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  • 8/9/2019 Feminist Ethnography


    Histories of Feminist Ethnography

    Kamala Visweswaran

     Annual Review of Anthropology, Vol. 26. (1997), pp. 591-621.

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  • 8/9/2019 Feminist Ethnography


    Annfr. Rev Anthropoi. 1997. 26:j91-621

    C opyrrght 1997 by Annua l Revrews Inc Aii rrghrs reserved



    Karnala Visweswaran

    Department of Anthropology, The U niversity of Texas at Austin, Austin: Texas 78712-



    gender analysis, feminism, women anthropologists


    This review essay illustrates how changes in the conception of gender define

    the historical production of feminist ethnography in four distinct periods. In

    the first period (1 880-1920), biological sex was seen to determine social roles,

    and gender was not seen as separable from sex, though it was beginning to

    emerge as an analytical category. The second period (1920-1960) marks the

    separation of sex from gender as sex was increasingly seen as indeterm inative

    of gender roles. In the third period (1960-1980), the distinction between sex

    and gender was elaborated into the notion of a sexlgender system-the idea

    that different societies organized brute biological facts into particular gender

    regimes. By the contemporary period (1980-1996), critiques of gender es-

    sentialism (the reification of woman as a biological or universal category)

    suggest that the analytical separation between sex and gender is miscast be-

    cause sex is itself a social category.


    Althou gh the term feminist ethnography has only recently em erged (Abu-

    Lughod 1990, Stacey 1988, Visweswaran 1988), and is now included in feminist

    research manu als as on e of a variety of interdisciplinary rese arch meth ods (Rei-

    narz 1992 ), its relationship to the writing culture critique of anthropological

    representation (Clifford Ma rcus 1986 , Marcu s Cu shma n 1982 , M arcus

    Fisher 1 986) has mean t that discussions of feminist ethnography have focused

    mo re on redefining th e genre of ethno graphy than in actually ex ploring what is

    me ant by feminist. W om en in the discipline, how ever , have long experi-

    me nted with form: Elsie Clew s Parsons (Bab cock 1992 ), Ella Deloria (1988) ,

    Zora Neale Hurston (1938), and Ru th Lande s (1947) are but a few exam ples.

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    Thus, the focus on form and genre has meant that a lineage from Elsie Clews

    Parsons to current feminist ethnographers has been established at the expense

    of a more detailed examination of what distinguishes Parsons's ethnography

    from that of her contemporaries or later writers.

    This review proposes to redirect such discussion by looking specifically at

    what modifies these texts as feminist to assess the historical influence of

    feminist ethnography upon the discipline (see also Collier Yanagisako


    It is an attempt to move away fro m the dominant terms that inform the

    history of anthropology-evolutionist or particularist, functionalist or struc-

    turalist, Marxist or symbolic (Ortner


    understand how gender has

    become an ordering category of anthropological analysis. It further attempts to

    use ethnography as a means of tracing shifts in the conceptualization of gender

    in the anthropo logical literature.

    Th e question of whether the term feminist is appropriate to describe the

    thoughts and actions of women in other times and places is not an easy one







    If feminism has changed substan-

    tially in the past one hundred years, so too has our understanding of what con-

    stitutes gender; thus, different forms of feminism have produced different un-

    derstandings of gender, where gender itself cannot be separated from the cate-

    gories o f race, class, or sexual identity that determine it.

    Gender is today the site of considerable cross-disciplinary and transnational

    crisis. As Rosa Bradiotti has noted, the sexlgender distinction, which is one of

    the pillars on which English-speaking fem inist theory is built, makes neither

    epistemological nor political sense in many non-English, western-European

    contexts, where the notions of 'sex uality' and 'sexual difference' are used in-

    stead (Brad iotti Butler




    For some theorists, gender itself is a sociologism that reifies the social rela-

    tions that are seen to produce it by failing to account for how the terms mascu-

    line and feminine are founded in language prior to any given social formation.

    The focus on sex difference, by contrast, examines how masculine and femi-

    nine are constituted differentially, insisting that this differential is nondialec-

    tical and asymm etrical in character, where recourse to a symbolic domain is

    one in which those positionalities are established and which in turn set the pa-

    rameters for notions of the social (Butler 1994,



    In this view, gender is

    seen less as a structure of fixed relations than as a process of structuring sub-

    jectivities. While both gender and sexuality can be seen as the cultural con-

    struction of sex, neither of which can exist before representation, the major

    challenge to gender as an analytic concept has come from Foucauldians who

    have argued that sex is not the ground upo n which culture elaborates gender.

    Gender is rather the discursive origin of sex (Morris





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    Th e sociolog istic accoun t of gender tends to assume that a core gend er iden-

    tity is produced as an effect of social construction, requiring that wom en no t

    only se e themselves as a biological sex but as a social grouping with which

    they must identify. Postmodern thinkers, queer theorists, and feminists of

    color have led the way in advancing sexuality as both counter-paradigm and

    critique of gender essentialism. As Biddy Ma rtin (1994 , p. 105 ) succinctly

    puts it:

    To the extent that gender is assumed to construct the ultimate ground of

    women's experience: it has in much feminist work, come to colonize every

    aspect of experience, psychological and social, as the ultimate root and ex-

    planation of that experience, consigning us, once again, to the very terms that

    we sought to exceed, expand or redefine. When an uncritical assumption of

    the category 'woman' becomes the 'subject of feminism,' then gender poli-

    tics takes the form of.. the injunction to identify witwas women.

    Thus, the assumption that gender comp rises the core of all women's experi-

    ences produces a unified subject of identification, the need to identify

    witWas women.

    In this review essay, I attempt to provide an account of how gender has

    com e to signify woman, that is, a set of social relations that produ ces wo man

    as a universal c ategory transcending difference.


    explore the linked questions

    of how w om en are figured a s subjects, and what notions of the sub ject underlie

    the production of feminist ethno graphy to explain how a subject of identifica-

    tion is produced by p articular understandings of gender at distinct historical m o-

    men ts. Thoug h gender