Feminist anthropology

Feminist anthropology

Feminist anthropology is an approach to studying cultural anthropology that aims to correct for a perceived androcentric bias within anthropology. It came to prominence in the early 1970s, although elements of it can be seen in the works of earlier anthropologists such as Alice Fletcher, Marija Gimbutas, Margaret Ehrenberg, Emily Martin, and Margaret Mead.

Henrietta Moore's groundbreaking text, "Feminism and Anthropology", presents a feminist anthropology, based on difference and points out that gender is bound up with other markers of social difference including class, ethnicity and race which affects the experience of gender. The relationship between feminism and anthropology has been a thorny one, critiqued both from without (by what she sees as the dominant male thinking within the discipline of anthropology) and within (by feminists who find the notion of 'difference' problematic and feminists from the global South, whose voices appear further marginalised than their western 'sisters'). Social anthropology now incorporates a multiplicity of practices engaged in a wide variety of social contexts. However, it is said to be an intellectual war zone [Duley 1986] due to divisions over topics such as the definition of knowledge, which is still dominated by western thinking. Local knowledge is not seen as comparative and anthropologists producing work that draws on thinking outside of the dominant western theorising, moving it out of the centre and into the periphery may find their work sidelined and 'localised.' [Moore 1996] This is especially true with reference to anthropology's relationship with feminism over the years. Feminist anthropology was sidelined as a sub-category and as something that women did and therefore not as important to men's work in the discipline, and to some extent, continues to exist on the margins with the 'double difference' [Fleming 2006 - lecture] of a focus on women and knowledge outside the dominant western paradigms.

The theoretical school of feminist anthropology emerged in the 1970s [Soga 15/12/03] "in the form of stinging attacks on the discipline’s male bias."who [Strathern 1987:279] Reiter proposed a new understanding of the anthropology of women along with women like Slocum who argued that anthropological studies had androcentric and Eurocentric biases. Rubin [Rubin, 1975.] also introduced the 'sex/gender system,' which again distinguished biology from behaviour. [Bratton 1998] Reiter proposed that cross culturally, women and men experience gender through a number of other social markers and therefore, women's experiences were different and diverse. The most obvious contribution of feminist anthropology of this period was the increased awareness of women within anthropological analysis and theories (Soga 15/12/03). Rather than simply having a 'place' for women, feminists were asking "questions about ideologies and models that anthropologists recognised" (Strathern 1987:279).

Moore (1988) makes reference to an environment which has moved on from the notion of male bias introduced by Reiter (1975) who pioneered the focus on women outside of what she saw as the dominant western male discourse and knowledge, highlighting the importance of gender roles and relations cross culturally. In the collection of papers edited by Rieter, she shows a feminist anthropology embarking on an ideology based on difference that breaks down one of the fundamental principles of feminism, that women are universally oppressed. In the search for origins of this universal oppression of women, there was a tendency to view gender as "the creation of biologically based differences which oppose women and men, instead of as the product of social relationships in concrete (and changeable) societies" (Rosaldo 1980:393). Culture determines gender difference in such variable ways that biology cannot play a determining role as "women and men are products of social relations, if we change the social relations we change the categories 'woman' and 'man'" (Brown and Jordanova 1982 cited in Moore 1988:7). Cross-culturally, humans experience gender in different ways through a number of complexities and this therefore means that "the concept of 'woman' cannot stand as an analytical category in anthropological enquiry" (Moore 1988:7). Feminists therefore set out to rework and redefine anthropological theory to incorporate women not simply from the level of what they see as a male biased empirical research level but also to focus on "women and what women actually do not what men say they do" (Moore 1988:2). This in itself was a challenge as anthropology as a discipline "orders the world into a male idiom [. . .] because researchers are either men or women trained in a male oriented discipline"who (Moore 1988). However, although the field of feminist anthropology is rather small, they are still divided into two camps over whether or not sexual asymmetry is universal (Strathern 1987:284). These divisions contribute to one another through internal criticism and counter-criticism enabling the multiplicity of voices within feminist scholarship to speak. Homogenisation makes no sense when the essence of anthropological enquiry is to "make sense of differences, not collapse them but there is continued resistance to feminist anthropology (Strathern 1987:285-6).

Twentieth Century Social Anthropology has been concerned with universal social laws, in that anthropologists looked for common themes of truth in all societies. Up until the late 20th Century, anthropology was a masculine concept in that it was termed “the study of man.” During the post-colonial era, there was a shift to the study of ‘other’ culture. The focus was on meanings, beliefs and values encoded in world views, personal identity and material practice (Fleming 2006a). Anthropology claims to be interested in different forms of knowledge outside of western knowledge that exist throughout the world. In fact, anthropologists have “long prided themselves on the valorisation of the actor’s point of view” (Moore 1996:2). However, these ‘knowledges’ tend to be judged through what somewho see as a white, middle class, western male lens that serves to ‘other’ knowledges by judging them by privileging western discourse above all others (Fleming 2006b). Moore also notes that the definition of what constitutes knowledge is contested in that there is no doubt that local people produce local knowledge but local people are not then viewed as the producers of social science theory, that is seen as the work of the anthropologist (1996:2). Although anthropology began as the study of man, women have always been ‘included’ due to the concern within the discipline of kinship and marriage (Moore 1988:1) and it is noted by Stacey and Thorne (1981) that women made a significant imprint since the early days of anthropology (Stacey and Thorne 1981 cited in Strathern 1987:278). However, feminist analyses of anthropology states that it is not so much a problem of inclusion, that is empirical study, but one of representation. For example, Moore uses the study by Rohrlich-Leavitt et al. to illustrate this point. The study was on the different interpretations of wo/men ethnographers to the position and nature of Aboriginal women. The male ethnographers concluded that the women were profane, excluded from rituals and were unimportant within the economy. The female ethnographers on the other hand stated that the women’s roles were central to subsistence, important in rituals and were treated with respect by men. This shows that it is how women are included that is of importance (Moore 1988:1). The challenge then was to critically analyse existing anthropological literature and create new research, placing women at the centre.

Because feminist scholarship places women at the centre of enquiry they are thus seen as subjects and active agents in the gathering of knowledge (Stacey and Thorne 1985 cited in Strathern 1987:277). Feminist theory has also experienced similar problems of marginalisation and is often seen as an ‘offshoot’ of postmodernism and deconstructionism therefore is seen to be on the sidelines in anthropology (Moore 1996:4). Moore also suggests that this marginalisation and further concern of ghettoizing feminist anthropology could be explained by fears from within the ‘traditional’ practitioners that a female bias may replace what she sees as the male bias and thus force men onto the periphery (Moore 1988:5). This in fact, misses the point. Feminist anthropology is concerned not simply with the study of women but the study of gender roles and relations which include the relations between women and men, the relations between women, the relations between men “and the role of gender in structuring human societies, their histories, ideologies, economic systems and political structures (Moore 1988:6). Moore argues that much of the force of feminist research is lost through this process of segregation as there is too much focus on the ‘female point of view’ as an alternative to the ‘male point of view’ therefore, feminist anthropology is constantly defined as ‘not male’ and feeds the fear from the feminist anthropologist’s ‘side’ of marginalisation (Moore 1988:5). However, feminist theory has not escaped hierarchy in the construction of knowledge. Predominately, feminism has been associated with western, white middle-class women although women of ‘other’ cultures have been producing feminist analyses for many years. Moreover, in Latin American, working class and ‘poor’ women’s movements of the ‘Global South’ began to develop their own kinds of feminisms that came to be known as grassroots feminism because these women did not identify with the ‘traditional’ feminism advocated by middle class women (Fisher 1993:187). In anthropology however, western views of feminisms tended to be the lens of enquiry using western notions of so called women’s oppression to study ‘other’ societies. Moore states that this bias is inherent in the society being studied because it is these ‘traditional’ views of women’s oppression within gender relations that is likely to be communicated by the enquiring anthropologists as well as inherent bias from western culture in that they are likely to assume certain perceived asymmetries to be analogous to their own experiences of the unequal and hierarchical nature of gender relations in western society (Moore 1988:2). Feminist anthropology challenges this by attempting to speak about women’s experiences not for them. This is a fundamental difference from the ‘anthropology of women,’ which unintentionally found itself speaking for other women. However, speaking about women is a complex process (Moore 1988:191).

The position of feminist anthropology as a ‘double difference’ was introduced by Reiter in 1975 as the anthropologists own bias and the social reflection of what they saw as male bias whereby anthropologists are blinkered by their own cultures and their own academic training which “reflects, supports and extends the assumption of male superiority to which our culture subscribes” (Reiter 1975:13). Whilst the field of feminist anthropology has moved forward from what they saw as male bias, it appears to have found it more difficult to break down the hierarchy of knowledge and can continue to reinforce a Western bias. That is, the cultural identity of the anthropologist. Rosaldo argued that instead of using anthropology to provide “comparative insights,” it was used by many feminists to locate the present in the past therefore ignoring historical diversity (Rosaldo 1980). However, due to the advancements in feminist theories of difference and diversity (see Mohanty; Jayawardena) it is no longer possible to talk about the position of women as a homogenous group. Moreover, part of feminist theory has been to scrutinise western constructs (Strathern 1987:278). Nicholson (1982) and Rosaldo (1980) point out that there is a grave danger in feminist analysis that we create evidence of ‘others’ by so called ‘universal’ assumptions rooted in our own culture into places they may not belong (Nicholson 1982; Rosaldo 1980). This resulted in a lack of understanding of ‘third world’ women’s diverse experiences. Many feminist anthropologists had viewed women elsewhere as “ourselves undressed and the historical specificity of their lives and of our own becomes obscured” (Rosaldo 1980: 392). These are the notions that Reiter in the 1970’s and more recently, Moore were attempting to challenge, deconstruct and ultimately correct.

In the 1980s feminist anthropology moved to cross-cultural analysis on women and gender issues (Soga 15/12/03). However, it is argued that the feminist movement of the 1970s and 1980s that was ‘led’ by white-middle class women failed to consider a variety of divisions within women and perhaps, unintentionally, homogenised women through seeking universality of women’s oppression (Soga 15/12/03) instead focused on proving commonality. One of theseclarifyme was to look for male dominance in societies. Whilst appearing universal towho, male dominance “does not in actual behavioural terms assume a universal content or a universal shape” but is an aspect of the organisation of collective life. Therefore, this makes this ‘fact’ rather problematic (Rosaldo 1980:394) along with some other presumed ‘universal facts’ on women’s oppression such as the public/private divide as an explanation for what they see as male dominance (Rosaldo 1980:396). Rosaldo argues that the very problem in the relationship between feminism and anthropology is this tendency to rely on universal ‘truths’ when constructing lines of enquiry which has helped to create an atmosphere of inadequate understanding of individuals who create social relationships who are in turn social creations themselves (Rosaldo 1980:416-5).

A new trend started in the late 1980s, pioneered by Moore’s work and led to a greater multicultural focus in the 1990s and the present. In the 1990s women’s studies changed to gender studies, reflecting a more comprehensive perspective (Bratton 1998) and that the study of gender had become a field in its own right (Strathern 1989:278). “Being categorized as woman no longer supersedes other distinctions and roles” and it is increasingly “acknowledged that all women do not have the same universal needs and experiences” (Bratton 1998). However, because the study of women challenges the ‘status-quo’ it is said by Langland and Gove (1983) to have had little or no impact on ‘traditional’ disciplines (Langland and Gove 1983 cited in Strathern 1987:280). Strathern also notes that because there is a degree of tolerance of feminist scholarship as simply one approach out of many, a ‘speciality’ (Strathern 1987:280). Feminist inspired anthropologists challenge the foundations of anthropological ‘knowledge’ by asking questions about male bias and are therefore ‘sectioned off’ from the mainstream (Strathern 1987:281).

Feminist anthropologists have been exploring new, experimental forms of ethnographic writing including using a variety of viewpoints, the researchers’ own thoughts and experiences in their ethnography as well as women of colour writing about their cultures for themselves and challenging other anthropologists to take their voices into account (Soga 15/12/03). Slocum noted that “it is difficult challenging the conventional wisdom” (Slocum 1975 in Reiter 1975) and feminist anthropology’s main focus is exactly this: to rework and redefine anthropological theory (Moore 1988:2). Strathern argues that tension between feminism and anthropology is self sustaining in that “each so nearly achieves what the other aims for as an ideal relation with the world” and because feminist scholarship is in essence challenging stereotypes that misrepresent women’s experiences, it is developed as a weapon against the orthodoxy (Strathern 1987:287) there is no doubt that it will be seen as threatening to traditional models and theories within anthropology. Therefore, practitioners of feminist anthropology are themselves ‘othered’ and remain outside of those who are ‘experienced,’ that is, the orthodox which becomes the instrument of knowledge that can only be appropriated and shared by like minded persons (Strathern 1987:288). To turn this on its head, for feminist anthropology to create a space for the self and expose and destroy the orthodox, it is necessary to have a ‘nonfeminist’ other – most generally conceived as patriarchy (Strathern 1987:288) but can also be seen as the orthodox. Therefore it is possible to see a dialogue between feminism and anthropology whereby each has the potential to undermine the other (Strathern 1987:289).

In the current climate, however, it is questionable whether feminist anthropology can penetrate into the mainstream disciplines and knowledge to the extent it was visioned by Reiter in 1975 so that what sort of knowledge and whose knowledge is broken down and deconstructed thus creating an atmosphere that is inclusive for all voices as anthropology is still considered to be ethnocentric. For example, Cornwall (2007) notes that although difference and diversity is increasingly acknowledged, the language of mainstream disciplines (Cornwall uses development paradigms to explain this) fails to resonate with women’s lived experiences of the many different tones, textures and colours because it is not seen to neatly ‘fit’ within the existing agendas. [Cornwall 2007.] Because feminist anthropology is concerned with gendered power relations and frequently finds them unequal, it can never be truly accepted as a mainstream discourse because it essentially is challenging the mainstream. Although wewho have begun a “discovery of women,” what we can know is limited by the questions we ask and ultimately, how we write women. [Rosaldo 1980: 389-90] Strathern (1987) argues that the fact that feminist theory cuts across an array of disciplines, in that it can serve to modify work in a discipline, means that it can never be parallel with them. [Strathern 1987: 276]



Books and Articles

Duley, Margot I. and Mary I. Edwards. (1986) "The Cross-Cultural Study of Women: A Comprehensive Guide". New York, NY: Feminist Press. cite book|title=|isbn=0935312455|oclc=9784721

Moore, Henrietta L. (1988) "Feminism and Anthropology", Polity Press: Cambridge. cite book|title=|isbn=0-8166-1748-1|oclc=18259349

Moore, Henrietta L. (1996) "The Future of Anthropological Knowledge", London; New York: Routledge, cite book|title=|isbn=0-4151-0786-5|oclc=32924172

Nicholson, L. (1982) ‘Article Review on Rosaldo’s “The Use and Abuse of Anthropology,”’ in "Signs", Vol 7, No. 42, pp732-735Citation|title=|issn=0097-9740

Reiter, Rayna R. (1975) ed. "Toward an Anthropology of Women", Monthly Review Press: New York. cite book|title=|isbn=0853453721|OCLC= 1501926

Rosaldo, M.Z. (1980) “The Use and Abuse of Anthropology: Reflections on Feminism and Cross-Cultural Understanding,” in "Signs", Vol 5, No3, pp389-417 Citation|title=|issn=0097-9740

Strathern, M (1987) “An Awkward Relationship: The Case of Feminism and Anthropology,” in "Signs", Vol. 12, No. 2, pp276-292Citation|title=|issn=0097-9740

Electronic ResourcesBratton, A. (May 1998) Feminist Anthropology http://www.indiana.edu/~wanthro/fem.htmSoga, K. “Feminist Anthropology” (15/12/03), Summary of McGee, R et al. (2004) Anthropological Theory: An Introductory History, New York: McGraw Hill. Accessed through Minnesota State University’s ‘e-museum.’ http://www.mnsu.edu/emuseum/cultural/anthropology/Feminist%20Frame.html

Other Resources

Fleming, L (2006a) Lecture notes, Middlesex University, Enfield.

Fleming, L (2006b) Lecture notes, Middlesex University, Enfield.

See also

*Margaret Ehrenberg
*Louise Lamphere
*Catherine Lutz
*Phyllis Kaberry
*Emily Martin
*Sherry Ortner
*Michelle Rosaldo
*Adrienne L. Zihlman
*Gayle Rubin
*Edwin Ardner

External links

* [http://sscl.berkeley.edu/~afaweb/reviews/index.html Association for Feminist Anthropology]
* [http://www.mnsu.edu/emuseum/cultural/anthropology/Feminist%20Anthropology.html Overview of Feminist Anthropology]
* [http://www.as.ua.edu/ant/Faculty/murphy/feminism.htm Anthropological Theories: Feminist Anthropology]
* [http://www.indiana.edu/~wanthro/fem.htm Page on feminist anthropology from Indiana University]

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