All posts by Nancy

An Exercise in Recognising Cultural Assumptions

Rex’s “recent post”:/2006/05/02/seminal-juxtapositions/ has led to an interesting discussion in the comments section about the ways in which teachers and professors expose students to cultural practices that deeply threaten their assumptions about morality, propriety and the nature of life itself. The Sambian practice of male initiation through insemination via fellatio is used as an example of something that best be kept for when students have been exposed to practices that are less threatening to the average North American (dare I say Western?) or North American-raised (ibid) student so that there is a gradual exposure to cultural variation in worldview and practices. In other words, it is suggested that it would be wise to move slowly from things that are “different” but that do not break taboos to things that challenge hardcore, unquestioned assumptions about values and morality so that we don’t A) scare them off completely and B) reinforce racist stereotypes.

I think this is an extremely interesting and valuable discussion to have and would like to share how I deal, at least partially, with this issue in my intro courses. When I started teaching, I had a hard time getting students to recognise their own ethnocentrism. They understood the concept intellectually, but would usually think that they were immune to it because they had gone to high school in Montreal with people from all over the world, or because they “just aren’t like that”. I felt that I had to find a way to get them to recognise that they were not immune to the effects of enculturation and all the assumptions that come along with growing up in a particular cultural framework.

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CASCA 2006: It’s not too late!

Just a quick reminder: the 2006 meetings of the Canadian Anthropology Society/Société Canadienne d’Anthropologie (CASCA) are coming up very soon! They will be held at Concordia Univesity from May 9-14 to be exact. The conference website can be found “here”: I know of at least 2 SM readers who will be there . . . looking forward to meeting you! It’s not too late to register so if you are anywhere within easy travel of Montreal, I encourage you to come. Montreal’s beautiful in the spring, the terraces are open and CASCA is fun!

By the way, yours truly is organising a round table on anthropology in cégep as well as presenting a paper entitled: Wet Sundays in James Bay: Drinking as Transcendance of Cultural Identity. Here’s the abstract:

This paper, based on fieldwork conducted in James Bay in 1998, will explore the ways in which drinking alcohol may work to transcend cultural divides. I am particularly interested in presenting a discussion of layers of marginality within a given social environment and how the shared experience of drinking may allow an outsider to gain a transient status as insider in specific contexts. Ethnographic examples obtained through the experiential approach exemplified by Jean-Guy Goulet as well as a theoretical framework based on Pierre Bourdieu’s concept of habitus will frame the discussion.

I hope to come back with some juicy stuff to blog about in the next few weeks.

Four-Fields Again: Finding a Way to Make it Work

Back in the fall, I “questioned the feasability”:/2005/08/23/intro-courses-and-the-viability-of-four-fields/ of the four-field approach in a “Cégep”: -level course. My problems were largely based on the fact that I had always imitated what my colleagues were doing: starting with 4 weeks of physical anthropology, including physical evolution, our relationship with other primates and modern human variation, then 2 weeks of archaeology. This left me with very little time to cover a large body of knowledge of cultural anthropology, including one week of linguistics, specifically sociolinguistics.

In my previous post, I said that I would try to start backwards. In other words, instead of ending with globalisation and cutting a lot of it out because I was too tight for time at the end, I was going to start with that topic and work my way back to the past. Well, I didn’t wind up doing that. But I did come up with a way of teaching my intro course that pleases me while still fulfilling the four-field approach.

What I’m doing now is integrating the four fields at every step. Instead of spending chunks of the course focusing on one field at a time, I go through the course focussing on topics and, for each topic, I examine the contributions of the various subfields. So I started the semester simply talking about culture. What is it (definitions and descriptions)? What does it do (shape our assumptions)? How do we learn about it in the present and in the past (this is where the subfields come in)?

Now, at week 5 of the semester, I’m moving on to specific aspects of culture such as worldview and religion. Again, we will look at the topic in general while specifying how the different subfields contribute to our understanding of it. And so forth for gender and sexuality, economic systems, political structures, etc. I’m therefore doing things a bit differently than my colleagues, most of whom are more experienced than I am, but I’m quite comfortable with going out on a limb.

I’m pretty sure that there are other people out there who teach their intro courses in a similar fashion and that I didn’t invent this method. I’m curious to hear comments by anyone who uses a similar approach or has taken a course with this approach. Since this is my first time teaching the course this way, I’m anxious to see whether it makes a difference in student comprehension and interest. In my two intro courses this semester, it seems to be working well in terms of catching student interest but I’m not sure if it’s the approach itself or merely the fact that I was able to jump into topics that I’m genuinely passionate about earlier in the semester and therefore win over the students sooner with my own enthusiasm, something that often took much more time when I had to go through the evolution stuff (not that it’s not important, just that I have to fake a lot of my enthusiasm while teaching it). Once I start seeing test results, it will give me a better idea of actual student comprehension.

CASCA Extends Call for Papers

I know that many of you are in a pre-AAA frenzy but I wanted to drop a quick note for anyone interested in the Canadian Anthropology Society (CASCA) meetings in May 2006 but who is not on their mailing list. The “call for papers”: has been extended to December 1. The theme of the meeting is “Human Nature/Human Identity: Anthropological Revisionings” which is right up my alley. No big surprise there considering that the conference is being organised by and held at “Concordia University”:, my alma mater. I’ve already submitted a paper proposal (I did so before the first deadline back in October) and am anxiously awaiting news. I have also agreed to organise a round table session on the public nature of cégep anthropology (a post on this topic will follow shortly) so I’m very excited about this whole thing. Nothing like having an anthro conference in one’s own town to get the anthro juices flowing!

If you’re not a CASCA member, don’t worry. You can become a member at the same time as you “register”: Also, you don’t need to be Canadian to come to a CASCA conference! If you know you will have to miss the conference, don’t worry either. I will surely review some of the sessions I’ll have attended here on SM after the conference in over.

Thanks Tad!

I’d like to thank Tad for contributing some though-provoking material while adding a unique voice to Savage Minds. Anyone wanting to read more of what Tad has to say can find him at “Fieldnotes: Notes on the Anthropology of British Columbia.”:

Thanks for taking the time to come and guest blog!

Introducing our next guest blogger: Tad McIlwraith

Please join me in welcoming our guest blogger: “Thomas ‘Tad’ McIlwraith”: Tad currently teaches anthropology at both the University College of the Fraser Valley and Capilano College in British Columbia. He is also self-employed as a cultural research consultant.

In his spare time (!), Tad blogs on “Fieldnotes: Notes on the Anthropology of British Columbia”: In fact, this is where I became familiar with Tad’s writing skills and interests! Although his blog is mainly geared toward his students to encourage them to discuss anthropological issues, anyone is welcome to read the blog and to leave comments. A thoughtful reply is practically guaranteed!

Tad’s professional interests include linguistic anthropology and environmental anthropology, particularly among Aboriginal communities in British Columbia, Canada. He is a PhD candidate at the University of New Mexico. His dissertation, entitled “But We Are Still Didene’: Living Lives as Hunters in a Northern Athapaskan Village,” deals with the value of hunting at Iskut British Columbia. In 1995, Tad completed a Master of Arts in Cultural Anthropology at the University of British Columbia. His thesis was entitled “Construction of Local and Pan-Indian Elements in Contemporary Stó:lō Identity.”

Tad has been the recipient of several “grants and awards”: such as a research grant from the Melville Jacobs Fund and a graduate fellowship from the Social Science and Humanities Research Council of Canada.

Less than one year after the completion of his Master’s, he “published”: an article in the American Indian Culture and Research Journal entitled “The Problem of Imported Culture: The Construction of Contemporary Stó:lo Identity”. Since then, he has edited and co-authored a few creative works and reports and has presented several conference papers. One publication of special note, in my opinion, is ““’Kuji K’at Dahdahwhesdetch’ (Now I Told All of You): Stories Told at Iskut, British Columbia, by Iskut Tahltan Elders” which he co-authored with Istuk Village Elders and for which he received funding from the Endandered Languages Fund.

The overarching theme of Tad’s series of blogs on Savage Minds will be the character of Canadian anthropology. He will get us started with a piece on the relevance of “national anthropologies.”

Welcome Tad! I look forward to reading your work!

Saving the Great Apes

I have a soft spot for non-human primates, especially gorillas, as they got me interested in primatology and physical anthropology back in high school. This eventually got me to take a college-level anthro course and led me to adopting cultural anthropology as a career. So I’m pleased to see that 20 governments are getting together to try to “save the great apes”: from extinction.

I’d be curious to know if there are actual primatologists on board with the “Great Apes Survival Project”:, the organism that organised the conference during which the declaration to save the great apes was signed. I would think that they do but I was unable to find the information on GRASP’s website.

Of course, non-human primates co-exist with human primates and GRASP seems to have grasped (I couldn’t resist) the idea that the activities of local populations need to be taken into account. As is indicated in the BBC news article, the agreement proposes that:

The agencies should ‘make it a priority to develop and implement policies which promote ecologically sustainable livelihoods for local and indigenous communities’

I think that this reflects an acknowledgement that government agreement or no government agreement, ultimately it is essential to obtain the cooperation of people who live in areas near our non-human cousins. This cooperation requires that the people in question have the resources that they need to live without having to resort to poaching. I’m hoping that they have at least consulted cultural anthropologists in that area to assess effective ways of carrying out this project while taking local realities into account.

Two-Spirit vs. Berdache : acknowledging self-identity

This is my second, and possibly last for now, post on queer issues resulting from post-Montreal Pride reflections. The first one was “here”:/2005/08/04/redefining-marriage-queering-up-anthro-textbooks/.

One thing that struck me at this year’s Pride was the increasing presence of the Two-Spirit community at queer events. A corollary thought that occurred to me is the apparent disparity between how anthropologists define the Two-Spirit identity and how Two-Spirited people themselves define it.

First of all, Two-Spirit is increasingly being used as a replacement for the misleading and inappropriate berdache, which has negative connotations due to its linguistic roots. In fact, searching for berdache on “Wikipedia”: automatically takes one to a page on “Two-Spirit”: However, many anthropology texts still refer to berdache. I guess old habits die hard.

Now, when anthropologists talk about berdache, they are often referring to male gender variants (please note that I have adopted Serena Nanda’s usage of this term from her book “Gender Diversity: Crosscultural Variations”: – an excellent book) in Aboriginal North America. One frequently finds the disclaimer that the berdache does not necessarily marry or have sexual intercourse with other male-bodied persons and that the gender crossing is mainly at the occupational or vestimentary level. Ironically (I think it’s ironic because of the mainstream Western fascination with female-on-female sexuality) this disclaimer appears to be even more ardent when discussing the “occasional” female gender variants.

So from this older anthropological stance, which still permeates much current anthropological discussion on gender variance, gender identity is not so completely intertwined with sexual orientation (in the strict sense of who one has sex with) that one will adopt the prescribed orientation of the gender to which one adheres. In other words, a male bodied person who adopts a female gender will not necessarily adopt the “sleeping with men” that is supposedly included in this gender role.

What is contradictory, however, is that the standard rubric of homosexuality in many texts incorporates a discussion of the berdache and often fails to make the very distinction between sexuality and gender. The berdache is then used as an example of (usually) male homosexuality with the implication that it’s probably more about the gender role than an actual sexual preference. What remains unclear in these discussions is whether there ever existed men who slept with men or women who slept with women without changing gender roles.

What I love about Nanda’s book is that she shows the complexity of gender variance in North America. There is no one single way of being a gender variant and, yes, there are more female gender variants than some would let on, although perhaps not as many as male gender variants for reasons that Nanda briefly discusses. But I digress . . . according to Nanda, some gender variants engage in heterosexual relations, some engage in homosexual relations and some engage in (gasp!) both. Heck, some don’t even engage in sexual relations at all.

Now, with regards to the replacement of berdache by the term Two-Spirit there might still be problems. In light of the diversity that is characteristic of North American gender variance, can we assume that all gender variants are blessed with two spirits? From an anthropological standpoint does the term Two-Spirit reflect the many variations on the theme any more accurately than berdache? I’m not sure. However, one thing I am sure of after reading texts written by Two-Spirited folk and listening to them is that the term is held in higher regard by Aboriginals and that is enough for me to adopt its usage.

What is interesting about the Aboriginal usage of the term is that it includes pretty much all the varieties of queer that are summarised by the mainstream queer community by one of the brands of alphabet soup (LGBT, LGBTT2I and so forth). All lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgendered, transsexual, intersexed Aboriginal males and females may self-identify as Two-Spirit.* This is a far cry from the very specific denotation of berdache yet at the same time, it acknowledges the diversity that is a part of this identity.

What is also interesting is that Two-Spirit maintains the spiritual component of this identity unlike its predecessor which reduced the identity to one relating purely to sexuality. Coupled with the European tendency at the time of contact to associate all things sexual with icky, sinful things, the use of the term berdache imposed and propagated an ethnocentric view of gender variants and people who had sex with members of the same sex (MOSS). Two-Spirit, however, reminds us that Aboriginal conceptions of sexuality before the influence of Christianity were far different than those of Europeans.

Now, is Two-Spirit a term that could readily correspond to the local terms in all the linguistic groups across the continent? Probably not. Are the realities of present-day Aboriginals who have sex with MOSS or who adopt gender roles that differ from those usually assigned to their physical sex the same as those of pre-Euro North America? Probably not. Do all Aboriginal people who have sex with MOSS experience what psychologists would call gender dysphoria? Probably not.

Does the term Two-Spirit enable queer Aboriginals to feel solidarity in a society where they risk being ostracised by the dominant cultural groups, by their respective home communities and even by the rest of the queer community? Certainly. And it does this without denying the enormous range of diversity within the Two-Spirit community itself or the presence of some shared elements with non-Aboriginal queers. I’m all for it.

My suggestion for anthropologists, then, is not necessarily to refer to what used to be called berdache in the literature as Two-Spirit. I think that the term gender variant is quite adequate for that in a cross-cultural context and that local terms such as nadleeh, alyha or hwame are most appropriate when discussing specific case studies. However, I think it’s important that anthropologists recognise the self-identification of Two-Spirit individuals and to remember that they exist right here, right now and that they are dealing with realities that are much different than those that existed at the time Europeans encountered Aboriginals.

*As with the increasing use of the term “queer” rather than the terms for specific identities, this is what I would call extreme lumping in the taxonomy of alternate sexual orientations and gender/sexual identities. Our extreme splitters would be the ones who resort to the alphabet soup and keep adding on letters. Me? I’m a lumper. But I recognise the good intentions of both camps.

Autistic Culture: celebrating neurodiversity

A couple of months ago, one of “Kerim’s posts”:/2005/06/19/funny-you-dont-look-jewish/ led to a mini-discussion in the comments section about the site “Gene Expression”: Within this discussion, the use of the term ethno-autism was brought up. As defined by Razib, the author of “this post”: at Gene Expression, ethno-autism is an:

inability to conceive other peoples and cultures as fully fleshed out organisms who have their own creativity, histories and genius, and most importantly values congruent with those of modern Western civilization.

This wasn’t the first time that I had heard this type of analogy. In another time and place (my vagueness here is deliberate to respect the confidentiality of the people involved), I reacted to an analogy between autism and the incapacity to perceive that others may think differently than oneself. And at yet another time, I read an article (wish I could provide a reference but I lost it) that stipulated that autism was an extreme form of the “male brain”.

In any case, the usage of the term ethno-autism caused a bit of a reaction within the discussion following Kerim’s post (don’t worry, nothing violent) and, at the time, I felt unable to pursue the matter in depth, having an autie in my family and being close to the situation. However, Kathy (aka museum freak) from Livejournal had “this”: to say about the term:

. . . gross misrepresentation of autism as a condition. The analogy they’re making is between the autistic’s supposed inability to understand other people’s thoughts and feelings and the, dare I say bigots?, referred to on the site failing to understand the humanity of other cultures.

I’m inclined to agree with Kathy here. I would add that, rather than make such an analogy to describe extreme ethnocentrism, which is what is actually being described in Razib’s post as far as I can tell, it would seem to be preferable to simply call it what it is. The analogy between extreme ethnocentrism and autism obscures the fact that most extreme ethnocentric people are not autistic and are actually perfectly capable of understanding that people from different cultural backgrounds as them might think and perceive the world differently than they do.

Now, I don’t think that Razib was intentionally trying to propagate a negative imagery of autism. He did admit that he hadn’t put much thought into it so I’m assuming that, like many, he’s working under the assumption that there is one single form of autism.

This leads me to my main point (well, one of them anyway): the term “autism” has been thrown around all over the media in the past . . .say . . .decade or so and yet there is still very little social awareness of the realities of this way of being (you’ll understand soon why I call it a way of being rather than a “condition” or “disorder”.) In North America, and possibly elsewhere, we live in a society where I would assume the majority of people have been sensitized to the needs of people with “physical handicaps” and who would acknowledge that holding a door open for a person in a wheelchair is the proper thing to do. However, when it comes to what many people would describe as “mental handicaps”, the mainstream attitude carries more of a tendency to judge and ridicule than to understand and help.

The mainstream view of autism and related modes of perception is highly negative: tragedy, dismay, trauma, difficulties are all words that are commonly associated with the life of an autie and her/his family. By no means am I saying that it’s easy and that everyone would be happier if they were autistic. However, I think that there are interesting alternatives in thinking about autism. The most interesting ways come from autistic people themselves.

For example, I’m highly interested in a recent discovery that I’ve made by following a series of links beginning with Kathy’s post: there exists an “autistic culture”: consisting of auties, aspies, cousins and allies. The shared belief is that:

autism, as a unique way of being, should be embraced and appreciated, not shunned or cured

There is an “Autistic Pride Day”: There are people who seek recognition of “neurodiversity”: Heck, they’ve even got t-shirts! The similarities with queer pride movements are unmistakable and like with any other sub-culture, I’m certain that there is divergence within the group about various issues. In any case, I’m curious to see what kind of momentum this movement will take. I have a feeling that as people become more sensitised, Autistic Pride will become better known.

In the meantime, I’m also curious about how autism is dealt with cross-culturally. What do ethnographers have to say about the way people who would be diagnosed as autistic by North American or European psychologists are treated within their own societies? Are people ostracised? Accepted? Nurtured? Considered to be functional members of the cultural group? Have special status? Not considered as abnormal? What changes came about in various local conceptions of “autistic” people due to colonisation? What changes are coming about due to globalisation?

Perhaps there are obscure answers to these questions here and there in various ethnographies . . . but has there been cross-cultural research specifically aimed at finding out how various societies deal with what psychologists would label as autism and how the individuals themselves relate in their respective social contexts? Is there, perhaps, cross-cultural research that shows that in some cultural contexts, being autistic is not seen as a disadvantage but merely as another variation?

It would also be interesting to have an anthropological look at the above-mentioned autistic culture. As a social movement and as a self-identified culture (who, by the way, actually wrote a “letter to the U.N.”: in an attempt to be recognised as a minority) with a core set of beliefs, they have gone beyond being “subjects” of psychological inquiry and have much to contribute to our understanding of culture and society. It would be even more interesting if the anthropologists who did the research were autistic themselves. After all, as Kathy pointed out in her post:

The experience of being an autistic is a lot like the experience of being an ethnographer–we’re in a culture we don’t understand, and forced to rely on our ability to observe to learn, get by, and adapt to the world.

On that note, I leave you with a passage from Jim Sinclair’s text “Don’t Mourn For Us”: which is quite telling about the relationship between autism and differences of perception:

Yes, that (relating to an autistic person) takes more work than relating to a non-autistic person. But it can be done–unless non-autistic people are far more limited than we are in their capacity to relate. We spend our entire lives doing it. Each of us who does learn to talk to you, each of us who manages to function at all in your society, each of us who manages to reach out and make a connection with you, is operating in alien territory, making contact with alien beings. We spend our entire lives doing this. And then you tell us that we can’t relate.

Intro courses and the viability of four-fields

It’s that time of the year again and my thoughts, like those of Rex back “a few weeks ago”:/2005/08/17/the-grim-smile/, turn to pedagogical issues. One things that has been haunting me for my entire teaching career (OK, OK . . . 2 ½ years!) is the viability of a four-field intro course. Semester after semester, I try to cram in the so-called “tip of the iceberg” of anthropology into 45 hours (minus tests, pre-test reviews, post-test revisions, assignment explanations, occasional cancellations, fire drills and so forth). And semester after semester, I try to decide ahead of time where I will wind up having to cut. Because I always wind up having to cut, despite my best intentions. I could fit it all in probably if all I did was lecture but about half of my class time is spent in learning activities. So . . .

This leads me to question how useful the four-field approach is in pedagogical terms (i.e. as a teaching tool). The more topics one tries to cover in one semester, the more each topic gets watered down. So what is important to us as teachers and professors of anthropology? To cram as much info into the brains of our students as possible for later regurgitation? Or to help them learn ways of thinking and analysing that are part of the “anthropological project”?

In any case, the nature of the course has been decided for me so I have to deal . . .and figure out where I will cut (if I have to, of course, which I probably will . . . ). Keeping in mind, of course, that 99.9% of my students will not go on to take university-level anthropology courses (this is Cégep we’re talking about which is a 2-year general studies programme between high school and university – a neat little Québécois idiosyncrasy) helps me determine what is important and what isn’t.

What will help them in their future careers as teachers, plumbers, lawyers, secretaries, nurses, police officers and so forth? What will whet their appetites enough to get them to take one of our 200 or 300 level courses such as Race and Racism, Community Studies, Archaeology, Human Evolution, Culture and Sexuality, etc? What will help them in their everyday lives as residents of multicultural Canada? These are the questions I need to ask when determining what stays and what goes . . . and this is what I’ve been forgetting to ask myself in the past 2 years as a newbie teacher.

So now I’m trying something new. I’m going to start backwards. Well, not completely. But rather than start with the usual physical evolution stuff, I will start with where we are now and meander through different topics with occasional flashbacks to pre-history. I’m not sure how I’ll be able to pull off the dream-style sequences when it’s time for a flashback but . . . I’ll figure something out.

Now excuse me while I go back to mixing a soundtrack for my course . . .

Personality and ethnography

In graduate seminars, I remember long discussions about the positionality and identity of the researcher and how these would influence not only the interpretations of the results of one’s fieldwork but the results themselves. Depending on the research topic, the information obtained by a young, unmarried female anthropologist, for example, may be quite difference from that obtained by older and married male anthropologist. I think that this is fairly widely recognized in our field at this point.

One related thing that I have often wondered about and at which we only sporadically hinted in our discussions between professors and bright-eyed grad students was the impact of one’s personality on our fieldwork experience and results. We discussed behaviour, yes. We went over questions of how to go about introducing ourselves to potential informants, how to dress in a way that would not offend our hosts, whether or not to have sex with people in the field (yes, Concordia University is very liberated that way) and so forth. One of my fellow students even brought up the possibility that our hosts might be more comfortable talking about their lives if the ethnographer was willing to open up a bit about her own.

Of course, one’s personality and ideas have everything in the world to do with how one would deal with the situations mentioned above. One’s personality and self-concept will very likely determine whether an individual cares if his manner of dressing will offend members of the host group. This will also help determine one’s behaviour in various situations in addition to myriad other factors such as stress, relative comfort level, length of time in the community and so forth. Finally, one’s personality has much to do with how much one is willing to tell about herself.

However, we didn’t go too far into talk of personalities as such. Perhaps we were all a little worried about not fitting the bill if it turned out that, according to our profs, there was a standard personality type that was generally better suited to conduct ethnographic fieldwork.

One interesting that did come out during a one-on-one conversation with my thesis supervisor was that there might be particular personality types that are well suited for particular areas or for particular research topics. As I sat in her office with the pre-fieldwork jitters, she assured me that I had the right kind of personality for working with Natives. Although I could see why she would say that and felt that she was probably trying to make me feel better more than anything else, I wondered how one might be able to assess this. If we assume personality variance within the societies where we conduct research, is it really safe to say that researchers of particular personality types will be more or less successful?

I think it’s safe to say that one’s personality will influence one’s behaviour and therefore one’s results to the extent that personality influences one’s interactions. It certainly influences how well a researcher will get along with people in the field which will in turn affect the kinds of information that they will be willing to discuss. As mentioned above, however, there is no uniform personality in any location and therefore just about any ethnographer will find both people with whom s/he gets along and people with whom s/he doesn’t. Ultimately, then, any researcher, unless they are completely and utterly obnoxious and disrespectful, will probably manage to get along well enough with a large enough number of people to get the information that is required for his research.

The bottom line, I think, is that young ethnographers, such as myself, and ethnographers-to-be need not worry about how well we can live up to the caricatured image of the uppity authoritative scientist. In fact, as tacky as it may sound, I think it’s important for us to be ourselves in the field. What would be interesting to discuss, though, is how personality might affect the fieldwork experience, results and interpretation in ways similar to the various sorts of identities (gender, ethnic background, age, marital status, and so forth) that have been shown to inform our work.

Redefining marriage: Queering up Anthro Textbooks

Montreal Pride 2005 has come and gone and, in the midst of post-pride blues, I’ve managed to use the experience of my 4th year as a participant in these events to tie up some loose ends with regards to blog topics that had been spinning around in my head for a while without any specific direction. This posting is therefore the first in a short series of posts that will take a look at queer-related phenomena in an anthropological framework.

The recent event that stands out the most in the queer world is probably the legalisation of same-sex marriage (yes, same-sex marriage as opposed to gay marriage, please) in Spain and Canada. Anthropologically (and yes, personally) I find this quite interesting.

I haven’t done a quantitative study on introductory anthropology textbooks, but it seems to me that many of them, with some exceptions of course, persist in defining marriage as a “insert series of qualifiers here” union between a man and a woman. This is usually followed by explanations of the various forms of marriage, including polygamy which contradicts the “a” in the above definition already (but whatever. . .)

I remember feeling very confused as an early undergrad because of this. I never spoke up because I was far from being out as queer at the time and I figured that maybe same-sex attraction was, after all, some kind of European/North American phenomenon and that I, a lowly undergrad, shouldn’t start messing around with the Established Ones.

One woman in my intro class, who fit the butch-stereotype almost to a T, dared to denounce the definition as heterosexist and I stared at her, wide-eyed, as she blushed and as her voice trembled, knowing that all eyes were on her and that everyone was branding her as a lesbian. The professor brushed her off, saying that in all other societies, marriage was between men and women and for the main purpose of reproduction. Any aspirations that I had at the time of someday being as brave as that young presumably lesbian woman were smashed.

It wasn’t until a couple of years later that I learned that the ethnographic record contains examples of recognised same-sex unions and that the standard anthropological definition of marriage as a union between a man and a woman was flawed. And it wasn’t until a few years into my studies that I had the gumption to say “well, even if it were just a North American / European thing, we’re part of the ethnographic record too, ain’t we?”

As it stands, the Netherlands, Belgium, Spain and Canada have legally sanctioned same-sex marriages. In addition to that, a host of small-scale societies around the world have, at some point in time, recognised same-sex unions that would qualify as marriage according to an anthropological definition (except for the man-woman part, of course) in various forms and for various reasons. Whether they all still recognise these after contact with Christian missionaries is unclear however. Of course the irony is that many people who are from societies that recognised same-sex unions “once upon a time” are probably appalled by the recent moved toward this very recognition in Western nations.

In any case, with this turn of events in the queer world, I am curious to see how many textbook authors will alter their definitions of marriage. Some already have, of course, even before these high-profile cases in recognition of the above-mentioned same-sex unions that were noted even by early anthropologists. The benefit for anthro teachers and profs is that it will make it easier to discuss same-sex marriage in the classroom without appearing to have an “agenda”, which is often a risk for an openly queer academic. The benefit at large is that fewer queer students will feel cornered and marginalised in the classroom because they will finally see themselves represented in the discipline that specialises in humanity in all of its aspects.

Of course, these textbooks would run the risk of having stickers put on their inside covers saying something like: “This book contains material on queerness. Queerness is only a theory and . . .” Well, you know the drill.

Perceptions of anthropology

Tad at Fieldnotes has a post on “Resources for Researching Aboriginal Issues”: that I find quite interesting. The second resource that he mentions in his post is a researcher’s handbook by the Union of BC Indian Chiefs called “Stolen Lands, Broken Promises”: . This is basically a guide for Aboriginal community members who wish to do research on various issues affecting their communities. The various chapters touch on different but related research topics of interest to anthropologists. What particularly caught my attention was chapter 8: “Anthropology Resources”: .

Unsurprisingly, the ethnocentric nature of some anthropological research projects is pointed out. In fact, the authors of this handbook are very well aware that the early anthropological project was mostly reflective of Western values that were tied into a colonial project in many ways. For example, the following statement jumped out at me:

Whatever the scope of your project, you will need to make sure you cafefully analyze the material you collect. Anthropological reports were most often produced by outside researchers with distinctly different cultural practices and expectations than the people they studied. They may include important information but they may also reveal more about the beliefs and values of the time and place in which they were created. Often, these studies may meet the standards of academic research but fail to accurately represent Indigenous Peoples and our communities. Consider the biases and limitations in the documents you encounter while extracting the information you need for your research.

To me, this touches on several of the topics we have discussed here on SM recently. More specifically, theory and morality come to mind. I’ve long been ambivalent about the process of theorising about a group of people with the goal of contributing to an overarching “scientific” project, particularly when the people being theorised about have little voice with regards to the theories constructed around them or little concern for the scientific project of theory creation. Therefore, I feel that Aboriginal peoples are justified in their wariness of anthropological research. We cannot deny that many ethnographies have unjustly portrayed Aboriginals and other societies, sometimes to the detriment of fruitful dialogue.

During my own fieldwork in Chisasibi, the comment was made to me that the Cree had felt misrepresented in some previous works and were now quite sceptical of what exactly anthropologists were trying to do. As noble as I felt my intentions were at the time (ie. to help foster inter-cultural communication), in the end my project benefited me much more than the community that hosted me: it got me an M.A. and a subsequent job at a publicly funded college. In the 7 years since my fieldwork, I have not yet even had the opportunity to go back to Chisasibi to give the band council a copy of my thesis as promised. I could mail it . . .but it wouldn’t be the same.

On the other hand, I feel strongly that anthropologists can and should be doing research that both meets the standards of academic research and fulfills a need that Aboriginal communities may have, taking into account their perspectives on self-representation. Of course, this may require changes in the criteria for academic research in the first place.

How are anthropologists supposed to preach cultural relativity if we can’t practice it with regards to cultural differences in the perception of how cross-cultural research should be carried out? This strikes me as a fundamental problem in anthropolical research, a sort of hypocrisy, that continues to plague us in spite of ongoing critiques by the people with whom we deal and to whom we owe our livelihood.

Speaking of fiction . . .

Seeing as discussion has turned to film and TV and the extent to which they represent or misrepresent various cultural or anthropological issues, I thought that “this fictional piece”: on the proposed limitation of colours with which kids could draw to be quite interesting. What is fascinating is the near-believability of the article and the ensuing comments. What does it say about USAnian (or even North American) society that to some, the article is quite plausible in that it could actually happen but that to others, it is so ludicrous that the satire is obvious?

Now . . .are the comments for real? I’m not sure. Given that some of them refer to a coming war against those who carry a “homosexual agenda and others actually wish death upon all queers, part of me really hopes that they are not.

UPDATE: I forgot to mention that I found the link to this article “here”:

Straight Pride in Canada’s North: a Case Study of the Politics of Power and Privilege

It was the moment heterosexuals in Canada’s north had been waiting for. Yellowknife, N.W.T., was to have its first ever “Heterosexual Day”: on June 9, 2005. This was a direct reaction to the celebration of Gay Pride Day (which I think should be Queer Pride Day but that’s another story) planned for June 10. The latter event has been celebrated in Yellowknife since 1998.

The people who called for this “alternative” day to celebrate the contributions of heterosexuals to their community claimed that they should have as much right as homosexuals (and others unacknowledged queers) to be recognised. Many other people, including some heterosexual queer allies, feel that every day is Heterosexual Day, just like every day is a day of privilege for the members of various privileged groups within society (French and English Canadians, men, etc). Continue reading