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Coming of age with Dr. Mead

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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.

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