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The Relationship Between Feminism and Anthropology

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Anthropology
Wordcount: 2637 words Published: 27th Apr 2018

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The relationship of feminism and anthropology can bring a new development to the way ethnographies are written and done. Lila Abu-Lughod’s statement feminist ethnography is an ‘ethnography with women at the centre written for women by women’ can be seen as an effort to find a distinct way of doing and writing ethnography. In this essay I will look at the roots of feminism and feminist anthropology. I will then discuss Abu-Lughod’s statement and try to explain how her statement is beneficial to anthropology and whether it is possible to do research her way. I will secondly look at the advantages and disadvantages of the statement. I will focus on notions of partial identity and objectivity. Finally, I will conclude by discussing some of the issues surrounding the empowerment of women, and that although Abu-Lughod’s statement does have some benefits it misses the important point. I will argue that feminist ethnography should be used as a political tool for disadvantaged women and it should reflect a “collective, dialectical process of building theory through struggles for change” (Enslin:1994:545).

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Feminism can be defined as ‘both a social movement and a perspective on society. As a social movement, it has challenged the historical subordination of women and advocated political, social, and economic equality between the sexes. As a social and sociological perspective, it has examined the roles that sex and gender play in structuring society, as well as the reciprocal role that society plays in structuring sex and gender’ (Oxford dictionary 2007). There are three main categories in which the different waves of feminism can be divided. Among the first one which was from 1850 to 1920, during this period most research was carried out by men. Feminists aimed to bring the voice of women in ethnography, they gave a different angle on experiences of women and the surrounding events. This brought a new angle because male ethnographies only had the opportunity to interview other men e.g. what were women like. Important figures during this period were P.Kayberry who worked with B.Malinowski at LSE. She focused on religion but she examined men and women in her work.

Moving on to the second wave of which was from 1920s to 1980s, here the separation between sex and gender was made by important feminists. Sex as nature and gender as culture. This takes us to the nature culture dichotomy which is important when we are focusing on the subordination of women in different societies. The dichotomies between sex/gender, work/home, men/women, and nature/culture are important in social theory for raising debates. Important figures in the second wave feminism were Margaret Mead she made a lot of contribution in her work on the diversity of cultures here she helped to breakdown the bias that was based on concepts of what is natural, and she put more emphasis on culture in people’s development. Most important work’s of Mead was Coming of Age in Samoa (1928). Another important figure was Eleanor Leacock who was a Marxist feminist anthropologist. She focused on universality of female subordination and argued against this claim.

This second wave of feminism was influenced by a number of events in history, the 1960s was closely linked to political ferment in Europe and North America, like the anti-Vietnam war movement and the civil rights movement. Feminism was something that grew out of these political events during the 1960s. Feminism argued that politics and knowledge were closely linked with each other so feminists were concerned with knowledge and we have to question the knowledge that was being given to us. Feminism during 1960s called for the establishment of women’s writing, universities, feminist sociology and a feminist political order which would be egalitarian.

Feminists became interested in anthropology, because they looked to ethnography as a source of information about whether women were being dominated everywhere by men. What are some of the ways that women are living different societies, was there evidence of equality between men and women. Did matriarchal societies ever exist and to get the answers to such questions they turned to ethnography.

This takes us to the issue of ethnography and what we understand about women in different societies. It became obvious that traditional ethnographic work neglected women. Some of the issues surrounding women are; ethnograhies did not talk about women’s worlds, it did not talk about what went on in women’s lives, what they thought and what their roles were. When we discuss the question are women really subordinated, we realize that we do not know much about women in different societies. B.Malinowski’s work on the Kula did discuss the male role in the exchange of valuables. But during the 1970s Anette Weiner (1983) went to study the same society and she found out women are playing an important role in Trobriand society too. Their involved with the Kula, exchanges, rituals etc but Malinowski never wrote about it. Female anthropologists of the 1970s would go and look for important men, and then they would study their values, their societies, what was important to them. These anthropologists assumed, that men followed male logics in this public/private divide in line with this divide between the domestic and public sphere. They would also assume that what went on in the public sphere, economy, politics was more important the domestic side.

The concept of objectivity came to be regarded as a mode of male power. Feminists claimed that scientific ideals of universality, timelessness, and objectivity were inherently male-dominated and that the more feminist attributes of particularism, empathy and emotionality were devalued (Abu-Lughod 1990). Feminists argued that to take over male domination these female attributes had to be given more importance and made clear. Abu-Lughod’s ideal way of doing research is when a female ethnographer takes part in the ethnography, rather then removing herself, who listens to other women’s voice and gives accounts (Abu-Lughod 1990). The female ethnographer is able to do so because although the women studied differ from the ethnographer, she shares part of the identity of her informant. The female researcher therefore has the appropriate “tools” to understand the other woman’s life (Abu-Lughod 1990). this is why according to Abu-Lughod female ethnography should be an ethnography with women at the centre written by and for women. Abu-Lughod says that early feminist anthropologists did not really do anything about knowledge. They had good intentions but they didn’t do much as they were trapped in ways of thinking that had been given to them by the masculine nature of the academy.

Let us now discuss the first part of Abu-Lughod’s statement, whether feminist ethnography should be an ethnography with women at the centre written by women. Abu-Lughod claims that women understand other women in a better way. The female researcher shares some form of identity with her subject of study (Abu-Lughod 1990, Caplan 1988). For example some women have experience of form of male domination which puts the researcher in a good position to understand the women being researched. At the same time, the researcher keeps a certain distance from her informant and therefore can both have a partial identification with her subject of study, so blurring the distinction between the self and other, and still being able to account being able to account for others’ separateness (Strathern view in Caplan 1988). In a Weberian sense, the female researcher can use herself as an ‘ideal type’ by analyzing the similarities and differences between herself and other women. According to Abu-Lughod, this is the best objectivity that achieved (Abu-Lughod 1990, Weber 1949). Pat Caplan (1988) offers a good example of partial identity and understanding between women. According to Caplan the most important task for an ethnographer is to try and understand the people whom she is studying. Caplan writes about the research she did in Tanzania, East Africa. In her twenties, the women in the village were happy, satisfied and free but when she went back ten years later she realized the problems women were facing daily. While Caplan could not empathise with her informants at an earlystage of her life, because their identities were too different, she could atleast do in her thirties. In comparison a male ethnographer would probably never have realized the difficulties women are facing in their society (Caplan 1988).

There are two criticisms to this argument. Firstly, to understand women, the female ethnographer has to take men into account as well because as it has been argued in the second wave of feminism the relationship between men and women is an important factor to understand society. So the ‘partial identity’ between women that gives Abu-Lughod’s statement its importance but it loses it when a man enters the stage (Caplan 1988). Secondly, there is a danger to feminist ethnographers who only base their studies on women, treating women as the ‘problem’ or exception of anthropological research and writing monographs for a female audience. In the 1980s feminist writers have argued that the construction if only two sexes and genders is arbitrary and artificial. People’s sexual identities are infact between the two ‘extremes’ of male and female. By only looking at women’s worlds and dealing with an limited female audience, feminist ethnographers, even though stressing the marginalized part of the dualism, enforce the traditional categories of men and women rather then allowing for a plurality of gender of genders (Moore 1999, Caplan 1988).

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Nancy Hartstock says “why is it that just when subject or marginalized peoples like blacks, the colonized and women have begun to have and demand a voice, they are told by the white boys that there can be no authoritative speaker or subject” (Abu-Lughod, p.17). To be in favour of Abu-Lughod’s argument it can be said that maybe the putting forward of this kind of ideal types, or points of reference, of ‘men’ and ‘women’ is what we need in order not to fall victim to daunting relativity and imprecise ethnographic work ( Moore 1999, Harraway 1988). For Abu-Lughod it is important for the ethnographer to be visible, this is because the reader can contextualize and understand the ethnographer in a important way. Whether the ethnographer is a woman should also be made clear. The ethnographer would also have to tell the reader about all of her background e.g. economic, geographic, national so the reader can properly understand the research. By only saying that the ethnographer is female and that she is doing research about women for women, the differences between all these women are overlooked. For example what would a white middle-class American single woman have in common with a poor Sudanese woman from the desert who has seven children, than she has in common with a middle-class Indian businessman who flies to San Francisco atleast twice a year? (Caplan 1988). Women are different everyone in the world and they come from different cultures so how can a ethnographer even if she’s female say that she can write ethnographies about women and for women in general? It is unlikely that a non-western, non-middle class, non anthropologist will read the female ethnography written by a feminist scholar (Abu-Lughod 1990, Caplan 1988). There is a danger to implicitly apply Western stereotypes of feminity when doing research on women in parts of the world where the idea of ‘being woman’ might be very different from the one we are familiar with (Abu-Lughod 1990).

This criticism, is not totally dismissing Abu-Lughod’s statement because the anthropologist explicitly talks about partial identity not absolute identification or sameness. Abu-Lughod’s theory is strong in a way also, because she emphasizes particularity rather than universality and generality. In Donna Haraway’s words, “The only way to find a larger vision, is to be somewhere in particular” (Haraway 1988, p.590). Abu-Lughod focuses on stopping the male-centeredness in human science. This, as has been argued, is not enough: If women truly want to counter the male-centeredness in ethnographic writing, they not only have to get rid of the fact that it is mostly written by men for men, but should also counter all the other aspects of alleged scientific ideals such as universality, objectivity, generality, abstractness and timelessness. Female ethnographies, in that sense, do not have to be about women only in order to be distinct from conventional or “male” ethnography (Lutz 1995).

On the other hand, feminist scholars have argued that male researchers tend to ignore women’s lives and accounts, regard it as inappropriate to write about them or find it unnecessary to deal with their issues (Caplan 1988). In that sense, in order to compensate this imbalance, someone, i.e. the feminist scholars, has to ‘do the job’ in order to give more power to women (Caplan 1988, Haraway 1988).

The participation of women in public life has changed specially after the second world war, but there are still differences: women’s voices are considered as being less competent, irrational, emotional and not worthy (Lutz 1995). Feminist scholars have also faced difficulties in the professional world, they might not have faced prejudice against their theories but situations like finding publishers for their research, less job opportunities (Caplan 1988). Feminists in return have reacted to this by adopting a ‘tactic of resistance’, rather than assimilating to ‘masculine’ topics or styles of writing, they have stressed and looked for their distinct feminist ethnographic style (Lutz 1995). Abu-Lughod has therefore by bringing up her theory given power to anthropological feminists she has given them a tool to reflect different realities in a ‘female’ way.

This argument raises another question of who is actually being empowered by a feminist ethnography. Is it the women who are being studied? Or the feminist ethnographers themselves?

What should matter more than reflexive ethnography or a feminist style of writing. What should matter more than the way an ethnography is constructed, or the way it is seen by the reader; what should matter more is the conclusions the researcher draws from ethnographic work and how it its put into praxis and used to empower the informants themselves. This applies more to a female ethnography that needs to counter the discrimination of women all over the world (Enslin 1994). It is important to give women their voice by writing about them but also accounts of marginalized women by themselves (e.g. autobiographies of black non-western women) remain marginalized, even in the field of women’s writing or studies: feminist ethnography in Abu-Lughod’s terms thus undermines the agency of the women who are being studied (Enslin 1994). Female ethnographic writing has also been criticized for being exploitative. When a female researcher tells personal life stories and problems of the women whom she is studying, the researcher tends to give more intimate details than more positivist “masculine” researchers do, for her own academic purposes she is misusing her informants (Enslin 1994).


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