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John Derek Freeman (1916–2001)

by James J. Fox

Derek Freeman was born in Wellington on 16 August 1916. After studying philosophy and psychology at Victoria University College, he was introduced to anthropology in a graduate seminar taught by Ernest Beaglehole and was inspired to do research in the Pacific.

He obtained a position as schoolteacher in Western Samoa where he taught and did his first fieldwork from April 1940 to November 1943. Having learned Samoan, he was adopted as the son of the talking chief, Lauvi Vainu'u of Sa'anapu, and, in January 1943, had conferred upon him the high chiefly title of Logona-i-Taga, a title he bore proudly throughout his life.

In late 1943, he joined the Royal New Zealand Volunteer Naval Reserve and served in Europe and the Far East. While in Borneo, in 1945, he had his first encounter with the Iban, with whom he was, later, to carry out his most important ethnographic research.

After the war, in 1946, he enrolled in Anthropology at the London School of Economics and wrote his first thesis on a Samoan village community based on his earlier research in Sa'anapu. On its completion he was given the opportunity of fieldwork among the Iban of Sarawak. Prior to his departure for Sarawak, in November 1949, he married Monica Maitland who became his life's companion. She joined him in a longhouse in the Baleh region where they lived until February 1951.

On his return to England, he transferred to Cambridge University where Meyer Fortes was professor of social anthropology. There Freeman became a member of King's College and, in addition to his doctorate, wrote what is regarded as one of the classic monographs in social anthropology, Report on the Iban. His research on the social organisation of the Iban and Samoa was innovative in its exploration of individual choices involved in attachments to groups rather than on rules of obligatory behaviour.

Shortly after the completion of the thesis on the Iban, Siegfried Nadel, the Foundation Professor of Anthropology at The Australian National University invited Freeman to Canberra where he was appointed Senior Fellow in the Research School of Pacific Studies in February 1955. His entire career, until his retirement as Professor and Head of Department, was spent at the ANU.

Through the 1950s, Freeman continued to write on the Iban. His major monographs, Iban Agriculture and Report on the Iban were published in 1955 and there followed a stream of important essays including a prize winning paper on the concept of the kindred.

By the early 1960s, he had begun to question the narrow basis of the anthropological methods and theory he had been taught and turned to an exploration of psychoanalysis, ethology and evolutionary biology. Freeman was a pioneer in envisioning an ethology of human behaviour.

It was on his return voyage to Australia in 1964 that Freeman reread, after many years, Margaret Mead's Coming of Age in Samoa and was perturbed by what he regarded as the book's culturalist and relativist premises and its lack of any biological understanding of adolescent behaviour. He resolved to resume his own researches from his newfound behavioural and philosophical perspectives.

Two years later, with his wife and daughters, Freeman went to live in the village of Sa'anapu in 1966-67. He visited Manu'a, the main location of Mead's research, and began his own enquiries, which eventually led to his refutation of Mead's work.

Freeman saw Mead's Coming of Age in Samoa as a pivotal volume in the development of an anthropology grounded in relativism and cultural determinism. In a series of papers and lectures from the late 1960s onward, he advanced his own alternative, biologically attuned view of cultural behaviour. He proposed an "interactionist paradigm" based on an evolutionary understanding of human nature that emphasises individuals' capacities for choice and the consequences of these choices for the adaptive diversity of human cultures.

Through the 1970s, as he continued to develop his ideas, Freeman took on new responsibilities as Chair of the Anthropology Department and served as supervisor for a succession of PhD students doing ethnographic research on Borneo and Samoa. One of these doctoral students was the Iban, James Masing, whose thesis, published as The Coming of the Gods, is a translation and analysis of a long invocatory chant, which Freeman recorded over a period of five days and nights in 1949. The preservation and translation of this magnificent example of Iban oral literature is a monumental contribution to the heritage of Southeast Asia.

During the 1970s Freeman also became involved with aboriginal communities in the Kimberleys and was a public advocate of aboriginal rights.

Freeman's book, Margaret Mead and Samoa: The Making and Unmaking of an Anthropological Myth, was completed prior to his retirement in 1982 and appeared in 1983. Even before its publication by Harvard University Press, a lead article in the New York Times prompted an outcry and a rush to defend Mead's reputation as America's most illustrious anthropologist.

Freeman's response to the controversy surrounding his first book was to write a sequel, The Fateful Hoaxing of Margaret Mead. This book is a meticulous and engagingly sympathetic account of Mead's time in Samoa based mainly on her own diaries and letters now held in the Library of Congress.

The controversy over these books has yet to subside. David Williamson made it the subject of his play, Heretic, posing Freeman and Mead as two headstrong protagonists in the central debate over nature/nurture. The play vividly portrayed Freeman's intellectual journey in rethinking the foundations for social science. Certainly he revelled in the label, heretic, and indeed titled one of his important theoretical papers, "In praise of heresy".

Throughout his life, Freeman was a man concerned with ideas whose implications he pursued with tireless vigour. The journalist who wrote the initial article that set off the Mead controversy sent Freeman a note expressing his hope that he would "survive the fall-out". He did indeed survive and moreover thrived. For 20 years in his retirement, he kept up a steady stream of answers to critics.

From an early age, Freeman was an avid mountain climber who scaled mountains around the world. Until his heart failed him, he continued climbing new intellectual peaks and developing passionate personal interests. He is survived by his wife, Monica, his daughters Jennifer and Hilary, and grandchildren, Ryan, Cara and Elana.

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Citation details

James J. Fox, 'Freeman, John Derek (1916–2001)', Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, accessed 20 April 2024.

© Copyright Obituaries Australia, 2010-2024

Life Summary [details]


16 August, 1916
Wellington, New Zealand


6 July, 2001 (aged 84)
Canberra, Australian Capital Territory, Australia

Cultural Heritage

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