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Gender Studies: Anthropology

Materialism And Dialectical Analysis

Rubin began her essay by asserting that "there is no theory which accounts for the oppression of women … with anything like the explanatory power of the Marxist theory of class oppression" (p. 160). She concluded by calling for a new version of Engels's The Origin of the Family. Efforts to integrate gender analysis with class analysis and with more generally materialist concerns have taken a number of forms since Rubin's article was published. In general these have concerned the relationship between unremunerated housework and the reproduction of labor, the impact of colonialism and capitalist penetration on gender relations in local cultures, the new international division of labor, and the feminization of geopolitical regions.

Historically concerned with small-scale societies and under-girded by the assumption that the most elementary form of any social phenomenon reveals an essence that carries across other manifestations, Marxist anthropologists imagined the division of labor between men and women to be identical to the division between productive and reproductive functions. However, during the 1980s and beyond, questions of production and reproduction and of the status of women were increasingly reframed in terms of the colonial encompassment of indigenous economies and the new international distribution of labor. This led to studies of new logics of power, such as those by which class has displaced status as a rubric of social stratification in some places. It also generated analyses of new competitive relations between men and women as economic power became unified in a single (generalized) commodity form where previously it had been divided among regimes of value. In these contexts gender became the contested mechanism for regulating access to economic resources. A vast literature also developed in response to the emergence of transnational labor networks and the establishment of new manufacturing zones in the digitizing global economy of multinational finance. By attending to the gendered organization of value, and not merely the symbolic value (or lack thereof) accorded women (Weiner), it has become possible to speak of a "feminization of the global economy."

Materialist analyses of these latter processes, which take place in a transnational realm that exists both above and below the level of the nation-state, have perhaps inevitably privileged economic questions, but they have often stopped short of economic determinism. Dialectical analysis has been summoned here as a means of recognizing the degree to which indigenous forms of familial and social organization remain resilient or resistant in the face of encompassment by multinational capital, global finance, and other transnational forces. But a dialectical approach to the transformation of gender (or the sex/gender system) must actually redouble itself. For it not only entails the recognition that local life-worlds are transformed without being destroyed in the modern moment (hence it must examine the dialectics between the local, the global, and the emergence of transnationally comparable values like locality), it also requires a reading practice that seeks to comprehend, from two distinct locations or perspectives, the facts of these historical processes. Reading for resistance became a primary objective of much work in the field of gender studies during the last two decades of the twentieth century. Promising in many regards, it has nonetheless been weakened by a tendency to conflate the fact of social and structural specificity with an intentionalized and often strategic, or at least tactical, opposition to the forces of both foreignness and new inequity.

Resistance was the term by which gender studies sought to rescue itself from the absolutist pessimism of structuralist universalism as well as economic and cultural determinism. Under the influence of Clifford Geertz, American anthropological analysis of culture had tended to represent culture as a system of shared signs or symbols. Conceived as a theoretical refutation of the economic determinism that cruder forms of Marxism espoused, culturalism nonetheless reproduced its problematic negation of agency while also eviscerating any recognition of structural contradiction. Resistance conceived within the culturalist tradition thus came to be imagined as a possibility originating in the critical reading and interpretation of those signs and symbols that comprised cultural totalities. Ironically, the language of resistance permitted two distinct theoretical traditions to converge, those of the Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci (1891–1937) and the French libertine philosopher Michel Foucault (1926–1984). It was a thematically and methodologically driven reading of Foucault's later writings on sexuality that informed the genealogical turn in gender studies and in anthropology more generally.

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