previous chapter
next sub-section

Culture, Gender, and Multivocality

The concept of “culture” has had many identities. Current anthropological discussions reflect significant change over recent years, from a concept that stressed coherence and systematicity to one emphasizing heterogeneity and open-endedness.[2] In the mid–twentieth century, during what many now label as the “modernist” period, culture was generally understood as a more or less publicly shared, internally homogeneous and distinctive system of patterns, symbols, or meanings.[3] Such a perspective, critics now argue, assumes that all members of a culture more or less agree with each other, just as people of one culture are also set off, uniquely different, from people of other cultures.[4] An ethnographer taking such a viewpoint need not attend to the particular voices, experiences, and perspectives of specific members of a culture or society, since all (presumably) share in its values, visions, and ways of thinking. As Renato Rosaldo (1989:32) comments, “In this [earlier anthropological] tradition, culture and society determined individual personalities and consciousness; they enjoyed the objective status of systems. Not unlike a grammar, they stood on their own, independent from the individuals who followed their rules.”

Such critiques themselves are often exaggerated and oversimplified. Robert Brightman (1995:541) points out with justice, “Neither in earlier disciplinary history nor as deployed in recent anthropological writing does the culture concept consistently exhibit the attributes of ahistoricism, totalization, holism, legalism, and coherence with which its critics selectively reconstitute it.” Indeed, some passages from leading “modernist” anthropologists such as Bronislaw Malinowski or Edward Sapir sound as if they might have been written today. Malinowski asserted in 1926 (p. 121) that “human cultural reality is not a consistent logical scheme, but rather a seething mixture of conflicting principles.” In 1938 Sapir concluded that anthropology is concerned “not with a society nor with a specimen of primitive man nor with a cross-section of the history of primitive culture, but with a finite, though indefinite, number ofhuman beings, who gave themselves the privilege of differing from each other not only in matters generally considered ‘one’s own business’ but even on questions which clearly transcended the private individual’s concern” (Sapir 1949:569–70, qtd. in Brightman 1995:533; my italics). By the mid-1960s Victor Turner was arguing that “[a symbol] is alive only in so far as it is ‘pregnant with meaning’ for men and women, who interact by observing, transgressing, and manipulating for private ends the norms and values that the symbol expresses” (1967:44, my italics). We are witnessing, then, not a total transformation or revolution but a change in emphasis, a shifting of discursive paradigms, in how we think and talk about anthropological analysis. Nonetheless, it is fair to say that coherence, totality, and systematicity did largely characterize the view of culture and society I received in my early years of graduate training at the University of Chicago in the mid-1980s.

I remember going into anthropology to study people (having completed an undergraduate major in religious studies that focused more on texts, abstractions, and generalities than on real people’s everyday lives). Several months into the required graduate theory course appropriately labeled “Systems,” however, I wrote a perplexed letter home; although I was learning fascinating things about “social wholes,” “total social wholes,” “social facts,” “total social facts,” “social structures,” “social systems,” “cultures,” and so on, I had yet to encounter any recognizable persons (with unique, divergent experiences and perspectives), or any of the ambiguities, contests, or messy edges that I thought sociocultural—human—life was filled with.

I was to discover that many of my generation shared these concerns. By the late 1980s, when I was embarking on my dissertation research in West Bengal, India, works began to appear that argued for the importance of heeding particular voices, lived experiences, and contests. Actually, these paradigm shifts began to emerge even earlier, rooted in many of the theoretical innovations and endeavors of the 1970s and early 1980s. The interpretive anthropology of Clifford Geertz (1973) and Paul Rabinow (1977), for instance, began to emphasize that a culture is not a fixed and complete (and entirely systematic, integrated) whole, but rather something emergent and co-created in dialogue, both among members of a culture and between informants and anthropologists. The practice theory of the late 1970s and 1980s (e.g., Bourdieu 1977, 1990; Ortner 1984) was also influential in bringing the individual actor or person to center stage and emphasizing individual agency (cf. Knauft 1996:105–40). The highly influential political philosophers Michel Foucault (e.g., 1979, 1980b, 1980c) and Antonio Gramsci (1971) scrutinized the inescapable technologies of power that shape social relations and forms of knowledge. Feminisms, gay and lesbian liberation, and civil rights movements also questioned the apolitical nature of culture and representation, along with anthropology’s previous universalizing tendencies—making us heed the “differences” of class, race, ethnicity, gender, age, and sexuality. By the late 1980s, one could say that postmodernism (incorporating a mélange of these perspectives) had burst into anthropology, bringing with it a profound wariness of generalizations and totalizing theories, and emphasizing divergent perspectives, particularities, difference, and power.

Theories of culture also had to accommodate the changing demographics of a contemporary transnational world. People, ideas, and goods flow now with increasing profusion and speed across borders, making any idea of a neatly bounded, separate, and unique “culture” implausible.[5] This is true in rural West Bengal (where BBC programs play on the radio, Oprah is a favorite on television, and people, including social scientists, tourists, and kin, come and go across national borders), just as it is true in New York City. As Bruce Knauft (1996:44) puts it: “Culture is now best seen not as an integrated entity, tied to a fixed group of people, but as a shifting and contested process of constructing collective identity.”

This view of the fluid, multivocal, and contested nature of culture has in fact become so widely accepted that, as E. Valentine Daniel (1996:361–62) notes, “Contestation itself has become a cliché,…an obliging mannerism, part of a higher-order consensus [among anthropologists].” Yet such a view does not imply that we can no longer say that anything is shared or distinctive about a culture. In fact, some shared ground must exist even to make disagreement, contest, and resistance meaningful (see chapter 2 and afterword, and E. V. Daniel 1996:361). Nonetheless, it is no longer tenable to think of culture as a neatly shared, stable, and bounded system. Rather, most see it now—if they continue to accept the idea of culture at all (see, e.g., Abu-Lughod 1991)—as an ongoing process of creating collectivity out of the divergent and shifting perspectives and voices of those who make its conversations.

Around the same time that social theorists were refashioning the concept of culture to include the disparate voices and contests of its members, feminist theorists were endeavoring to rethink, de-essentialize, and fragment the concept of “woman.” [6] This was not true, however, when the anthropology of women, or feminist anthropology, first emerged in the early 1970s. Consistent with the modernist tendencies of the times, early feminist anthropologists had sought grand theories that could answer vexing questions—in particular, the basis for the “universality” of female subordination. Two highly influential theories were those of Michelle Rosaldo (1974) and Sherry Ortner (1974). Each argued that the meaning, shape, and value of being a “woman” is profoundly variable (and thus not the result of a simple, universal biology); nonetheless, certain universally found cultural phenomena, such as women’s association with “domesticity” (Rosaldo) or “nature” (Ortner), result in the subordination or devaluation of women in all societies. Thus, although ostensibly arguing for variety, Rosaldo and Ortner both posit a universal core or base defining women, tied especially to notions of female physiology, sexuality, and reproductivity. Because women everywhere menstruate and bear and raise children (and are in other ways associated with their bodies, sexuality, reproductivity, and domesticity), we can find a commonality to the notion of “woman” cross-culturally and we can discern an underlying logic as to why women are everywhere, in crucial ways, subordinate to men.

Such universalizing theories were not long-lived. They came under fire from Rosaldo (1980) and Ortner (1996) themselves, as well as from others who critically reinterpreted the notion of a universal category of women by incorporating issues of race, nation, class, and sexual orientation, as well as cyborg imagery.[7] Women, Chandra Mohanty (1991:55) argues, cannot be assumed to be “an already constituted, coherent group with identical interests and desires, regardless of class, ethnic or racial location.” Ortner (1996:137) similarly warns against the tendency to slip into an “assumption that ‘women’ in some global and sociologically unqualified sense really exist out there in the world, as a natural class of objects with their own distinctive attributes.”

Gender theorists have now come to recognize that what it means to be a woman (and man—though to date this category has been less discussed) takes such distinct shape in specific times and places, and along crucial axes of difference (most commonly listed as the multiple racial, ethnic, class, and sexual identities of women), that it is not possible to hold up a universal category of women with a presumed common, essential significance. Furthermore, even within a particular time, place, social group, or individual, gender identity is likely to be fluid, partial, and fragmentary. As a result, methods of gender analysis in anthropology, like those of cultural analysis, have come to focus more and more on particularity, specificity of contexts, flux, and contradiction (see Abu-Lughod 1993; Moore 1994:11–12), while moving away from universalizing theories and generalizations.

Anthropology’s new emphasis on multivocality, fluidity, and heterogeneity has certainly informed recent work on gender in South  Asia next hit. Gloria Raheja and Ann Gold (1994), for instance, explore compellingly the multiple perspectives evident in women’s songs, stories, personal narratives, and everyday talk in rural north India. Against scholarly representations that have portrayed the “submission [of women] to a monolithic ‘tradition,’” Raheja and Gold (1994:xviii–xix) argue that, in fact, women’s speech reveals great heterogeneity and resistance: “When Indian women represent themselves in their own words, no single unitary voice is heard; we have only begun to listen to a few of these voices” (p. 9). In their study of Hindu and Muslim women’s lives in north India, Patricia and Roger Jeffery (1996:19–20) similarly argue that women in rural Bijnor “did not speak with a single voice.” They stress: “[W]e have…tried to avoid inventing a single reality out of the complex and ambiguous realities of women’s daily lives.”

Yet when I turned to this literature to try to understand older women’s (and men’s) lives in Mangaldihi, I did not find all that I needed. Although the past two decades have seen a surge of work on South Asian women, very little has concerned the later years of women’s lives.[8] Raheja and Gold’s important study (1994) does include an engrossing narrative of “a widow in her sixties” (pp. 164–81), but the work as a whole focuses on the stories and songs of younger sisters, wives, and daughters-in-law. Although Jeffery and Jeffery make the crucial point that women’s positions and interests change throughout the life cycle (1996:2), their data are also concentrated on women in their childbearing years, as their original research focused on pregnancy and reproductive histories. Stanley Kurtz’s engaging study (1992) likewise centers on images of young women as mothers raising their children. The many works concerned with issues such as purdah, veiling, modesty, marriage, and sexuality also pertain chiefly to younger women, although researchers rarely feel it necessary to acknowledge and examine the significance of their focus.[9]

When an older woman does figure in studies of gender in previous hit South  Asia next hit, she appears most often as a villain (such as a domineering mother-in-law) in the story of a younger woman who is the writer’s primary concern; or she is more generally a repository and enforcer of patrilineal kinship ideologies, dominant social norms, and “traditions” (cf. S. Vatuk 1995:290; Lamb 1997a).[10] Of course, we should attend to the voices of younger women who do present older women (and men) in such a way, voices that scholars have only recently begun seriously to listen to. For instance, Raheja and Gold provide a rich collection of songs from a young bride’s or daughter-in-law’s perspective that show how young wives can resist ideals of wifely obedience to a husband’s older kin (1994:121–48). One of many gems is a dancing song sung by women gathered at home while the groom’s party is congregating at the bride’s natal village (p. 127):

[Bride speaking]
How can I come, how can I come near you?
Husband, your grandmother is very cunning.
She fights with me and then puts her own cot down next to our bed.

[Husband speaking]
Beautiful one, take the sword from my hand.
Come waving it, come brandishing it, come near me.
The drum will sound, the cymbals will sound, they’ll sound the whole night through.
Are younger women alone in resisting, rebelling, complaining, offering alternative visions of family and social life? Raheja and Gold make the important observation that older women join their younger daughters and daughters-in-law in singing these rebellious songs, suggesting perhaps women’s “ironic apprehension of the oppressiveness of a kinship ideology that splits their identities and pits one woman against another” (1994:148). But what would older women’s (or men’s) songs and stories look like if they were the central characters and tellers of the tales? How do they view the coming of a young bride? the marriage of a daughter or a son? their own changing sexuality? approaching mortality?

previous chapter
next sub-section