Have you ever noticed something strange when you travel? You realize that there is a separate world out there with its own logic, its own way of life and its own kind of people.
The philosophical doctrine of relativism had its foundation in the Sophists who were great travellers of ancient Greek times. Relativism implies that there are multiplicities of forms abound in the world – for instance, in some cultures, the beef hamburger is a defining symbol, but in India it’s the sacred cow. When one travels, one discovers the intricacies of relativism. That relativism has a humbling effect – it makes us give up our egocentrism. Travel, then, changes our fundamental assumptions.
Anthropology is a science whose defining component is travel. The method of ethnography requires the anthropologist to travel to another land and living among other people, in order to document their culture. The discipline of anthropology is about travel, investigation, and discovery.
Anthropology arose out of such quests of meeting another human being. Meeting another culture that lies at the cusp between relatedness and separation. All babies cry when they are hungry, that is universal. But who cares for them and how many people, that is culturally specific. We can all relate to the universal actions, however it is in the separation, that we are awe-struck at the idiosyncrasies of cultures. There are cultures such as the Efe society in which the average number of caregivers of an infant is more than ten, while in America, as in multiple West-influenced nations, it is two.
One of the most critically acclaimed genres of American literature, and cinema, is the ‘coming of age’ genre. Coming of age in Western popular culture means the turbulent transition from boyhood to adulthood –it is the liminal period of adolescence. Perhaps, however, ‘coming of age’ can mean a multiplicity of things. There is no single story of ‘coming of age’ – it need not be a time of rebellious tantrums and anti-authoritarian attitudes.
The infamous pictures of American youth rebellion range from the flower-power in the 70s hippie movement, to the troubled problem-teenagers of the punk and grunge subcultures in the 80s and 90s. The consistent theme has been one of ‘growing pains’. All over the world, we consider a certain juvenile delinquency in youth as a rite of passage. With features such as a reckless abandon of law, ambivalence with authority and a withdrawal from responsibility at just the juncture of life, when one is expected to take on the role of the adult. When we watch certain movies, read particular books of only one culture, we implicitly internalize those cultural values. With the global idealization of Hollywood, these are assumptions that have become normalized.
However, by reading anthropological work, we unmask the plurality of life across the globe. This is what Margaret Mead sets out to investigate in her book, Coming of Age in Samoa, that was published in the year 1928. She took the concept of youth, and saw that it had two varied definitions arising from different formations in the culture of American society and Samoan society. Mead seeks to draw a comparison between the rebellious nature of American youth, and the casualness of Samoan youth.
Mead begins with an examination of households – the primary site of socialization. The Samoan household is characterized by casualness and a lack of intensity of feelings such as jealousy, love, hate and revenge. The child from an early age learns that they are not to set high hopes on any one relationship, and the cultural lesson is one of ‘not caring’ in their avoidance of conflict. This is because of the structure of the household in which there are a large number of caregivers – the child develops emotional attachments to a whole range of actors, rather than just the mother and the father. The child does not develop any specialized feeling for any member for instance; she does not love her mother any more than her aunt.
This is in contrast to the American lifestyle where the household is a daily soap opera of intense feelings of love, hate, sibling rivalry and parental conflict. The Oedipus and Electra complex that Freud envisioned are summaries of the domestic household as a theatrical space. Can we imagine an Oedipus complex in Samoa where there are no intensity of emotions, and a large number of caregivers?
Mead points towards another fundamental difference about choices. The Western world is characterized by a ‘burden of choice’, she claims, which is not only about which flavor of ice-cream to have out of the 32 available, but also about which way of life to follow. One can choose to be whomever they want, as there is no defined path. Perhaps, this is why American youth take many years to ‘find themselves’. Each family member represents his or her own standards of morality. What this means is that in the same household, while the mother may be a Orthodox Christian, the father may be an atheist. Each member may represent a distinctive philosophy, but these philosophies are only half-complete. And that is what is especially confusing to the child because no philosophy can answer all the questions of modern existence, such as where do we come from, and what is my purpose here, and so on. For instance, Christianity may give him a purpose, but may not be able to explain the social inequality abound in society and so, he turns to Marxism. Every ‘ism’ is only a half-truth. There is a range of choices of conduct that a child must choose from. This is the burden of choice.
In Samoa, there is only one standard of conduct or morality given by each of these caregivers, such as each of them only worships one god, and follows one religion. There is a seamless connection between the individual and society, such that the way of life defined by societal dictums is also an internalized desire of the individual.
The Samoan culture has no sharp break between adulthood and childhood – a child is given tasks similar to adults, such as an elder sister may be expected to care for the young children in the family. The child is made to believe that she is a productive member of society. When they grow up, they will not look upon their childhood as just a period of leisure and free time, that they must distance themselves from, and so will find joy in work throughout their life.
Whereas in America, childhood is characterized by frivolous play. The child is always given toys, not tools. There is a pathological infanticization of the child such that a discontinuity is created between the responsible, productive adult and the senseless, dependent child. The child is made to disown his childhood and adopt a diametrically opposite mode of existence – from play to work, and leisure to production.
Mead’s conclusion is that coming of age need not be a conflict-ridden time. The pathology reflected in the American youth is a result of a particular construction of household, morality and childhood. Read this book for a perspective on Relativism. It is a glance at another way of life. Reading anthropology is a journey that will only make one wiser.