Jennifer Robertson (ed.), Blackwell Publishers, 2004
Reviewed by Sarah Luna, graduate student in anthropology
at the University of Chicago
The key purpose of this volume is to problematize terms and concepts like “homosexual” that anthropologists have historically imposed upon situations that simply cannot be explained by our own folk ideas. Jennifer Robertson stresses in her introduction that we must challenge “the a priori assumption among many people of a connection between same-sex sexual desires, practices, and identifications, and lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgendered, queer, etc. identities”(1). Contributors to the reader provide theoretical and pragmatic suggestions as to how this task may be accomplished by anthropologists.
Robertson makes a call for anthropologists to produce more ethnography “about actual human sexual desires and practices” instead of hyper-focusing upon “abstract and ‘presentist’ philosophy”(7). Unfortunately, she is correct; Too many anthropologists lock themselves in ivory towers and primarily think, talk, and write about theory —in these cases, what we do turns into circle jerks that produce nothing more than giant, throbbing egos. We must force a dialectic between theory and data if we are going to create knowledge that is relevant to the real world. As Robertson notes, our data should challenge and modify our theories if the latter are not to become “frozen as formulaic explanation”(7).
The reader is broken into three differently themed parts. Part I, “Anthropology’s Sexual Fields,” provides an introduction to the way same-sex sexuality research has been treated in the four sub-fields of anthropology, as well as historical anthropology and activist anthropology. Carole S. Vance recounts the ways in which anthropology has been both instrumental and damaging to research about sexuality, but she also demonstrates that much of the research about sexuality has not come from anthropology. Part I also includes Bonnie Spanier’s critique of using “scientific” research to claim a biological cause for differences in sex and sexuality, and Barbara Voss’s attempt to bring into dialogue feminist and queer theories and archaeological knowledge. In an attempt to explore the intersections between language and sexuality, Don Kulick examines how uttering, or refusing to utter, the word, “no,” creates sexualized subjects in several different situations.
Part II, “Problems and Propositions” explores theoretical and methodological problems in the study of same-sex sexuality. Deborah A. Elliston critiques the concept of “ritualized homosexuality” in Melanesia as it is used in anthropology, and explains the ways in which the practice’s conceptualization as such is indicative of ethnocentric assumptions. Corinne P. Hayden explores what she argues are uniquely lesbian notions of kinship by recontextualizing “blood ties.” Judith Shapiro investigates the relationship between gender and sex and uses Euro-American transsexualism as an example of a unique paradox between the conception of “ascribed gender” and the conception of “achieved sex”(154).
Part III, “Ethos, Erotics, and Exercises,” provides six mostly ethnographically and historically based examples of works about same-sex sexualities. Several of these have as their theme the problem of importing US notions of sexuality and gender into other countries. Based upon her relationship with a tomboi and interaction with several other tombois in Western Sumatra, Evelyn Blackwood argues that assumptions of butch-femme roles cannot be imported into other contexts. She posits that tombois can be seen as both reflecting and transgressing the dominant ideology and attempts to describe the bricolage of “local, national and transnational identities” that emerge there (251). Donald L. Donham traces the transformation of the perception and identification of those who participate in male-male sex in Soweto, South Africa. He examines the ways in which South African “freedom” became associated with gay identity and how Western models and indigenous models of sexuality intertwined to create unique identities. Timothy Wright describes the situation in Bolivia as the globalization of sexual identity and discusses the problems that came about when “gay identities” were assumed and enforced upon people who did not hold them, for the purpose of international health concerns about HIV/AIDS.
The biggest weakness of the volume is more likely a reflection of the current state of anthropological research than it is the fault of its contributors or editor. Although the volume theoretically stresses a four-field approach, it does not provide instances of applications of these theories to archaeological and physical anthropological data. This does not leave the reader hopeful about the possibility of a four-field approach to the study of sexuality. I have faith, however, that Barbara Voss and others like her will be able to convince their colleagues that this kind of research is necessary, and that they will find ways to apply their theories to their data.
In particular, this volume does not leave one hopeful about the state of biological anthropology and its relationship both to the other sub-fields and to the study of sexuality. Bonnie Spanier, who has a doctorate in Microbiology and Molecular Genetics rather than anthropology, is the author of the excellent article, “Biological Determinism and Homosexuality. As George Stocking notes, anthropology has always had issues with delimiting its boundaries, and it has, at various points since the mid-twentieth century, emphasized the unified and scientific “sacred bundle” for very pragmatic reasons having to do with hopes of securing funding from organizations like the National Science Foundation (see Stocking 1992, 1995). Indeed, when the American Anthropological Association reorganized in 1946, a key concern was how to secure the level of funding that had come from the government during World War II (Stocking 1992:173). Stocking notes, “the war had opened up broad new vistas, and the problem of ‘professional interest’ was how to capitalize on them. To this end, an integrated embracive discipline claiming for itself the status of a ‘science’ would clearly be more effective than a congeries of sub-disciplines in some of which the humanistic orientation was quite strong” (Stocking 1992: 174).
It seems very possible that one of the reasons for the present-day existence of the “sacred bundle” is that it makes anthropology seem more authoritative and scientific. Robertson, in her introduction, notes that, “it is surprising that the place of biology and archaeology in the anthropology curriculum continues to be debated by anthropologists”(2). I would argue that it is not so surprising in the case of biological anthropology, if for no other reason than historical precedent, but I assume that the debate has something to do with the kind of research that is published, and, perhaps, the offense of some of it to anthropological sentiments. However, as Robertson notes, anthropologists cannot forget the allure and the authority of science in the popular imagination, and that might be reason enough to keep biological anthropology in as part of the sacred bundle. Anthropologically trained scientists should (and perhaps already do) ameliorate many of the problems that science creates in our social worlds.
The volume’s strength is its emphasis on the difference between desires, practices, and identifications as well as its urging that more anthropological and historical work needs to be done. This is the theme that unites each of the individual essays and brings them into a cohesive whole in dialogue with one another. Additionally, it is refreshing that several authors recognize the ridiculousness of discourse surrounding a “gay gene.” Many of our colleagues should be forced to read this volume; there are sill anthropologists who take biologically deterministic views toward gender and sexuality. Same Sex Cultures and Sexualities can provide an educational background to those who know nothing about sexuality research in anthropology (Ph.D.s and undergraduates alike), but it can also serve as thought-provoking resource to those who make their careers of this research.
1992. “Ideas and Institutions in American Anthropology: Thoughts Toward a History of the Interwar Years,” in The Ethnographer’s Magic and Other Essays in the History of Anthropology. Wisconsin: University of Wisconsin Press.
1995. “Delimiting Anthropology: Historical Reflections on the Boundaries of a Boundless Discipline.” In Social Research: 62(4) 932-966.
Sarah Luna is currently a second year student in the Ph.D. program in Anthropology at the University of Chicago. She is interested in exploring the policing of women’s bodies on the Texas/Mexico border, and the ways in which notions of women’s sexuality and women’s labor are linked to the values of their bodies.