Feminist Anthropology

Feminist Critics on the Androcentric Bias in Anthropology

“We are not born women, we become them.”

Le deuxième sexe, Simone Beauvoir
Scale with male vs. female gender symbol.
Source: ALLANSWART via Getty Images

Coined by the French philosopher and social theorist—also a pioneer of modern feminism—this renowned phrase represented a striking transformation in the established ideas of female identity, sex and gender at the time. The movement first manifested itself in the social sciences. It roused debates on the feminine condition in societies; and discredited the myths of femininity and perceived notions of sex made by previous intellectuals.

One of these fields of social studies has been anthropology. It constituted one of the first disciplines to differentiate social sex and biological sex. This new approach challenged the universal concept that sex only existed in biological terms. However, it was not without its difficulties.

Androcentric Bias: What Is It?

Throughout centuries, men dominated the discipline, with notable participants such as Bronislaw Malinowski, Claude Lévi-Strauss and Marcel Mauss. Many of their works, therefore, hold strong elements of an androcentric bias.

Androcentric bias is a way of thinking, conscious or not, expressing an outlook of the world through a masculine gaze. Deriving from the Greek word andro- (of males; mâle), this type of bias marginalises a women’s perspective and a more “feminine” outlook on matters. It pushes an implicit consensus that the “masculine regard” is neutral, objective and universal. It was indisputable.

Or had been indisputable.

Arrival of the Feminist Perspective

The arrival of women in anthropological studies was a revolutionary change. It disrupted the often sexist and ethnocentric observations of the discipline’s approaches. Instead, there was finally a spotlight on the social relations of sex and gender given from a feminist perspective. They reexamined the role of these concepts in women (and in relation to men) portrayed by the male gaze.

To undertake this analysis, we shall review three early feminist critics: Margaret Mead and her concept of culturalism; François Héritier and her structuralist paradigm; and Paola Tabet with her critics on the sexual-economic exchange. We shall see how these female anthropologists denounced the androcentric bias prevalent in precedent investigations and introduced a new approach.

Margaret Mead

Margaret Mead portrait and her reading a book.
Source: Wikipedia

Sex, Gender and Culturalism

Margaret Mead was an American anthropologist who became one of the most famous feminist figures in the discipline. Her recognised works in the 1920s and the 1930s included her distinguished discoveries in the Pacific. There, she concluded there was a dissociation between the biological and the cultural in the conception of sex and gender. Gender identities usually derive from biological criteria (“biological sex”), such as whether one possesses male or female genitalia. But Mead proposes a different criteria—a socio-cultural one (“social sex”).

This is what we call culturalism. Culturalism is a trend in anthropology that describes the links between collective culture and individual personalities. It is the idea that individuals—hence their personality, sexuality and characteristics of gender—are shaped by the social environment. This encompasses all forms of socialisation: traditions, customs, familial and romantic relationships, community roles, etc.

“The ‘temperament’ (a set of character traits, such as gentleness, violence, creativity) […] takes on a different content according to the societies.”

Sex and Temperament in Three Primitive Societies, Margaret Mead (1935)

Mead was one of the most influential actors in the development of this movement. This take on culturalism would drive her later works, prominently in Sex and Temperament: In Three Primitive Societies (1935).

Three Tribes, Three Temperaments

Sex and Temperament: In Three Primitive Societies profoundly illustrated her culturalist theory and its elements. She studied three tribes—the Aparesh, the Mundugumor and the Tchamuli—and their sociocultural conditions in the course of childhood to adulthood. Mead arrived to two realisations.

“An account of how three primitive societies have grouped their social attitudes towards temperament about the very obvious facts of sex-difference.

Sex and Temperament in Three Primitive Societies, Mead (1935)

First, that the Aparesh and the Mundugomor shared the same attributes for both men and women in their respective culture. The Aparesh ideal was kind, gentle. and peaceful; meanwhile, the Mundugumor ideal was violent and aggressive. Second, that the Tchambuli held very contrasting behaviours to what we usually condone as normative. The Tchambuli characterised themselves by a superiority of women, making them the dominant partners; while the men were less capable and more emotional. Thus, while the Aparesh and the Mundugmour tribes did not differentiate between the sexes, the Tchambuli reversed them.

Social and Cultural Conditioning

Mead concluded that it is culture that determines characteristics of gender. It is culture that defines masculine and feminine traits. She reaffirmed that traditions and customs of different cultures and societies had superficially fabricated these traits. It is the social and cultural conditioning that entirely shapes gender (social sex). It designates that aggressiveness does not always define masculinity; that passivity and acquiescence does not always define femininity. She proposed the possibility that, in each community, characteristics belonging to males and females could vary and also evolve.

“Many, if not all, of the personality traits which we have called masculine or feminine are as lightly linked to sex as are the clothing, the manners, and the form of headdress that a society at a given period assigns to either sex.”

Sex and Temperament in Three Primitive Societies, Mead (1935)

An equality of traits could take place: attitudes of men and women could be interchangeable. Attitudes naturally associated to feminine temperaments (i.e. sensibility or love for children) could belong to men in another tribe instead. Or, in an extreme case, there could be a reestablishment of the hierarchy between the sexes. This would be the Tchambuli and their reversal of traditional gender roles.

All examples prove that social sex (so gender and its characteristics) are diverse, contrary to the theory of biological sex. It is a starking contrast to Mead’s predecessors in the discipline. She strongly rejected the idea of universal masculine domination; against this androcentric view that glorifies men and masculinity to the point of supremacy.

François Héritier

Photo of François Héritier
Source: DRFP/OdileJacob (left), Gérard Uferas/Rapho (right)

Sex, Gender and Structuralism

In the next figure of feminist critics lies French anthropologist François Héritier. She was an equally important icon of the discipline in regards to social relations of sex and gender. However, she had approached the dialogue with a different paradigme—structuralism. Structuralism is a method and philosophy that studies the underlying or implicit models of social life; not only structures and relations, but people’s beliefs, ideas and behaviours, as well as the outcomes of these causes. The œuvres of Claude Lévi-Strauss, an emblematic figure in the development of structuralism, was a major inspiration to her theories.

Differential Valence of the Sexes

Héritier’s key approach would be what she dubbed the differential valence of the sexes. Extracted from Lévi-Strauss’s founding pillars, it highlighted the prohibition of incest, sexual division of labour and a form of sexual union. Sexual difference, therefore, determined many aspects in the community. She then committed to the idea of universality of masculine domination in societies.

“Male domination exists, active, oppressive, violent, in many societies of our contemporary world, but also in a less showy, symbolic way, inculcated in the rites […] in our own society as in all cultures and in all civilisations.”

Masculin/Féminin: La pensée de la différence, Héritier (1998) (p. 93)

Héritier first discovered this structure in the kinship system. In anthropology, kinship are patterns or trends of social relationships that form an important part of people’s lives in societies. This included procreation, parenthood, socialisation, familial bonds, etc. However, these kinship systems actually stem from a simple biological fact: the physical difference between male and female bodies.

The differential valence of the sexes then revealed itself. It described a hierarchal binary classification between men and women, determining what is feminine and what is masculine. But it also exposed an abuse of power of one sex to another, or the valorisation of one and the devaluation of the other.

In this case, men as the superior and women as the inferior.

“The values associated with the feminine are systematically discredited compared to those associated with the masculine.”

Masculin/Féminin: La pensée de la différence, Héritier (1998)

Social and cultural conditions also construct qualities associated with men and women, predominantly in relationship to opposition (their differences). This can vary depending on different societies, as shown in previous examples (emotion and reason, kindness and aggressiveness). Hence, men and women share male-female established categories to approach the world.

Women as Reproductive Machines

One distinct way masculine domination presents itself was the view of females’ capacity to beget both the two sexes. Because women could reproduce both sons and daughters, men sought to appropriate or claim ownership over their bodies, using them uniquely for producing heirs. Society therefore regards women as indispensable resources to have children. They are not subjects of law—those who have human rights—but desired objects that aim to reproduce and self-sexualise for men.

“It is because women produces bodies different from themselves (sons) where men cannot produce their like.”

Masculin/Féminin: La pensée de la différence, Héritier (1998)

It forms a relationship of power that creates a female-male dichotomy, resulting in a social and sexual hierarchy between men and women. Males dominated this normalised binary order. Men wanted to control women’s fertility and procreation, this power to create both girls and boys. It only renders this binary classification as unequal but also forces men to live like men, and women to live like women.

While Mead’s claims touched upon identical or reversed gender characteristics between the two sexes, Héritier speculated that masculine domination has prevailed since prehistoric times. She believed that true equality might have not ever took place. This belief of institutionalised social hierarchy of the sexes would be the foundation of Paola Tabet’s criticism on what we call the continuum of sexual-economic exchange.

Paola Tabet

photo of Paola Tabet
Source: Colloque du Centre d’Alembert, Paris Sud-Orsay (left), universcience.tv (right)

An Italian anthropologist and materialistic feminist, Paola Tabet would be known for her initiation towards Bronislaw Malinowski—one of the most influential figures in the discipline—and his problematic on the primitive thought of women.

“In a society that grants great sexual freedom to both women and men, why are female sexual acts rewarded with gifts?”

La grand arnaque: Sexualité des femmes et échange économico-sexuel, Tabet (2004)

With this argument, she highlights the issue on the remuneration of feminine sexual acts in the history of anthropology, notably the sexual-economic exchange that was present in the civilisation of the Trobrianders.

The Sexual-Economic Exchange (buwa)

Malinowski first approached the situation in his works on the population of the Trobrianders, entitled The Sexual Lives of Savages in North-Western Melanasia (1929). He made the assumption that there existed a strong sexual liberty, especially in young women, whom society encouraged to have sexual relations. This affirmation would be criticised because of the fact that these feminine acts were, in fact, compensated.

Buwa was the name for the remuneration of sexual favours, which was present in all romantic relations.

“The man must constantly offer small gifts to the woman […] and the woman, by consenting to have sex with a man, is doing him a service.”

La grand arnaque: Sexualité des femmes et échange économico-sexuel, Tabet (2004)

The indigenous peoples normalised this type of payment. Based on the rule of reciprocity, any service (by women) received (by men) has to be repaid. This payment is called mapula, which is not specific to sexual relations but rather describes a more general system of giving and returning with something of an equivalent value. Furthermore, the community teaches its inhabitants, from childhood to marriage, erotic games and sexual exercises with this system of “gift/payment”: the young boys could offer tiny presents (i.e. a shell or flower) to the girls in exchange for sexual favours. This would also become a traditional staple of marriage, where the husband still needs to give his wife presents in exchange for the “sexual accommodation” she offers him.

These facts alone raises many questions. The remuneration of sexual favours paints the acts as implicit prostitution, and is almost indistinguishable from marriage. As stated by Tabet in Through the Looking Glass: Sexual-Economic Exchange (2012), there is not a dichotomy between marriage and prostitution, but rather they exist in a continuum with variations at almost every level.

The Rule of (Non) Reciprocity?

“So sexually and at home […] there exists an asymmetry and non-reciprocity such that women cannot provide anything other than services.”

La grand arnaque: Sexualité des femmes et échange économico-sexuel, Tabet (2004)

This idea of non-reciprocity, first introduced by Lévi-Strauss, led to the domestication of feminine sexuality. First of all, it is a one-sided payment; the women does not receive any of the same favours from men. Second, even where is mutual attachment in sexual relationship, it is still considered a service rendered by the female to the male.

Women are objects of exchange between males, for males, through domestic, procreative or sexual services of which they receive no benefits other than financial profits. In effect, women are passive actors in this sexual-economic exchange and hold almost no autonomy. They are incapable of taking the initiative during sexual relations and are not equipped to refuse them; it is the men who establish the terms and conditions of sexual rendez-vous. Moreover, women have a personal dependence towards men on their financial means, making the situation comparable to that of subordination or serfdom.

It is also important to note that while women are overrepresented in the kinship systems (that prioritize their reproductive quality), they are excluded and underrepresented in other domaines of social life (i.e. politics, religious).

Tabet therefore denounces Malinowski’s earlier observations. According to him, the Trobriander women naturally possess a great interest in sexuality and a high sex drive—but this is proven to be false. Instead of eroticising them, Tabet reaffirmed that the disequilibrium between masculine and feminine sexual acts is a social construction; a product of a specific type of socialisation.

Women are not inherently sexual; society makes them sexual.


Mix gender cartoon
Source: Dmitrymoi (VectorStock)

In conclusion, social sex and the perceived notions of sex and gender represent a strong starting point of the feminist critique in anthropology. Universal ideas established through the male gaze were challenged: by Mead, who strongly advocated for culturalism and that social sex (gender) and sexuality were constructed by social conditioning and collective culture; by Héritier, who, through her structuralist paradigm, reaffirmed a hierarchal classification of male domination over women; and by Tabet, who criticised Malinowski’s work and declared that the sexual-economical exchange in fact displayed the domestication and sexual exploitation of women.

The arrival of the feminist perspective in anthropology confronted the androcentric bias placed on indigenous women and reexamined the role of social relations in sex, gender and sexuality. It defined that the sexual role is not simply defined by biological sex, but by “social sex”, and by sexualities established by socio-cultural conditioning of different societies and cultures.

The New Feminine Regard

Due to the masculine regard, women and femininity had been marginalised. Androcentrism has positioned males as the gender-neutral standard. However, the emergence of women in the discipline put all precedent anthropological works under a new angle—a feminist angle—and obliged the previous anthropologists to reflect and take responsibility for their biased works.

Even if the works of some feminist anthropologists (like Mead or Héritier) are criticised by modern feminists, it is important to remember that these works were produced in the early to middle years of the 20th century, during a time where anthropology was very anchored in the masculine gaze. Therefore, thanks to them, the discipline had been rethought in terms of sex and gender. Moreover, with the rise of political correctness and sexual identity in modern society, it is without a doubt that the discipline will continue to evolve in the near future.

One thought on “Feminist Critics on the Androcentric Bias in Anthropology

  1. Mooi stuk. Superinteressant in historisch wetenschappelijk-filosofisch perspectief is Dames voor Darwin (2019, een update van Darwin voor Dames) van Griet Vandermasse. Ook prachtige antropologische voorbeelden in dit nuchtere nurture/nature boek. Briljante, messcherpe analyse van een feministische filosofe.

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