From key anthropologists, explaining the issue of male bias

From ‘male
bias’ to the study of women and from the study of women to the study of gender.
Reflect on the contributions of the feminist perspective to anthropology.


The evolution of feminism in anthropology has produced an
interdisciplinary approach to anthropology with regards to biological,
sociological and cultural approaches to the study of societies and the people
within them. The feminist movement was a fundamental one, and brought attention
to various issues within anthropology. The movement began with the exploration
of male bias often seen in ethnography and has most recently been discussed in
contemporary anthropology through gender constructs and associations,
highlighting issues of women in all cultures and societies along the way. It
highlighted the importance for removing ethnocentrism from ethnography and the
danger of naturalisations, where women are often seen as connected to nature
through their roles in reproduction (Rosaldo, 1980).

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The emergence of a new feminist perspective to anthropology began
in the 1970’s with the discussion of gender bias and the way in which it
affects anthropological accounts and ethnography. Though defining gender bias
as a concept is hugely difficult and subjective, many anthropologists of the
time noted prominent prejudices towards the roles of males and females in the
discipline. Rayner Reiter (1975) and Edwin Ardener (1975) became prominent in
this period as key anthropologists, explaining the issue of male bias in three
ways; the methodological bias, bias within societies presented in ethnographies
and the Eurocentric western bias. Ardener (1975) elucidated the methodological
bias as he discussed the way in which anthropology was undertaken at the time,
with ethnographic most frequently obtained by males. As a result of this, the
female point of view was severely underrepresented, and women were constrained
in anthropology. Furthermore, Reiter (1975) interpreted this first level of
male bias through the ethnocentric views instilled in many with regards to
males being more qualified and reliable informants. The lack of female
perspective was inherent as anthropologists undertaking fieldwork and doing
degrees most commonly were men and on the occasion, they were female they had
often been trained by men (Reiter, 1975). In this sense, bias can be viewed as
a scholarly problem of male impacted tradition (Milton, 1979). In addition, in
her book, Reiter (1975) presents how it was asserted often that outsiders
viewed men in other cultures more attainable to gather information from,
further emphasising the prominence of the male perspective.


Male bias in anthropology can also be characterised by the
analytical problem in which rare female viewpoints are conveyed in the same
manner as a male’s (Ardener, 1975). This element of bias results in the
inhibition of women’s voices and is extremely complex to rectify within
society. Therefore, in western patriarchal societies, is it truly possible to
eradicate this level of bias? The final level of male bias discussed in this
era involves the way in which the stereotypical male domination in western
cultures superimposes the way in which imbalance between genders is explicated.
This can be explained through the nature culture dichotomy. Reiter (1975)
discussed how a women’s role in reproduction is constricting in anthropology
and was a driver for labour constraints and female subordination. Keesing (1985)
explored the Kwaio women of Malaita, uncovering a sense of muteness of the
women. When Keesing (1985) was able to gather female informants to talk to, she
noticed that they would talk about the rules and responsibilities of their
everyday lives in the way they would imagine men to. The ethnographies emerging
centred on the issue on male bias acted as a way to educate others and to
reassign the orientation of anthropology away from the androcentric standpoint
it was too frequently seen to have taken.


As a 23 year old, in 1925 Margaret Mead undertook a psychological
study of primitive youth in Samoa, observing and documenting biological and
social conflicts with regards to adolescence of girls. Through her early
fieldwork, Mead sought to challenge others to analyse cultures around the world
and was one of the first pioneers of the study of gender and sexuality. During
her fieldwork, Mead (1977) did not fully immerse herself within the culture and
only lived with the society for 6 months, unlike suggested by the early
functionalist anthropologist Malinowski (2002;1922). Mead’s ethnography was
greatly contested by Freeman (1983) as he believed her approach of the
nature-nurture debate and cultural determinism led her to focus on her beliefs
and thus disregard evidence. In addition, he questioned her lack of
participation within all events and her alternate dedication purely to the
activities of adolescent women. Huge controversy on this study solidifies how
there was an underlying gender bias within anthropology. As a result of
Freeman’s argument, many disregarded Mead’s ethnography or valued it less
highly. However, it is possible that both were correct, with the constant development
of society, and how perceptions are hugely dependent on age, gender and
understandings of the ethnographer (Prof Theodossopoulos, 2017 lecture notes).


From the discussion of male bias, the anthropology of women arose later
in the decade. Lévi-Strauss’
theory of structuralism created dichotomy and inequality through the binary
opposition of ‘women’ and ‘men’ created. Within his alliance theory, Lévi-Strauss tied together
kinship structures and the incest taboo to display the social construct of male
dominance, presenting an underlying objectification of women in his theory of
the exchange of women (Lévi-Strauss,
1969).  The first stage of this
progressed feminist anthropology was distinguished as not only the study of
women but the study of genders and interrelationships between genders. Previous
anthropology was largely focused on women in more primitive third world
studies, whereas this stage looked at women of all cultures and societies
globally (Lewin, 2006). Through this approach, different ethnographies from
different societies proved that culture is not universal, and no society can
individually be a microcosm of society worldwide. This stage incorporated not
only anthropology but also social science to study gender through a more
analytical approach.


Rosaldo (1980) explained through her anthropological research that
gender was not a reflection of nature and biology but instead was moulded by
societal and political pressures inherent to different societies. As a result,
gender may be defined differently in different societies therefore gender
relations and the cultural meanings of this are different. In addition to this
Rosaldo (1980) explored gender through her two analytical constructs; the
public domain and the domestic domain. The public domain referenced the sphere
of activity dominated by men such as politics and economics whereas the
domestic domain referenced the sphere of activity associated with women
(Rosaldo, 1980). Through the increased stress of importance of the public
domain, women can be perceived as undervalued. Ortner (1972) stated that the way
in which women are treated varies with different cultures and different
historical periods. In feminist discussions of gender in human life, it can be
difficult to constitute what a feminist point of view is as there is no
definite way to define ‘women’ (Moore, 1988). Feminist anthropology as a
discipline can be viewed as drawing connections between gender, cultural, class
and historical difference (Moore, 1988), creating a more well-rounded


This second stage in feminist anthropology created a distinctive
perspective incorporating both men and women- the anthropology and study of
gender. This stage explored gender identity and its cultural construction, and
allowed for the discussion of issues such as the way masculinity is formulated
(MacCormack and Strathern, 1980). Contributions
to this section of feminist anthropology were of value to maintain its momentum,
as it may be seen as more inclusive of all viewpoints and research undertaken. Construction
of gender can be seen through lineage and kinship structure, whereby the relationship
between family members has an impact on the way gender is expressed and
interpreted. An example of this is seen in the Hopi of the Southwestern United
States, where Schlegel analysed the social and cultural construction of gender
and the consequent impacts on the hierarchy of genders and their roles in terms
of the kin relationships (Sanday et al 1990).


The progression of anthropology to a more feminist standpoint is
of huge significance, putting emphasis on women’s lives and gender as a whole to
enable people to become more aware of female ideas, inputs and influences (Rosaldo,
1980). Overall, the vision of making anthropology more inclusive of all
genders, was a vision also of removing the ethnocentrism so frequently inherent
in ethnographies earlier on in the twentieth century. Though many anthropologists
in the early twentieth century were often female, the feminist movement was
able to break down societal barriers in order to enhance the existence of women
in ethnography and research (Lewin, 2006). In a way the contributions of a more
feminist perspective can be seen as having sought to break down stereotypes not
only with regards to who primarily undertakes ethnographic research but also of
gender constructs. A focus on genders and the diversity of them and their
connections developed a more radical and modern anthropology, where
anthropologists could explore gender roles and how genders can or cannot be
defined. It may be argued that feminist anthropology has lost its force in
recent decades, perhaps eluding to the fact that women don’t see themselves to
be marginalised or outspoken (Prof Theodossopoulos, 2017 lecture notes) but as
cultures develop and evolve it is still important that gender within it is
studied and explored further.