Sex in Anthropology

Vanessa Kibble

Anthropological studies are investigations of human life as it functions in a
society. These observations are seen through the eyes of an objective
anthropologist. But even if an anthropologist is completely objective in his or
her studies, can there still be a descrepency in data due to the sex of the

Over the years anthropology has evolved to an ever expanding world that has more
of a variation in thoughts and beliefs, so that all cultures are recognized and
respected. Although many changes have been made in anthropological studies, like
the introduction of cultural relativity, it seems that woman were the last to be
considered in the field, this is mostly due to the lack of them. During the late
19th century, anthropologist were know as "arm chair" anthropologist. These were
"anthropologists" who relied on merchants, missionaries, explorers, ect. as
informants for their ethnographic presents. All of the latter professions were
practiced by men only, as were the roles of anthropologists when fieldwork was
introduced. This was in turn reflected through the way that societies were
depicted and influenced.

The Trobriand Islanders are a society in Papaua New Giuenia. They are composed
of about, twelve thousand people in sixty villages. The Trobrianders have been
penetrated by outside influences for centuries and have remained considerably
unaffected, two primary displays of this is the economical structure and
politics of kinship. The economy of the Trobriand Islanders is a complex system
in which there is a separate wealth for men and women. Although both sexes have
their own capital, the women\'s wealth is a sign of power and is necessary for
the definition of the chief\'s . The Trobrianders system of kinship is based on a
matrilineal principle, in which "mother right" is demonstrated. With this system,
birth rights are obtained through the mother\'s social status. These aspects did
not go completely un recognized , but they were differently approach as far as
the view in which they were studied and depth.

Bronislaw Kasper Malinowski was a male anthropologist who studied the Trobrian
Islanders from 1918-1919. He established himself as a participant and an
observer, making detailed observations in a way that had never been explored
before. Despite the fact that his techniques in gathering information
revolutionized anthropological fieldwork, there is ample room for descrepency
due to ethnocentric views adorning woman; as was soon addressed by another,
female anthropologist. Annette B. Wiener also studied the Trobriand Islanders
about sixty years later in 1971, on the island of Kiriwina. Primarily Wiener was
sent to study the economical and artistic meanings of woodcarvings, but she
changed her subject of study after being approach by a group of women who
energetically explained their role in their society to their fellow woman.
Wiener looked to the notes of Malinowski as a reference for her to follow and
was surprised to see that many important aspects of Trobriand culture and
society were missing as a result of a male interpretation; as said by Wiener,
(Malinowski) "never gave equal time to the woman\'s side of things." Malinowski
made note of observations he made of women making skirts and collecting banana
leaves, all of which are forms of women\'s wealth, but dismissed their importance
by labeling these activities as women\'s work. On the other hand since Wiener\'s
main informants were woman she was lead to analyze their responsibilities and
roles in the society in more depth. These different views come from the era in
which Malinowski studied. In his own European culture woman were thought to only
be "living in men\'s shadows," and only to occupy "private sectors of society,
like child rearing," and as a man he believed these assumptions that didn\'t
apply to him.

Malinowski\'s approach to the study of woman in society was very common and still
is today. A safe way to understand and project something without giving offense
is viewing it from a perspective that you can easily relate to, Malinowski is
not the only one guilty of this. In the ethnography of Napoleon A. Changnon
presents a very clear and concise image of the Yanomamo. Changnon studied the
Yanomamo first in1964, they live on the Brazilian and Venezuelan border. All of
Chagnon\'s informants are men and there is no mention of woman by name or even in
a generalized form. This was also true for the film shown in class on the
Yanomamo and Chagnon. The Yanomamo do not give any obvious importance to women
in their society so perhaps Chagnon didn\'t feel inclined to analyze in depth a
woman\'s role. It would be interesting to see how an ethnographic present of a
woman on the