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Gender and Anthropology- Perspectives

According to Alan Barnard, anthropologists writing on gender have approached the subject from two perspectives. Some see gender mainly as a symbolic construction while the other sees gender mainly as a set of social relationships. Sherry Ortner's 1974 essay 'Is female to male as nature is to culture?' is an example of gender as a symbolic construction. It appeared in Woman, Culture and Society a book edited by Michelle Rosaldo and Louise Lamphere in 1974.

Ortner argues that women everywhere are associated with nature. She says that the biological fact that women not men give birth gives them that universal association. Women's reproductive role tends to confine them to the home. The home along with women represents nature and private while men represent culture and the public. Ortner does not believe that women are associated with nature in any intrinsic way. Rather this cultural universal rests on a symbolic distinction between nature and culture found in every society.

Feminists have criticized Ortner's model for not taking into account the ethnographic facts. The best known example is the article by Jane Collier and Michelle Rosaldo 'Politics and Gender in simple societies' appeared in a book edited by Sherry Ortner and Harriet Whitehead, Sexual meanings: The Cultural Construction of Gender and Sexuality in 1981.Collier and Rosaldo point out that hunting and gathering societies in Australia, Africa and the Philippines do not associate childbirth or motherhood with nature. They also do not associate women simply with reproduction.

Gender studies see gender as an aspect of society along with economics, politics and other perspectives. It sees gender relations as inherent in these other aspects of society. Thus gender studies might be concerned with the way men and women make a living or how they interact with each other.

Feminist anthropology argues that males and females experience all aspects of society differently. Gender becomes central and the female point of view is emphasized. Since 1970s feminist anthropologists started to break down male biases perpetrated even by female anthropologists.

Henrietta Moore's book Feminism and Anthropology in 1988 says that anthropologists should look at what people particularly women say as well as what they do. They should also be aware that women are not the same everywhere in that what it means to be a woman or a man is dependent on culture. It is not enough to talk about being a woman or a man. The complexities of different roles a person plays in his or her life are what make up her social personality. Relations between women and men are carried out within families.