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Where Anthropology and Feminist Research Converge and Diverge

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Feminist research and anthropology possess two strikingly common veins: the quest for contexts and the methodologies for gathering data to bring to light these contexts. An anthropological orientation is concerned with finding and interpreting meanings as unique to a particular group of study, searching for the similarities it shares with other human natures as well as the differences (the anthropologist’s reflection on his or her own group, or a comparative study between and among different groups). Similarly, women and development studies puts a premium on contexts in locating women of different cultural, social, political, religious, and economic realities and bringing to light the varied “truths” that come with each reality, with analyses moving from gender to class to race.

In the course of learning about cultures of particular social groups, both feminist researchers and anthropologists continually experience the inappropriateness of objectivity[1] produced by scientific experimentation and data gathering methods. Both engage in fieldwork, immersing themselves in communities for significant periods of time and learning about casts of characters, ways of life, customs and beliefs through ethnography and participant observation.

The multidisciplinary and “internally diverse”[2] aspect is another quality that these two areas of study share. In Cultural Anthropology: A Contemporary Perspective, Roger M. Keesing states that an anthropologist may be “a human biologist specializing in the fossil bones of early humans; an archaeologist excavating ancient communities in the Middle East; a linguist analyzing the structure of West African languages; a folklorist studying Eskimo mythology; a specialist in kinship and marriage in New Guinea; and an expert on Mexican-American farm laborers in California.”[3] The same holds true for feminist researchers and academics, who hail from different disciplines and areas of expertise while adhering to different feminist theories and conducting analyses using the gender lens.

The main difference of these two areas lies in their goals. The anthropological stance is one of understanding

“accumulated wisdom, and folly, of humankind. In this accumulation of experience, in its diverse cultural forms, lies crucial evidence about human differences and the samenesses that underlie them, about human natures and institutional possibilities.”[4]

Anthropological ethics therefore concern appreciation and understanding of the group’s culture vs. protection of identities, intervention in matters of medicine and health, disclosure of customary law violations.[5]

On the other hand, feminist research goals differ in

“emphasiz[ing] generation of knowledge about women that will contribute to women’s liberation and emancipation. Thus research becomes instrumental in improving women’s daily lives and influencing public policies as well.”[6]

Thus the ethics of feminist research include: the negotiation of terms of research in coordination, conceptualization of study design, methods, and action; comments on subordination and oppression; and formulation of recommendations and possible interventions.[7]

Feminist Research in Anthropology

Feminist research still finds common ground with anthropology in ethnographies that focused on “women’s roles, women’s lives, and women’s symbolic images in different times and places”[8] in the 1970s. While previous anthropological work had indeed concentrated attention on male worlds – contexts, work, activities, attitudes and perspectives, Keesing described how later studies focused women’s issues and concerns such as subordination, domination, exploitation, appropriation of female labor, relegation to domestic roles as well as the legal control of fathers, brothers, and husbands, and the like in interpretations of Michelle Rosaldo and of Ortner and Ardner.

While posing the question of the roles associated with men being “most highly valued”[9] whereas women’s roles were generally characterized by subordination, Keesing reiterated that the anthropologist’s role is not to judge but to understand other cultures by “seeing through their eyes”[10], expressing an apprehension about universalizing the women’s experience of being subordinate to men and limited to the domestic realm.

Feminist Analysis: A Messy Business

This is why the conduct of a feminist analysis can be a messy business. Usually met with contention and resistance, such efforts are oftentimes viewed as a judgmental righteousness, an overreaction to things that have always been, or even a useless attempt at changing things that should simply be accepted.  Because a feminist analysis demystifies practices of religious, social, cultural, political and economic institutions by stripping them of the justifications (ranging from to euphemistic the blatant) that render them palatable, it lays bare the bones that form the foundation of the patriarchy, challenging the status quo and forcing one to confront inequalities that frame, maintain and perpetuate the institutionalized entitlements of the male and internalized oppressions of the female.


[1]Roger M. Keesing, Cultural Anthropology: A Contemporary Perspective (New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1981), p.5.

[2]Keesing, p.2.

[3]Keesing, p.2.

[4]Keesing, p.1.

[5]Keesing, p.6.

[6] Sylvia H. Guerrero, “What is Feminist Research?” in Gender-Sensitive and Feminist Methodologies: A Handbook for Health and Social Science Researchers (Quezon City: University of the Philippines Press, 2002), p.19.

[7]Guerrero, p.25.

[8]Keesing, p.301.

[9]Keesing, p.305.

[10]Keesing, p.310.

“VIOLENCE AND SANCTION in the Male-Female Dynamic of the Ilongot, Tausug, and Teduray Societies: A Research Paper” written by Cindy Cruz-Cabrera | March 2008

Next: Objectives of the Paper

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Author: cindycatz: occasional pianist and coffee shop philosopher

fond of the sun, sky, sea, sand and starfish; passionate about literacy, education, media, feminisms, development, popular culture, counterculture, migration phenomenon, anthropology and the fourth world; fascinated with crochet, sushi-making, fiction, creative non-fiction, storytelling, some films and series | books and comics | anime and manga | music and videos | bands and groupies, Latin and Italian, mom-and-pop consumerism, tavern bards and cafe philosophers, trinkets and bric-a-bracs, and steampunk and lolita couture; and absolutely enamored with nail polish and bag charms, frappucinos and margaritas, conversations and moments, her 41 year-old piano, and - of course - CATS. credentials? visit about.me/cindycruzcabrera & ph.linkedin.com/in/cindycruzcabrera/

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