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Heidi Armbruster

Feminist Theories and Anthropology


The review article represents briefly three phases of feminist thought in anthropology, beginning with the 1960s. The 1990s as a fourth or current phase are represented by a more specific discussion of two publications. The genesis of feminist thought in anthropology has been discursively embedded in the wider field of academic feminism and anthropological theory formation. Feminist ethnographers in the 1960s and 1970s sought to correct a 'male bias' in the discipline and promoted the study of 'women'. In the 1980s the focus shifted towards studying 'gender' as the category 'woman' came under critical scrutiny for its Euro-American and white bias. The shift to gender as an analytical category reflected that the concern with female lives could not just be about 'women' but about relations, practices and politics in which gendered identities were construed, and socially and culturally mediated. The multiple and contextual meanings of gender in relation to 'women' and 'men' dominated a feminist focus in the 80s and early 90s. Currently, this field of research is informed by a particular interest in epistemology and a search for anti-hierarchical and anti-exclusivist theorizing. This has been of particular interest for feminist ethnographers and their conceptualisations of 'fieldwork', the main site of anthropological knowledge formation.



Critical Anthropology, Philosophy, and Academic Feminism
The First Phase: Studying Women
The Second Phase: Deconstructing the Universal Woman
The Third Phase: The Multiple Meanings of Gender
'90s' Approaches: Intercultural Feminisms
Fieldwork as Knowledge Production in Anthropology
"Crafting Selves"

 Critical Anthropology, Philosophy, and Academic Feminism

»Unlike philosophy, anthropology has the 'intercultural' as its homeground.«


  Unlike philosophy, anthropology has the "intercultural" as its homeground. The very object of the discipline is laid out in the programmatic field of intercultural understanding, cross-cultural translation and mediation, and in the exploration of cultural difference. In gaining their intercultural knowledge anthropologists, unlike philosophers, do not emphasize reasoning, but rely greatly on observation and experience.


  As critical philosophers discover the eurocentrism of their own discipline and the cultural bias of the term "philosophy" they also acknowledge that their intellectual undertakings have neither been neutral nor objective; instead, traditional philosophy's claim to universal knowledge rendered invisible the specific historical, political and social conditions on which it was based.

»Traditional philosophy's claim to universal knowledge rendered invisible the specific historical, political and social conditions on which it was based.«


  Intercultural philosophy seems to be dedicated to this self-reflexive stance and concomitant resolve to disrupt long-standing truths of the discipline. The programmatic aim outlined above notwithstanding, anthropology shares this concern. Despite an established practice of self-reflexivity, critical anthropologists have not ceased being haunted by the colonial bias of their discipline, which was, after all a historical by-product of colonial rule and expansion.


  Academic feminism meets up with both, critical anthropology and critical philosophy at this point, as white Western feminists began to realize the ethnocentrism of their theories in the 1970s and 1980s and increasingly engaged in conceptualizing cultural difference.


  In this review essay the concern with "culture" is explored, as it emerged in the dialogue between feminism and anthropology.  1  Hereby the focus is not on the concept of culture – but rather on issues of enculturated knowledge; something anthropologists set out to explore in others and something that makes their own explorations possible (and biased) at the same time.

 The First Phase: Studying Women

Simone de Beauvoir


  Academic feminism as an interdisciplinary project, has its roots in a political reality that challenges confinement to one particular discipline. As a result, concepts and paradigms which developed from the 1960s onwards were shared as feminist philosophers, historians, literary therorists, anthropologists, sociologists, cultural theorists and others, engaged in a project that had a common political background – to take action against women's subordination.


  The genesis of feminist thought in anthropology has been discursively embedded in the wider field of academic feminism and in anthropological theory formation. In the 1960s and 1970s feminists set out to correct the "male bias" in anthropology by focusing on women in the societies they studied. Anthropology, so the argument went, had been dominated by men as researchers and by male stereotypes about the position of women and therefore was replete with androcentric frameworks for the analysis of culture. The volumes edited by Reiter (1975) and Rosaldo / Lamphere (1974) set the agenda for feminist anthropology at the time. The studies were concerned with the societal organization of motherhood, with domestic work, marriage and sexuality, and many aimed at metacultural models that explained patriarchy as a universal structure.

»A man would never set out to write a book on the peculiar situation of the human male. But if I wish to define myself, I must first of all say: 'I am woman'.«

Simone de Beauvoir


  Many of these models were shaped by Beauvoirian (and structuralist) notions of the subject in human thought. It proposed that the subject is only in relation to an object which reflects the subject's negative image and guarantees its sovereignty. In Simone de Beauvoir's critique of the "Second Sex" which was based on traditional philosophies of the subject, woman is man's "other". Her "otherness" is understood not only as "being different from man" but as being so in a hierarchical sense of devaluation and exclusion.


  In feminist theories and in a number of feminist ethnographies this model of oppositional otherness was equated with other binarisms and seen as universally existent in human thought and social organization: female was to male as nature to culture, domestic to public, body to mind, polluted to pure, passive to active and so forth. Feminist thinkers outside anthropology analyzed the dualist frames in European, particularly Cartesian thought, and its impact on modern notions of the "subject". These explorations revealed that the claim to universal subjecthood, based on reason and scientific rationalism was in fact grounded in male, white and western subjectivities.


  During the initial period of making women visible in the academic field, feminists drew on the burgeoning cross-cultural research into "women's roles" undertaken by female anthropologists. Many of them contributed to the paramount image of the "universal woman" who shares sisterhood with others through shared oppression. The notion that it needs a woman to study women was also quite popular and advanced in so called "standpoint theories" of the 1970s and early 1980s. In anthropology this concept has never lost its value, as many societies do not allow unfamiliar men to interact with their women.

 The Second Phase: Deconstructing the Universal Woman

»... the tail has been wagging the dog: feminist theory has not for the most part arisen out of a medley of women's voices; instead, the theory has arisen out of the voices, the experiences, of a fairly small handful of women ...«

Mary C. Lugones
 / Elizabeth V. Spelman


  In the 80s the claim to universalism changed. Feminist anthropologists studied "gender", the culturally variable understandings of what it means to be a woman or, with less emphasis, a man. Moore (1988) gives a thorough account of the shift from studying "women" to studying "gender" in the 1980's and to the rising controversial debates surrounding cross-cultural comparability. The shift to gender as an analytical category reflected the fact that the concern with female lives could not just be about "women" but about relations, practices and politics in which gendered identities were construed, and socially and culturally mediated.


  This shift was, as Moore claims, partly due to the empirical evidence that understandings of gender were culturally specific and varying and partly to the strong criticisms black feminists directed against a white middle class bias in academic feminism in general. Moraga and Anzaldua 1981; Lugones and Spelman 1983; Lorde 1984; Hooks 1984; and Mohanty et al. 1991, were particularly influential texts in this respect. From the background of these criticisms feminists realized the differences among women and the insufficiency of the concept of gender in accounting for the experience of subordination. Black women and women of colour claimed that their gendered positions were deeply implicated in the issue of "race".

 The Third Phase: The Multiple Meanings of Gender

»... the conflation of the notions male/men/masculinity and female/women/femininity in western constructions of difference must be investigated and documented historically and ethnographically. We suggest that the three terms do not necessarily overlap ...«

Andrea Cornwall / Nancy Lindisfarne
(1994, 10)


  An example for the diversion from pre-conceived ideas about male/female relations to the emphasis on contextual and culturally specific workings of "gender" was the volume edited by Sanday and Goodenoungh (1990), poignantly called Beyond the Second Sex. The ethnographic studies presented, relate to different cultural contexts (e.g. Africa, New Guinea, Sumatra, Middle East, USA) and do not adopt a uniform theoretical perspective. However, the essays collaboratively subscribe to the view that gender cannot be categorized in universal terms. They draw on womens' agency and resistance, on differences between women, and on the contextuality in which gender identities are crafted rather than assumed as fixed "roles". Gender emerges in its conflicting and ambivalent meanings within societies (not only "between" societies) and is de-emphasized as a sole determinant of oppression in human relationships.


  These issues were pursued in the following years as gender increasingly came to be seen as implied in more complex processes of identity. Feminists worked on the assumption that subject formations are effected by a number of inequalities which complexly intersect.


  In the 90s feminist thought has fully embraced the notion of differences as an explanatory concept for identity and subordination. In other words, within three decades the question has shifted from, "why are all women oppressed?" (implying various binarisms) to "how is a female embodied subject constituted?" (implying all sorts of differences amongst which gender is just one). Or to put it in yet other terms, the transformation shifted from a Beauvoirian concept of "otherness" exclusively applied to women (in her view men do not have "gender", they are the universally human  2 ) to a processual category that emphasized becoming much more than being. The transformation thus developed from "gender" to "gendering". "Gendering" found strong use value in anthropological thought, as it emphasized practice and cultural specifics, that is to say: localized, historicized human interaction and the everyday, culturally specific crafting of social (and sexual) identities. "Gendering" de-emphasized ready made assumptions about "man" and "woman" (see e.g. Cornwall / Lindisfarne 1994).


  At the same time, the insight into the "situatedness" of all knowledge had developed into a feminist concern with epistemology; feminists both inside and outside anthropology searched for alternative epistemologies which attempted to account for the identity of the thinker (her political, sexual, ethnic, economic, historical location) and for the position and partiality of the thought. In a self-reflexive embrace of epistemological "situatedness", that intrinsically shapes what »we learn how to see« (Haraway 1991, 190) anti-hierarchical, anti-exclusivist theorizing should be realized (e.g. Visweswaran 1996).

 '90s' Approaches: Intercultural Feminisms

external link

Susan Stanford Friedman:
Mappings. Feminism and the Cultural Geographies of Encounter.
Princeton: Princeton University Press,


  In what follows I shall address two '90s' approaches: one that includes concerns with cultural difference in the broader framework of feminist thought, and another which is more rooted in anthropology and writes a feminist agenda into a particular ethnographic encounter. Here I am particularly concerned with the "intercultural" in feminism and the feminist in anthropology.


  Susan Stanford Friedman's book Mappings (1998) is based on the authors scholarly field of literary studies in the United States. In intercultural, and "geopolitical" thinking and theorizing, she proposes to lead feminist theory "beyond" its current conceptualizations of gender and difference. These concepts have been vital in postmodern formations of feminist theory but nevertheless led to deadlock, since the pluralist discourse actually fostered separatism between different women and ultimately endangered feminism as a political project. This has to do with the fact that the gradual steps from the concept of "women" to "gender" and "beyond" was a theoretical journey from seemingly self-evident categories for people (i.e. "women") towards theories of subjectivity and identity, which necessarily had a pluralizing effect (i.e. old, young, rich, poor, black, white, lesbian, straight etc.).


  Friedman cogently illuminates this development by differentiating six discourses on identity which evolved over the last three decades, commencing with the notion that "male oppression" was a principal index of female identity in mainstream Western feminism of the 1960s. Black women, particularly in the US, took issue with this notion and framed the discourse of "multiple oppression"; this was to remain powerful in as much as hierarchies of race, class, religion, ethnicity, or sexuality came to be understood as defining identity on the same par with gender.

»These concepts have been vital in postmodern formations of feminist theory but nevertheless led to deadlock, since the pluralist discourse actually fostered separatism between different women and ultimately endangered feminism as a political project.«


  In further approaches identity was then conceived of as a site of "subject positions" which are not necessarily all positions of subordination although nevertheless implicated in different axes of power. These positions are informed by class, race, gender, religion, sexuality, "and so forth", and function in »multiple«, »contradictory«, »relational«, »situational« and finally, »hybrid« ways in the formation of a person's subjectivity (20-25).


  Incorporating the discourse of multiple identities into the analysis of culture (in Friedman's illumination of literary narrative) challenges three common assumptions: the privilege of gender »as a determinant of identity« (25); the isolated focus on women as objects of study; and the notion of a unidirectional flow of power (i.e. from men to women).


  It also contests a separatist concept of "race" or, one may add, that of "culture", as is prevalent not only in feminist discourse but also in popular thinking on race in the United States with its emphasis on the white/black binary. Friedman stresses the need to develop more »relational scripts« (63) which take account of intercultural exchange, of power structures that operate not only across ethnic lines but also within ethnic groups, and of the commonalties and connections persons of different origins might have.

»In what way is home always already implicated in the regional, national and global nexus of power relations? ... In what way might the sites of home and travel be inflected by gender, class, sexuality, race, national origin, and so forth?«

Susan Stanford Friedman
(1998, 120)


  In elaborating on the need for moving on from the "difference discourse" Friedman then proceeds to the field of cultural identity and draws on recent anthropological theories on globalization. She focuses on the multiculturalist condition of Western societies and on a vision of breaking down the barriers between "White and Other". Friedman increasingly adopts spatial metaphors whilst writing on intercultural negotiations of identity – whose theorization itself transpires into »migrancy«, or »criss-crossing all kinds of borders« (102).


  These highly jargonized statements become more comprehensible when place is introduced as a "geopolitical axis", as actual locations in which people dwell or move and which play important roles in the formation of their identities. Every location on the globe is interlocked with wider regional, national and international politics, culture and economics. This makes identities far less locally fixed and determined as they are often imagined. To illustrate this point Friedman reads (amongst others) Virginia Woolf "geopolitically", that is with a "spatial" set of questions, for instance: »[...] where and why do the tropes of travel and movement appear in Woolf's texts? Who and what moves in and out of domestic sites? In what way is home always already implicated in the regional, national and global nexus of power relations? [...] In what way might the sites of home and travel be inflected by gender, class, sexuality, race, national origin, and so forth?« (120)


  She presents us with some interesting answers. The often feminized and seemingly stable space of the Victorian home in Woolf's novels, for instance, turns out to embody 'geopolitical' connections such as, the Crimean War, British colonial rule in India, French food, or the British exploitation of the colonies that guarantees an upper class woman's economic freedom. These connections overtly or covertly emerge in Woolf's novels and mark the identity of the Victorian "home" as well as the subject position of the writer.


  In a second step Friedman "geopolitically" compares Woolf's A Room of One's Own with Zora Neale Hurston's Their Eyes Were Watching God. Both writers explored in their respective novels a woman's search for "public" creative space in her particular cultural background. Whereas Hurston, the African American anthropologist and novelist, realizes that space on the porch, a place inscribed with male dominance, Woolf seeks a solitary room, equally symbolic of male prerogative (128-129).


  In this "transatlantic" comparison Friedman suggests that both authors and their literary figures are located in a different cultural context but share a similar desire. She claims that only the comparative reading of both offers insights into local specificities as well as into translocal commonalties.

Susan Stanford Friedman


  From an anthropological perspective such a "geopolitical" comparison is nothing new. It would have to include more specific explorations on what gender, desire, creativity, or the public means locally; or equally comparatively, if »race« or »racial politics« (128) shapes Hurston's "porch", how does it shape Woolf's "room", or rather why is it absent from the "room"? In my view, the understanding that "race" equally shapes white identities (if only as a privilege), would be an important object of such a "geopolitical" study.


  Evidently, Friedman's meandering through different literary texts, and her "travelling" in »intertextual space across national boundaries« (128) ends up in very particular representations of what a place is. An anthropologists's physical travel across national boundaries, or a tourist's, or indeed a migrant's or a refugee's travel would surely reach different conclusions. Whereas "hybridity" is an interpretative framework for space chosen by Friedman with enthusiasm, some anthropologists may caution against the playfulness it suggests; some migrants may even be more concerned with fixing and homogenizing their place rather than with destabilizing it. For indigenous peoples on the other hand, fragmentation and "hybridity" of culture and place may be nothing new and promising. Rather, the scenario of "hybridity" may be representative of a painful aftermath of colonialism in their lives (see Smith 1999).

 Fieldwork as Knowledge Production in Anthropology

»While the West might be experiencing fragmentation, the process of fragmentation known under its older guise as colonialization is well known to indigenous peoples. (...) Fragmentation is not an indigenous project, it is something we are recovering from.«

Lind Tuhawi Smith
(1999, 97)


  As stated above, in anthropology ethnographic fieldwork stands at the centre of knowledge production. This is the heart of the discipline but also the heart of problem, as the relationship between observer and observed is inscribed with colonialism and colonialist critique. As Linda Tuhiwai Smith, a Maori woman academic comments: »The ethnographic 'gaze' of anthropology has collected, classified and represented other cultures to the extent that anthropologists are often the academics popularly perceived by the indigenous world as the epitome of all that is bad with academics.« (1999, 67)


  These types of criticism hampered the discipline's self-consciousness anew in the 1980s and 1990s. However, this occurred not so much through listening to indigenous peoples (who have probably felt the way Smith describes it for several hundred years) but through the impact changing theories of the subject, postmodernism and poststructuralism had within Western academia. In other words, issues to do with subjectivity, representation and power emerged as pressing in the social sciences and humanities at large.


  Within anthropology, representation and the relationship between "self" and "other" were themes around which ethnographic writing and fieldwork epistemologies were rethought. In particular the author who represents the "other" in a self-concealing detached fashion and thereby adopts a seemingly "scientific" viewpoint, became an object of criticism. This created space for reconceptualizing the fieldwork process as a personal encounter and as an intersubjective practice of learning and knowing. Further, the conventional forms of narrative representation as such became the field of criticism, as descriptive and classificatory styles were seen to mute, or exoticize the "other".


  Feminist anthropologists in particular participated in these critical appraisals. Most central has been a concern with a particular epistemological web: the knowledge a fieldworker "brings" to the field, the knowledge process she engages in with local people, and the knowledge she produces after returning from the field. In as much as this triad is about understanding it is also about the limits of understanding.

 "Crafting Selves"

Dorinne K. Kondo:
Crafting Selves. Power, Gender, and Discourses of Identity in a Japanese Workplace.
Chicago – London: University of Chicago Press,


  An impressive example in which the feminist epistemological agenda of "situated knowledges" and the anthropological critiques of representation (and much of what Friedman concerns about "spatial" identity) are ethnographically explored is Dorinne Kondo's book on a Japanese workplace, Crafting Selves (1990). Her account is rooted in discourses of identity and selfhood. Her own "self" as a Japanese American woman becomes unsettled while she experiences, in close everyday interaction with her Japanese co-workers, friends and relatives, the cultural imprint of her American identity as challenging and alien. In the Japanese setting in which she works and lives, "selves" emerge as contextual and "crafted" in relation to others and also to significant sites of identity, such as school, company, family, and nation.


  She continuously aims at exploring the complex and contradictory sites of identity, with power being restrictive as well as creative, but hardly ever unidimensional. As a result, Japanese identities are not reified as "Japanese" but as quintessentially human. Gender is treated as one such site of identity where work on the shop floor is gendered by women and men as they interact and strategize dominant and subordinate positions.

Heidi Armbruster
is research fellow at University of Southampton for a European Union Research Project on Border Identities.


  As she came "to learn how to see" through experiencing a recast of her own identity, she made "identity" and the "self" the objects of her research. It was her way of understanding the strangeness of the intercultural encounter, and consequently of "making sense". Her style of writing echoes the multilayered, complex and dynamic crafting of the identities she describes: personal self-reflexive accounts intermix with theoretical evocations, thick ethnographic descriptions, and dialogues with people she knew.


  Friedman and Kondo take on board the notion that "gender" is not the site but one site of social identity. They displace "gender" from the privileged place it enjoys in feminist thought – without suggesting that this means the end of feminism.


Andrea Cornwall / Nancy Lindisfarne (eds.) (1994): Dislocating Masculinity. Comparative Ethnographies. London: Routledge.

Donna Haraway (1991): Simians, Cyborgs, and Women. London: Free Association Books.

Bell Hooks (1984): Feminist Theory: From Margin to Center. Boston: South End Press.

Dorinne K. Kondo (1990): Crafting Selves. Power, Gender, and Discourses of Identity in a Japanese Workplace. Chicago – London: University of Chicago Press.

Audre Lorde (1984): Sister Outsider. Trumansburg: Crossing Press.

Mary C. Lugones / Elizabeth V. Spelman (1983): "Have We Got a Theory for You! Feminist Theory, Cultural Imperialism and the Demand for 'The Woman's Voice'". In: Womens's Studies International Forum 6.6, 573-581.

Chandra Talpade Mohanty et al. (eds.) (1991): Third World Women and the Politics of Feminism. Bloomington: Indiana Universtiy Press.

Henrietta L. Moore (1988): Feminism and Anthropology. Cambridge: Polity Press.

Cherrie Moraga / Gloria Anzaldua (eds.) (1981): This Bridge Called My Back: Writings by Radical Women of Color. Watertown: Persephone Press.

Rayna Reiter (ed.) (1975): Toward an Anthropology of Women. New York: Monthly Review Press.

Michelle Z. Rosaldo / L. Lamphere (1974): Woman, Culture, and Society. Stanford: Stanford University Press.

Peggy Reeves Sanday / Ruth G. Goodenough (eds.) (1990): Beyond the Second Sex. New Directions in the Anthropology of Gender. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.

Linda Tuhiwai Smith (1999): Decolonizing Methodologies. Research and Indigenous Peoples. London – New York: Zed Books.

Susan Stanford Friedman (1998): Mappings. Feminism and the Cultural Geographies of Encounter. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Kamala Visweswaran (1996): Fictions of Feminist Ethnography. Delhi – Bombay: Oxford University Press.



I am mainly referring to an Anglo-American context and to the period from the 1960s onwards. Female ethnographers studied sexual difference well before this time. The periodical debates I discuss reflect trends, not all-inclusive overviews. 


The notion that "gender" is exclusively about "women" seems to persist in much popular and academic thought. Similarly, "race" is often held to be about coloured skin. Just as whiteness is thought to be beyond race, maleness is located beyond gender. 

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