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  • Introduction
  • Early Ethnography
  • Foundational Collections
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  • Methods and Reflexivity
  • Colonialism
  • Cultural Construction, Identity, and Sexuality
  • Environment
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  • Kinship
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Anthropology Gender
Rebecca L. Upton
  • LAST REVIEWED: 19 November 2019
  • LAST MODIFIED: 11 January 2012
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199766567-0009


Gender is a key concept in the discipline of anthropology. Sex and gender are defined differently in anthropology, the former as grounded in perceived biological differences and the latter as the cultural constructions observed, performed, and understood in any given society, often based on those perceived biological differences. Throughout the 20th century and the rise of sociocultural anthropology, the meaning and significance of gender to the discipline has shifted. In early ethnographic studies, gender was often synonymous with kinship or family, and a monograph might include just a single chapter on women or family issues. Despite early female pioneers in the field, it was not until the 1970s and 1980s and the real rise of feminist anthropology that gender as a distinct area of theoretical and methodological interest took hold within the discipline. Women were no longer seen as a category of culture and society outside of the realm of the everyday. While some focused on divisions between the domestic and the public, feminist anthropologists and those interested in the study of gender began to challenge the simple “add women and stir” model of ethnography and sought to bring attention to structural inequalities, the role of economic disparities, global dimensions to gender politics, the role of language, sexuality and masculinity studies, and health and human rights. Gradually the most recent works in gender and anthropology came to encompass a wide range of perspectives that challenge Western or monolithic assumptions about women and the experience of gender. For example, non-Western writing on gender illustrates how varied the experience of feminism can be in contemporary contexts where religious beliefs, development experiences, and the very role of language can influence understandings of gender. The study of women, men, and the intersections of gender across cultures has become a key aspect of any holistic study or methodological approach in anthropology today.

Early Ethnography

Many early monographs in anthropology were grounded in perspectives determined by the interests of largely male ethnographers. Studies of women or the concept of gender were generally included in chapters or notes on family and kinship. With the work of pioneers such as Ruth Benedict (Benedict 2006) and Margaret Mead (Mead 2001a, Mead 2001b), the study of gender in anthropology took a more central place. Particularly for Benedict, ethnographic studies of gender were grounded in culture and personality studies. For Mead, a student of Benedict, research dealt much more with biological versus cultural conditioning of individuals, particularly in the areas of male and female temperament and cultural constructions of male and female traits. Her work was one of the first to critique a universal assumption of biologically determined male or female traits or roles. As anthropology continued to broaden its scope and become a more comparative ethnological enterprise, studies grew that suggested that women and gender were topics not only worthy of study but also valuable for the new perspectives they yielded on the ubiquitous androcentric bias in the discipline and throughout early ethnography. Later ethnographies began to challenge the classic monographs and interpretations of gender and culture by situating women’s work at the center of anthropological study. Strathern 1990 and Weiner 1983 challenged the idea that only goods produced by men were imbued with cultural significance. Universal patriarchy and assumptions about women as gatherers and innate nurturers throughout history emerged in Sacks 1982 and Zihlman 1989. These studies are useful as they provided the foundation of later work in gender studies that more closely examined the ethnographic evidence, exploring and then returning to the question of whether female subordination was universal or largely a product of male observer bias and privilege. Challenges to early ethnography and the assumption that all women experienced gender similarly did emerge (and continue to) with the publication of Mohanty, et al. 1991, a collection that remains an essential starting point for the debates over the status of women in anthropology in non-Western contexts. As Western feminism grew and influenced anthropology, an equally essential aspect of the field has been the recognition of both differences between women (not simply between the sexes) and the necessity for recognition of different interpretations of gendered experience, not simply a homogenous one, which Mohanty’s book describes.

  • Benedict, Ruth. 2006. Patterns of culture. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.

    Classic ethnography that emphasizes the role of culture in human behavior; a pioneer study in diversity, Benedict’s work is useful in considering those aspects of culture that have to do with psychological factors and gender development. Originally published in 1934.

  • Mead, Margaret. 2001a. Coming of age in Samoa: A psychological study of primitive youth for Western civilisation. New York: Harper Perennial.

    A controversial study that builds on Mead’s earlier work in New Guinea, this ethnography explores the cultural construction of sexuality, tackling behaviors such as masturbation as situated within particular cultural contexts. It has been a highly debated text but remains a central point of discussion in the emergence of the study of gender as social construction. Originally published in 1930.

  • Mead, Margaret. 2001b. Sex and temperament in three primitive societies. New York: Harper Perennial.

    This classic study of three cultures in New Guinea challenged the idea of fixed, sex-based masculine or feminine characteristics and set the stage for Mead’s lifelong study of the cultural construction of gender. Sets the stage for her later work Male and Female: A Study of the Sexes in a Changing World (Harmondsworth, UK: Penguin, 1941), a comparative study of these cultural differences in the United States and cross-culturally. Originally published in 1928.

  • Mohanty, Chandra Talpade, Ann Russo, and Lourdes Torres, eds. 1991. Third World women and the politics of feminism. Bloomington: Indiana Univ. Press.

    Includes essential articles that emerged from challenges by non-Western female scholars to a homogeneous and monolithic understanding of women cross-culturally. Mohanty’s article “Under Western Eyes: Feminist Scholarship and Colonial Discourses,” Feminist Review 30 (Fall 1988): 61–88 is a foundation for debate in the field over Eurocentric experiences of gender and liberation.

  • Sacks, Karen. 1982. Sisters and wives: The past and future of sexual equality. Urbana: Univ. of Illinois Press.

    This edition challenged some of the earlier ethnography that characterized women’s roles as inherently tied to sex differences across cultures. With a focus on modes of production and power difference, it offers more complex ways of understanding the myriad roles that women play in societies across cultures and history.

  • Strathern, Marilyn. 1990. The gender of the gift: Problems with women and problems with society in Melanesia. Berkeley: Univ. of California Press.

    In this book and later works, Strathern explores the complex meaning of gifting in society. Using Melanesia as the basis of a rich ethnographic account, Strathern’s classic text proves essential to feminist and anthropological understanding of gender and exchange.

  • Weiner, Annette. 1983. Women of value, men of renown: New perspectives in Trobriand exchange. Austin: Univ. of Texas Press.

    One of the first ethnographers to re-examine the Trobrianders as discussed by Bronislaw Malinowski, Weiner suggests that women’s work was essential to Trobriand society, heralding a closer examination of women’s roles in society across the discipline.

  • Zihlman, Adrienne. 1989. Woman the gatherer: The role of women in early hominid evolution. In Gender and anthropology: Critical reviews for teaching and research. Edited by Sandra Morgan, 21–40. Washington, DC: American Anthropological Association.

    A very useful and important challenge to archaeology and evolutionary sciences that presupposed fixed gender roles. Zihlman’s work is essential to the development of the study of gender within archaeology and feminist anthropology.

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