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
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.
- 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
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
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
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
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
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
- 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
- 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
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
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