From ‘malebias’ to the study of women and from the study of women to the study of gender.Reflect on the contributions of the feminist perspective to anthropology.
The evolution of feminism in anthropology has produced aninterdisciplinary approach to anthropology with regards to biological,sociological and cultural approaches to the study of societies and the peoplewithin them. The feminist movement was a fundamental one, and brought attentionto various issues within anthropology. The movement began with the explorationof male bias often seen in ethnography and has most recently been discussed incontemporary anthropology through gender constructs and associations,highlighting issues of women in all cultures and societies along the way.
Ithighlighted the importance for removing ethnocentrism from ethnography and thedanger of naturalisations, where women are often seen as connected to naturethrough their roles in reproduction (Rosaldo, 1980). The emergence of a new feminist perspective to anthropology beganin the 1970’s with the discussion of gender bias and the way in which itaffects anthropological accounts and ethnography. Though defining gender biasas a concept is hugely difficult and subjective, many anthropologists of thetime noted prominent prejudices towards the roles of males and females in thediscipline.
Rayner Reiter (1975) and Edwin Ardener (1975) became prominent inthis period as key anthropologists, explaining the issue of male bias in threeways; the methodological bias, bias within societies presented in ethnographiesand the Eurocentric western bias. Ardener (1975) elucidated the methodologicalbias as he discussed the way in which anthropology was undertaken at the time,with ethnographic most frequently obtained by males. As a result of this, thefemale point of view was severely underrepresented, and women were constrainedin anthropology. Furthermore, Reiter (1975) interpreted this first level ofmale bias through the ethnocentric views instilled in many with regards tomales being more qualified and reliable informants. The lack of femaleperspective was inherent as anthropologists undertaking fieldwork and doingdegrees most commonly were men and on the occasion, they were female they hadoften been trained by men (Reiter, 1975). In this sense, bias can be viewed asa scholarly problem of male impacted tradition (Milton, 1979). In addition, inher book, Reiter (1975) presents how it was asserted often that outsidersviewed men in other cultures more attainable to gather information from,further emphasising the prominence of the male perspective.
Male bias in anthropology can also be characterised by theanalytical problem in which rare female viewpoints are conveyed in the samemanner as a male’s (Ardener, 1975). This element of bias results in theinhibition of women’s voices and is extremely complex to rectify withinsociety. Therefore, in western patriarchal societies, is it truly possible toeradicate this level of bias? The final level of male bias discussed in thisera involves the way in which the stereotypical male domination in westerncultures superimposes the way in which imbalance between genders is explicated.This can be explained through the nature culture dichotomy. Reiter (1975)discussed how a women’s role in reproduction is constricting in anthropologyand was a driver for labour constraints and female subordination. Keesing (1985)explored the Kwaio women of Malaita, uncovering a sense of muteness of thewomen.
When Keesing (1985) was able to gather female informants to talk to, shenoticed that they would talk about the rules and responsibilities of theireveryday lives in the way they would imagine men to. The ethnographies emergingcentred on the issue on male bias acted as a way to educate others and toreassign the orientation of anthropology away from the androcentric standpointit was too frequently seen to have taken. As a 23 year old, in 1925 Margaret Mead undertook a psychologicalstudy of primitive youth in Samoa, observing and documenting biological andsocial conflicts with regards to adolescence of girls. Through her earlyfieldwork, Mead sought to challenge others to analyse cultures around the worldand was one of the first pioneers of the study of gender and sexuality. Duringher fieldwork, Mead (1977) did not fully immerse herself within the culture andonly lived with the society for 6 months, unlike suggested by the earlyfunctionalist anthropologist Malinowski (2002;1922). Mead’s ethnography wasgreatly contested by Freeman (1983) as he believed her approach of thenature-nurture debate and cultural determinism led her to focus on her beliefsand thus disregard evidence. In addition, he questioned her lack ofparticipation within all events and her alternate dedication purely to theactivities of adolescent women. Huge controversy on this study solidifies howthere was an underlying gender bias within anthropology.
As a result ofFreeman’s argument, many disregarded Mead’s ethnography or valued it lesshighly. However, it is possible that both were correct, with the constant developmentof society, and how perceptions are hugely dependent on age, gender andunderstandings of the ethnographer (Prof Theodossopoulos, 2017 lecture notes). From the discussion of male bias, the anthropology of women arose laterin the decade. Lévi-Strauss’theory of structuralism created dichotomy and inequality through the binaryopposition of ‘women’ and ‘men’ created. Within his alliance theory, Lévi-Strauss tied togetherkinship structures and the incest taboo to display the social construct of maledominance, presenting an underlying objectification of women in his theory ofthe exchange of women (Lévi-Strauss,1969). The first stage of thisprogressed feminist anthropology was distinguished as not only the study ofwomen but the study of genders and interrelationships between genders. Previousanthropology was largely focused on women in more primitive third worldstudies, whereas this stage looked at women of all cultures and societiesglobally (Lewin, 2006).
Through this approach, different ethnographies fromdifferent societies proved that culture is not universal, and no society canindividually be a microcosm of society worldwide. This stage incorporated notonly anthropology but also social science to study gender through a moreanalytical approach. Rosaldo (1980) explained through her anthropological research thatgender was not a reflection of nature and biology but instead was moulded bysocietal and political pressures inherent to different societies. As a result,gender may be defined differently in different societies therefore genderrelations and the cultural meanings of this are different.
In addition to thisRosaldo (1980) explored gender through her two analytical constructs; thepublic domain and the domestic domain. The public domain referenced the sphereof activity dominated by men such as politics and economics whereas thedomestic domain referenced the sphere of activity associated with women(Rosaldo, 1980). Through the increased stress of importance of the publicdomain, women can be perceived as undervalued. Ortner (1972) stated that the wayin which women are treated varies with different cultures and differenthistorical periods. In feminist discussions of gender in human life, it can bedifficult to constitute what a feminist point of view is as there is nodefinite way to define ‘women’ (Moore, 1988). Feminist anthropology as adiscipline can be viewed as drawing connections between gender, cultural, classand historical difference (Moore, 1988), creating a more well-roundeddiscipline. This second stage in feminist anthropology created a distinctiveperspective incorporating both men and women- the anthropology and study ofgender.
This stage explored gender identity and its cultural construction, andallowed for the discussion of issues such as the way masculinity is formulated(MacCormack and Strathern, 1980). Contributionsto this section of feminist anthropology were of value to maintain its momentum,as it may be seen as more inclusive of all viewpoints and research undertaken. Constructionof gender can be seen through lineage and kinship structure, whereby the relationshipbetween family members has an impact on the way gender is expressed andinterpreted. An example of this is seen in the Hopi of the Southwestern UnitedStates, where Schlegel analysed the social and cultural construction of genderand the consequent impacts on the hierarchy of genders and their roles in termsof the kin relationships (Sanday et al 1990). The progression of anthropology to a more feminist standpoint isof huge significance, putting emphasis on women’s lives and gender as a whole toenable people to become more aware of female ideas, inputs and influences (Rosaldo,1980). Overall, the vision of making anthropology more inclusive of allgenders, was a vision also of removing the ethnocentrism so frequently inherentin ethnographies earlier on in the twentieth century.
Though many anthropologistsin the early twentieth century were often female, the feminist movement wasable to break down societal barriers in order to enhance the existence of womenin ethnography and research (Lewin, 2006). In a way the contributions of a morefeminist perspective can be seen as having sought to break down stereotypes notonly with regards to who primarily undertakes ethnographic research but also ofgender constructs. A focus on genders and the diversity of them and theirconnections developed a more radical and modern anthropology, whereanthropologists could explore gender roles and how genders can or cannot bedefined. It may be argued that feminist anthropology has lost its force inrecent decades, perhaps eluding to the fact that women don’t see themselves tobe marginalised or outspoken (Prof Theodossopoulos, 2017 lecture notes) but ascultures develop and evolve it is still important that gender within it isstudied and explored further.