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Gender Studies: Anthropology

Rituals Of Becoming: The Making Of Sexual Difference

One of the primary assumptions of contemporary gender theory is the social construction of gender, but although this core idea is closely linked to the recognition that kinship and even parentage is not a biological matter but a social one and that descent is a mode of recognizing children rather than transmitting genetic material, the connection between the theorization of gender and kinship was not immediately obvious to anthropologists of the early twentieth century. Even Bronislaw Malinowski, who claimed that sex must be understood as but one moment in a vast system comprising love, eroticism, mythology, courtship, kinship, family life, economic and religious practices, and tribal structure, devoted little time to a consideration of how boys and girls come to assume the qualities that make them socially recognizable as such. For him, sexual and social maturation were inimitably linked, but his attention was narrowly focused on the transformation of willful desire between two persons—expressed most purely and freely by adolescents—into a relation capable of self-negation in parenting. Malinowski's most profound insight may have come in his argument that kinship is not so much a matter of sexual intercourse as it is a sublation of dyadic relations into triadic ones, of interpersonal intimacies into intergenerational dependencies. Yet, because his concern lay with the functional appropriation of individual facts for social ends and because his concept of function was so immediate, Malinowski never seems to have considered the difficulty of achieving what Margaret Mead would later term ideal maleness or femaleness.

For the majority of early writers on kinship, gender was the axiomatically binary ground on which kinship and marital exchange could be erected. In Western theoretical traditions, this axiomatic quality of binary gender differences naturalizes itself in biological metaphors to such an extent that gender difference collapses into sexual difference and appears as anatomically and/or genetically determined. Two main sources of critique inform the development of the social constructivist analysis of gender per se. The first is the vast literature on ritual and corporeal practice, from the archive of which anthropologists have assembled their cases for the relativity of somaticization and sexualization. The second is to be found in the reconsideration of earlier theoretical arguments about such practice, especially as developed in the 1970s and 1980s under the influence and in the context of new social movements, especially feminism. This discussion begins with the consequences and potentialities of ritual theory for gender analysis.

In 1909 Arnold van Gennep undertook to formalize a theory of the rites associated with transitional stages of life and offered a tripartite model consisting of separation, liminality, and re-aggregation to explain their operations. Later elaborated by Victor Turner (1969) in a manner that highlighted the ambiguity and potential subversiveness of the interstitial phase, the notion of the ritual production of social status entailed a recognition that the bodily identity of a person is an inadequate determinant of her or his social identity. Indeed, Van Gennep made the brilliant observation that initiation rites work by overcoming the enormous chasm between biological puberty and what he termed "social puberty." Even more radically, he suggested that these rites do not so much mark puberty as they produce sexuality, removing people from an asexual state and birthing them as either male or female sexual subjects, who can then enter into legitimate sexual and especially reproductive relations with other adults. Van Gennep's radicalism has been mainly forgotten, but feminist anthropology has reclaimed his constructivist insight following a rapprochement with linguistic theory and dialectical materialism, the invention of "gender" as a category, and the emergence of a political project that has made the pursuit of resistance and other forms of counter-hegemonic practice the goal of much comparativist work.

Additional topics

Science EncyclopediaScience & Philosophy: Gastrula to Glow dischargeGender Studies: Anthropology - Kinship And/or Gender?, Rituals Of Becoming: The Making Of Sexual Difference, Feminist Interventions: The Legacy Of The Seventies