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The relationship of feminism and anthropology can bring a new development to the way ethnographies are written and done. Lila Abu-Lughod’s statement feminist ethnography is an ‘ethnography with women at the centre written for women by women’ can be seen as an effort to find a distinct way of doing and writing ethnography. In this essay I will look at the roots of feminism and feminist anthropology. I will then discuss Abu-Lughod’s statement and try to explain how her statement is beneficial to anthropology and whether it is possible to do research her way. I will secondly look at the advantages and disadvantages of the statement. I will focus on notions of partial identity and objectivity. Finally, I will conclude by discussing some of the issues surrounding the empowerment of women, and that although Abu-Lughod’s statement does have some benefits it misses the important point. I will argue that feminist ethnography should be used as a political tool for disadvantaged women and it should reflect a “collective, dialectical process of building theory through struggles for change” (Enslin:1994:545).
Feminism can be defined as ‘both a social movement and a perspective on society. As a social movement, it has challenged the historical subordination of women and advocated political, social, and economic equality between the sexes. As a social and sociological perspective, it has examined the roles that sex and gender play in structuring society, as well as the reciprocal role that society plays in structuring sex and gender’ (Oxford dictionary 2007). There are three main categories in which the different waves of feminism can be divided. Among the first one which was from 1850 to 1920, during this period most research was carried out by men. Feminists aimed to bring the voice of women in ethnography, they gave a different angle on experiences of women and the surrounding events. This brought a new angle because male ethnographies only had the opportunity to interview other men e.g. what were women like. Important figures during this period were P.Kayberry who worked with B.Malinowski at LSE. She focused on religion but she examined men and women in her work.
Moving on to the second wave of which was from 1920s to 1980s, here the separation between sex and gender was made by important feminists. Sex as nature and gender as culture. This takes us to the nature culture dichotomy which is important when we are focusing on the subordination of women in different societies. The dichotomies between sex/gender, work/home, men/women, and nature/culture are important in social theory for raising debates. Important figures in the second wave feminism were Margaret Mead she made a lot of contribution in her work on the diversity of cultures here she helped to breakdown the bias that was based on concepts of what is natural, and she put more emphasis on culture in people’s development. Most important work’s of Mead was Coming of Age in Samoa (1928). Another important figure was Eleanor Leacock who was a Marxist feminist anthropologist. She focused on universality of female subordination and argued against this claim.
This second wave of feminism was influenced by a number of events in history, the 1960s was closely linked to political ferment in Europe and North America, like the anti-Vietnam war movement and the civil rights movement. Feminism was something that grew out of these political events during the 1960s. Feminism argued that politics and knowledge were closely linked with each other so feminists were concerned with knowledge and we have to question the knowledge that was being given to us. Feminism during 1960s called for the establishment of women’s writing, universities, feminist sociology and a feminist political order which would be egalitarian.
Feminists became interested in anthropology, because they looked to ethnography as a source of information about whether women were being dominated everywhere by men. What are some of the ways that women are living different societies, was there evidence of equality between men and women. Did matriarchal societies ever exist and to get the answers to such questions they turned to ethnography.
This takes us to the issue of ethnography and what we understand about women in different societies. It became obvious that traditional ethnographic work neglected women. Some of the issues surrounding women are; ethnograhies did not talk about women’s worlds, it did not talk about what went on in women’s lives, what they thought and what their roles were. When we discuss the question are women really subordinated, we realize that we do not know much about women in different societies. B.Malinowski’s work on the Kula did discuss the male role in the exchange of valuables. But during the 1970s Anette Weiner (1983) went to study the same society and she found out women are playing an important role in Trobriand society too. Their involved with the Kula, exchanges, rituals etc but Malinowski never wrote about it. Female anthropologists of the 1970s would go and look for important men, and then they would study their values, their societies, what was important to them. These anthropologists assumed, that men followed male logics in this public/private divide in line with this divide between the domestic and public sphere. They would also assume that what went on in the public sphere, economy, politics was more important the domestic side.
The concept of objectivity came to be regarded as a mode of male power. Feminists claimed that scientific ideals of universality, timelessness, and objectivity were inherently male-dominated and that the more feminist attributes of particularism, empathy and emotionality were devalued (Abu-Lughod 1990). Feminists argued that to take over male domination these female attributes had to be given more importance and made clear. Abu-Lughod’s ideal way of doing research is when a female ethnographer takes part in the ethnography, rather then removing herself, who listens to other women’s voice and gives accounts (Abu-Lughod 1990). The female ethnographer is able to do so because although the women studied differ from the ethnographer, she shares part of the identity of her informant. The female researcher therefore has the appropriate “tools” to understand the other woman’s life (Abu-Lughod 1990). this is why according to Abu-Lughod female ethnography should be an ethnography with women at the centre written by and for women. Abu-Lughod says that early feminist anthropologists did not really do anything about knowledge. They had good intentions but they didn’t do much as they were trapped in ways of thinking that had been given to them by the masculine nature of the academy.