Anthropology Trans Studies in Anthropology
Elijah Adiv Edelman
  • LAST REVIEWED: 15 January 2019
  • LAST MODIFIED: 15 January 2019
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199766567-0203


Trans studies—or research on the experiences, identities, and practices of transgender, transsexual, trans*, or gender nonbinary communities of practice—is a relatively new area of focus within the discipline of anthropology. Anthropologists who engage in trans-specific research may do so in any geographic location and across the primary subfields of the discipline: sociocultural, biological/physical, archaeology, and linguistics. Historically, anthropologists who have conducted research or examined gender practices that do not fit within a traditional Western sex-gender binary have done so outside the context of North Atlantic populations, with the exception of indigenous communities. Much of this literature emerged out of a focus on nonheterosexual sexual practices or identities. Moreover, older scholarship on gender transgression did not necessarily reflect the words or experiences of those being researched but instead relied on and reflected the markedly Eurocentric and ethnocentric approach from the researchers. As such, much of modern trans-specific research conducted in anthropology relies heavily on interdisciplinary texts both for historical and theoretical orientations. Additionally, trans, as a category of analysis, has itself undergone shifts in usage and meaning, which continue to evolve as the field grows. Finally, authorship and representation are important features of trans studies in anthropology, since many of those who have had access to the capacity to conduct research and publish texts are not members of the communities that they represent.

General Overviews

Trans studies in anthropology has both relied on interdisciplinary research but also, importantly, emerged from a focus on sexuality or “queer studies” within anthropological research. Importantly, as Boellstorff, et al. 2014; Stryker 2017; Stryker and Aizura 2013; and Towle and Morgan 2002 explore, the categories of queer and transgender must be problematized as they are applied to populations for whom these are not salient identities or categories of practice. As such, a great deal of attention has been paid to distinguishing how queer studies in anthropology might differ from trans studies, as Boellstorff 2007, Hines 2006, and Davidson 2007 examine. Trans studies, as distinct from queer studies, is the focus both of Denny 2013 and Serano 2016.

  • Boellstorff, Tom. 2007. Queer studies in the house of anthropology. Annual Review of Anthropology 36:17–35.

    DOI: 10.1146/annurev.anthro.36.081406.094421

    This article reviews how queer studies has emerged across anthropology, and considers how sexuality and gender may be approached differently.

  • Boellstorff, Tom, Mauro Cabral, Micha Cárdenas, et al. 2014. Decolonizing transgender: A roundtable discussion. Transgender Studies Quarterly 1.3: 419–439.

    DOI: 10.1215/23289252-2685669

    This roundtable discussion among scholars, activists, and members of trans communities examines the role of trans studies in lived experience.

  • Davidson, Megan. 2007. Seeking refuge under the umbrella: Inclusion, exclusion, and organizing within the category transgender. Sexuality Research & Social Policy 4.4: 60–80.

    DOI: 10.1525/srsp.2007.4.4.60

    This article provides an important discussion for how transgender, as a term, can function both to include and exclude.

  • Denny, Dallas. 2013. Current concepts in transgender identity. New York: Routledge.

    DOI: 10.4324/9780203775134

    An in-depth focus on what constitutes trans experience outside of a purely anthropological approach.

  • Hines, Sally. 2006. What’s the difference? Bringing particularity to queer studies of transgender. Journal of Gender Studies 15.1: 49–66.

    DOI: 10.1080/09589230500486918

    How queer studies informs and is distinct from trans studies.

  • Serano, Julia. 2016. Whipping girl: A transsexual woman on sexism and the scapegoating of femininity. 2d ed. Berkeley, CA: Seal.

    Important approaches, as informed by feminist and trans activist work, to understanding trans experience as striated by race, class, and expectations around gendered embodiment.

  • Stryker, Susan. 2017. Transgender history: The roots of today’s revolution. 2d ed. Berkeley, CA: Seal.

    An exceptionally comprehensive historical overview of trans history in the United States following World War II to mid-2010s US practice.

  • Stryker, Susan, and Aren Z. Aizura, eds. 2013. Transgender studies reader 2. New York: Routledge.

    An extensive volume covering current topics and concepts in trans studies.

  • Towle, Evan B., and Lynn Marie Morgan. 2002. Romancing the transgender native: Rethinking the use of the “third gender” concept. GLQ: A Journal of Lesbian and Gay Studies 8.4: 469–497.

    DOI: 10.1215/10642684-8-4-469

    Provides an exceptionally important critique of much of “trans studies” in anthropology by focusing on how the concept of “third gender” as it applies to the “Other.” The authors provide insight into how texts commonly cited in anthropology, which ostensibly focus on trans communities, are engaged in the same ethnocentric practices of which they critique.

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