Feminist Anthropology and Earlier Anthropological Theories

Updated: Dec 5, 2020

By the early 1970s, the issue of male bias in anthropology became widely recognized by

anthropologists. It was obvious that anthropology could no longer be practiced from a strictly androcentric perspective (or, to be more precise, from a white, American, or European, man’s point of view) and that certain changes had to be introduced in order to broaden that perspective. This task was undertaken by feminist anthropologists, who noted that the problem at hand was not only about what women do and how their activities are described (or not) by (male) anthropologists but also about gender relations (Barnard, 2006). Even though feminist anthropologists decided it was high time to deconstruct various male bias present in their field, they knew they could not have possibly done that without drawing on earlier anthropological theories.

The main goal of this essay is to find answers to the following questions: To what extent feminist theorists drew on these earlier theoretical approaches? Did they criticize them, use them for their own purposes, or both? In what way did they contribute to their further

development? And, ultimately, what was the reason for which feminist anthropologists did not entirely abandon those early theories? In addition, I would like to trace, how feminist

perspectives in anthropology brought to the light not only women but also other underprivileged groups of people. In order to answer these questions, I would like to discuss here three key anthropological theories that might have influenced the development of what we know now as feminist anthropology. These theories are: 1) Levi-Straussian structuralism as a theoretical perspective that favors pattern over substance 2) materialist and ecological approaches in anthropology with a focus on transactionalism as presented by Fredrik Barth, and, last but not least, 3) symbolic and interpretive anthropology. To that end, this essay is split into three sections. The first one is focused on Claude Levi-Strauss as a particularly outspoken advocate of structuralism in its purest sense (Barnard, 2006). In this section, I will attempt to analyze how structuralist ideas about women as posed by Levi-Strauss in “The Principles of Kinship” were addressed (directly or indirectly) by Sherry Ortner in her “Is Female to Male as Nature is to Culture?”. Section number two brings into question how materialist and ecological approaches as outlined by Fredrik Barth in “Ecologic Relationships of Ethnic Groups in Swat, North Pakistan” were later reflected in Pat Caplan’s “Perceptions of Gender Stratification”. In the last section I make an attempt to investigate how symbolic and interpretive approaches expressed by Clifford Geertz in “Thick Description: Toward and Interpretive Theory of Culture” might have influenced Ruth Behar’s “Rage and Redemption: Reading the Life Story of a Mexican Marketing Woman”.

Levi-Straussian Structuralism

In “The Principles of Kinship” Claude Levi-Strauss elaborates on the idea of exchange as

the fundamental and common basis of the institution of marriage and notes that exogamy is the only way to maintain a group as a whole. From his perspective, exogamy and exchange both serve as a means to build alliances with other groups and acquiring new allies/hunting partners/companions, etc. In his structuralist search for universal patterns, Levi- Strauss comes to a conclusion that not only “marriage is exchange”, but it is “the archetype of exchange” (Levi-Strauss, 1969, p. 483). It is this kind of exchange, however, in which only

women seem to be traded. Alliances are built on the basis of exchanging daughters and sisters as if they were merely goods or commodities that can be easily traded without their consent. In the Lévi-Straussian vision of marriage as an exchange, women are mute – they only serve as a means to achieve their brothers’ and fathers’ goals. Levi-Strauss points out that in “passing from speech to alliance the emergence of symbolic thought must have required that women, like words, should be things that were exchanged” (1969, p. 496). A woman, however, and Levi-Strauss makes it clear, is not merely a sign. She is, as Levi-

Strauss puts it, also “a generator of signs”, since “even in a man's world she is still a person”

(1969, p. 496). In this particular passage, Levi-Strauss acknowledges that women, too, possess personality, will, and a voice to speak.

Sherry Ortner elaborates on the idea of woman as “a generator of signs” in “Is

Female to Male as Nature Is to Culture?” by stressing that a woman, despite her close relations with nature, is, indeed, a human being. At the same time, however, Ortner agrees that the secondary status of a woman is a universal fact that cannot be denied. This observation is reflected in Levi-Strauss's discussion on marriage, where men actively form alliances by exchanging passive women. However, even though a woman’s bodily functions put her in social roles that bear lesser significance than these ascribed to a man, Ortner still wishes to see “the emergence of a social and cultural order in which as much of the range of human potential is open to women as to men” (1974, p. 68). What in “The Principles of Kinship” is depicted as an exchange of women in which they play the role of silent lambs traded between men and with their (women’s) right to be treated as human beings acknowledged only towards the end of Levi-Strauss’s essay, Ortner wants to change into a realm where both men and women will have the right to speak and to be listened to.

AD: A picture of a woman wearing a red coat and walking in the green field.

Materialist and Ecological Approaches – Barth’s Transactionalism

In “Ecologic Relationships of Ethnic Groups in Swat, North Pakistan” Fredrik Barth, a proponent of transactionalism, offers an analysis of social relations between the Pathan, Kohistani, and Gujar peoples by emphasizing the importance of ecologic factors and environmental limitations in the way their relationships are built and shaped. Barth presents here the approach described by Barnard as the one that gives “prominence to social action, the negotiation of identity, and the production of social values through reciprocity and decision-making” (2006, p. 84). In his analysis, Barth carefully traces decisions and compromises which Pathan leaders have to make on daily basis in order to maintain symbiotic relations with their neighbors with respect to the ecological niches they occupy (Barth, 1956).

In “Perceptions of Gender Stratification” Pat Caplan adopts a similar approach of focusing on “the production of social values through reciprocity and decision-making” in Kanga,

a large village on the coast of East Africa. The main difference between Barth’s and Caplan’s

works is that in her analysis Caplan does not trace the trajectories of reciprocity and decisionmaking between different tribes occupying various ecological niches within the greater geographical area, but between men and women living in the same village. The issue is, however, that in the case of Kanga it is difficult to talk about any forms of reciprocity between men and women. In this highly stratified society, women occupy a position that is somewhat secondary to that of men. Caplan traces such objective indicators of stratification as wealth, landholding, occupation, and education. As a result of her analysis, it becomes clear that male inhabitants of the village pay little attention to their wives’ needs and opinions, and while women invest a major part of their income into their households and children, men freely spend their money in a nearby town. Even during meals, women eat only after men finish, and, according to a nurse working in a local clinic, girls, unlike boys, are underweight (Caplan, 1989). Because Caplan conducted her fieldwork over the twenty-year time period, she had the rare opportunity to observe how the gap between local men and women kept widening. Men were acquiring more wealth, cash, and other possessions, while women had become considerably poorer and less influential in the period when Caplan conducted her study. From reading Caplan’s paper, one can easily get the impression that there are two separate tribes living in one village: that of men and that of women. Drawing on a research approach similar to that adopted by Barth, that is by looking at different “tribes” occupying the same geographical area, Caplan (1989) manages to show attitudes significantly different from those presented by Pathans and their neighbors in Swat in Pakistan: instead of symbiosis and careful balancing between conflict and peace, a reader encounters almost complete lack of symbiosis and cooperation and constant competition for resources between men and women of Kanga. In her study of inhabitants of Kanga Caplan draws our attention to how gender stratification creates a rife between people, who not only occupy the same geographical area but who also share ethnicity, religion, culture, and, at times, household.

Symbolic and Interpretative Approaches

In “Thick Description: Toward an Interpretative Theory of Culture”, Clifford Geertz argues that anthropology is not about large-scale comparisons and grand ideas. To him, anthropology is “microscopic” at its core: it is those little details and mundane activities of everyday lives deeply entrenched in a particular culture that define ethnographic description. Geertz points out that even though anthropologists deal with “the same grand realities… as historians, economists, political scientists [and] sociologists” and try to understand the questions of “Power, Change, Faith, Oppression...”, they encounter them in such “obscure” context that “the capital letters [are taken] off them” (1973, p. 21). Therefore, the ethnographer’s main task is to “[inscribe] social discourse” (Geertz, 1973, p. 19). From this minutiae approach stems the idea of thick description, one that reveals all these details “through layers of description” (Barnard, 2006, p. 163) recorded by the ethnographer so the objects of his study can speak and be heard.

Ruth Behar adopts a similar minutiae approach in “Rage and Redemption: Reading

the Life Story of a Mexican Marketing Woman”. In this paper, Behar gives voice to Esperanza

Hernandez, who, against all odds, abandoned her abusive husband and became a self-sustaining merchant woman selling flowers and vegetables in a nearby town. Behar, however, goes one step further in her approach towards “thick description” than Geertz did, for instance, in his “Deep Play: Notes on the Balinese Cockfight”, and lets Esperanza speak for herself. In doing so, Behar recalls in her paper what Sherry Ortner said about “an overwhelming tendency in anthropological account to spotlight the ‘thingness’ or objectivity of social forms once created” (1990, p. 225). Instead, Behar argues that “history is not simply something that happens to people, but something they make” (1990, p. 225). In her approach towards thick description, Behar embraces subjectivity instead of objectivity of social forms and claims that “a life history should allow one to see how an actor makes culturally meaningful history” (1990, p. 225). As a result, an actor-centered practice approach as presented by Behar in her paper allows not only women but also other people who are oppressed, underprivileged, or unheard, to finally speak for themselves.


Even though feminist anthropologists drew on earlier anthropological theories such as structuralism, transactionalism, or interpretive and symbolic approaches, they did not adopt them uncritically. Instead, they managed to adapt them for their own purposes by pushing

anthropological research in new, innovative directions. Sherry Ortner criticized the world in

which women are used as objects of exchange, but at the same time acknowledged Levi-Strauss’s notion of woman as “a generator of signs”. Pat Caplan used an approach similar to that of Barth’s transactionalism in order to study gender stratification in a small village in East Africa. Ruth Behar, on the other hand, pushed thick description one step further than Geertz did and adopted it for the purpose of giving voice to those, who live underprivileged and oppressed lives. Feminist anthropologists did not abandon these earlier theoretical approaches, since each of these theories contains ideas that constituted a good starting

point for a change in how anthropologists conceptualize and conduct their studies. After all, feminist anthropology was about including the perspective of those, whose voices used to be

ignored or silenced, in anthropological studies and thus recognizing them as human beings.


Barnard, A. (2006). History and Theory in Anthropology. Cambridge: Cambridge University


Barth, F. (1956). "Ecologic Relationships of Ethnic Groups in Swat, North Pakistan". American

Anthropologist, 58, 1079-1089.

Behar, R. (1990). "Rage and Redemption: Reading the Life Story of a Mexican Marketing

Woman". Feminist Studies, 16 (2), 223-258.

Caplan, P. (1989). "Perceptions of Gender Stratification". Africa, 59 (2), 196-208.

Geertz, C. (1973). "Thick Description: Toward an Interpretive Theory of Culture". In The

Interpretation of Cultures (pp. 3-30). New York: Basic Books.

Levi-Strauss, C. (1969). The Principles of Kinship. In The Elementary Structures of Kinship

(pp. 478-497). Boston: Beacon Press.

Ortner, S. (1974). "Is Female to Male as Nature is to Culture?". In Woman, Culture & Society

(pp. 68-87). M. Zimbalist Rosaldo and L. Lamphere (Ed.). Stanford: Stanford University


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