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The Use and Abuse of Anthropology Reflections on Feminism and Cross-cultural Understanding M. Z. Rosaldo This is an article about questions. Feminists have managed, in recent years, (o impress a matter of undeniable importance on both academic and popular audiences alike. Previously blinded by bias, we have begun a “discovery” of women and have reported a good deal of data on women’s lives, needs, and interests that earlier scholars ignored. Sexist traditions have, of course, made our records uneven. Now more than ever we see just how little is known about women. And the urgency experienced by current researchers is fueled by a recognition that invaluable records of women’s arts, work, and politics are irretrievably lost. Our theories are—the saying goes—only as good as our data. As was suggested in a recent review of anthropological writings on sex roles, “What is clearest in the literature reviewed is the need for further investigation. . .. What is most impressive about this literature is the overwhelming number of specific researchable questions it has produced. Hopefully the social force which inspired anthropological interest in women’s status will sus- tain this interest through the long second stage of research fashioned to explore these hypotheses.”' But whatever we do or do not know, my sense is that feminist thinking—in anthropology at least—faces yet a more serious problem. Many a fieldworker has spent her months in the hills with predominantly ‘This paper, previously known as “Thoughts on Domestic/Public,” was first presented to a Rockefeller Conference on Women, Work and Family in September 1977. Lam grate- ful to participants in that conference and, in particular, to Heidi Hartmann and Catharine Stimpson for their insightful comments. Jane Atkinson, Jane Collier, Rose Coser, Karen Mason, Judith Modell, Fred Myers, Bridget O'Laughlin, Leslie Nadelson, Sherry Ortner, Renato Rosaldo, and Sylvia Yanagisako are all thanked for their critical readings of that and later drafts. 1. Naomi Quinn, Anthropology 6 (1977): nthropological Studies on Women’s Status,” Annual Review of 81-222, esp. p. 222. [Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society 1980, vol. 8, no. 3) © 1980 by The University of Chicago. 0097-9740/8010503-0001§02.35 389 390 Rosaldo Use and Abuse of Anthropology female companions. These women spoke of their homes and children and husbands. They told us about men who fed, loved, or beat them; and they shared with us their experiences both of triumph and disap- pointment, their sense of their own strengths and powers, and the bur- den of their workaday chores. Female informants have told us about Ges among kin and the politics surrounding marriage; they probably labeled each pot and each knife in their homes with a tale about work, obliga- tion, and structurally significant bonds. Contrary to those anthro- pologists who have suggested that our problems lie in incomplete reports or, even worse, in inarticulate and “silent” female voices,” 1 would suggest that we hear women speak in almost all anthropological descrip- tions. We have, in fact, plenty of data “on women”; but when it comes to writing about them, all too few of us know what to say. What is needed, I will suggest, is not so much data as questions. The feminist discovery of women has begun to sensitize us to the ways in which gender pervades social life and experience; but the sociological significance of feminist insight is potentially a good deal deeper than anything realized as yet. What we know is constrained by interpretive frameworks which, of course, limit our thinking; what we can know will be determined by the kinds of questions we learn to ask.* The Search for Origins The significance of these all too general remarks for anthropology becomes clear when we consider the following observation. Few histo- rians, sociologists, or social philosophers writing today feel called upon—as was common practice in the nineteenth century—to begin their tales “at the beginning” and probe the anthropological record for the origins of doctors in shamans or of, say, Catholic ritual in the can- nibalism of an imagined past. Where turn-of-the-century thinkers (one thinks here of persons as diverse as Spencer, Maine, Durkheim, Engels, and Freud) considered it necessary to look at evidence from “simple” cultures as a means of understanding both the origins and the sig- 2. Edwin Ardener, “Belief and the Problem of Women,” in The Interpretation of Ritual, ed. J. LaFontaine (London: Tavistock Publications, 1972); Shirley Ardener, Perceiving Women (New York: John Wiley & Sons, 1975). 3. See Annette G. Weiner, “Sexuality among the Anthropologists and Reproduction among the Natives,” unpublished manuscript (Austin: University of Texas at Austin Department of Anthropology, 1978), and “Trobriand Kinship from Another View: The Re productive Power of Women and Men,” Man 14, no. 2 (1979): 328-48, for probably the most articulate of anthropologists writing about the need for us to radically re- conceptualize traditional perspectives on society and social structure if we are to do more than “add” data on women to what remain, in structural terms, essentially male-biased accounts. At the same time, however, her “reproductive model" strikes me as dangerous! close to much of the nonrelational thinking criticized below. Signs Spring 1980 391 nificance of contemporary social forms, most modern social scientists have rejected both their methods and their biases. Rather than probe origins, contemporary theorists will use anthropology, if at all, for the comparative insight that it offers; having decided, with good cause, to question evolutionary approaches, most would—I fear—go on to claim that data on premodern and traditional forms of social life have virtually no relevance to the understanding of contemporary society. Yet it seems to me that quite the opposite is true of the vast majority of recent feminist writing. If anthropology has been too much ignored by most contemporary social thinkers, it has achieved a marked—though problematic—pride of place in classics like Sexwad Politics and The Second Sex. Simone de Beauvoir, Kate Millett, Susan Brownmiller, Adrienne Rich, all introduce their texts with what seems to anthropologists a most old-fashioned evocation of the human record. On the assumption that preparing meals, making demands of sons, enjoying talks with women friends, or celebrating their fertility and sexual vitality will mean the same thing to women independent of their time and place, these writers catalog the customs of the past in order to decide if womankind can claim, through time, to have acquired or lost such rightful “goods” as power, self-esteem, autonomy, and status. Though these writers differ in conclusions, methods, and particulars of theoretical approach, all move from some version of Beauvoir’s question, “What is woman?” to a diagnosis of contemporary subordination and from that on to the queries: “Were things always as they are today?” and then, “When did ‘it’ start?” Much like the nineteenth-century writers who first argued whether mother-right preceded patriarchal social forms, or whether women’s difficult primeval lot has been significantly improved in civilized society, feminists differ in their diagnoses of our prehistoric lives, their sense of suffering, of conflict, and of change. Some, like Rich, romanticize what they imagine was a better past, while others find in history an endless tale of female subjugation and male triumph. But most, I think, would find no cause to question a desire to ferret out our origins and roots. Nor would they challenge Shulamith Firestone, who, in her important book, The Dialectic of Sex, cites Engels to assert our need first to “examine the historic succession of events from which the antagonism has sprung in order to discover in the conditions thus created the means of ending the conflict.”* Firestone suggests, in fact, that we seek out the roots of pres- ent suffering in a past which moves from history back to “primitive man” and thence to animal biology. And most recently, Linda Gordon, in her splendid account of birth control as it has related to developments in \merican political life,® attempted in less than thirty pages to summarize 4. Shulamith Firestone, The Dialectic of Sex: The Case for Feminist Revolution (New York: Bantam Books, 1975), p. 2- 5. Linda Gordon, Woman's Body, Woman’s Right (New York: Penguin Books, 1975).