Feminist Anthropology

Christina Taylor Beard-Moose. 21st Century Anthropology: A Reference Handbook. Editor: H James Birx. Volume 2. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Reference, 2010.

This chapter critically reviews and discusses the emergence and maturation of feminist anthropological thought over the past three decades. The chapter also examines the ways in which feminist anthropology has critiqued, rebuked, and theorized the metadiscipline of anthropology. Feminist anthropology has, from its academic beginnings, sought to subvert a number of difficulties that came to define the metadiscipline in the 20th century.

Even while coming from multiple ideological viewpoints, feminist anthropologists have had several common themes through which to discuss and theorize the metadiscipline. These themes include, but are not restricted to, (1) correcting academic male bias in the ethnographic record, (2) developing an anthropology of women, (3) seriously discussing the oppression of women, (4) rediscovering women anthropologists of the 20th century, and (5) theorizing about gender relationships and their social meanings. In order to discuss the broad swath of feminist anthropology, it is necessary to move freely through the literature from the 1970s to the early 2000s; however, it is not the intention of the author to create a teleological survey of the literature. Instead, here is an overview of an ever-changing, ever-growing division of anthropology.

Subverting Dominant Paradigms

To accomplish the five above-stated goals, feminist anthropologists are influential in turning long-held notions of women’s lives and daily lived experience on their heads. Sociocultural dichotomies are among the many restrictive models used by the metadiscipline over the last 100 plus years. These dichotomies are those pairs that have been identified by anthropologists in the course of conducting fieldwork and reviewing and studying ethnology, and/or these pairs may have been conceived and applied as a result of personal experience. Under this category, I would include such pairs as female:male, nature:culture, domestic:public, raw:cooked, self:other, and so forth. In most cases, these pairs began their academic tenure as so-called intrinsic, universally constant, essential elements of all human beings.

Upon “discovering” and defining these dichotomies, anthropologists began the process of commenting on the possible meanings. Of particular importance to feminist anthropology are the central, idealized subjects, “woman” and “man.” After reading and pondering over a wide variety of theoretical and ethnographic materials, this writer comes up with the same conclusion over and over again. That is, the only universally, biologically essential characteristic that is applied over and over again to human beings everywhere is that of woman:nature, or childbearing and the functions of women’s bodies. What is important in multiple cultural contexts, and how that specific definition is manipulated through both theoretical statements and “concrete facts,” is perhaps the major concern of feminist anthropological thought. Whether we are discussing foraging societies and household arrangements or the meaning of family in postmodern societies such as the United States, this characteristic and its ensuing influences and problematics resurfaces over and over again.

The modern feminist movement, as a whole, was and is a reaction to Western society’s attempt to pigeonhole women into a single role, that of child-bearer and servant to men, devoid of an autonomous personhood. This fact alone has been a primary factor in the still emerging thought of feminist anthropology. One of the ways that emergent thought is expressed is in the attempt to critique and subvert dominant Western stereotypes. Feminist anthropology is most concerned with the oppression of women and essentialized explanations of gender, social relationships, kinship systems, sexuality, and division of labor perpetuated by a male-dominated, European American, professional population since the 19th century (Moore, 1988).

Feminist anthropologists have been on the leading edge of subverting and redefining these stereotypes. In the beginning, feminist anthropological theory was an attempt to answer the seemingly obvious questions, “Are women universally oppressed?” and “Where did the oppression of women begin?” (Rosaldo & Lamphere, 1974). However, these questions were challenged even as they were being asked from within the feminist anthropological community and so began to subvert the very assumptions upon which they were based (Leacock, 1978; Moore, 1994; Rapp Reiter, 1975; Rosaldo & Lamphere, 1974). In this process, feminist anthropologists identified, and began grappling with, centuries-old assumptions about women and women’s lives. Because of this, feminist anthropology is intertwined with some of the most recent developments in general anthropological theory, most notably postmodern and poststructural interpretative paradigms. To their credit, feminist anthropologists have managed to employ elements of postmodern and poststructural thought without, necessarily, continuing to a continually deconstructing— and ultimately unusable—theme. Feminist anthropology, unlike some poststructural critiques, provides the ability to create both new models and a “simultaneous move towards plurality and specificity” (Moore, 1994, p. 11).

Universalizing or Particular Knowledge

In the following discussion, we will explore what feminist anthropologists have theorized and subverted toward the ends of answering not only the initial questions of the universality and origins of the oppression of women, but more recently and more provocatively, “How does the oppression of women continue so effectively and in so many places?” and “How do specific groups of women and men work against gendered and other oppressions in their everyday lived experience?”

In the initial exploratory texts of feminist anthropology, Woman, Culture, and Society (Rosaldo & Lamphere, 1974) and Toward an Anthropology of Women (Rapp Reiter, 1975), there was an assumption by the majority of emerging feminist anthropologists that the universal oppression and subordination of women was and is a given. Rosaldo and Lamphere stated in the introduction to Woman, Culture, and Society that women have always, everywhere, been socially and politically inferior to men. Ruth Behar describes this tenet as an “effort to understand the [world-wide] social and political ramifications of women as the second sex” (Behar, 1995, p. 14). This in itself is a Western, deBeauvoirian tenet. This universalizing tenet led early feminist anthropologists to attempt to discover the “origins [italics added] of women’s subjugation” (Nicholson, 1990). Rayna Rapp Reiter stated that the “subjugation of women is a fact of our daily existence … we find that sexual inequality appears widespread and that the institutions in which it is embedded have a long and complex history” (1975, p. 11). However, the major difference, and a division, between Woman, Culture, and Society and Toward an Anthropology of Women in the exploration of these questions was the historical specificity of the oppression of women in Rapp Reiter’s volume.

From the outset, feminist anthropology tackled the internal theoretical debates by transforming the major dichotomies from an “or” to an “and” equation. This reformulation of the structuralist binary equation began the immediate subversion of the structuralist stance from which it came (Lévi-Strauss, 1973; Moore, 1994; Rapp Reiter, 1978; Rosaldo, 1980; Strathern, 1984). In this way, feminist anthropology subverted the tension between universalism and specific knowledge and forced a complimentary “freeplay” on them (Derrida, 1978). Jacques Derrida describes freeplay as

the disruption of presence. The presence of an element is always a signifying and substitutive reference inscribed in a system of differences and the movement of a chain. Freeplay is always an interplay of absence and presence, but if it is to be radically conceived, freeplay must be conceived of before the alternative of presence and absence; being must be conceived of as presence or absence beginning with the possibility of freeplay and not the other way around. (1978, p. 294)

This interplay between what is present or “universal” (woman as subordinate and man as dominant) and what is absent or “specificity of knowledge” (women and men in equity) is a long-standing anthropological view.

Michelle Rosaldo complicated this discussion by adding another dichotomy, domestic:private. In her ovular article of 1974, “Women, Culture, and Society: A Theoretical Overview,” Rosaldo established a “public domain:domestic domain” split as a universal characteristic of the oppression of women. By 1980, however, she had reassessed her position and noted that the very language of the criteria on which the public:domestic split was based was problematic. That is, the assumption of oppression was a purely generic Western, capitalist, middle-class definition that gives primacy to the domestic:public sphere split that became prominent in the 19th-century Industrial Revolution (Landsman, 1995; Rosaldo, 1980).

The so-called public sphere is male and assumed to be of the greatest cultural value in all societies that have evolved in the West. This leaves women in the less valued so-called domestic sphere. For Western feminist anthropologists concerned with authorial power and the wielding of that power, the domestic sphere is an inferior and devalued sector. Thus, by framing arguments in a simplistic and dichotomous way, the opposite of the original intention is achieved. That was to discover and undermine the “original” cases of the oppression of women. Instead, by overlaying the domestic:public dichotomy as universal, European-American-patriarchal-monotheistic-unilineal-essentialist schemas of women’s and men’s roles became reinscribed in the literature over and over again (Leacock, 1978; Yanagisako & Collier, 1987). Rosaldo’s eloquent critique called for simultaneously retaining and rejecting this split.

However, far from suggesting that the domestic:public pair is an outmoded and unusable category, this structural apparatus is indeed still a useful theoretical tool in many situations. Before mapping both our Western categories and ideology onto the social relationships of another group, we must redefine what domestic:public may mean. Granted, wherever the juggernaut of industrialization and capitalism has changed the economic landscape, these categories are relevant (Leacock, 1978; Moore, 1994; Rosaldo, 1980). In many other cases, however, this domestic:public apparatus does NOT work, and there have been many advocates of making an attempt at revisualizing gendered social and societal relationships through a non-Western lens (Rapp Reiter, 1979; Yanagisako & Collier, 1987). Catherine Lutz clearly states that Western academics falsely universalize our own dichotomies everywhere in the world, regardless of the on-the-ground situation. This “constrains both our research on gender and our efforts to bring about social change” (quoted in di Leonardo, 1991, p. 19). The freeplay, and the reformulation of the structuralist binary equation from or to and, still allows for practical applications in critiquing and theorizing the subjugation of women.

To accomplish the task of revisualization, a return to the early work of Karen Brodkin Sacks and Eleanor Leacock is in order. Both women, as Marxist feminist anthropologists, concentrated their analytical efforts toward the political economies of specific Native North American nations. Brodkin Sacks, in the essay “Social Bases for Sexual Equality: A Comparative View” (1970), pointed to the Iroquois as an alternative to static Western notions of the public:domestic spheres. She stated, “In Iroquois society, women [had] an enormous amount of decision making power in the domestic, political, and religious spheres of life” (Brodkin Sacks, 1970, p. 457). Leacock, too, after working with other matrilineal populations of Native North Americans—specifically the Montagnais-Naskapi—found evidence of a different way of conceptualizing the daily lived experience of the division of labor (Leacock, 1978).

Leacock (1972) also points out that what was significant for women’s status is that the household was communal. A gendered division of labor existed but was reciprocal, and the economy did not involve a dependence of the wife and the children on the husband. Household management was not construed as it has been for Western society. “In primitive communal society,2 the distinction did not exist between a public world of men’s work and a private world of women’s household service. The large collective household was the community, and within it both sexes worked too produce the goods necessary for livelihood” (Leacock, 1972, p. 33). Therefore, the domestic: public dichotomy did not exist.

While there are certainly role sets and division of labor, in these ethnohistorical cases, the people did not perceive themselves in “power over”—or authorial power— relationships per se. Instead, Brodkin Sacks, Leacock, and other researchers have found evidence of social relations based on a nonhierarchical web (Ackerman, 1995; Ashcraft & Mumby, 2003; Bacigalupo, 2007; Bilharz, 1995; Dossa, 2004; Duggan, 2005; Goodwin, 2006; Gunewardena & Kingsolver, 2007; Perdue, 1995; Regis, 2002; Shoemaker, 1995; Sparks, 1995; Watson-Franke, 1992), one that weights women’s work and men’s work equally in the social and societal workings of the community. Brodkin Sacks admonished in 1970 that at the end of exploitation “looking at Iroquois and Mbuti societies suggest that we need a complete reorganization of ‘work,’ a radically different kind of division of labor. If they can do it, so can we” (p. 455). This statement implies that indigenous women “overthrew” an exploitative situation similar to our deBeauvoirian one. There is no evidence of that. Brodkin Sacks’s research can be well utilized to see around our assumptions.

Even as we discuss, describe, and cite numerous instances in which feminist anthropologists of various ideologies have given ethnographic, empirical evidence to subvert the notion of the universal oppression of women, in most of the literature there are some of the same complaints that began in the 1970s. The term ovular was coined at that time as a woman-centered alternative to seminal. This was experimented with in order to bring up that important academic work was, all too often, “manly.” Whether implicitly stated by feminist anthropologists of color or reiterated by requoting ovular work within a new attempt at inclusion, there is a sense of frustration with the movement—or lack of it—away from a universalizing stance (Okely, 1975, as quoted in Lutz, 1995; Zavella, 1997). The metadiscipline of anthropology has yet to fully utilize and incorporate the knowledge that feminist anthropologists have gained and written in our efforts to refocus attention toward specificity and “situated knowledges” (Haraway, 1991).

Despite the rethinking and revision of numerous feminist anthropologists on subjects as diverse as Malinowski’s ethnographic snapshot of Trobrianders (Weiner, 1988) to power and prestige among American Indian women (Klein & Ackerman, 1995), the metadiscipline reiterates and reinforces an older definition of universal oppression. In the 1997 text by Burton Pasternak and Carol and Melvin Ember, Sex, Gender, and Kinship: A Cross-Cultural Perspective, the authors state that “comparative research tells us that women have very low status in a considerable number of societies, and we know of none in which women clearly have more status than men” (1997, p. 65). One can only assume that many academic departments adopted this text—written by respected and established anthropologists—as a teaching tool when it was first published, and it is still being used over a decade later. This leaves yet another generation of young anthropology students out of the feminist anthropology loop.

Even though it is still dealing with some vestiges of the “universal oppression of women,” feminist anthropology has thrown off the shackles of continually asking why as an attempt to find the “origins” of women’s subordination in favor of asking much more sophisticated and complex questions about women’s relationships to each other and to the worlds of their daily lived experience (di Leonardo, 1991). Some of these include the following: (1) How do women act as agents in their daily lived experience (Lamphere, Ragoné, & Zavella, 1997)? (2) How do women subvert local social rules to gain agency in their lives (Lopez, 1997)? (3) What does a woman’s position as producer and controller of goods lend to her overall position—status—in her community (Babb, 1989)? (4) How does the continued encroachment of a global capitalist system affect women and their choices at a local level (Harrison, 1997)? So, while the definition and face of universalism may have been radically altered by and within feminist anthropology, we still must address the question within the metadiscipline.

Biological Essentialism or Social Construction

In the same way that the universalizing tenet was subverted through the use of specific knowledge and the reformulation of the structuralist equation, so too does social construction subvert biological essentialism. Feminist anthropologists, by necessity, recognize sex (as represented by the XX and XY pairs of chromosomes) in order to be able to talk about the categories “women” and “men.” In Henrietta Moore’s words, “Bodies. It all has something to do with bodies” (Moore, 1994, p. 17). In practice, the words woman, femme, mujer, bean, a ge yv represent not only a valid concept, but also a distant one. She—elle, ella, si—is, in fact, globally embodied in daily lived experience. It is not being “woman” that causes problems for those who are—or embody—it. It is, instead, the constructed role sets within which “woman” is cast that continue to subject her to oppression (Lamphere et al., 1997). In her 1990 article, “Can There Be a Feminist Anthropology,” Abu-Lughod commented that the great “importance of the fact that the women we encounter in the field often recognize us as women, however different, has not received much attention” (1990, p. 26).

Biological essentialism, sociobiology, and bioculturalism have a tendency to set the women’s movement and women’s status back into a Victorian/post-World War II “Angel in the House” or “Donna Reed” realm (Moore, 1994; Ortner, 1984; Stocking, 1987). In the same way that the metadiscipline has persisted in retaining ideas about the universalism of women’s oppression in its primary form, so too has this kind of essentialism held on. Relegated a century ago to the role of mother and dependent partner of “man the hunter,” “woman” was, and is, essentialized and universalized in the Victorian European American ideal (Dahlberg, 1981; Lee & DeVore, 1968). Stocking found proof that the early metadiscipline largely ignored women and women’s lives, noting that Herbert Spencer

later justified the limitation of women’s political rights on evolutionary grounds: because the vital needs of reproduction arrested their individual mental evolution at an earlier age, and their [feeble] characteristic mental traits … were those adapted to “dealing with infantine life” and relating to the stronger male, their present hereditary makeup would incline them to support authoritarian government and incautious (i.e. maternal) social policy. (Stocking, 1987, p. 205)

Frances Dahlberg’s work, in fact, predated Stocking’s findings; she summed up the metadiscipline’s read on that oft-told story, “Man the Hunter”:

Hunters [read: men] must be intelligent—to remember where they have gone and successfully return with meat to their waiting [italics added] wives and children, to find food and water for themselves on the hunt, to anticipate their prey’s actions, to make weapons, and to plan with other men for a successful hunt. (1981, pp. 1-2)

Clearly, this form of biological essentialism plays into the universalizing tendencies that feminist anthropology has always striven to subvert, that is, that “woman” is essentially tied to her role as child bearer in near exclusion of any other. Rosi Braidotti expresses it best when she says that women’s bodies are “not an essence nor indeed a form of anatomical destiny, but rather it is ‘one’s primary location in the world, one’s primary situation in reality’” (as quoted in Moore, 1994, pp. 18-19). Here I turn to the free play between essentialism and social construction in the feminist anthropology literature.

In the same way that feminist anthropology utilized specific knowledge to analyze the universal oppression of women, so too did these researchers utilize the idea of social construction to analyze the ways in which the essential nature, for example, the reproductive capabilities, of human bodies are socially manipulated (Ginsburg & Rapp, 1991). Feminist anthropologists generally agree that gender, gender relationships, sexuality, kinship systems, and divisions of labor are not a given based on these essential physical, biological attributes. Instead these social organizations are constructed from era to era, place to place, and society to society (Lamphere et al., 1997; Moore, 1994; Rapp Reiter, 1975; Rosaldo & Lamphere, 1974). As di Leonardo (1991) states, “Social constructionism clearly implies a respect for historical difference and change, but it also entails an understanding of the human use of history—of constructions [italics added] of the past—to legitimize or to contest the status quo” (p. 29).

From Woman, Culture, and Society (Rosaldo & Lamphere, 1974) and Toward an Anthropology of Women (Rapp Reiter, 1975) to the mid-1990s volume Situated Lives: Gender and Culture in Everyday Life (Lamphere et al., 1997) to the most recent additions, The Gender of Globalization: Women Navigating Cultural and Economic Marginalities(Gunewardena & Kingsolver, 2007) and Making Miss India Miss World: Constructing Gender, Power, and the Nation in Postliberalization India (Dewey, 2008), study after study points to the fact that the construction of gender, gender relationships, sexuality, kinship systems, and divisions of labor not only differs from country to country and region to region but also is enacted heterogeneously within populations. Because the evidence for this is clearly obtainable in the ethnographic record, feminist anthropologists once again subvert a universalizing tenet that would essentialize all women into a single role set and all men into another.

Sherry Ortner’s ovular work of 1974, “Is Female to Male as Nature Is to Culture?” reconceptualized and attempted to problematize a dichotomous pair in much the same way Rosaldo did the public:domestic pair. In a 1996 essay designed “partly in the spirit of defining [her]self, but largely… in the spirit of learning something from all this” (Ortner, 1996, p. 177), Ortner deconstructs her own structural pairs—female:male as nature:culture—by calling on some of the critiques of the original essay (Collier & Rosaldo, 1981; Leacock, 1981; MacCormack & Strathern, 1980; Yanagisako & Collier, 1987). While some scholars critiqued Ortner’s universalizing (MacCormack, 1980; Yanagisako & Collier, 1987), others discriminated between universalism and essentialism and leveled their criticisms at Ortner’s implementation of the dichotomies cross-culturally, as an essentializing position (Collier & Rosaldo, 1981). Judith Okely’s rereading of Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex suggests that Ortner’s early reliance on that work (Ortner, 1974, 1996) places essentialized biologism “squarely on woman,” since “de Beauvoir systematically outlines a dominant European tradition which, since the 18th century Enlightenment, sees nature as inferior to culture … She [Ortner] is implying it is ‘natural’ to look at ‘nature’ in a specific way” (Okely, 1996, pp. 179-180).

Ortner, like Rosaldo before her, reassessed her original argument to reconfigure what both female:male and nature:culture may mean as socially constructed terms. Her reassessment also includes a turn toward practice theory (Ortner 1983, 1996). With this turn, she places herself in a position to critique her early work by employing notions of social construction to subvert her earlier essentialized, universalizing position. About her own paper “Is Female to Male as Nature Is to Culture?” Ortner writes,

I also think that the linkage between such structures and any set of social categories—like female:male—is a culturally and politically constructed phenomenon … My interests lay much more in understanding the politics of the construction of such linkages, than in the static parallelism of the categories. (Ortner, 1996, p. 180)

Ortner’s linkage corresponds to what I have defined as a reformulation of the structuralist binary equation, a clearly common theoretical tool of feminist anthropology.

I would go so far as to suggest that in some field situations—those similar to what is described as appropriate through the domestic:public lens—female:male as nature:culture is a valid frame. However, we must constantly be mindful of the tendency toward oversimplification, universalizing, and essentializing in the metadiscipline. There is still room for feminist anthropologists to rewrite the equation and allow for “universal particularity” (MacKinnon, 1993, as quoted in Moore, 1994, p. 17).

Interpretive or Cultural Materialism

Interpretive anthropology was heavily affected by Geertz’s 1973 work on symbolic anthropology, The Interpretation of Cultures. He defined culture as a “historically transmitted pattern of meanings embodied in symbols, a system of inherited conceptions expressed in symbolic forms by means of which [people] communicate, perpetuate, and develop their knowledge about and attitudes toward life” (Geertz, 1973, p. 89). Lamphere et al. (1997) invoke this general definition of culture for use in their anthology, Situated Lives, over the Boasian “culture history” definition of “complex patterns of elements, traits, and configurations that constituted the lifeways in separate but equal ‘cultures’” (p. 2). To complete their definition of “culture” in an interpretive context, it is necessary to include the work of linguistic anthropology. Di Leonardo (1991) states, “Envisioning language and political economy as mutually constitutive exemplifies the larger ‘culture and political economy’ tendency within the metadiscipline” (p. 27).

The cultural materialism school in the metadiscipline, by contrast, emphasized the “impact of external forces, and … the ways in which societies change or evolve largely in adaptation to such impact” (Ortner, 1984, p. 135). Ortner goes on to say that most anthropologists “ignore[d] the fact that peasants are part of states, and that even ‘primitive’ societies and communities are invariably involved in wider systems of exchanges” (Ortner, 1984, p. 141). Because of the polarity of this pair within the metadiscipline (hence the specializations), this has been a difficult subversion to attempt.

In the 1990s, as a result of a decade of ground-breaking work in the 1980s, the subversion of this dichotomy became more commonplace (Babb, 1989; Gal, 1989; Strathern, 1987). Feminist anthropologists revisualized the universalizing and essentializing stance taken by many cultural materialist anthropologists, and the sometimes extreme cultural relativistic stance of symbolic anthropologists, to transform them through the aforementioned used of the conjunction and instead of or. In 1991, di Leonardo borrowed the term “culture and political economy” (Schneider & Schneider, 1976, as quoted in di Leonardo, 1991, p. 27) to describe the tone of many of the articles in her edited volume, Gender at the Crossroads of Knowledge (di Leonardo, 1991).

So, too, do Lamphere et al. (1997) invoke this stance for the articles included in their volume. Even more calculated use of dichotomous pairs as an and equation instead of an or equation exemplifies how feminist anthropology can move the metadiscipline in positive and exciting ways (Harp, 1991; Weedon, 1987). By utilizing both culture and political economy—while also acknowledging that even this stance will produce a partial knowledge—feminist anthropologists again strike a blow at structurally dichotomous pairings as theoretical tools.

The basic frame for culture and political economic feminist anthropology has been succinctly summarized by di Leonardo (1991, pp. 28-31) in five key points. These are as follows:

  1. Social evolution is radically rejected. The critiques of Shostak’s work Nisa: The Life and Words of a !Kung Woman(1981) are used as an example.
  2. Those patterns of behavior conceived as “innately human or at least as well-established are neither.” Terms that label a myriad of socially constructed forms, for example, homo- and heterosexual, race, and ethnicity, do not have the same meanings across space and time.
  3. As a “material and social institution and as a set of ideologies,” gender has an embedded nature in human society.” Recognizing this embedded nature of gender also means that women “must be seen not only in relation to men but to one another as well.”
  4. “All forms of patterned inequality merit analysis … Thus the hoary anthropological shorthand, ‘the X say’ must be replaced with genuine attention to what varying populations among the X say.”
  5. Feminist anthropologists, and all anthropologists, must “attend to and investigate actively the multiple layers of… social location… through which we perceive particular cultural realities.” First and foremost, di Leonardo includes here the relationship of “researcher and researched,” a reflexive turn for the metadiscipline.

Di Leonardo continued her critique in her 2000 volume, Exotics at Home: Anthropologies, Others, and American Modernity, by bringing “the X” to the American doorstep to be recognized as ourselves (di Leonardo, 2000).

Culture and Political Economy or Experimental Ethnography

Di Leonardo’s final point allows me to move to a final subversion in this discussion, culture and political economy (as discussed above) or literary (experimental) ethnography (as discussed below). Di Leonardo’s plea for attention to social location and perceptions of social reality are a direct response to the Writing Culture: The Poetics and Politics of Ethnography (Clifford & Marcus, 1986), which summarily passed over some 15 years of feminist anthropology with hardly a “by your leave” (Behar, 1995; di Leonardo, 1991). However, di Leonardo’s answering text, Gender at the Crossroads of Knowledge: Feminist Anthropology in the Postmodern Era (1991), strikes a decidedly different tone from that of another feminist anthropological text that also purports to be an answer to Writing Culture, that is, Women Writing Culture (Behar & Gordon, 1995). The advent of both culture and political economy and literary (experimental) ethnography were deeply affected by the feminist and postmodern turn in anthropology of the 1980s and into the 2000s. These paradigms called into question the ways in which anthropologists approached the slippery term culture and the representations of societies and their cultural systems. As was the case with feminism and poststructuralism, in critiquing and subverting structural dichotomies, feminism and postmodernism made some of the same demands on the metadiscipline of anthropology and its traditional views of “culture” and its representations of the “other” (Boddy, 1991; di Leonardo, 1991, 2000; Moore, 1994; Wolf, 1992). Postmodern analysts critiqued traditional ethnography for claiming a homogenizing approach that placed “the X,” or the other, in a static, racist, and untenable “ethnographic present” (Clifford, 1986; Cole, 1995; Silverstein & Urban, 1996). These critics claimed—and rightly so—that knowledge, even within a relatively isolated and genetically homogenous group, is an always partial, ever-shifting set of circumstances (Clifford, 1986).

Of course, feminist anthropology had pointed out the inherent partiality within the metadiscipline of anthropology by pointing to the absence therein of both representations of women in society and of women anthropologists (Leacock, 1978; Rapp Reiter, 1975; Rosaldo & Lamphere, 1974). That was more than a decade prior to Writing Culture. The static, ethnographic present of “the X,” feminist anthropologists concluded, was also a static androcentric viewpoint. If and when women were included, it was to shore up the very dichotomies that I have previously discussed—essentialized and universalized notions of the public:domestic spheres and the question of whether female:male was equivalent to nature:culture (Ardener, 1975; Behar, 1995; Buckley, 1989; di Leonardo, 1991, 2000; Mascia-Lees, Sharpe, & Cohen, 1988; Moore, 1988; Rosaldo & Lamphere, 1974).

The more complex and sophisticated feminist anthropological theory becomes, the more our different ideological stances crash into one another without specifically relating. To wrap up the previous section, culture and political economy can be characterized as grounded in empirical evidence. Not, as in Geertz’s words, as “empiricism, magpie amassment of cultural detail, produc[ing] an ethnographical telephone book” (Geertz, 1995, p. 23), but as best exemplified in this statement by di Leonardo (1991):

In the end, the careful attempt to discern the meanings of gender in other cultural worlds and the bringing together of ethnographic, historical and political-economic knowledge of particular populations can be seen as the most fruitful modes of feminist anthropological practice. (p. 17)

Literary (experimental) ethnography, the supposed opposite of culture and political economy, is a complex mix of “textual experimentation” that can include “autobiography, ethnography, and memoir to reflect on Western feminist desire, location, and knowledge” (Gordon, 1995, p. 432). It is important to note that this work is grounded in empirical evidence used in the same spirit as di Leonardo’s above definition. Yet, there are some striking differences as well. To further clarify literary (experimental) ethnography, the modifiers self-reflexive and personal are added.

Self-reflexivity—in and of itself—is, in the 21st century, a fairly common occurrence in anthropological literature. I daresay that most graduate students have come to expect a certain level of self-reflexivity to add contextualization— that is, social location—to the anthropological text. Further, it is practically impossible to include that self-reflexivity without some personal information becoming evident. Again, this is expected, as it lends an air of reality to both the writing and the writer, and perhaps more importantly, to the ethnographic material. However, the degree of personal self-reflexivity in works that are identified by the authors as being in the field of culture and political economy is less than is evident in a great deal of the literary (experimental) ethnography (Abu-Lughod, 1993; Behar, 1993; Gottlieb & Graham, 1993; Visweswaran, 1994).

In the 1990s, feminist culture and political economy and feminist experimental literature have been an answer to postmodernist critiques, each going its own way toward complex and holistic anthropological work. Whether the literature is based in the more familiar ethnographic form and concentrates on using its empirical base to describe and theorize “the play between speech and economy, power and agency” for a group of aboriginal women (Povinelli, 1991, p. 249) or whether it takes a more experimental form that incorporates women’s poetry (and its effect on men) and representation of women’s oral narratives (Abu-Lughod, 1993), the feminist anthropological project ends up critiquing and theorizing the metadiscipline (Ferrari, 2008).

Upon reading much of this literature, it becomes apparent that many of the same scholars are writing very different kinds of articles for volumes that fall within the purview of each of these genres. An unfortunate phenomenon is that despite that fact, there is very little cross-citation. It is as if they stand in near complete isolation relative to one another (Behar & Gordon, 1995; di Leonardo, 1991; Lamphere et al., 1997). To begin to subvert this most recent dichotomy that has arisen within feminist anthropology itself, the conclusion will identify an inclusive stance that, while it is no means new (Brodkin Sacks, 1989; Rothfield, 1991; Yanagisako & Collier, 1987), has yet to be fully embraced.


Feminist anthropology has long advocated a methodological stance that Rosaldo and Lamphere called for in Woman, Culture, and Society in 1974, that is, to be proactive and inclusive. Gordon (1995) also called for this proactive stance in 1995 when she said,

We need feminist fieldwork in the U.S. that participates in political activist and advocacy-oriented research. Interdisciplinary dialogue with oral historians who work within a disciplinary tradition of public advocacy might pull feminist anthropology at home toward grittier intellectual alliances such as with community educators and activists and with each other. (p. 375)

Faye Harrison’s work cuts across these boundaries. In her latest volume, Outsider Within: Reworking Anthropology in the Global Age, Harrison invokes the concept of “weaving” to achieve the goals of being both proactive and inclusive (Harrison, 2008).

This is especially important in U.S. society, where cultural interpretations crash into each other at an astounding rate. For example, feminist anthropologists need to theorize and offer solutions where the new world order reorganizes so-called debtor countries’ economic systems to match our own, with military buildups paid for by social program extinction; or where multinational corporations in search of cheap labor strip adults and children from subsistence activities and thereby create situations in which people who were relatively self-sufficient become exclusively dependent upon a cash economy (Davison, 1989; Harrison, 1997, 2008; Lamphere et al., 1997).

Humans have the cognitive ability to see beyond their milieus of familiarity. As proof, as feminist anthropologists, we must take ourselves. Our experiences, writing, fieldwork, and teaching pedagogies have extracted a great many of us from our consanguine relationships and make it difficult, if not impossible, to “go home again” (Abu-Lughod, 1991; Behar, 1993; Visweswaran, 1994). Feminist anthropologists are collectively writing toward a theoretical stance with a breadth, width, and flexibility to articulate concerns of multiple groups of women—for example, feminist anthropologists with various ideological backgrounds, and those myriad groups of women with whom we work—that continues to weave itself and be woven by its thinkers (Harrison, 2008). Feminist anthropology also continues to move toward a theoretical stance that is not a reaction to some earlier adaptation but is inclusive, an inclusion that is not only rhetorical but practical as well. This means that all of the work we undertake as feminist anthropologists is validated: (1) historiography—both theoretical and auto-and biographical, (2) ethnography—from empirical data collection to experimental text, (3) social relations— from culture and political economy to linguistics, and (4) women’s lives—to include oral narrative and individual story (Behar & Gordon, 1995; di Leonardo, 1991; Gunewardena & Kingsolver, 2007; Lamphere et al., 1997; Silverblatt, 1991).

There is also a need to develop a way to critique an argument without resorting to the accusatory polemic that ends up rejecting many women and most men from the conversation. A web, not a hierarchical frame or yet another binary dichotomy, must be more widely acknowledged to elucidate the complex and continually shifting set of relationships that all individually effect the whole (Ackerman, 1995; Bilharz, 1995; Harrison, 2008; Medicine, 2001; Perdue, 1995; Shoemaker, 1995; Sparks, 1995; Watson-Franke, 1992).

Structural dichotomies serve to constrict the scholarly work of feminist anthropologists to a continual recapitulation of and with Western academic norms. Feminist anthropological theory generally insists upon “greys”—polarizing to nether black nor white—and, as we have seen in the discussion of the subversion of the structuralist equation, can rarely give a sole good/bad definition to its tenets. Dichotomous thinking serves racist, colonialist, and imperialist ends by continuing to exclude the very voices of those caught in the midst of them. A. Lynn Bolles admonished feminist anthropologists in 1995 at the American Anthropological Association meetings by asking, “Where are the African American women anthropologists?” Seldom cited (except for the rare exceptions of Brackette Williams, Patricia Hill Collins, Faye V. Harrison, and now, after decades of invisibility, Zora Neale Hurston), the thoughts and voices of these women—and of Latina, Native American, Asian and Asian American, African, and other women anthropologists— are still largely lost between the polar reaches within the metadiscipline. In the continuing debate and lack of mutual citation and inclusion of each other’s work over the best way to theorize and discuss the ever-widening rage of gendered relationships and women’s roles in societies globally, we, feminist anthropologists, are denying ourselves the solidarity that could become a factor in effecting positive change in the actual lived experiences of women.

The continued marginalization of women’s cultural knowledge and experience, feminist anthropological writing, and feminist anthropologists themselves in the coursework of anthropology graduate students keeps producing—or reproducing—the knee-jerk reaction of astounded discovery that initiated the 1970s explosion in feminist anthropological literature. This is the reason that feminists, women and men, continually need to “discover” that literature over and over again. Until some primacy is given to a feminist anthropological viewpoint, and until and unless there is an effort made on the part of the metadiscipline of anthropology to be more inclusive within the discipline, graduate and undergraduate students will be “discovering” Ruth Bunzel, Elsie Clews Parson, Ella Deloria, and Zora Neale Hurston all over again decade after decade.