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Is
gender to sex what culture is to nature? Discuss with reference to a range of
ethnographic examples.

Introduction

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          ‘One is not born, but rather becomes
a woman’. In 1973 Simone de Beauvoir suggested that gender is not a product of
biology, psychology or intellect, but rather a construction of civilisation. Following
on from structural anthropology discourse, I will look at Lévi- Strauss’
studies about the nature- culture dichotomy as a means for structure in society
as a means for explaining the origins of gender division. By looking at De
Beauvoir’s arguments in ‘The Second Sex’, I will demonstrate the challenges
that arise from applying the ideas of the nature-nurture debate to
philosophical studies of gender. Correspondingly, I come to argue that biological
theories and the assumption of women being ‘closer to nature’ than men have
normalized the heteronormative concept of two distinct gender roles and the
subordination of women. Here, I will refer to Sherry Ortner’s highly
controversial essay ‘Is Female to Male as Nature is to Culture’, in which she
argues that the universal subordination of women is a result of the human
mindset that culture transcends nature and that culture is man’s way of
subduing nature. Lastly, I will be broadening the analysis through a critique
of Ortner’s statements and demonstrate that the arbitrary meanings of nature
and culture can be attributed to both sexes. I will use this argument to
formulate the intention of this discussion, to move away from classifications
and trigger a change in the social order in which all human potential is open
equally to all sexes. 

 

The
combination of the nature-nurture debate, which represents one of the most
important questions in the history of the social sciences, and the current
interest in conceptualisations of gender and ‘female’ and ‘male’ as analytical
categories, leads to an overwhelming challenge for contemporary anthropologists.
Claude Levi-Strauss reintroduced the nature-culture dichotomy into the field of
anthropology in the middle of the twentieth century, as an organizing factor in
human thought for his studies of kinship or myth and symbolism. He was firm in
the argument of a divide, claiming that there are ‘only two true models of concrete
diversity: one on the plane of nature, namely that of the diversity of the
species, and the other on the cultural plane provided by the diversity of
functions’ (1962, p.124). As structural anthropologists proclaimed, sexuality
is natural but becomes cultural when rules such as incest prohibitions or
marriage exogamy are created. These manifestations create an ultimate structure
in society, which is a product of the human ability to make binary
distinctions. As the human mind seeks classification, the perception of
contrasts such as male and female shape the perception of someone’s world and
their values. The resulting traditional gender roles have been organizing
societies for centuries, creating a division of the sexes in the public as well
as the private sphere.  

 

Feminist
Anthropologists in the 1970s have made it their objective to demonstrate that
biological differences between the sexes cannot provide a universal basis for
social definitions. The concept of gender was introduced to stress social and
cultural origins of gender inequality. In her highly influential work on the
subordination of women called ‘The Second Sex’, Simone de Beauvoir focuses on
gender as a social construction. She claims that women are perceived as the
ultimate ‘Other’, as which they are not born but shaped into by men and society
as a whole. De Beauvoir asserts that while it is natural for humans to classify
people, it becomes problematic when applied to the genders. By defining women as
‘the Other’, their humanity is being denied. De Beauvoir states that ‘it is not
upon physiology that values can be based; rather the facts of biology take on
the values that the existent bestows upon them’ (40). Our gendered social expectations actually become embodied and incorporated
into our bodily habits and functions.
Thus, the body is never solely a natural phenomenon, but a field for cultural
interpretation and possibilities. Here, de Beauvoir gives a potentially radical
understanding of gender, by blurring the lines between what is ‘natural’ and
what is ‘cultural’. Judith Butler adds in her essay ‘Sex and Gender in Simone
de Beauvoir’s Second Sex’, that the confinement to a certain gender role
‘implies the sacrifice of autonomy and the capacity for transcendence’, so it
is essential for women to use their ‘consciousness’ to acquire a transcending
status unrestrained by the physical body. ‘The second sex’ sheds light on the
problematic attempt at conceptualizing gender and confining persons to the restricting
and arbitrary concepts of ‘nature’ and ‘culture’.

 

In
her essay ‘Is Female to Male as Nature is to Culture’, Sherry Ortner refers to
biological determinism which is used to identify the male species as
genetically superior. Ortner defines culture as connected to ‘human
consciousness and its products’, which is historically associated with men. Correspondingly,
women are seen as being physically, socially and psychologically ‘closer to
nature’. Whereas men must ‘assert their creativity externally, artificially,
through the medium of technology and symbols’, women are confined to the
domestic sphere due to their reproductive bodily functions and the nurturing of
children. Towards the end of her essay, however, Ortner claims that because of
her ‘participation in human social dialogue’, the woman is recognized as a
participant of culture, so she ultimately obtains a position intermediate
between culture and nature. Nonetheless, she is still attached to the symbolism
of nature and this is manifested in institutional forms which continuously
reproduce her subordinate position.

 

In
her exposé ‘Nature, Culture and Gender: A critique’, Carol P. Mac Cormack refers
to Ortner’s assumptions about women’s identification with nature and ultimately
criticizes her for generalizing gender and being ethnocentric in her approach. She
does not deny the existence of two binary oppositions to human thought but
criticizes the assumption of a universal significance assigned to words such as
nature and culture. Correspondingly, Mac Cormack points to the polysemic nature
of metaphors such as nature and culture and takes Ortner’s argument further by
characterizing both genders as being in an intermediate position between the
two poles. She traces her argument back to the coming-together of female and
male in acts like the ‘reciprocity of marriage exchange or socializing children
into adults’. Furthermore, Mac Cormack stresses the fact that essentially, both
sexes are equally depended on each other, as they are both required for
reproduction and participate in the same cognitive model. She demands the
recognition of women’s contributions such as ‘domestic productions, sharing and
procreation’ as equally important for economic exchange as men’s contributions in
the public sector. I agree with Mac Cormack, however, I believe that this
division of labour still undermines the inferior position of the woman and
restricts her in the implementation of her human potential.

 

Ultimately,
most scholars realize that it is impossible to characterize the two sexes as
binary opposites, as ‘the meanings attributed to male and female are arbitrary
as are the meanings attributed to nature and culture.’ (Mathieu 1973) Sherry
Ortner stresses the equal human relevance of the female compared to the male,
as she claims, ‘it is perfectly obvious that she is a full-fledged human being
endowed with human consciousness just as man is; she is half the human race,
without whose cooperation the whole enterprise would collapse’. Even
Levi-Strauss acknowledges women as active participants of culture by stating
‘women could never become just a sign and nothing more, since even in a man’s
world she is still a person, and since insofar as she is defined as a sign she
must be recognized as a generator of signs’ (1969a:496). Both sexes are part of
nature and culture, so correspondingly there is no logic in characterizing
women as subordinate due to the ‘naturalness’ of their being. The
anthropologist Mary Strathern even states that ‘there is no such thing as
nature or culture’ as it is impossible to ascribe a single meaning to these
concepts. The division represents no consistent dichotomy but only a matrix of
contrasts (1980, p.177). The most extreme claim in this discussion comes from David
Schneider, who wrote that ‘culture is not nature, but nature is entirely a
cultural concept.’ Thus, it is unjustifiable to set the two concepts apart as
two distinct ontological provinces, separating male and culture from female and
nature. Furthermore, current discussions about gender, such as the recognition
of transgender people or gay marriage, have blurred the boundaries between
Nature and Culture, allowing a hybridization of the poles. Undeniably, in
contemporary anthropological studies, the two concepts become part of the inquiry,
not the solution, placing the challenge of redefining both concepts.

 

In
this essay, I demonstrated the complexity of conceptualizing gender in relation
to nature and culture. I have shown that Levi-Strauss’ attempt of formulating these
concepts as binary opposites and equating it with a female-male symbolism is
impossible and outdated. Binary categories are problematic to the understanding
of the world as they lead to hierarchies, enforce stereotypes and limit the
possibilities of individuals. Anthropologists such as De Beauvoir or Mac
Cormack demonstrate that the symbolic meanings attached to men and women are
socially constructed and should not be assumed to be predetermined or fixed.
Correspondingly, it is wrong to justify the inferior position of women in most
societies with the simple relatedness to ‘nature’ as it denies her humanity. In
fact, biology and society, as well as nature and culture are inconsistent and continuously
reshape one another. Anthropologists have to recognize the manifold conceptualizations
of these terms across different human societies and individuals. A change in
the hierarchy of the sexes is only possible if women take charge of their own
destiny and both sexes acknowledge that their identity is not confined to
‘natural’ characteristics and the resulting social positions. Ultimately, we must
move away from labelling humans and create a less arbitrary social fabric where
every individual can actualize their human potential, regardless of their
gender.

 

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