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Women in anthropoogy

Vanessa KibbleOctober 14, 1996

Sex in Anthropology

Anthropological studies are investigations of human life as it functions in a society. These observations are seen through the eyes of an objective anthropologist. But even if an anthropologist is completely objective in his or her studies, can there still be a descrepency in data due to the sex of the person?

Over the years anthropology has evolved to an ever expanding world that has more of a variation in thoughts and beliefs, so that all cultures are recognized and respected. Although many changes have been made in anthropological studies, like the introduction of cultural relativity, it seems that woman were the last to be considered in the field, this is mostly due to the lack of them. During the late 19th century, anthropologist were know as "arm chair" anthropologist. These were "anthropologists" who relied on merchants, missionaries, explorers, ect. as informants for their ethnographic presents. All of the latter professions were practiced by men only, as were the roles of anthropologists when fieldwork was introduced. This was in turn reflected through the way that societies were depicted and influenced.

The Trobriand Islanders are a society in Papaua New Giuenia. They are composed of about, twelve thousand people in sixty villages. The Trobrianders have been penetrated by outside influences for centuries and have remained considerably unaffected, two primary displays of this is the economical structure and politics of kinship. The economy of the Trobriand Islanders is a complex system in which there is a separate wealth for men and women. Although both sexes have their own capital, the women's wealth is a sign of power and is necessary for the definition of the chief's . The Trobrianders system of kinship is based on a matrilineal principle, in which "mother right" is demonstrated. With this system, birth rights are obtained through the mother's social status. These aspects did not go completely un recognized , but they were differently approach as far as the view in which they were studied and depth.

Bronislaw Kasper Malinowski was a male anthropologist who studied the Trobrian Islanders from 1918-1919. He established himself as a participant and an observer, making detailed observations in a way that had never been explored before. Despite the fact that his techniques in gathering information revolutionized anthropological fieldwork, there is ample room for descrepency due to ethnocentric views adorning woman; as was soon addressed by another, female anthropologist. Annette B. Wiener also studied the Trobriand Islanders about sixty years later in 1971, on the island of Kiriwina. Primarily Wiener was sent to study the economical and artistic meanings of woodcarvings, but she changed her subject of study after being approach by a group of women who energetically explained their role in their society to their fellow woman. Wiener looked to the notes of Malinowski as a reference for her to follow and was surprised to see that many important aspects of Trobriand culture and society were missing as a result of a male interpretation; as said by Wiener, (Malinowski) "never gave equal time to the woman's side of things." Malinowski made note of observations he made of women making skirts and collecting banana leaves, all of which are forms of women's wealth, but dismissed their importance by labeling these activities as women's work. On the other hand since Wiener's main informants were woman she was lead to analyze their responsibilities and roles in the society in more depth. These different views come from the era in which Malinowski studied. In his own European culture woman were thought to only be "living in men's shadows," and only to occupy "private sectors of society, like child rearing," and as a man he believed these assumptions that didn't apply to him.

Malinowski's approach to the study of woman in society was very common and still is today. A safe way to understand and project something without giving offense is viewing it from a perspective that you can easily relate to, Malinowski is not the only one guilty of this. In the ethnography of Napoleon A. Changnon presents a very clear and concise image of the Yanomamo. Changnon studied the Yanomamo first in1964, they live on the Brazilian and Venezuelan border. All of Chagnon's informants are men and there is no mention of woman by name or even in a generalized form. This was also true for the film shown in class on the Yanomamo and Chagnon. The Yanomamo do not give any obvious importance to women in their society so perhaps Chagnon didn't feel inclined to analyze in depth a woman's role. It would be interesting to see how an ethnographic present of a woman on the Yanomamo would differ from Chagnon's.

Acceptance of an anthropologist can be jeopardized or simply affected according to their sex. What is acceptable for a man to do may not be acceptable for a woman. This particular situation is touched on in an exert of Judith Okely's ethnographic present on Gypsies;" The other male visitor, well over sixty, caused a sensation by greeting me with a slight peck on the cheek." This "sensation" was due to the absence of what is the norm behavior for a Gypsy woman involving a man according to his level of intimacy.

With so many various factors in mind concerning the sex of an anthropologist a tremendous influence is inevitable. Generally this is not a problem if the society is presented as a whole. In other words everyone, men and woman both are included in the ethnographic present. There is no such thing as a minor role in a society. The example of society represented as a cell is relevant to this idea, everything has its part, and every part working together is what makes the cell (society) function successfully.

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