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Is female to male as nature is to culture?

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20.10.04 Jenny S�derlind, Wadham Is female to male as nature is to culture? Gender relations form an integral part of human social interactions and are of great interest to anthropologists. Since the feminist movement in the late 1960s, one question that has been discussed is to what extent the opposition between women and men can be thought of in terms of the dichotomy between nature and culture and what implications this has for the position of women in society. This structuralist perspective was first formulated by Ortner (1974), drawing on Levi-Strauss and de Beauvoir, but has since been criticised for being simplistic and ethnocentric. I will delineate Ortner's argument and look at its application to male and female roles in childbirth before examining the ways in which her line of reasoning has been found wanting. The universality of the opposition between nature and culture is questioned, and the cultural specificity and complexity of gender, power relations and sex is explored before concluding that the parallel dichotomy of nature / culture and female / male is a relatively recent Western concept which does not necessarily help us understand other societies' gender relations. Ortner (1974, in Rosaldo & Lamphere) attempts to answer the questions why women, as she sees it, are universally subordinate to men. She admits that the relative power women wield and the actual treatment they receive vary widely between societies, that each society's concept of the female position is likely to consist of several layers and that the cultural ideology may well be distinct from the observable state of affairs, but sets out nonetheless from the premise that women have secondary status in all human societies. ...read more.


which represented the solitary, exotic, and non-human. Gender was not thought of in these terms but instead as nyim, prestigious and male opposed to korpa rubbish and female. Clearly the female is attributed lower status than the male but, contrary to Ortner's theory this difference is not expressed in terms of the nature / culture dichotomy which does not exist in the same form as it does in Euro-America. Furthermore, as Gillison (in MacCormack & Strathern 1980) illustrates using examples from the Gimi area of Papua New Guinea, nature is not universally associated with women nor is it always devalued. The Gimi associate the male with wild spirits and birds and their title of address for men of high status, kore, means 'forest' as well as afterlife. MacCormack and Strathern (1980) consider Ortner's claim that the social, material is valued more than the biological (namely humans) is especially ethnocentric. They point to the often noted value placed on lineages and the continuity of the patri- or matriline where 'each human who is born fits into a great social chain of being'. That is not to say that women are necessarily appreciated for performing this task of giving birth to new humans, but in view of the ethnographic evidence it seems untenable to argue that their lower status is due to the higher value being placed on material goods. Having questioned the validity of Ortner's claim that the nature versus culture opposition is universal, we now turn to the question of gender. Several authors assert that not only other societies' but also our own notions of gender are not as easily divisible into male and female, masculine and feminine as Ortner would have it. ...read more.


Kaplan and Rogers (1990, cited in Cornwall & Lindisfarne) even go so far as to say that 'biological research has focused on sexual dimorphism in response to the cultural importance of the dichotomy' and that 'new research points away from the polarisation of 'male' and 'female' whether in terms of anatomy, hormonal physiology or sexual attraction'. This is an interesting point but I would maintain that from the perspective of biology, there clearly are male and female members of our species and though there are cases such as Kleinfeldter's (two X chromosomes and one Y) and Turner's (one X and no Y) syndromes but these are divergences from the norm. However, the body not, as we in our science-focused society tend to assume, neutral and as Lindifarne and Cornwall argue, 'sex cannot be accorded any direct referential character'. Ortner's essay clearly throws up a great number of issues and in examining her argument we come face to face with some of our most deeply held assumptions about ourselves and the world in which we live. It is true that in most societies women are viewed as having lesser value than men but this cannot be explained using a culturally specific Western notion of the relationship between culture and nature. Not only are these concepts variable but the very notion of gender can be found to diverge between different societies and the relationships between gender and power and sex and gender are far from clear-cut. In order to elucidate the position of women in a particular society we must examine the complexities and nuances of its social relations and culture rather than imprudently applying our own categories. ...read more.

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