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“Twixt the Cup and the Lip:” Field Notes on the Way to Print

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  13 May 2014

David Henige*
University of Wisconsin–Madison


Typically—very typically—fledgling African historians launch their careers by engaging in a bout of fieldwork, sometimes in archives, but more often on location among a group of people whose activities have somehow captured their interest. Almost as typically, this work in the field then becomes the principal source for historians' future published work, which often never proceeds beyond the bounds set by the initial fieldwork.

In this process of course the data accumulated in the field—field notes—become, possibly over and over again, the primary sources for this subsequent work. In some ways this process is not particularly different from that undertaken by other historians who use printed sources more heavily. There are differences, though, not the least of which is that these orally derived field notes grow stale with the passing of time and cannot be revivified as easily as archival notes.

Moreover, of course, far more often than not, field notes are never allowed to escape into the public domain, whereas archival sources are usually already there when the historian sets about using them. What were once laboriously handwritten notebooks, and then audio tapes are now more likley to be 3.5″ diskettes, but otherwise they are as jealously guarded in the 1990s as they were in the 1950s. Indeed, perhaps moreso, in that the usable lifespan of a diskette is likely to be significantly less than that of the notebook, if not of the audio tape. In short, in perhaps twenty years posterity will find itself forced to rely on the published products—maybe yet in paper format?—rather than on the raw data which once underpinned them. In the circumstances, it might be worth considering once again the implications of this, with reference to a particular instance of respectable vintage.

Research Article
Copyright © African Studies Association 1998

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1 See especially Shankman, Paul, “The History of Samoan Sexual Conduct and the Mead-Freeman Controversy,” American Anthropologist, 98 (1996), 555–67.CrossRefGoogle Scholar For an African restudy, with much the same results, see van Beek, Walter E.A., “Dogon Restudied: a Field Evaluation of the Work of Marcel Griaule,” Current Anthropology, 32 (1991), 139–67.Google Scholar

2 Novate CA., 1996.

3 Orans, , Not Even Wrong, 10Google Scholar

4 Ibid., 12

5 Orans, , Not Even Wrong, 1718Google Scholar

6 Ibid., 18

7 Ibid., 21–23. In a few other cases, Samoan words spelled correctly in her notes became misspelled in Coming of Age.

8 Ibid., 22–23; cf. ibid., 65–70, and Mead, , Coming of Age in Samoa. A Psychological Study of Primitive Youth for Western Civilization (New York, 1968), 260, 262.Google Scholar

9 Ibid., 282

10 Orans, , Not Even Wrong, 2425Google Scholar; cf. Mead, , Coming of Age, 260.Google Scholar

11 Orans, , Not Even Wrong, 2427Google Scholar, lists several other examples where numbers conflict from one stage of Mead's work to another, or where there exist discrepant totals and sub-totals in the same set of data.

12 Ibid., 64; for examples see ibid., 63–67.

13 Orans, ibid., 53, suggests that “[p]erhaps material found in the typewritten account is information that Mead remembered but had not transcribed.” Although not to be rejected out of hand, as a covering explanation this seems too generous.

14 Ibid., 82

15 For a few exceptions see ibid., 113–14

16 Ibid., 89

17 See especially Freeman, Derek, “Fa'apua'a Fa'amu and Margaret Mead,” American Anthropologist, 91 (1989), 1017–22.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

18 Margaret Mead to Frank R. Lillie, 6 January 1926, quoted in Orans, , Not Even Wrong, 97Google Scholar

19 Just the same Lowell Holmes was to note thirty years later that he found sex to be the “most difficult of all areas of [Samoan] culture to discuss.” Holmes, Lowell D., “A Restudy of Manu'an Culture: A Problem in Methodology” (PhD., Northwestern, 1957), viiGoogle Scholar, quoted in Orans, , Not Even Wrong, 102.Google Scholar Still, Holmes found himself supporting most of Mead's conclusions; whether he wondered how she was able to reach them so quickly is not clear, although he wondered whether his own married status put obstacles in his way. For a critique of Lowell's views see ibid., 101–09.

20 In his most recent discussion of the matter, Freeman retains the notion of hoaxing, and also speaks of a new work in progress, which is to be “based on a detailed study of all the available primary source materials, including Mead's own papers.” See Freeman, Derek, “Paradigms in Collision: Margaret Mead's Mistake and What it has Done to Anthropology,” Skeptic, 5/3 (1997), 6673.Google Scholar Presumably he will respond to Orans' claims in this.

21 Ibid., 107, while adding that Freeman in his turn “reverses the emphasis so as to produce the maximum contrast.”

22 Ibid., 110–21

23 Ibid., 124

24 Mead to Franz Boas, 5 January 1926, quoted in ibid., 125

25 Boas to Mead, 15 February 1926, quoted in ibid., 128

26 Ibid., 122–25, 130

27 Ibid., 128–31, 141–42

28 Ibid., 127

29 Ibid., 133

30 Ibid., 132

31 Ibid.

32 Early returns suggests he is right; see the reviews by Preuss, Paul, San Francisco Review (July-August 1996), 8Google Scholar, and Lapsley, Hilary, Journal of the Polynesian Society, 106 (1997), 101–02Google Scholar, both of which explicitly disagree that the “human sciences” should be held to so high a standard in regard to falsifiability.

33 See ibid., 131–40 passim. Orans uses the occasion to comment unfavorably on the current notion of “multiple truths.”

34 E.g., Orans points out that theories of cultural domination are less amenable to racist emanations than those in which nature is held to predominate. Because of this—among other things—Mead's portrayal of Samoa has had a longer life that most such formulations; in effect she had the advantage of suiting up for the majority view: ibid., 4–9.

35 Ibid., 140

36 Ibid., 156–57. Orans, ibid., 154, also notes that, given the gulf between her evidence as presented and her assertions, Mead could just as well as argued the contrary case as effectively, subject to the caveats just mentioned.

37 The word is Orans' and probably is an inappropriate use of the term; on the other hand, one need not be “scientific” to tie evidence and argument and to present a case in such a way that it permits, even encourages, attempts at falsification.

38 There have been a few studies—though enough to cause concern—of this phenomenon in the travel literature of the late nineteenth century. See, e.g., Johnson, Marion, “News From Nowhere: Duncan and ‘Adofoodia’,” HA 1 (1974), 5566Google Scholar; Dawson, Marc H., “The Many Minds of Sir Halford J. Mackinder: Dilemmas of Historical Editing,” HA 14 (1987), 2742Google Scholar; Helly, Dorothy O., Livingstone's Legacy: Horace Waller and Victorian Mythmaking (Athens, OH, 1987)Google Scholar; Finkelstein, David, “Breaking the Thread: the Authorial Reinvention of John Hanning Speke in his Journal of the Discovery of the Source of the Nile,” Text 9 ([1996]), 280–96.Google Scholar

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