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Gender Studies: Anthropology


It is important to recognize that kinship (and the family), as reconstrued by feminist gender studies since the 1970s, is not merely the particular locus of social production and reproduction. It is the symbol of sociality: an iconic form that stands for something else, just as the body can stand for anything else, as Margaret Mead recognized so many years ago. Similarly, it has been the project of gender studies to demonstrate how gender stands for and structures something else—namely, power and, therefore, difference.

In retrospect, then, it is necessary to understand gender studies not only as a discipline premised upon this fundamental axiom—that gender represents, and performatively constitutes, relations of power—but as a field whose own interests have been structured by other questions. Particularly in the United States but in the West more generally, gender studies has par-taken of a general problematic, namely the opposition between choice and determination—a problematic central to the constitution of liberal democratic polities and their self-representation. Anthropologists, following Margaret Mead, referred to this opposition in terms of the "nature/nurture" binary, with "nature" being variously understood as comprised of anatomy, genetics, or mental structures. "Nurture" was the term applied to socially variable factors and has been widely equated with "environment." In culturalist discourse, this has lent an aura of voluntarism to social practice, which, because it is not natural, has appeared to be something to which individuals choose to accede. Notwithstanding structuralist efforts to demonstrate that the arbitrariness of social forms is precisely overcome by habit, convention, and history, a tendency to valorize individual choice has been omnipresent in gender studies and especially feminist anthropology. In this regard, studies of resistance can be seen as continuous with culturalism, albeit only insofar as they make social disadvantage or abjection a source of alienation from what history gives individuals as the natural form of society. The question of choice was, of course, differently conceived by Marxists, for whom history and the organization of production, rather than biology, constituted the primary sources of social determination.

Elizabeth Povinelli asserted in 2002 that sexuality is the discourse through which choice becomes the means of claiming Western subjecthood—compared to, for example, cultural descent, which makes a lack of choice, or submission to cultural law, the means of asserting subjecthood in many non-Western cultures, at least as they are represented to and for the West. This observation can be extended to include gender, sex, and sexuality. However, if conceptions of queer kinship privilege choice, many other analyses of gender and sexuality, and especially those grounding themselves in biologism, do not. The question is not whether sexuality is (always already) a discourse of choice, but how and when gender or sexuality become the concept metaphors through which the questions of individual choice and social or natural determination get posed. A reflexive analysis of the conditions of possibility within which these questions emerge is, as Foucault rightly argued, prerequisite for any progress in the study of sociality.


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Rosalind C. Morris

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