Analyzing And Comparing Ethnographies English Literature Essay

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Anthropology: Analyzing and comparing Ethnographies

Ethnography is a scientific concept that involves studying communities and human social phenomena. Considered a branch of cultural anthropology, ethnography involves some form of fieldwork where the ethnographer lives among the population being studied. He tries to live an ordinary life among the people, while trying to work closely with informants who are well placed to collect precise information. The process involves the study of the social organization, culture, religion, economy, kinship ties and political organization of such a community among other issues. This paper evaluates the aspect of marriage and sexuality among the three groups depicted by lee (The Dobe Ju Hoansi), Weiner (The Trobrianders of Papua New Guinea) and Alan Beas' Gopalpur: A south Indian Village. The study will involve describing the marriage practice among the three groups and sighting the possible similarities and/or possible differences of marriage across the three groups. Efforts will be made to show the significance of marriage in the lives of the respective social groups.

Marriage and sexuality are some of the social aspects that determine to a large extend the social organization of any social group. It is difficult to withdraw the "practice of marriage" from anthropology and ethnographic studies because it determines how different people relate within a society. It also impacts on other societal issues such as inheritance, property ownership and gender roles, just to mention a few. Certainly, Lee Richards, Weiner and Alan Beals could not escape this concept. Marriage practices and sexuality can also be used to comprehend the beliefs and values existent in the three groups. The Dobe Ju Hoansi people are depicted as hunters and gatherers living in the Northwest part of Kalahari Desert (Lee 14; Friedl 128). In his ethnography, Lee considers them to live in "relative isolation" from other tribes and keeping to their own kinship systems and cultural practices (Lee 22; Lavender & Emily, "Kinship and Descent" 153-165). The descriptive features of a groom among the Dobe Ju Hoansi are largely determined by the way of life of the community. Efforts are made to maximize the chances of survival in the forests. A typical groom should be a good hunter, unrelated/distantly related, no fighting reputation and from a congenial/friendly family that is willing to carry out the hxaro (a form of traditional exchange referring to betrothal gifts). Negotiations are conducted before marriage to ensure that the other family is willing to perform this ritual. Failure of this leads to the halt of the marriage and a new search for a groom begins.

According to Richard Lee, the most common and salient type of marriage for the Dobe Ju Hoansi people is the "marriage by capture". Here marriages are first arranged by their parents (Lee 77). The parents hold authority over their children, including the discretion to make arrangements for their children's first marriages without consulting them. The first proposal is made by the groom's-to-be mother (78). If the proposal is accepted, the game is sealed by exchange of the kamasi gifts. This doesn't however mean that marriage is a decision that is entirely a decision of the parents. The male and female involved have a way to contest the decision when aggrieved. One way is by the female contesting and putting up loud and long protests continuously. This leads to the marriage being annulled. The ceremony involves the groom carrying her partner from her parents hut to a specially built marriage hut. By this, the groom gains some relative power and imposes his wishes on the girl. The bride screams, kicks and protests (mock-forcible) as she is carried away (80). The couple is expected to show some respect and shyness in which the bride runs away on her first night, for her to be brought back to her partner and be anointed with fat (Wiessner 254; Barnes 67).

The Dobe Ju Hoansi marriage practice is significant to their social organization and way of life. The community relies on their environment and close family members for food and survival. Marriage is therefore an additional resource of income and a way of strengthening and diversifying social networks. The groom also comes to live with the bride's family for several years to hunt for them. The marriage-by-capture practice highlights the conflicts and discords between parents and children and spouses. These conflicts arise due to lack of spousal choice and age disparities (Lee 81; Wiesner 254-260). This marriage practice among the Dobe Ju Hoansi people is multi-beneficial; a source of economic resource in the form of hxaro exchanges and mutual assistance relationships.

On marital sexual relations parents may decide to have sex discreetly as children sleep besides them. This is an open practice that is considered natural compared to other cultures where sex is done secretly. Children often learn sex at early ages and explore sexual play amongst them. Children respect the idea of sex and virginity has no meaning amongst their free lifestyles. At early ages of 15 children have sexual relations (Lee 38). This however changes as children grow up and understand the purpose of sex, which is supposed to bring satisfaction for both partners. Sex is not governed by imbalanced power structures as in other societies where the pleasure of one gender is emphasized. With this principle of egalitarianism and equality there are lesser acts of men to exert their power over females in acts of rape or violence (Lavender & Emily, "Kinship and Descent" 153-165). This contrasts the theory forwarded by Friedel, who argues that males in hunter-gatherer societies dominate the females (128-133).

Turning to the Trobrianders, marriage and sexuality is a practice that takes centre stage in their lives and social organization. One common aspect among the Trobriand people and the Dobe Ju Hoansi is the freedom of sexuality and some form of matrilineal social structure (Weiner 2-14). However, unlike the Dobe Ju Hoansi, the Trobrianders practice subsistence horticulture. Matrilineal clans control land and resources. The Trobrianders practice a matriarchal system where descent is passed through the woman. When a man marries, his wife's brothers are the heads of the family and the bride has to give them a large quantity of produce. Half of the bride's produce is given to the wife's brother (maternal uncle) and nominally, they (wife's brothers) are in charge of the children (Weiner 10-22). In practice, the father takes care of his children, but in his death, his property and any belongings will go to his wife's brother's children. His children are supposed to inherit from his uncles. This is a unique difference from what the Dobe Ju Hoansi practice. It is therefore difficult for a father to give a gift to his sons. Fathers give intangible gives such as magic and dances. Fathers result to teaching their sons the most potent magic and intricate dances they know; gifts that cannot be taken away from them.

At early ages of eight and seven, young children start playing erotic games with each other and imitating adults. As early as thirteen children change their patterns and start pursuing sexual partners. Women are equally dominant as men in pursuing and accepting or refusing lover, a culture that is widely encouraged. There are no official traditional marriage ceremonies among the Trobrianders. A woman normally stays in a man's house rather than living it before sunrise. When a Trobriand couple wants to get married, they show the desire by sleeping and dating together, hanging out in public places together and staying together for quite longer periods. The boy presents a gift to the girl, which the girl accepts. Later, the parents accept and approve the couple. The girl then moves into the boys house, accompanies him and word goes round that both are married. In a period of one year, the wife may divorce the man, if she is dissatisfied or if the man gets another woman. A man may also decide to get back with the wife he divorced. This is done by giving the woman's parents yams and other gifts, but the decision lies with the woman (Weiner 10-22; Malinowski 107)

This marriage practice differs from the marriage-by-capture system practiced by the Doe Ju Hoansi, where parents initiate the process on behalf of the bride and groom. Here, the man and woman stay together, know each other and both are given equal chances of decision making. It is a marriage by mutual consent of both partners. However either way betrothal gifts are present in both communities. Yams are commonly used for this purpose. Every year a man is supposed to grow yams for his sister and his daughter if she is married. The more yams a woman receives, the richer she is. The husband gives his wife's father or brother a gift in recognition of the yams they give his wife. Another unique aspect in marriage among the Trobriand people is the magic. A woman is said to become pregnant when an ancestral spirit enters her body and causes conception. After the child is born, it is the mother's brother who presents yams to her sister so that the child is fed with food from its matrilineage rather than from the father's. Young people receive the magic from order kin in exchange for tobacco and other gifts such a kula (Malinowski 107).

In Gopalpur village marriage is viewed as an attempt to transform a relationship between a man and a wife into a legal entity (Beals 13; Lavenda & Emily169-181). Marriage unites people together and makes them close to each other. Marriage perception varies from one society to another depending on levels of economic development. In some, it is a show of love and obedience to cultural ties, while in others it is the only sure way of surviving economic hardships. "Gopalpur: a Southern Indian village" refers to an ethnography written by Alan Beals in 1962 who describes the life in the village. He expounds the role of marriage in Indian culture. Beals argues that marriage is a "mini-society" representation. It is the only place in Indian society where a person may feel secure and protected. The family unit provides the possibility to survive, prosper or maintain economic prowess. Beals found that an alliance of two people (man and woman) culminates into an alliance of families, creating a bigger household made of children and their grandchildren. A bigger family in Gopalpur is a sign of prowess and prosperity of the founders of the family (Beals 13-18; Lavender & Emily 169-181). A large family is a source of larger working hands and the more the family works, the higher the chances of survival.

The government of Gopalpur is primitive; it draws a thick line between the rich bourgeoisies and the poor proletarian people of Gopalpur. The family is an inescapable oasis of common people who spend most of their time working and afraid to lose their jobs. Marriage is a "common misfortune" in Gopalpur that holds the people together. Families hold together to other families making a bigger village related to each other in a way. Indeed Beals attributes the large Indian population to the unity of the families that make them hold together.

One aspect that brings out the uniting power of marriage is the financial and economic stability. Marriage in Gopalpur is significant for some king of financial stability and wealth. Two heads are better than one. In Gopalpur marriages, there is some form of exchange of goods. The people generally have no money. This exchanges starts with agricultural techniques and it ends up with different possessions that can later be sold. The marriages among the people of Gopalpur are not merely for procreation, they are associations that promise possible and future economic gains for the members that marriage produces (Beals 13-18; Lavender & Emily 168-181). Without the family it would be difficult for the people of Gopalpur to maintain the economic or religious structures they have.


One common aspect of marriage among the three ethnographic groups described above is the fact that marriage is the foundation of any society. It is difficult to analyze any social organization of a society without focusing on marriage. Marriage is the source of family-the smallest unit of society. Another common feature shared by the three groups is the fact that marriage acts as a source of economic power. This can be as a result of combined efforts of the wife, husband, children and the bigger extended family. The betrothal gifts or "dowry" is also a source of wealth for the bride's parents.