I have been reading several books on anthropology recently and decided to revisit a classic, the 1928 book Coming of Age in Samoa by Margaret Mead. This was Mead’s first book, published in 1928 when she was just 27 and was based on nine months field work in 1924 on the island of Tu’a in American Samoa and it made her famous. She was investigating whether the conflicts that seemed to arise in the US between adolescent girls and their parents after they reached puberty was biologically based or was because of the cultural context in which they grew up.
Mead was part of the anthropology program at Columbia University and Barnard College directed by Franz Boas that claimed that evidence showed that race, sexuality, and gender were not fixed, biologically determined categories but were fluid and a product of culture. Boaz expanded on these themes when he wrote in the Foreword to Mead’s book, “Courtesy, modesty, good manners, conformity to definite ethical standards are universal, but what constitutes courtesy, modesty, very good manners, and definite ethical standards is not universal. It is instructive to know that standards differ in the most unexpected ways.”
Mead spent her time studying the life of the people, especially the women and young girls, in three small, almost contiguous, villages on the island of Taʻū and her conclusion was that Samoan girls had a much less turbulent transition to adulthood than American girls and thus the issue was cultural, not biological. In her last two chapters, she speculated as to possible factors and suggested that American youths were faced with a bewildering variety of beliefs and lifestyles, even within their families and small communities, and subjected to too much pressure to choose and thus had to make difficult decisions about what they were going to do with their lives and what they should believe, whereas in Samoa there was much more uniformity and what was expected of young people changed gradually as they got older and reached adulthood, making the transition smoother. Another factor was the casualness of the society since she wrote “Samoa is a place where no one plays for very high stakes, no one pays very high prices, no one suffers for his convictions, or fights to the death for special ends”. A big factor in reducing stress was the ease with which young people, if they felt they were being treated badly at home, could simply pick up and move to the nearby home of a relative. This possibility tended to prevent adults from treating children too harshly for fear of losing a valuable source of labor, while in the US young people in difficult households felt trapped.
Mead’s work in Samoa came in for some criticism decades later with some suggesting that she had idealized the lives of the villagers and that Samoan girls had sometimes been pulling her leg with their stories of sexual freedom and experimentation. But in general her work seems to have held up and the many communities she studied in the Pacific seem to have held her in high regard. She received a very warm welcome on her return to the island in 1971 and her death in 1978 was commemorated in Manus, Papua New Guinea with the kinds of ceremonies that are normally only given at the deaths of high chiefs.
I decided to look into how much Samoa had changed since Mead’s first visit nearly 100 years ago. One major change is that the old-style beehive houses with thatched roofs have been replaced with modern homes. But what was most impressive is that the entire island, which once depended on kerosene lamps and wood for light and energy, is now completely powered by solar energy delivered via microgrids, completely bypassing the stage that the developed world now finds hard to shake off, with most of the power coming from fossil fuels.
I expect that those parts of the world that are currently not reached by traditional power grids will also likely go straight to solar energy and microgrids. It is an example of ‘leapfrogging technology’, where communities that were once technologically behind, are suddenly able to move ahead of the developed world because they are not burdened with legacy technology and infrastructure and can more easily adopt the latest technology.
Mobile phones are another example of leapfrogging. In an article on climate change in The New Yorker, Elizabeth Kolbert describes what happened in India.
In 1947, the year India gained its independence, telephones were a rarity in the nation; there were fewer than a hundred thousand in the entire country. In the decades that followed, they remained scarce; as late as 1989, India had just four million phones for eight hundred and fifty million people. Three-quarters of rural villages lacked any phone connection at all; the official wait time for a line was almost four years, and, when one was finally installed, service was often dismal.
Then, practically all at once, phones were ringing everywhere. In 1994, the country auctioned off its first round of cellular licenses. The auction process was deemed “a mess”; nevertheless, cell service exploded. By 2010, six hundred million Indians were subscribers. (The country’s 2011 census revealed that more households had phones than had toilets.) In 2015, cell subscriptions hit a billion. India effectively skipped fixed-line phones and went straight to wireless, a process that’s become known as leapfrogging.
I recall visiting Sri Lanka some decades ago when cell phones were just starting to make their appearance in the US and being startled to see that most people in Sri Lanka were already using mobile phones, including the drivers of three-wheelers and street fruit and vegetable vendors. This was because the old landline phones were limited in their availability and it took years for people to get one and were expensive. My family always had one but that was because my father’s work for the state bank required him to have one and so we got one immediately wherever we moved. Our phone became the one that the neighborhood used when they had an emergency. When mobile phones came along that did not require the laying down of physical wiring, suddenly phones were within reach of everyone. The same thing happened with TV. Sri Lanka did not adopt TV until the late 1970s and went straight into color TV, bypassing the black-and-white stage.