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Victoria Kline
February 16, 2005
Seminar in Ethnology
Dr. Pérez

Anthropological Theory Today: Week 4

Chapter 6: Whatever Happened to Women and Men? Gender and other Crisis in Anthropology by Henrietta L. Moore

Good writer, Moore starts out by taking us in our imaginations back to a time when men were men and women were, well, from my point of view in the 1970s I think there was just as much gender confusion then in the San Francisco Bay area as there is now.

However, going to a party that had gays in attendance then, is different now, as the gays are much more open sexually in mixed company than they were back in the 1970s. So much so as to make a regular girl like myself uncomfortable. Anyway, it was a great way to frame her argument in text. She begins with definitions of gender and sex, from different perspectives such as biological anthropology and social anthropology. There is no consensus on the definitions of these words. However, in the 1970s, in the social sciences, gender was “understood as the cultural elaboration of the meaning and significance of the natural facts of biological differences between women and men” (151). That definition was challenged by Social Anthropology that argued “that sex could not determine gender” (151) referring to evidence from cultural studies of third genders or transexualism.

Moore asks “What is sex?” and goes on to say that in the 1980s different arguments went on within the disciplines: one was that sex did not exist (!), I assume that means we are all equal or that we are all bisexual or some such thing; another argument was that there should be three distinct terms to use: sex, Sex, and gender meaning biological sex, culturally constructed Sex, and gender as how sex is constructed within specific cultures respectively. Overall, Moore traces the lines of thinking about gender and sex from the 1960s through the 1990s, and shows the different ways that these terms came to be understood. In the 1960s, where she begins her essay, people that were not inside the norms of sexual behavior for the times were generally “in the closet” as to be out in the open meant chastisement from society.

Discussion Question: I must have been persuaded by the arguments about gender in the 1970s and 1980s, especially the ones that say parents force gender on their children, and in that way limit their potential to succeed by accepting only certain kinds of behavior that are gender specific. Do you think that gender is determined by parenting, by the messages and clues that are given to the child as to what is acceptable behavior for 50% of the population? The detriment was supposed to be that females were not allowed certain types of behavior that relegated female children to the home, and subsequently as adults with no autonomy, under the control of a male head of household. 

Later in her argument Moore treats some of the more interesting specimens of humanity, arguing that the crisis of gender is really a crisis of identity with descriptions of some really far out lifestyles of people who are challenging the confines of gender and identity. She seems to be making the point that the conventional challenges to gender are really statements of identity and rights to define the identity.

Chapter 7: The Body’s Career in Anthropology by Thomas J. Csordas

Thomas Csordas (another good writer!) writes a history of how the body is used in anthropology as a metaphor, and how the body is related to in different cultures. He describes four stages of historical development of thinking about the body. The first is the body as background, just part of the scenery of daily life. In the 1970s the body became a topic of focus in ethnography. Later the body had to be accounted for in ethnography in a culturally relative way tracing its history in the culture described. Finally, current to the writing of his essay, Csordas says that now the discipline has “an opportunity for rethinking various aspects of culture and self” (172). He goes into detail about each of these four stages of bodily thinking.

Of interest is the discussion about early works in ethnography that relate to the body as in Paul Radin’s  description of the Maori and how they distinguish substance and form of the body, and how the Maori associate the physical body with psychic rather than material function, and how they were able to disassociate with the physical body and engage with other disassociated bodies. Csordas systematically invokes several authors of yore that engaged in discourses of the body, embodiment, body image, or “sensory modalities” (174) thereby forming a foundation for an anthropology of the body.

In the second stage, the 1970s, the body came out of the closet to become the subject of anthropological theory beginning with works by Mary Douglas and John Blacking. Douglas defined anthropology of the body in terms of “two bodies” that of the physical, corporeal body, and that of the social, corporate body. Blacking furthered the definition by extending the definition of body into four categories: that of society as metaphor of the social corporate body, the connection of individual human bodies through psychic unity, the fundamentality of non-verbal communication, and the union of mind and body that cannot be separated (177). Of these two Douglas is much easier to comprehend. Other definitions of the body in anthropology are described. The last, John O’Neill’s “five bodies,” is a breakdown that resonates some truth: the world’s body, the social body, the body politic, the consumer body, and the medical body.

Discussion Question: John O’Neill suggests that there is a consumer body that is subject to bodily needs that are not necessarily true needs, that an individual can be coerced into purchasing through the insertion of self-doubt through advertising. Do you think that our need to fulfill certain necessities opens us up to becoming consumers of unnecessary items? Are we sold things we do not really need because of a propensity to be falsely lured?

Csordas ends with a CV of the body in anthropology, which is an annotated reading list of those works he finds most influential. There is a great deal of connection between this essay and the previous one by Moore on gender and sex thinking in the social sciences.

Discussion Question: tabula rasa or the blank slate mentioned on 179 is a concept that I believe to be true. Society’s codes and parental teachings are written on that slate that is blank at birth. Even though there is the suggestion that the slate is not completely blank, I believe it is blank enough that the first years are the most important in development and that the individual personality can get out of hand if the slate is not filled with security, love, and the way to treat others with decency. We teach the child to be part of the family first and then society. One can see the results of poor parental teachings in the huge numbers of children with annoying behavior problems. And when this teaching is correct or favorable to society the individual becomes part of the working, healthy body of society.

When the teaching is faulty, the individual becomes a virus, or a cancer on the ass of humanity, one that needs to be removed! Anyone disagree with this? Are the abhorrent parts healable by society? Is that possible? Should gender disorders or abnormalities be considered part of the non-functional body of society?

Chapter 8: Human Cognition and Cultural Evolution by Pascal Boyer

This is written by a research scientist and begins straight out by saying that there are cognitive capacities that can be measured in humans and that it is already being done. That empirically testing cognitive capacity is the only way that theories of cognition can be proven. He focuses on two areas of research in cognitive science: children’s capacity to acquire knowledge and how knowledge is transmitted, and how evolutionary biology and repetitive cultural behaviors are related. 

In the first area of study that he wishes to discuss, children (even infants) have innate capacities to categorize and filter information that is universal across cultures. As the processes get used, the information flow will be decidedly different across cultures and thus the differing products in later stages of human life. Boyer wishes to know how the mind develops and how it “builds its conceptual repertoire” (207). Filtering, categorizing, accepting information without prejudice (at first anyway), all begins at birth. He says that infants are capable of recognizing their own species. I think I would have to see some proof of that, but from a look around on the web about this guy, he is not trying to mislead, but I still wonder if an infant would respond to a surrogate, or if there would be an adverse reaction in the infant if the surrogate was made up to appear like another species. Do we imprint the way chickens, ducks, and geese do?

Children not only filter and categorize information; they also fill in gaps, and make predictions about what will happen in the future. They derive conclusions about the insides of different animals based on their similarities outside. Boyer calls this “intuitive ontology” (209). There are specific ways in which objects are supposed to behave under certain conditions and these he calls “foundational theories” and are therefore intuitive. We have them for physics and the way matter and energy as supposed to behave. This extends to the actions of animals and plants. A connection here is that with religion, and belief in the supernatural, we are attracted to ideas because they are anti-intuitive, and this is one of Boyer’s main areas of research which seems to cause a great deal of consternation. It is a scientific explanation for religious beliefs that I tend to favor. I will need to read more of him, but it seems that people do not like the idea of having a scientific explanation for the cross-cultural phenomenon of religions. Humans are predisposed to an attraction to religion because of the way the brain is structured and operates on a filter and file principle of organization.

Finally, culture has evolved in tandem with these biologically ordered categorizing functions inherent within the human brain.

Discussion Question: How do we know that we accept data without prejudice? Might we be filtering out information that is below or above our level of perception?

Chapter 9: Psychoanalysis and Anthropology: On the Temporality of Analysis by James Weiner

Weiner was a little more obtuse for me than the others this time. I think that he is saying that the principle functions of psychoanalysis and anthropology are the same. There is a patient in one relationship and an informant in the other. Both professions do analysis focusing on the extraction of relevant information, the former to promote mental health, the later to provide voice to the subject. Problems that psychoanalysts and ethnographers face, in relation to their informants, are the ability to make contact that is satisfactory and trusting to both sides. Weiner says that psychoanalysis is a social science, like anthropology.

To support this claim, Weiner lists four characteristics of psychoanalysis which show that it is similar to anthropology: the goal is to make the patient self aware of social situations and how he creates them; that the patient’s essence can be found in his language or speech; the psychoanalyst must provoke the patient to speak; and a span of time is required for these analyses to take place. The same could be said of ethnography: in that the ethnographer wishes to know the inner workings of the subject’s social system through the eyes of the subject, the ethnographer must create rapport with the subject and bonds of trust must be formed for there to be honesty in responses, and these goals take long lengths of time for relationships to be established. He goes into each one of these four characteristics shared by psychoanalysis and anthropology.

Boyer’s example of the bringing to awareness the self in the social situation is that of the Central Australian Aborigine’s relationship to the landscape through myth and dreaming, the landscape was created by the ancestors by their own body fluids and excretions, that are marked in the landscape, and to which all Australian Aborigines claim ownership. On of the Aboriginal groups that Weiner uses in his discussion are the  Walbiri that we have discussed previously in relation to their acrylic painting sales to the public, the subject matter being the dreaming, which that reading suggested to me was a way of claiming ownership of the landscape they have lost. Boyer also uses the Central Australian Aborigines to illustrate the second point of language and its roll in objectifying the world and also the Foi of Papua New Guinea. Third, the anthropologist as well as the psychoanalyst must elicit responses from their subject/patient through discourse that may be interpreted, so the right questions must be asked to generate the correct path to enlightenment. Behavior is read as well in interpretation. Finally, there is the point of the timeliness of ethnography and psychoanalysis. It takes time to develop the relationship that will allow the answers to the right questions to be asked and to become aware of the meanings of behaviors.

Discussion: The passage quoted from Freud on page 248 where he says that he tells the devastated patient what psychoanalysis is all about and how discourse into past events may help him, and the patient is mute. I laughed, that is so typical. The very idea of telling someone else about oneself can be monumental. I, for one, would become mute, as I do often in class. I think it is a natural reaction to stress for some people. An alternative problem that happened to Freud I am sure, is that he could not get the patient to shut up!

Talking as therapeutic is foreign to many people, and then some use it liberally on their friends and acquaintances (free therapy?). There is something biological in that dichotomy between speakers and listeners. Freud could read the behavior as well says this article. A person frozen in the chair may tell you something, just not everything you need to know.   

Chapter 10: Becoming Undisciplined: Anthropology and Cultural Studies by Nicholas Thomas

This is (kind of) a whiney essay about how anthropology is being threatened into disuse or extinction (I think). One area where I may agree is that anthropology and ethnography are increasingly becoming the domain of the indigenous peoples who wish to define their own cultures, or at least be involved in it (265). So be it. Thomas goes on the say that recent theoretical trends in anthropology have caused disjunction between indigenous scholars and anthropologists. The former do not agree with the idea of invention discourse, as invention brings to mind something concocted, and this takes power away from the indigenous claims to primacy, ownership, and rights (265).

He spends over three pages detailing shortcomings of anthropology. He describes four: that anthropology is mainly discourse through text and is a study of signs and symbols of language; there is a preoccupation with the now (current ways of life); the use of way of questioning that brings criticism back on the discipline because of underlying categorizations that define identities rather than allowing them to identify themselves (in other words anthropology makes itself a target of criticism over and over again); and a western centered viewpoint that is forced onto the subject even though that is exactly the antithesis of ethnography or cultural studies (268-271).

This was definitely my least favorite essay, although I could be wrong.

Discussion Question: How are we supposed to have the confidence to go out and do ethnography with all the inhibitions placed on us through some of the readings like this one? Has ethnography or cultural studies really done so much damage, or are there just too many amateur ethnographers out there being a nuisance either uncovering unwanted facts or creating inventions?

Discussion: One of the things that keeps coming up in my mind about how ethnography works and the difference between reading about it and actually doing it, is how does one start? Thinking back to the beginning of the semester, it was suggested that we each write a “diary” entry of what happened in this very class each week, for example, how we participated, how we felt in the class, how others reacted to our participation or kept us from participating. In doing this exercise, I think this would be a way to begin to do ethnography: the ethnography of the classroom (this classroom), from one point of view.

In other words, in my thinking, ethnography would begin by taking good notes and being observant. If everyone engaged in this writing and reflective exercise, then there would be other texts to compare, and there would be the basis for a comparative ethnology of class participation, however limited. Has anyone written a weekly entry as suggested? Also, you would see change over time from your own viewpoint or at least you might see if you are hypoglycemic or something. 

Overall, this is a very informative book with well-chosen, well-written authors as contributors. There is a flow to the discussions Moore wishes to present that shows that anthropology today covers a lot of ground, is a lot of things, encompasses a lot of disciplines, and is certainly controversial in many ways. The readings did not leave the reader hanging so I am assuming that these essays are of post post-modern orientation and that some reconstruction is occurring. 


Moore, Henrietta L.
1999 Anthropological Theory Today. Cambridge, UK: Polity Press.

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last updated on June 13, 2011