Anthropology Feminist Anthropology
by
Lisa Anderson-Levy
  • LAST MODIFIED: 11 January 2012
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199766567-0007

Introduction

Feminist anthropology is simultaneously a critique of male as well as Euro-centered and biased anthropology; a historical moment that marks the development of theoretical frames through which different ways of knowing are produced; and a vast body of literature through which dynamic conversations are situated that engage questions around gender, race, sexuality, ability, and class among much more. Discussions of the sort that follow are necessarily partial and thus perspectival; consequently, the genealogy presented, with few exceptions, focuses primarily on the work of U.S. or U.S.-based feminist theorists/anthropologists, with an emphasis on cultural anthropologists. Feminist anthropology emerged in response to the recognition that across the subdisciplines, anthropology operated within andocentric paradigms. Early questions ranged from identifying women in the anthropological record to explaining universal female subordination. Although many of the questions that fuel research interests have changed, underlying concerns with understanding the operation of power in various contexts continue to animate feminist anthropological research. Different understandings of the relationships between gender and sex, or between race and culture, for instance, alter more questions that can even be imagined. Thinking about the ways each of us is positioned in relation to various privileges and penalties centers the importance of intersectionality both as theoretical frame and as methodology. Concern with the difference that difference makes; how it is constructed, performed, and reproduced; and the role of heteronormativity in the framing of questions as well as in our analyses are a few examples of questions that continue to invigorate discussions among feminist anthropologists. Feminist anthropology has had and continues to have productive theoretical exchanges with a variety of feminist theories, such as Third World and postcolonial feminisms. Critiques by feminists of color and lesbians have also been crucial to grounding theories that are used by feminist anthropologists. Although the specifics of the questions have changed as feminist anthropology has evolved, at the core several key elements remain: What is the role of power in the construction of a variety of gendered/raced/sexed/classed identities? What do these mean for how people (re)produce meanings in their daily lives? How can we, as anthropologists, and specifically as feminist anthropologists, begin to understand these constructions and our role in their production? Feminist anthropology is often seen as the domain of cultural anthropologists, yet important work has also been done by feminist archeologists and biological anthropologists.

General Overviews

There are a number of important edited volumes that address concerns in feminist anthropology, dating from the 1970s through to the early 21st century. The essays in Sanday and Goodenough 1990, Di Leonardo 1991, and Ardener 1993 are good examples of work that interrogates the categories “women,” “sex,” and “gender,” refusing universalist understandings. Contributors to Collier, et al. 1987 use feminist perspectives in their analyses of the role of gender in understanding kinship. Essays in Behar and Gordon 1995 are often cited and provide a complex picture of early women practitioners whose work has been marginalized. These essays also reclaim the work of women of color as anthropological and question the role of anthropology in the late 20th century. Lamphere, et al. 1997 compiles oft-cited work by feminist anthropologists who theorize the body, issues of representation, family, work, and sexuality. Lewin 2006 and Geller and Stockett 2006 are more recent edited volumes that convey a sense of the trajectory of feminist anthropology. All these volumes are useful for both undergraduate and graduate students.

  • Ardener, Shirley, ed. 1993. Defining females: The nature of women in society. 2d ed. Cross-cultural perspectives on women 4. Oxford and Providence: Berg.

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    Originally published in 1978. This volume deals with the importance of complicating the category “women” as well as its relationship to culture, biology, and gender. One new essay was added to this volume.

  • Behar, Ruth, and Deborah A. Gordon, eds. 1995. Women writing culture. Berkeley: Univ. of California Press.

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    Contributors to this volume place women or gender, or both, at the center of their theorizations as they reclaim foremothers in anthropology, theorize gender in anthropology, and complicate notions of the field and what it means to do ethnography.

  • Collier, Jane Fishburne, and Sylvia Junko Yanagisako, eds. 1987. Gender and kinship: Essays toward a unified analysis. Stanford, CA: Stanford Univ. Press.

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    Contributors to this volume critically examine and reassess anthropological kinship theory through a feminist theoretical and methodological lens.

  • Di Leonardo, Micaela, ed. 1991. Gender at the crossroads of knowledge: Feminist anthropology in the postmodern era. Berkeley: Univ. of California Press.

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    In this volume, practitioners reconsider the meanings of the categories “gender” and “women” and recognize the value of theorizations that seek to understand the reproduction of particular relations of power.

  • Geller, Pamela L., and Miranda K. Stockett, eds. 2006. Feminist anthropology: Past, present, and future. Philadelphia: Univ. of Pennsylvania Press.

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    In this volume, contributors from cultural and biological anthropology and archeology theorize important issues, such as difference, heteronormativity, and performativity by reimagining notions of sex, gender, and sexuality.

  • Lamphere, Louise, Helena Ragoné, and Patricia Zavella, eds. 1997. Situated lives: Gender and culture in everyday lives. New York and London: Routledge.

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    Contributors to this volume explore varied topics, from the practice and experiences of ethnography as gendered subjects to reconfigurations of birth and reproductive technology, in order to highlight the ways that gender is imbricated with class, race, sexuality, and nation in the daily lives of women and men.

  • Lewin, Ellen, ed. 2006. Feminist anthropology: A reader. Blackwell anthologies in social and cultural anthropology. Malden, MA: Blackwell.

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    This volume traces the emergence and development of feminist anthropology through a series of writings across the subdisciplines.

  • Sanday, Peggy Reeves, and Ruth Gallagher Goodenough, eds. 1990. Beyond the second sex: New directions in the anthropology of gender. Philadelphia: Univ. of Pennsylvania Press.

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    Essays in this volume move beyond essentializing notions of gender by paying attention to the complexities inherent in the construction and performances of gender in cross-cultural contexts.

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