In 1975, Rodney Needham suggested that some phenomena encountered by anthropologists, like certain kinds of descent systems, might be best understood as polythetic classes—categories whose members bear overlapping family resemblances to each other, as well as to members of other classes, but don't exhibit the sort of single and exclusive defining feature which conventional monothetic definitions assumed. In 1981, I suggested that it would be useful for accuracy and cross-cultural understanding to view female genital cutting as a polythetic class. This paper examines polythetic analyses of female genital cutting in the literature which has emerged since 1981, arguing that such approaches have improved our understanding, but have not resolved the problems inherent in cross-cultural dialogue. I explore the possibility that the multiplicity of significations embodied in female genital cutting may be indicative of an overdetermined category, whose complexity masks disturbing conflicts.


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pp. 3-17
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