Thursday, 5 February 2009

Samoa examples of gonzo anthropology

A propos of my recent thumbnail description of gonzo anthropology, young Miss Scarlet enquired whether having sex with as many locals as possible was the principal goal of anthropological fieldwork. Rather than answer her directly, let me tell you - from a hitherto unexplored angle - the story of one of anthropology's major controversies.

In the 1920s, the young Margaret Mead, an American anthropology student, went to Samoa to do research on adolescence. Speaking no Samoan, and failing to do any gonzo anthropology herself, she formed a picture of sexual mores among the Samoans which painted a picture of a tropical paradise full of happily shagging, carefree, laughing young people.

The book she wrote detailing this conclusion - 'Coming of Age in Samoa' - was one of the most influential books of the 20th century; not merely among anthropologists but as a foundation stone of the Standard Social Science Model, the apparent triumph of 'nurture' over 'nature' explanations of human culture and character, and as a seminal (if you'll pardon the expression) text of feminism, counter-culture and 1960s-style 'free lurve'.

We then fast-forward to one Derek Freeman, who re-interviewed some of Mead's informants - now respectable Evangelical Christian grandmothers - and came to the conclusion that they had been winding Mead up for casual amusement and were in fact virgins up until marriage, in stark (as it were) contrast to Mead's fervid imaginings of goings-on among the lush tropical palms. Both Freeman's and Mead's interpretations have their supporters today, it must be said. To outline the problem, here are my own reconstructions of the kind of interviews that are alleged to have taken place.

Mead's 1920s fieldwork, according to Freeman:
Mead: Hello!
Interpreter (an overweight, overdressed and rather rumpled male missionary who has been Out Here Too Long): Hello Miss Tatala.
Samoan informant: Whassup, innit?
I: She says hello.
M: Can I talk to you about your attitude to sex?
I: Big White Mother want to tok himfella jiggy-jiggy.
SI: Whatever.
I: She says she is happy to discuss the goings-on that every night, fill the air of this very Eden with carefree laughter...
Mead: So, despite being a giggly 16-year old, are there lots of boys interested in you?
I: Them boy-fellas want jiggy-jiggy?
SI: Yeah, they all do (snigger) 'cos I'm well sexy, innit.
I: She says yes, they all desire congress with her ripe, curvaceous nymphet body, light glinting playfully from her oiled, rippling...
M: Oh my goodness! And does she, you know, do the deed with lots of them?
I: You do him jiggy-jiggy with rugger team?
SI (rolls eyes): As if! Them boys is all queuing up for it though, innit? I have to carry a whip to keep them off.
I (sweating slightly): She says she is in the regular habit of offering her lithe, sunkissed body in acts of guilt-free physical pleasure to the boys of the village, naked as God surely intended them to be; before scourging their muscular buttocks with a lash of... (starts frothing at mouth)
M: Steady on Mr Scott!
SI: Puketa!

Freeman's 1970s fieldwork, according to Mead's supporters:
Freeman: Good afternoon madame. Do I have the honour of addressing Mrs Tapuni, chairwoman of the church ladies committee? I gather that you were one Margaret Mead's informants back in your younger days.
SI (warily): Ye-essssss....
F: Well if you wouldn't mind sitting here between your husband the high court judge and your son the church minister and parliamentary candidate, I'd like to ask a few questions.
SI: I'd be glad to help, professor.
F: Is it true that you spent most of your teen years behind a coconut palm with your grass skirt around your ankles, as described in the celebrated article 'Having it off in Rumpipumpi?
SI (grinning with teeth while looking murder with eyes): Good lord no! I was pulling her leg all the time. We love a joke, we Samoans, you know; don't we Reginald?

Now it is my firm contention that had Mead done the proper gonzo anthropologist thing by dressing in a grass skirt and flower garland, shacking up with the young Reginald to learn the language without even needing to get out of bed, offered herself to the Fagamalo Rugby Club Under-19s first XV behind a coconut palm and then observed the results of this research on her standing in the community, she could have settled the question then and there.

I rest my case.


No Good Boyo said...

I hereby copyright the term "gonzo anthropology". That's a fiver you owe me already, Byard.

inkspot said...

Your final para. is a clarion call for commitment and honesty in scholarship. You, Byard, set the standard for intellectuals everywhere.

Hats off.

Gadjo Dilo said...

Yep, that's the only way to do fieldwork. There's too many academic researchers living vicariously off of the dangerous/raunchy/bonkers lives of others. In Mead and Freeman's cases, fatten them up, stick them both in a grass skirt AND a rubgy shirt, and see what happens.

scarlet-blue said...

Erm.. I think you have a point Mr Gyppo. And very fine it looks too.

Gyppo Byard said...

Boyo - I'll give you a promisory note for a fiver's worth of lucky heather.

Mr Inkspot - Why thank you! In an ideal world, I'd be teaching these research methods to impressionable female students; but alas the world is less than ideal.

Gadjo - I commend your recommendations in research design. Unfortunately, since both of them are dead, the results might tell us a few things we'd rather not know.

Scarlet - What can I do but blush and polish my point until it gleams?