‘It is hard to reach the truth of these islands,’ observed Robert Louis Stevenson of Samoa in a letter written to a close friend in 1892, two years after the author had moved to an estate on Upolu. Stevenson, who died in 1894, could never have anticipated the prophetic dimension added to those words. Less than a century later, in the 1980s, the Western understanding of Samoan society would become the subject of a fierce and protracted international dispute among anthropologists and others that has raged ever since.
A cynic once said that the more bitter the dispute between academics the less there is at stake. But when in 1983, Derek Freeman, a New Zealand-born anthropologist based at the Australian National University, published a refutation of the fieldwork conducted in Samoa in the 1920s by his famous American colleague Margaret Mead, it wasn’t simply an intramural disagreement. Freeman seemed to call into question the most widely accepted assumption within the social sciences of what it is to be human.