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Vanessa KibbleOctober 14, 1996

Sex in Anthropology
Anthropological studies are investigations of human life as it functions in a s
ociety. These observations are seen through the eyes of an objective anthropolog
ist. 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, lik
e 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 l
ate 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 i
ntroduced. This was in turn reflected through the way that societies were depict
ed and influenced.
The Trobriand Islanders are a society in Papaua New Giuenia. They are composed o
f about, twelve thousand people in sixty villages. The Trobrianders have been pe
netrated by outside influences for centuries and have remained considerably unaf
fected, 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 th
ere is a separate wealth for men and women. Although both sexes have their own c
apital, the women's wealth is a sign of power and is necessary for the definitio
n 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 righ
ts are obtained through the mother's social status. These aspects did not go com
pletely 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 I
slanders from 1918-1919. He established himself as a participant and an observer
, making detailed observations in a way that had never been explored before. Des
pite the fact that his techniques in gathering information revolutionized anthro
pological fieldwork, there is ample room for descrepency due to ethnocentric vie
ws adorning woman; as was soon addressed by another, female anthropologist. Anne
tte B. Wiener also studied the Trobriand Islanders about sixty years later in 19
71, 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 aft
er 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 as
pects of Trobriand culture and society were missing as a result of a male interp
retation; 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 s
kirts and collecting banana leaves, all of which are forms of women's wealth, bu
t dismissed their importance by labeling these activities as women's work. On th
e other hand since Wiener's main informants were woman she was lead to analyze t
heir responsibilities and roles in the society in more depth. These different vi
ews come from the era in which Malinowski studied. In his own European culture w
oman were thought to only be "living in men's shadows," and only to occupy "pri
vate sectors of society, like child rearing," and as a man he believed these ass
umptions 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 offens
e 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 pres
ents a very clear and concise image of the Yanomamo. Changnon studied the Yanoma
mo first in1964, they live on the Brazilian and Venezuelan border. All of Chagno
n's informants are men and there is no mention of woman by name or even in a gen
eralized form. This was also true for the film shown in class on the Yanomamo an
d Chagnon. The Yanomamo do not give any obvious importance to women in their soc
iety 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 Ya
nomamo 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 wom
an. This particular situation is touched on in an exert of Judith Okely's ethnog
raphic present on Gypsies;" The other male visitor, well over sixty, caused a se
nsation by greeting me with a slight peck on the cheek." This "sensation" was du
e 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 t
remendous influence is inevitable. Generally this is not a problem if the societ
y is presented as a whole. In other words everyone, men and woman both are inclu
ded in the ethnographic present. There is no such thing as a minor role in a soc
iety. The example of society represented as a cell is relevant to this idea, eve
rything has its part, and every part working together is what makes the cell (so
ciety) function successfully.