Like in most introductory cultural anthropology courses, I spend at least one class session dedicated toward a discussion of cross-cultural gender diversity. To begin the conversation, I highlight the culturally constructed character of gender by first being explicit about how folks in the United States usually build it. For example, I emphasize the binary, ascribed and mutually exclusive nature of it.
In this post, I’m going to focus on the Western idea of gender as mutually exclusive--if you’re one gender then you’re not the other. At initial glance, students don’t question this and assume it’s a natural fact. After all, don’t all people have either a vagina or a penis? Even deeper, at a chromosomal level, don’t all folks have either XX or XY sex chromosomes? In many a student’s mind, Western science and its understanding of the real world simply validates our cultural categories of gender. Most are surprised when they learn, however, how common children are in fact born inter-sexual, with some form of atypical sex chromosome inheritance and/or ambiguous genitalia. While students can get their head around these less frequent occurrences, they still see the vast majority of people being clearly either male or female--translating into man or woman--and that gender is mutually exclusive because sex is. My students are not wrong in thinking sex is mutually exclusive, but that does not mean that other ways of interpreting the same thing is automatically wrong.
Looking at Other Ways of Looking
In light of these common views from my classes, I have found Carolyn Epple’s (1998) “Coming to Terms with Navajo Nádleehí: a Critique of Berdache, ‘Gay,’ ‘Alternate Gender,’ and ‘Two-Spirit’” to be a great discussion piece. The Nádleehí is the traditional name in Navajo culture for someone that doesn’t clearly fit into Western gender categories. In the article, Epple argues that understanding alternative gender categories requires a truly emically-oriented approach:
categorizing individuals across cultures and times on the basis of a handful of supposedly transcultural and historical features misses the dynamic and rich contexts from which these behaviors derive their meaning [Epple 1998:269]
Epples goes on to describe the Navajo central concept of Sáah Naaghai Bik’eh Hozho . According to Epple, it refers to the idea that:
everything is male and female...it is a living cycle and organizes everything as a cycle; it interconnects everything; through that interconnectedness it cycles everything into everything; and it is an ongoing cycle, since each male or female has the other...into which it can cycle [Epple 1998:276]
In this way, everything has both female and male characteristics, so no thing is gendered in a mutually exclusive way. Characteristics are gendered, not things. For instance, the sun is gendered both male and female. As one of her interlocutors described:
the Sun’s energy gives strength to develop protection (male) and to undertake creative, fruitful activity (female). The Sun is not so much distinctly male or female natural process as it is both [Epple 1998:278].
From this perspective, gender is clearly a situation defined as “both” rather than “either/or.” Nádleehí are simply those folks who most equitably combine gendered characteristics.
Not so Backwards
My students usually have no problem understanding this. However, there’s still a tendency to see the Navajo tradition as a bit primitive and not in line with what Western culture has established through science. To my students, nothing seems more clearly mutually exclusive than genitalia. However, genitals are not as different as most of them assume.
Epple includes some great quotes from Navajo folks addressing that very idea. Students seem to hold tightly to the idea that for most “normal” people, genitalia is mutually exclusive. However, as quoted from a Navajo cultural teacher:
If you were to look at all of us, we are the balance [of male and female], and with nádleehí they are that balance too. Even the organs--at the tip of the penis is a little vagina [ureter], while on the vulva is a little penis [clitoris] [Epple 1998:279].
In light of what Western science has learned about fetal development, this speaker isn’t too far off the mark. Up until about the 10th week of development, fetal genitals are undifferentiated and it’s only later that different paths are followed. So, this means that even adult genitals are ultimately made of the same somatic stuff.
Even a slightly different angle on the genetic basis of sex demonstrates how a mutually exclusive view of gender is not made necessary by some biological reality. Instead, it depends on what aspect of genetics is emphasized. In the “notes” section of Epple’s article, she includes an alternative take on sexual biology from one of her Navajo collaborators.
An example perhaps more familiar to some is human chromosomes. For example, on the initial level, there is a male individual who is comprised of genes from a male and female (i.e., his parents). In terms of the genes each parent contributes to him, these too arose from male and female, in that each parent is also comprised of the respective maternal and paternal genes. And so it goes through the generations--every individual is comprised of male- and female-contributed genes, with every female- (or male-) contributed gene itself derived from male and female. Everything in the universe is similarly comprised of multiple layers of male and female [Epple 1998:287].
In other words, even a male with both an X and a Y chromosome had to have gotten that X from a female.
At this point, I hope that students realize that both Western science and Navajo worldview got it “right.” They just got different forms of “right.” It’s not enlightened vs. backwards...it’s simply emphasizing different angles of some aspect of the material world. Science is important and a great way of knowing the world, but doesn’t mean that other ways are automatically irrelevant.
Ways of Knowing Need Not be Mutually Exclusive
As I was composing this post, I was following the Twitter feed #AAA2011 (which I have to say is an awesome way of diminishing one’s sense of isolation when not at professional meetings), which gave me some window into the discussions about humanism and science in anthropology. Living Anthropologically and Insider Higher Ed provide accounts. Here’s my quick two cents. I think that the example I’ve explored in this post illustrates why it’s important to think in inclusive terms that do not cleave anthropology into scientific vs. interpretive/humanistic camps.
I’ve spent most of this post arguing that Navajo perspectives are equally valid to Western ones. I don’t, however, mean to suggest that science is somehow deficient...just a bit different. In many cases, I believe that science in anthropology has rightly been criticized as ethnocentric, imperialistic and paternalistic--just like anthropology in general. Such observations are important as they allow for critical self-reflection and help to avoid such pitfalls in the future. But, that doesn’t mean the scientific enterprise in anthropology should be abandoned. As noted, I think both science (Western culture) and Sáah Naaghai Bik’eh Hozho (Navajo culture) provide valid views on the world. I also think that both perspectives are social constructions. However, saying that science--or anything else--is a social construction does not mean that it is a pointless fiction that has no bearing on the material world. Science provides an invaluable window onto the world that, when done right, dramatically strengthens anthropological examinations. Additionally, science has power and currency in Western culture that anthropology would be unwise to discard.
To pivot on my discussion of Sáah Naaghai Bik’eh Hozho a bit, anthropology need not face a mutually exclusive choice of being scientific or interpretative, it can be both. The human experience is a multidimensional phenomenon and any attempt at understanding it should be multidimensional as well, or we risk reductionism and over-simplification--like trying to measure area by focusing solely on length while ignoring width.
There is a place for both science and interpretation. At an important level, people are bags of flesh, guts and chemistry, and can be studied according to science. As long as humans eat, get sick, have babies and just basically behave in a material world, scientific methods are important tools. However, people also live meaningfully constituted lives, which makes more qualitative approaches appropriate. Much of human behavior creates and is generated from symbolic worlds that can be best directly understood through interpretive analysis.
By considering the similarities and differences of both approaches, we come to a deeper understanding of human beings...which should be the point of anthropology.
1998 Coming to Terms with Navajo Nádleehí: a Critique of Berdache, ‘Gay,’ ‘Alternate Gender,’ and ‘Two-Spirit’. American Ethnologist 25(2):267-290.