Feminist anthropology

Feminist anthropology is concerned with critically examining relations between women and men, and investigating how gender, embodiment and sexuality are produced through complex relays of power involving ideologies and social institutions. Its focus of analysis has shifted over time, moving from an initial emphasis on women to a concern with gender relations, issues of difference and identity, and sexuality and ^heteronormativity. At each stage in its theoretical development, it has been committed to an analysis of the intersections between the symbolic and the material, investigating how cultural representations are harnessed to political economy.

One of the major strengths of feminist anthropology lies in its commitment to forms of ‘situated knowledge’ (Haraway 1988: 581) based on an open recognition of the limited and provisional character of knowledge production. This has been evident since the early work in the 1970s which focused on the status of women in the discipline, both as practitioners and as objects of enquiry, and demonstrated how male bias was a product both of the demographics of discipline membership and of the kinds of questions and modes of enquiry thought appropriate (Reiter 1975). However, this critique of disciplinary categories and methods could not be resolved simply by ‘adding women’, by employing women anthropologists to collect ethnographic data on women in different cultures (Moore 1988: 3). The exclusion of women was also a product of dominant male models within the specific cultures under study, of their relative silence and invisibility vis-a-vis men in their own contexts (Ardener 1975).

The emergence of gender

The recognition of sexual asymmetry raised the subject of male domination and female subordination and of how the position of women was to be explained. Was this something universal? Was it the result of women’s association with the domestic as opposed to the political sphere of life, their roles in reproduction and childcare, or was it connected to the symbolic construction of women and their association with the domain of the natural as opposed to the sphere of culture (Rosaldo and Lamphere 1974)? Different scholars took different positions on these questions, and as the debate continued and developed some questioned the presumption of women’s universal subordination, locating their critique within the Western bias of hierarchical relations between males and females (Reiter 1975), and others inspired by structuralist analyses continued to explore how asymmetrical binary oppositions, such as nature/culture, public/private, might illuminate cross-cultural regularities in the construction and valuation of gender differences. It was in the context of these debates, that feminist scholars within the discipline first began to elaborate on the distinction between sex and gender. Gayle Rubin’s early formulation of this distinction tried to formulate a theory of how sex, as a presumed universal biological attribute, could give rise to culturally variable representations and understandings of gender (Rubin 1975). Gender as an analytical category quickly came to be defined as the ‘cultural elaboration of the meaning and significance of the natural facts of biological differences between women and men’ (Moore 1999: 151), and the idea that biological differences could not provide a universal basis for social definitions emerged as an established orthodoxy. Sex did not determine gender.

Difference and identity

The analytic distinction between sex and gender animated a critique of the category ‘woman’. If the ‘images, attributes, activities and appropriate behaviour associated with women are always culturally and historically specific’, then what the category ‘woman’ — and indeed the category ‘man’ — means in any context has to be investigated and not assumed. Equally, there could be no analytic meaning in such concepts as ‘the position of women, the "subordination of women", and "male dominance" when applied universally’ (Moore 1988: 7). The idea that analysis should move away from the assumption of a universally subordinated ‘woman’ towards a recognition of the specifics of historical and cultural contexts raised the issue of differences between women, and most particularly of the intersections between gender, and other forms of difference such as race, class, ethnicity, and sexuality. Theoretical revisions in anthropology consequent on debates regarding ‘inter-sectionality’ were inspired by critiques from feminists of colour and feminists from developing nations who argued that forms of difference could not simply be analysed in an additive fashion, gender plus race, because race, class and other forms of difference actually transform the character and nature of gender (Mohanty etal. 1991).

The rich and diverse body of ethnographic research which emerged through the 1970s and 1980s concentrated on the theme of difference, shifting from the shared characteristics of ‘womanhood’ to the located, and historically specific nature of differences within the category of ‘woman’. One consequence of this shift was the attention given to the diversity of women’s experiences, situations, powers and resources. Feminist anthropology drew on emerging theories of practice and agency in the social sciences to resituate debates about the interconnections between individual agency, embodiment, and the production of gender difference, exploring these relations in the context of changing political economies. Rather than simply documenting cultural variability, feminist anthropology demonstrated the theoretical and ethical importance of working as a form of situated knowledge, attending to the positionality of knowledge production both with regard to the anthropologist and the historical specificities of the community under study.

The major outcome of this work was the continued interrogation of gender as an analytic category. Drawing primarily on Foucauldian analysis and postmodernist thinking, gender was reconceptualized not as a fixed category, but as the performance of a set of regulatory practices, as something constructed in practice. A concentration on the contexts of power and knowledge in and through which gender is enacted and gender identities and subjectivities formed, was paralleled by the recognition that multiple models of gender exist in all social formations. The acquisition of a gender identity cannot be considered as a straightforward matter of socialization into a cultural system with its concomitant model of gender. Within any social setting, there are multiple discourses on gender which can vary both contextually and bio-graphically, and some of these discourses may be contradictory and conflicting. In the 1990s, feminist anthropology tackled the question of how individuals come to take up gendered subject positions through an engagement with these multiple discourses on gender. These debates were influenced by broader trends in feminist theory which had engaged with the postmodernist critique of the unitary subject of humanism, and with its subsequent reworking of the notion of the engendered subject as the site of multiple differences including race, class, ethnicity, sexuality as well as gender. Within this framework, the gendered subject is understood to be made up of multiple subjectivities and competing identities (Moore 1994: 55—7), and it is no longer a question of differences between women, but of differences within each gendered individual.

Sexuality and fheteronormativity

Somewhat ironically, the refiguring of the gendered subject as the site of differences had the effect of returning the debate to the question of embodiment. How do gender identities link to the physical characteristics of bodies, and if gender identities are constructed through an engagement with multiple discourses then what makes individuals take up one set of positions as opposed to another? A relation to embodied sexual difference is an important feature of identity, of people’s self-understandings, and much recent work in anthropology has demonstrated the complex ways in which embodiment, gender and sexuality intersect. A major inspiration for work in this area is "Judith Butler’s discussion of performativity, of the way that gender is produced and performed through regulatory discourses that seek to render it intelligible through the imposition of a compulsory hetero-sexuality (Butler 1990: 31). Compulsory hetero-sexuality or heteronormativity conceals the discontinuities, and continuities in gender identities and practices, occluding the fact that gender does not necessarily follow from sex, and that desire, or sexuality more generally, does not always follow from gender (Butler 1990: 135—36). The assumption that gender identity necessarily follows from specific sexual practices or from a particular form of the body is problematic for many individuals in different contexts, and occludes their understandings of how embodiment links to identity (e.g. Valentine 2007).

Feminist anthropology has frequently been criticized for giving insufficient attention to sexuality, but recent work on globalization and the emergence of multiple genders and sex-ualities has explored the changing nature of sexual selfhood in the context of postcolonialism, consumerism and capitalism. This provides a new set of contexts for exploring the located and historically specific nature of gender and sexuality, and of how cultural representations intersect in complex ways with political economy. One of the major issues to emerge in this work is the unstable boundary between gender and sexuality, and the fact that analyses based on the distinctions between these terms frequently fail to make sense of local understandings of embodiment, desire and selfhood. Feminism in general has had a sometimes acrimonious relationship with queer studies, but recent work in anthropology has drawn inspiration from both traditions to explore how heteronormativity shapes areas of life — nationalism, race, politics, and disciplinary practices – that appear to be at some distance from considerations of gender and sexuality (Boellstorff 2007; Lewin and Leap 2002). This contemporary scholarship is ‘inter-sectional’ in that it draws on gay and lesbian anthropology, feminist anthropology and queer studies, and it retains the critical relation to theoretical constructions and analytic categories characteristic of those traditions.

One important point here is that the domains we term ‘gender’ and ‘sexuality’ do not have a pre-given ontological status; their relation to lived relations, self-descriptions and political configurations is most certainly historically and culturally specific. But beyond this is the fact that the theoretical distinctions we draw between sex, gender and sexuality are the product of situated knowledge practices within the discipline, and the writing of contemporary ethnography on sex, gender and sexuality is just as much about performing gender as are the cultural practices and perceptions that such ethnography seeks to describe (Moore 1999: 159). However, changes in the way we understand key terms are not the product of unadorned philosophical critique because the world of social science is bound up with its subjects and objects of study. The distinctions we operationalize also have a life outside the academy in activism, NGO work, government policy and research, and consumer advertising and retail sales. The politics and ethics of feminist anthropology are encapsulated by its continuing attention to the way its categories of analysis impact on political movements and state policies, and on the relation that people have to their lived worlds and their hopes for their futures.

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