Deconstructing Gender and Sex
Issues of gender presence and interrelations for the past have increasingly been focused upon in the last two decades in the English-speaking archaeological community. Conkey and Spector are widely credited with the first paper to systematically examine the application of feminist approaches and insights to archaeological practice and theory. Studies were published during the 1970s in Scandinavia, which went largely unnoticed due to the comparatively few archaeologists who understand the Nordic languages, exploring archaeological issues using an explicitly feminist perspective. In 1979, Norway hosted a workshop discussing the androcentric element in archaeological interpretation; however, the proceedings remained unpublished until 1987, when they were distributed in English. The proceedings have largely remained uncited in the literature on the history of gender archaeology, resulting in the incorrect attribution of a late date for the inception of its beginnings.
Fundamental terminology such as theory, gender, and sex requires working definitions, and Hill has identified four core concepts that are being used inconsistently:
- The methods by which gender studies are incorporated into investigative frameworks
- The inappropriate, ahistorical usage of ethnographic analogies with prehistoric data
- An overemphasis upon one line of inquiry and verification
- The conflation of gender studies with feminist politicking
This is a consequence of gender archaeology’s failure to produce significant alternative methodological advances on issues like household organization, ideology, labor division, and production by comparison with traditional processual and postprocessual frameworks.
Hill defines theory as “a conceptual framework that provides the foundation for explanation.” With no inclusive, programmatic “feminist theory” having been proposed and taken up as an investigative framework for prehistoric archaeology, a focus point has been feminist-inspired critiques of androcentrism within archaeology. The critiques of the explicit and implicit androcentrism in existing archaeological theoretical frameworks have contributed in particular to clarifying categories of gender and sex as organizing principles.
It has been argued that gender is not genetically inherited, but a process of structuring subjectivities, whereas sex is biologically determinate and static. However, not all feminists and anthropologists concur with this strict separation. These philosophies, whereby sex is a social construct formed by discursive practices, implicate Western biological anthropology in denying that the same physical characteristics can be used in a cross-cultural capacity to characterize sexual identity. This approach of sexual fluidity has been undermined by the application of DNA analysis to skeletal remains.
Despite the conclusions drawn from molecular results, it must be recognized that the investigations were conceived and the DNA findings interpreted through a culturally mediated Western concept of biology. While a sex-gender divide remains useful, the underlying construct is a distinction between Western scientific views on anatomy and how biology and culture interact from birth through concepts of appropriate role plays, dress code, diet, and occupational activity. This can serve as a useful analytical tool, provided it is recognized the division is not rigid.
Aside from the distinction made between anatomy and the cultural conceptualization of gender, gender studies are concerned with analyzing both males and females. Fieldwork has challenged the notion of a distinct male-female dichotomy, through expanding the categories to include a third or fourth gender in some non-Western societies. Furthermore, ideology of gender is also expressed through various objects, activities, and spatial arrangements in the landscape. Gender is therefore an important social variable, which must not be directly assumed, but rather is interwoven with the social values of the society being studied.
Feminism and Gender Archaeology
Wylie has given three reasons why it has been claimed gender cannot be studied, namely, that women and gender are inaccessible in archaeological contexts, the methodology is too limited to sustain such research, and since identifying women and their activities is inherently problematic, any reconstructions must be drawn from enigmatic data. In rejecting these objections, Wylie has stated that the sophisticated understanding of gender during the third wave of feminism made women and gender a possible object of study in archaeology. This fails to account for historical differences in the development and impact of feminism in America and Europe. While there was a concern in America with studying the sexual division of labor in historical and prehistoric contexts, gender archaeology in Europe focused more on the symbolic and cultural manifestations of gender. While this development has been attributed to the greater impact of second-wave feminism on American than European academia, Sorensen has noted that the existence of women has always been acknowledged; it is how their presence is understood that has changed.
Gender is socially constructed, with archaeological manifestations varying spatially and temporally. As the social construct of sex class and the learned behavior of being masculine or feminine, activities, behaviors, and role plays are expected of different gender groups. Feminism has highlighted the composition of archaeology’s substantive body of knowledge and demonstrated how gendered research is interwoven implicitly into specific theoretical and practical constructs. It shares in common with postprocessualism the rejection of dispassionate objectivity and the separateness of subject and object, favoring nuanced approaches over categorical thinking. Spector has demonstrated how Western classificatory schemes impose foreign values, distorting the original categories and biasing interpretation.
The task of recognizing the inherent bias and developing a more gender-friendly discipline through challenging the status quo rests in integrating gender studies into mainstream archaeological practice. The dangers of adopting an androcentric approach have been highlighted through examining past and current literature on human origins, whereas a gynocentric approach can lead to extremes such as exclusive Mother Goddess interpretations for the Upper Palaeolithic and Neolithic figurines in Europe, the Near East and North Africa. Parkington has highlighted aspects of Bushmen rights of passage portrayed in Western Cape rock art. Such examples reflect both the advantage and disadvantages of a feminist approach.
Part of the process toward recognizing that gender archaeology is not feminist archaeology is an under-standing that whereas feminism is inherently political with a focus on power relations, gender archaeology concerns social theory, which can be adapted by both feminist and nonfeminist frameworks: Gender is another tool to further analyze the structuring principles and practices of past cultures.
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