History and theory in anthropology
How has Feminism influenced ethnographic writing in the later part of the Twentieth Century?
"Feminist scholarship has sought not only to radicalise individual disciplines, but also to establish new research procedures, new standards for research and new relationships between academic theory and practice" (Moore 1988: 196).
The second wave of Feminism, which came into itself in the 1960s and 1970s, not only hit social life with great force, but also entered the academic world bringing with it new ideas, methods and arguments. The field of ethnography was no exception, and the impact of Feminism on ethnographic research and writing can clearly be seen in many publications. The fact that Feminists had such clear ideas about what they believed and hoped to achieve meant that their impact was clearly felt throughout. This essay will examine the discipline of anthropology and assess the changes and features which can be seen in publications in order to see to what extent Feminism has influenced ethnographic writing in the later part of the twentieth century.
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Although women had been present in ethnographic studies for some time, it was not until the Feminist movement began to spread its ideas that women began to be examined within societies. Ardener (1975) states that despite numerous ethnographies being produced in the early days of anthropology, direct references to women were extremely scarce, with women being "there in the same way as were the Nuer's cows" (Ardener 1975:4). This seeming un-interest in women could have been down to the male bias which existed within the field. Three main types of bias were active within ethnographic fieldwork: the bias of the ethnographer in the male dominated anthropological discipline, the bias inherent in the society in which the ethnographer was working, and the bias which existed strongly in western society.
Ardener (1975) argued that within a society, control over expression is held by dominant groups. These dominant groups are usually males, with women being a "muted group", and thus their experiences were rarely documented. Women were not represented by anthropology, but rather were only studied in their relation to areas in which males are present, such as within marital exchange. Ardener (1975) refers to "technical" and "analytical" biases present within anthropology, and by uncovering such biases it became possible to counter them within ethnographic writing. Technical biases within ethnography were to do with the fact that in many cultures and societies the women present were unable to communicate with the anthropologist. This was usually because they were unlikely to speak the language of the anthropologist, and also that any translator in the community was likely to be male. Ardener maintained that many ethnographers viewed women in a society as unable to communicate even when they were able to speak the same language as they "giggle when young, snort when old, reject the question, laugh at the topic, and the like" (Ardener 1975:2). It was statements and ideas such as this which increased the need for anthropology to be rid of its biases if an accurate view of culture was ever to be obtained. Ardener's statements of "analytical" bias were based on ethnographies written after a society had been studied. It was argued that this data would be hugely inaccurate as the model of the society described was generally only a model based on the male portion of the society, meaning the females went largely undocumented (Ardener 1975:3). Feminist thought uncovered and deconstructed these biases meaning that they could be countered. It cannot be stated that without the Feminist movement such biases would not have surfaced, but it can be said that the Feminist way of thought enabled these problems to come to the forefront of the minds of ethnographers.
This meant that future ethnographic fieldwork, especially that conducted by women, would be split much more equally among the sexes. Additionally, the fact that more women felt able to be involved with ethnographic research and writing during, and after, the Feminist movement, meant that these biases would become less of an issue as time progressed.
The Feminist movement places importance on countering the assumptions that women are inferior to men within society. The biases which existed within anthropology had their roots in these assumptions and ideas, and thus feminist anthropologists aimed to prove women's importance.
Rosaldo and Lamphere (1974) addressed why women are seen as inferior to men among many traditions and cultures. It is stated that the cultural role of women as the mothers and carers of children places them firmly within the domestic domain. However, men are seen as the breadwinners, those people who will work outside of the home and family compound, thus meaning they are associated with the public sphere. It is because men are seen to control the public sphere that they are viewed as having a greater level of authority and power than women, and women are often undervalued as the majority of their work takes place within the private sphere. This idea is not dissimilar to that put forwards by Ortner (1974) when she argues that women are associated with nature, and men with culture. This is said to be because women are closer to nature as it is them who give birth, and men exist outside the home in the public sphere, associating them with culture.
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However, these ideas have been criticised by some, as the idea of domesticity is said to be one which is rooted in Western ideals. Additionally Leacock (1978) has studied the origins of society and subsequently argued that the distinction between public and private spheres did not exist among foragers, and as such the subordination of women only came into existence with the growth of private property (Leacock 1978).
Despite these arguments, the ideas put forwards by Rosaldo and Lamphere and Ortner meant that rather than women being seen as less important within a society, they were started to be studied in their own spaces. Assessing the importance from within the private sphere in which they act meant that women's roles were often shown to be much more important than they once originally thought to have been. These theories have also held influence over the way which women are studied and written about within ethnography, as the subordination of women is shown not to be "natural".
Feminism influenced ethnographic writing insomuch as the idea of breaking down assumed identities and naturalisations was brought to the forefront of ethnographers' minds and research. This social process of legitimising cultural beliefs by assuming that they are natural, and thus that they are not only acceptable but also correct, was challenged by feminism thinking. The exploitation of women, and additionally the ignoring of women within anthropology, was thought to be natural and therefore acceptable. However, feminism stressed that social roles are never natural, rather they are socially constructed, meaning that there is no "correct" position. This influenced ethnographic writing as ethnographers sought to include women in their studies, and biases within fieldwork were further uncovered.
Additionally, universalism was challenged as rather than the women in these societies being considered to be alike cross-culturally, feminist studies sought to ensure that an understanding of the individuality of these women and cultures was gained. By eliminating the assumed identities which many anthropologists had about people and cultures, and by challenging the idea that people cross-cultures are alike in their personalities and experiences it meant that a more thorough view of culture could be gained. This is not restricted to learning about the women in a culture, as these methods are those which could be, and are, applied to people regardless of their sex. It is clear that Feminism did not just affect the way which women are written about in ethnographic writing, but societies in general.
Feminism further influenced ethnographic writing in the way which it challenged Eurocentric ideas about personhood. Whittaker (1994) states that "western, white, heterosexual males have imposed their worldview" onto both women, and those who are the subjects of ethnographic research. This kind of ethnocentrism which was present in much of early anthropology, undoubtedly affected ethnographic writing as an accurate picture of a society could not be built up. Feminist thought stressed the importance of seeing a culture through not through the eyes of the white, middle class anthropologist, but through the eyes of their "subjects". This was aided in part by the fact that these female anthropologists were themselves coming from a different personal viewpoint. By highlighting the fact that the ethnocentrism of the white, middle class anthropologist was hindering and negatively affecting their ethnographic writing, and striving to counter this, feminism was able to positively contribute to the field, and Moore argues that "critiques based on challenges to ethnocentrism have taken anthropology a very long way" (Moore 1988: 187).
Feminism within anthropology moved from being solely concerned with women and women's subordination, to focusing on other matters such as power relations, reflexivity and the place of the anthropologist within ethnographic fieldwork (Bernard 2000:139). It can be seen that with the rise of feminist ethnographic writing so too was there a rise in the use of "I" into ethnographic text. Feminist anthropology did away with the patriarchal objectivity and androcentric bias of earlier anthropology by highlighting the negative consequences of being objective and neutral within ethnographic writing.
Whereas in early anthropology it was seen as an improper ethnographic technique to write reflexively and speak of the personal aspects of fieldwork conducted because it was thought to rid the field of its objectivity, the impact of feminism went some way to change this. The early taboo regarding reflexivity is demonstrated by the 1954 publication Return to Laughter which was written under the pseudonym Elenor Smith Bowen due to the fact that it contained personal feelings and stories. Additionally, a scandal formed when Malinowski's personal fieldwork diaries from his time on the Trobriand fieldwork were discovered and published (Eriksen and Nielsen 2001:123).
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The 1970 publication Women in the Field: Anthropological Experiences (ed. Golde) was ground-breaking in its reflexivity and the way which it contained details of the experiences of women in the field and how these experiences have affected the data collected (Eriksen and Nielsen 2001:123). As well as being influential in its reflexivity, it also highlighted how the sex of the anthropologist impacts on the fieldwork and ethnographic writing. Reflexive anthropology came into its own after the rise of Feminism, and this cannot be said to be a coincidence. The fact that Feminism was able to bring about such a major change in the way which ethnographic texts were written shows how influential it was to the field.
One of the most important contributions which the Feminist movement made to anthropology, and ethnographic writing more specifically, was that it highlighted the difference between "sex" and "gender". Feminist scholars stressed the idea that gender identities are not natural phenomena, and sought to highlight that sex and gender have different meanings. Sex being "empirically verifiable, universal, biological differences between males and females" (Eriksen and Murphy 2003:148) and gender being the culturally constructed role which is placed upon people. These ideas were of particular importance to post-structural and post-modern anthropologists and their ethnographic writing. Lorber examines the idea effectively when she states that
"For human beings there is no essential femaleness or maleness, femininity or masculinity, womanhood or manhood, but once gender is ascribed, the social order constructs and holds individuals to strongly gendered norms and expectations" (Lorber 1994:5).
These ideas meant the position of women within societies was looked at differently; as it was considered that one's biological sex did not necessarily determine their socially constructed gender. Ideas which were prevalent in Western society at the time divided social roles between men and women, such as the idea that the place of women was in the home whereas men should be the providers for the family. These ideas were often placed upon those societies being studied. This was problematic as Western gender ideals were not necessarily mirrored in non-Western cultures. With the highlighting of differences between sex and gender it became easier for anthropologists to understand this, thus affecting not only the way which fieldwork was conducted, but also hugely affecting the results of the fieldwork. With new ideas about sex and gender being at the forefront of anthropologists' minds, the reassessment of past societies could also be made.
Cucchiari (1981) argued that in early societies there was equality between the sexes and also a lack of gender distinction. In these societies distinctions were sometimes made between "forager" and "child tender", but not between male and female (Cucchiari 1981). While Cucchiari does not claim to be a feminist, his views are important for the feminist movement. By demonstrating that the gender classification and the subordination of women are not "natural" it became possible to see past them, and for ethnographic writing to focus on the differences in roles within a society rather than the differences in sexes. Whereas early ethnographic texts sometimes focused on the differences between the men and women's roles within society, Feminist anthropologists have stressed that the division of labour cannot be demonstrative of biological differences; rather it could be that gender differences have been created from this division of labour (Ortner 1978:27). This difference between sex and gender is important to the ways which women are portrayed in ethnographic writing and also important for the way which societies in general and portrayed and understood.
Ethnographic texts which have emerged in the later part of the twentieth century have taken these ideas on board and as such ideas about sex and gender in different societies have come to light. Oyewùmí (1997) conducted fieldwork among the Yoruba people of South-western Nigera and uncovered that these people had no notion of "gender" until they came into contact with colonialists. Previous to their contact with westerners, the Yoruba people has organised their social relations based on social facts, not based on biology. The idea that different roles within a community might be placed on people because of their physical sex was unheard of (Oyewùmí 1997). This is demonstrative of the way which Western ideas are placed upon people, and such a study may not have taken place, and the results may not have been understood, if the Feminist movement had not highlighted the differences between sex and gender.
Part of the reassessment of sex and gender meant that Feminist anthropologists began to consider the idea of "third genders" or the presence of people who might not necessarily fit into the categories of "male" and "female". This meant that when conducting ethnographic research a greater understanding of societies' beliefs could be gained. This can be seen with Astuti's (1998) study of the Vezo people, which included a description of the Sarin'ampela within the society. These people are men who are "images of women" and who perform "women's jobs" and adopt a female "way of doing things", as in this society one's gender develops through the process of their actions (Astuti 1998:40-42). Similarly, Edgerton's (1964) study of intersexed people among the Pokot community highlighted that different societies do not necessarily hold the Western ideas of "male" and "female" (Edgerton 1964). The fact that Feminism had highlighted these differences meant that studies such as Astuti's and Edgerton's could take place. The realisation that "sex" and "gender" are two different ideas meant that more accurate and complete ethnographies could be written, as rather than ethnographers interpreting these ideas through "western tinted glasses" and thus distorting the true beliefs, the cultures began to be seen as they actually were.
It is not just the reassessment of ideas which had been held for some time which Feminism contributed to ethnographic writing, but the reassessment of already printed ethnographies as well. Feminist anthropologists have used the new methods available to them in order to re-study many of the cultures which had previously been looked at from a very masculinise perspective. This has meant that a more accurate view of the culture in question has been achieved, one which is not one-sided and ethnocentric. This can be seen in the way which Abu-Lughod (1990) re-studied Bedouin women and found that they often resist and defy the ideals placed upon them by men. They do this by keeping secrets between them, smoking in secret, resisting arranged marriages, mocking men, and writing poetry known as ghinnawas in which they express sentiments radically different to those which are considered the norm (Abu-Lughod 1990: 43-46). If this society was studied without women forming a crucial part of the research then it could easily be thought that the women are subordinate to men, occupying the home while men form the public sphere and control their wives.
Additionally, the reassessment of ethnographic texts and societies went some way to change the views which were held about early societies, not just the women within them, but the society in general. The collection Women the Gatherer (Dahlberg 1981) put forwards the idea that in hunter gatherer societies, women who conducted gathering actually contributed more to the society than men and their hunting. This is said to be because plant resources were a more staple form of early human's diet than meat. This was obviously hugely important for maintaining women's importance in society, both past and present and thus also changed the way which society and culture were represented in ethnographic writing.
It has been argued, that in addition to the theories and ideas put forwards by feminism and feminist anthropologists which have lead to more thorough and accurate ethnographic writing being produced, women are actually better ethnographers in general. The fact that with the Feminist movement came an increase in the number of female ethnographers working within the field means that Feminism has influenced ethnographic writing in numerous ways, including enabling fieldwork to be conducted in a better way. It has been stated that female ethnographers might be treated less suspiciously than males, and may have access to a greater number of areas within a community than male ethnographers who are usually not allowed access to areas dominated by females. Mead (1970) agrees that women have "access to a wider range of culture" than male ethnographers do (Mead 1970: 322), and her work among the women of Samoa plays testament to this. Additionally, Shostak, who conducted ethnographic research among the Kung of the Kalhari desert, stated that she found it easier to converse with women of the tribe and analyse their lives than she did with the men in the tribe. This research eventually lead to her publication of "Nisa: The Life and Works of a Kung Woman" (1981). Although it could be argued that women might need to take greater precautions when conducting fieldwork, it is certainly true that if a male wishes to study female rites and rituals then he will come across more problems than if a female ethnographer wants to do so. These feminist anthropologists therefore contribute a great deal to ethnographic writing, as without them an entire sphere of knowledge may pass unknown.
Although some have commented on "the failure of feminist studies to transform the disciplines that form the basis of academic study" (Barrett 2000, 169), it does not seem as though this is the case with ethnography and ethnographic texts. Despite the fact "that Feminist Anthropology has made its most distinctive contribution through demonstrating why an understanding of gender relations must remain central to the analysis of key questions in anthropology" (Moore 1988, 195), it can be seen that there are numerous other ways in which Feminism has affected anthropology and ethnographic writing. Feminism changed the position of women in the field, both with regards to those being studied within a society, and the ethnographers themselves, by uncovering the biases which existed within the field. It also changed the position of women by countering assumptions held about women and those thought to be natural and universal. This in turn changed ethnographic writing as not only were women studied more frequently and more effectively, but women were conducting fieldwork more often too. This re-studying of women, by women, meant that the results in ethnographic writing were altered for the better. Additionally, Feminism changed ethnographic writing by introducing new ideas such as those about sex and gender, and about reflexive methodologies, as well as arguably conducting better fieldwork than their male counterparts. It is clear that it cannot be said that Feminism has not contributed to ethnographic writing.
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