead and Samoa: The Making and Unmaking of an Anthropological Myth,'' is by Derek Freeman. According to its publisher, the Harvard University Press, he studied Samoa decades after the young Margaret Mead's field work there in the 1920s. But he chose a village location likely to have been little changed. Where she found tranquillity, sexual freedom, and lack of jealousy, he found tensions, strict sexual prohibitions, and proneness to jealousy.
Why should the general public care about what is at this stage mainly fuel for academic debate? Because of the widespread influence of the Mead book and because of those far-ranging questions mentioned above.
One of these is the possibility that even the most accepted or entrenched human idea is subject to rejection or modification on the basis of later information.Dr. Mead's findings began being challenged during her lifetime. She spoke of her Samoa book as true to the state of knowledge in the '20s.
Is there still something true in what she said about American adolescence even if her Samoan evidence was wrong? She argued that adolescence did not have to be the time of turmoil and anxiety familiar in American stereotypes. She attributed the problems to the impact of the society, not to innate biological reasons. Many American families have helped their teen-agers cope with society and proved that adolescence need not inevitably be turbulent.
Another question is the general underlying one of nature and nurture - heredity and environment - as influences on societies and individuals. The new book is said to enter in on the currently vocal heredity side in this perennial debate. But the intellectual trend is toward some kind of synthesis in which heredity plays a part but individuality emerges through acceptance or rejection of various cultural and environmental influences.
Part of the contribution of Dr. Mead's kind of cultural anthropology has been to see that people are not bound by geography, for example, since neighboring tribes can develop differing ways.
One of her latter-year assertions was that no one is limited to thinking of people as ''fragmented by our previously deficient methods of thinking about them as primarily physical or biochemical creatures.'' The notebook explorer of Samoan villages embraced the new age of communications and information. Because of it, she wrote, ''we have an opportunity to correct our mistakes, take another breath'' with a wider understanding of the needs of the whole world than human beings have ever had.
Thus, to her, the planet itself was becoming a kind of village in which what individuals do anywhere is linked to potential effects felt everywhere. She suggested that any individual act, such as sending a few dollars to relieve famine afar, offering a bribe, acting in accordance with morality or contrary to it, has a bearing on the big decisions of war and peace.
There were valuable insights here. They will be remembered whatever the scholarly judgment on Dr. Mead's early researches.