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UBC Theses and Dissertations

From "sexual antagonism" to "domination" : the discourse of gender in the ethnography of Papua New Guinea Shaw, Pelly R. E


This thesis is an examination of the evolution of the anthropological understandings of gender relations and the social and political positions of women in several New Guinea societies. Since the 1950's the question of sexual inequality and the domination of women has permeated the discourse of gender in the ethnography of Papua New Guinea, particularly the Highlands. Key pieces of ethnographic literature produced from the 1950's to the present were examined, beginning with the "sexual antagonism" model of the 50's and 60's (Read, Meggitt, Langness), followed by the "women as persons" model of the 1970's (Faithorn, Feil, Strathern), the model of "sexual complementarity" proposed by Lowlands ethnographers (Weiner, Errington and Gewertz), the symbolic "deconstruction" of domination (Strathern, Lederman, Biersack), and the recent neo-marxist "reconstruction" of domination (Josephides, Godelier). All the studies examined deal in some measure with the degree to which women may be said to be dominated by men. Thus, women's exclusion from or participation in political affairs, the nature and degree of women's access to "male" political power or their possession of other sorts of powers, their state of personhood and the question of whether or not they may be dominated are central themes in the discussion. The ethnographers who judged that women were not dominated, perceived, in several instances, female participation in apparently male activities (Faithorn, Feil), and in another instance, female autonomy deriving from women's ability to circumvent male political advantage and denigrating gender ideology (Strathern). The Lowlands ethnographers identified a male-female complementarity produced by equal but different gendered interests and powers (Weiner, Errington and Gewertz). More recently, ethnographers (e.g., Strathern) have adopted a highly culturally relativist perspective, invoking indigenous meanings and symbolisms, and bypassing the evidence of what appears to anthropologists as "domination" (e.g., the existence of denigrating ideology, women's lack of political and property rights, violence perpetrated by men against women). These interpretations suggest that "domination" is a cultural construction dependent on the definition of person. In addition, gender ideology is considered to be a symbolic code that serves as a moral evaluation of social behaviours. Thus, the devaluation of "femaleness", while passing judgement on certain forms of social action, does not enact the denigration or the domination of women. In contrast, neo-marxist ethnographers in the 1980's (Josephides, Godelier) rely on Western-based definitions of person and domination, and imply that these and the concept of appropriation (of property or products of labour and of the qualities of persons) are cross-culturally applicable. They argue that Highland women were indeed dominated and that this domination was an independent and observable reality. Both recent views of the status of Highland women (symbolic and neo-marxist) are limited. While the symbolic studies suggest an indigenous model of culture as mental structure, the neo-marxist studies suggest an anthropological model of power, control and domination. In the conclusion of the thesis I suggest that anthropologists must devote less attention to apparently permanent ideological or material structures and states of inequality or fixed status, and greater attention to the processes of domination and of women's contestation, taking women's own perspectives into account.

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