Sherry Ortner started her academic career as a symbolic anthropologist under the influence of David Schneider and Clifford Geertz. However, as she later became the leading figure in feminist anthropology, she adopted and adapted the practice theory and the generative model. Accordingly, she moved away from the universalist discourse of the symbolic anthropology to the comparative study of the socio-historically constructed, non-totalistic, porous, and incoherent culture. This paper will track her epistemological shifts in her academic career.
Ortner’s classic essay “Is Female to Male as Nature Is to Culture” (1972) was premised on the perceived universality (1) of sexual asymmetry and (2) of the Levi-Strausian ahistorical structural binary of nature/culture. Although such universalist discourses lost their validity long ago (at least in the field of anthropology), Ortner’s argument is more compelling than her title may suggest. She argues that in the scale of nature/culture binary, men are always perceived closer to culture and women to nature. The main distinction between nature and culture is that one is a given, and the other is made and thereby superior. Women are associated with nature due to their biological dispositions. Ortner, echoing Simone de Beauvoir, highlights three aspects of the perceived disposition: female body and its function, female social roles based on these functions, and the female psychic structure. She then problematizes the imagined “naturalness” of such female endowments referring to the processes of their social construction. For instance, citing Nancy Chodorow, she draws attention to the role of motherhood and distinct ways of socialization of boys and girls, in order to explicate the (re)production of gendered psyche. The three aspects of femininity are not necessarily innate; rather, they are generated through a self-regulatory “efficient feedback system” (41).
As a response to her critiques, years later, Ortner revised her argument of universal sexual asymmetry in “So, Is Female to Male as Nature Is to Culture” (1995). First of all, she undermines her initial nature/culture dichotomy and suggests focusing on the linkages and relationships between the perceived binary, and on “the politics of construction of such linkages” (130). Secondly, she argues that “power” and “prestige” do not always map onto each other in every society. Against Lealock’s famous claim of gender equality in pre-modern egalitarian societies, Ortner postulates that such societies, in which male dominance is not overtly observed, may still endow more prestige to the male status, tasks and social roles. The power/prestige balance is analyzed deeply in her essays such as “Rank and Gender” (1981) and “The Virgin and the State” (1976). She brings in many ethnographic data to illustrate the potential discrepancy between power and prestige many societies. For instance, while Brahmins have enormous social prestige in India, they do not necessarily have economic or political power.
It can be argued that Ortner’s ethnographic analysis of power and prestige marks her departure from the universalist discourse of sexual asymmetry. In her article, “Gender Hegemonies” (1990), she says;
“One must look at both the cultural ideology of ‘prestige’ and the on-the-ground practices of ‘power’…look at the relationships between these ‘levels’ ….for the purposes of examining the historical dynamics of given cases over time” (172).
On the ground, she comes to terms with the complex matrix of power relations, of which the category of gender is only one part among the others. She asserts, especially in “The Problem of Women as Analytic Category” (1983) essay, that “gender cannot be adequately understood, except in relation to other structures of social asymmetry” (116). She accounts for some ethnographic cases in which men are as disadvantaged as women “with respect to property, marriage, and the like” because of the power/prestige structures in their societies (136). Besides, she also accounts for women’s agency and their capacity to contribute to the larger society, even though they may be ideologically portrayed as “second sex:”
“Women, however much their day-to-day lives appear immersed in domestic concerns, systematically participate in the larger social rankings of their natal and marital families,and so participate in important ways in macro-political and economic processes” (136).
As such, Ortner moves beyond the reductionist framework of female subordination vis-à-vis male domination by referring to (1) other structures of inequality that are tied to gender inequalities and (2) nuanced ways of women’s agency and power that may easily be unnoticed in the universalist gender inequality discourse. She eventually problematizes the category of women in the anthropological and feminist analyses:
“Yet an overemphasis on difference, regardless of context, can create serious mystifications in our analyses, blinding us to the disadvantages women share with many (if not indeed most) men, and allowing us to sweep under the rug the many real advantages that some women share with some men”(137).
Her studies on social prestige, hegemonic or non-hegemonic, dislocate the universal and ahistorical framework of sexual asymmetry. In “Gender Hegemonies” (1990), she promotes the analytic category of gender as “culturally dominant and relatively deeply embedded, but nonetheless historically emergent, politically constructed and non-totalistic” (147).
In her striking turn from symbolic anthropology to practice theory, Ortner astutely declares, “no society or culture is totally consistent” (146). She highlights the “multiplicity of logics operating, of discourses being spoken, of practices of prestige and power” (146) and the importance of the relationship between these elements for cultural analysis:
“All the pieces of a given ethnographic instance do not have either to fit together through heroic analytic efforts or to be explained away. The loose ends, the contradictory bits, the disconnected sections can be examined for their short– and long-term interactions with and implications for one another” (147).
The first essay “Making Gender” (1996) in the book is a manifesto on her new position in feminist anthropology and on her postulated practice theory. Similar to Bourdieu, Barth, and Hefner, her main emphasis is also on the generative model in which “human action is made by ‘structure,’ and at the same time always makes and potentially unmakes it” (2). She calls this model a “loop” in which ‘structures’ construct subjects and practices, but subjects and practices reproduce ‘structures.’
From the feminist perspective, she critiques both “constructivists” and “subjectivist” positions, and promotes practice theory as a dialectic between “too much construction (textual, discursive etc)” and “too much making (decontextualized ‘resistance’).” As a feminist anthropologist, she critiques some practice theorists like Bourdieu, Giddens, and Sahlins for (1) not incorporating the issues of power enough into their structural analysis and (2) not giving enough space for the individual that has capacity to change and manipulate the structure. She criticizes them for their inadequacy and scant effort in crucial “explorations of the multiple and contradictory forms of power and of resistance; of the multiple forms and degrees of ‘agency:’ of the relationship of the private and the intimate to large-scale structural change; of identity in a world carved up by race, ethnicity, class, and gender; of the adequacy of the very concept of structure” (3). She draws attention to the potential “slippages in reproduction, the erosions of long standing patterns, the moments of disorder and of outright ‘resistance’” (17).
She also targets poststructuralists and postmodernists for not serving well to the feminist discourse with their exaggerated anti-subjectivism. Poststructuralists, such as Michel Foucault, Derrida, Althusser, Judith Butler, and Joan Scott, deny agency to the subject in his own subject formation within their framework of “discursive formation.” They repudiate the possibility of an “intentional” subject while focusing merely on the “conditions of possibility.” Postmodernist, on the other hand, such as Lyotard, Baudrilland, and Jameson, declare the end of the “grand narrative” of the subject that is coherent, unfragmented and meaningful. However, as JonMuhamed and Lyord (1987) argue, the Western postmodern ideology of “non-identity,” which is perceived as an “index of liberation,” does not speak for the experiences of the subaltern minority identities whose non-identity is a given (8).
Rather than treating subject as “an ideological effect, a discursively constructed position that cannot recognize its own constructedness” (7), Ortner underlines the intentionality of the subjects in a Barthian manner. She develops the term of “serious games” which are culturally constructed but played with actors with distinct “skill, intention, wit, knowledge, intelligence” (12). The players of the game, in other words, are agents strategizers “who constantly stretch the game” (20).
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