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ANTH 2170

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Sex, Gender and the Body: Cross-Cultural Approaches to the Body, Gender, Sexuality and Kinship ANTH2170 – Fall/Winter 2011/2012 – Karen McGarry Reading – Gender and Anthropology by Mascia-Less and Black – Sept 14 The Nature/Nurture Controversy - Defining gender as a cultural construct suggests that gender is largely due to nurture or cultural practices and ideas, not to ‘nature’ or biological causes. - The assumption is that gender behaviours are the result of innate causes, not the result of cultural interpretations that are learned by members of a society. - Supposed natural differences between the sexes have been used historically to rationalize and further systems of oppression and even to determine social policy. o Example:  Toward the end of the 19 century it was erroneously concluded that men were naturally superior to women in intelligence because of the larger size of their brains. Their assumptions were used to rationalize women’s exclusion from higher education. Chapter 3 – The Evolutionary Orientation - Finding explanations of gender differences in evolutionary factors has a long history within anthropology, because the first school of anthropological theory, known as ‘social evolution’, used an evolutionary model to explain all aspects of human social orgathzation. - By the early 20 century, social evolutionism was largely in dispute, abandoned because of its problematic assumptions about Western superiority and its claim that societies were like species that had evolved through a struggle for survival. - Contemporary theorists begin with the assumption that the gender roles that exist in their own societies are natural. They seek explanations in the concepts of natural selection. They are often just as interested as past researchers were in supporting prevailing gender arrangements. - The 19 century theorists focused on the differences between the sexes in the way they attract a mate, form bonds, or behave within marriage, not on the natural inferiority of women. Social Evolutionism - Colonialism was rationalized by systems of knowledge that supported the notion that conquered peoples were inherently inferior. o It based assumptions of inferiority and superiority on the notion of race, ‘a cultural classification designed to deal with social problems, not a scientific classification in genetics.’ – Bohannan  This system claimed that the darker-skinned inhabitants of the world were naturally interior to white, lighter-skinner populations. - In the late 19 century and early 20 century, differences within British and North American society were also explained and rationalized by scientists through reference to biological attributes: members of the lower classes, women, criminals and other social ‘outcasts’ were all viewed as inherently inferior to white men. o Thus they were thought to be rightfully excluded from their society’s economic, political and cultural resources and privileges. - Anthropology distinguished itself from other fields interested in human behaviour and social organization by its focus on non-Western societies. - Early anthropologists thought they could uncover general laws about human behaviour that would help them make sense of the variation between their Victorian society and the studied non-Western society. o These social evolutionists argued that societies had evolved from the simple to the complex, the chaotic to the organized and the homogeneous to the heterogeneous. o These theorists were immersed in beliefs about the desirability of progress and since simpler societies were seen as less advanced it made sense to them to view non-Western societies as inferior. - These views took hold given their compatibility with pre-existing societal nations: evolution could be equated with the West’s progress toward ‘superior’ forms, and the natural struggle of the ‘fittest’ for survival could be equated with military efforts resulting in colonial domination. - Social evolutionists claimed that societies evolved through a fierce struggle for survival in which a more fit society like their own had won out over less fit ones. - They pointed to western civilization’s political, economic and cultural dominance over the rest of the world as evidence that it was the fittest from of social organization and thus, the most highly evolved. - They not only saw the social practices, customs and institutions of non-Western societies as inferior and less evolved but also claimed that they represented earlier stages in Western society’s evolution. Non-Western societies were used, in other words, as living examples of the West’s ‘primitive’ past, one that was left behind as it struggled for supremacy. - The most well-known evolutionary scheme employed by social evolutionists was one that classified and ranked societies according to whether they existed in a stage of Savagery, Barbarism, or Civilization. o These designations were determined by the presence or absence of traits that were assumed to be most desirable, and thus, most evolved. Societies that lacked the sophisticated technology that would allow them to produce their own food, for example, were at the bottom of the evolutionary scale, belonging to the stage that social evolutions termed Savagery. o Those people at the bottom of the socio-economic scale within the social evolutionists’ own societies, such as the urban poor, were also classified as Savages. o Many social thinkers viewed them, like their non-Western counterparts, as degenerate, bestial and morally and intellectually bankrupt. o Non-Western societies that had risen above such lowliness by producing their own food through the domestication of plants and animals but had to produced a phenotic alphabet were viewed as Barbarian. o The Western society to which social evolutionists belonged was thought of as at the highest stage of social evolution, that of Civilization. It not only had an industrial base for food production and a system of writing but, according to social evolutionists, it also had a superior set of social institutions, which had enabled the development of these factors.  These institutions involved superior forms of family and gender role organization that ensured male rights and male dominance. They included monogamy, a marriage practice allowing a person to have only one spouse at a time, a patrilineality, a system of reckoning descent by tracing genealogical connections through men. - Herbert Spencer (an early social evolutionist) hypothesized that the earliest societies were promiscuous and lacked any institution to regulate sexuality. o This situation meant that knowledge of paternity was obscured. Out of these chaotic conditions evolved societies that traced descent matrilineally, or through the female line, giving a mother’s kinship group rights to her children. Since matrilineality established some rights over progeny, societies that instituted it were classified at a higher evolutionary level than promiscuous ones. o Matrilineal societies were inherently weak because men lacked control over women and paternal authority over children. Any society that regulated paternity through monogamy or institutionalized it through tracing descent through the male line would increase the chances of its existence.  Institutionalized paternity would lead to institutionalized male protection, ensuring the vitality and survival of the entire society. A society that favoured monogamy and accentuated the male line would be able to conquer those that did not, thereby increasing its size and strength. In the process it would become more complex and evolve to a higher stage of development. o Freeing women from productive labour would also increase a society’s chances for survival, since it would allow women to devote all of their time and energy to being ‘fit’ mothers – because of the increased capacity of Victorian England’s industrial system; they would be able to achieve this goal.  Argued that women’s exclusion was the natural consequences of a long evolutionary process that selected those women dedicated to their duties in the domestic sphere. The inability of women of the working classes to attain this position was taken as evidence of their inherent inferiority. - Many scientists at the time claimed that women had a limited amount of vital energy. To ensure that women had enough energy for their childbearing and childrearing duties, it had to be channelled away from other functions, such as the development of higher mental abilities. The concentration of energy on reproductive functions was responsible for women’s supposed inferior mental capabilities, causing women to lack ‘the power of abstract reasoning and the most abstract of emotions, the sentiment of justice’. o Such inadequacies, which made women unsuited for important activities in the public realm, were seen as the natural outcome of the struggle for the survival of the fittest.  Women’s attempts at the time to advocate for equal rights, especially at the voting booths, were, therefore, discounted and their demands were viewed as unnatural and perilous. - If women were subordinate to men in Western society, opponents of women’s equality argued, it was because biological necessities rendered them physically and intellectually inferior. Male dominance was thus seen to have evolutionary origins grounded in the biological differences between the sexes, especially those related to women’s reproductive functions. The Feminist Critique of Social Evolutionism - Social evolutionists set out to explain what they already assumed: that Western society and its gender arrangements were the result of an evolutionary process that produced forms of social organization superior to all others. Such assumptions were not tested or questioned but merely asserted. - Our suspicions of using claims of superiority to justify political domination, whether of one society over another or one social group over another within the same society, have deepened considerably in the post-Holocaust, post-Vietnam, post-Feminist world in which we live. o Racism, rather than being an explanation of Western superiority, rationalized Western expansion and how assuming the inherent inferiority of women and members of other disenfranchised groups justified white male control of desirable resources. o Similarly, we are no longer comfortable with the ethnocentric claim that Western society is unquestioningly superior to all others because of advanced technology. - Anthropologists today seek explanations for societal change in complex historical and environmental factors. The conflation of evolution with a natural progression towards some ultimate state of perfection has completely lost its currency, as has the tendency to use extant non-Western societies as representative of some past moment in time. Non-Western societies are not remnants of some earlier time; they are not living fossils. Functionalist Explanations of Gender Roles - Social evolutionary explanations of human social organization were superseded by new theoretical orientations like functionalism, which was the dominant school of thought in British anthropology well into the 20 century. o A functionalist orientation views a society as an integrated whole with all of its practices and institutions working together harmoniously to fulfill individual needs or to sustain the society in a state of equilibrium.  Despite the very different approaches of social evolutionism and functionalism to studying human behaviour, when it came to arguments about gender roles, little had actually changed. - E. E. Pritchard – a leading British functionalist: o Contended that regardless of the variety of social institutions found in different societies, men were always in the ascendancy, occupying roles of authority based on ‘deep biological and psychological factors.’ o Contended that women’s lives in all societies naturally centered on home and family due to their role in procreation, while men’s focused on activities of public importance. o Claimed that this natural division of labour allowed a society to function harmoniously and to maintain the balance necessary for its continued successful functioning, a claim that conveniently discounted the demands for equality being made by the British women’s movement at the time of his writing. - Anthropologists who used a functionalist point of view assumed that both women’s exclusion from the public realm and male dominance were natural and necessary. Yet, these theorists spent little time actually investigating the variation in, and important of, women’s roles in non-Western societies. The Feminist Critique of Functionalism - By the 1970’s, feminist anthropologists began to point out functionalist shortcomings and to question anthropological assumptions about male superiority, seeing them as a reflection of widespread male bias in the discipline. o This bias had led social evolutionists and functionalists to assume that what women did was unimportant and thus to overlook women’s activities in their writing. o Feminist anthropologists contended that the ethnographic data from which such conclusions were drawn were based on questions that (mostly) male anthropologists asked men about their daughters and wives. o This practice led by Rayna Reither to remark that, in anthropology, ‘what women do is perceived as housework and what they talk about is called gossip, while men’s work is viewed as the economic base of society and their information is seen as important social communication.’ - With the rise of feminist anthropology, many women anthropologists set out to rectify this lack of interest in women’s lives. By focusing in their ethnographic work on what women do, on how gender roles and behaviours differ across societies, and on the significance of women’s work in many societies, they called into question the androcentric biases that plagued early anthropological accounts. Most Recent Evolutionary Arguments - Like social evolutionists, contemporary anthropologists using evolutionary models to understand gender roles and behaviours seek explanations in biological differences between the sexes. o Social evolutionists were interested in explaining how some societies became more ‘fit’ and thus more highly evolved than others. Since they saw their societies as the most ‘fit’, they concluded that the gender arrangements found in them were superior to those assumed to have existed in ‘less evolved’ societies.  These explanations were then used to rationalize gender inequalities. o Recent evolutionary theories are interested in the evolution of our particular species, ‘homo sapiens’. They compare human behaviours and traits with those of such nonhuman primates as monkeys and apes. The similarities found between humans and these other species are understood as general primate characteristics. Those that differ are seen as uniquely human and are attributed to natural selection.  Evolutionary theorists argue that traits found only in humans must have arisen b
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