In Pursuit of Gender: Worldwide Archaeological Approaches, and: Gender and the Archaeology of Death (review)
- Anthropological Quarterly
- George Washington University Institute for Ethnographic Research
- Volume 75, Number 4, Fall 2002
- pp. 817-821
- Additional Information
Anthropological Quarterly 75.4 (2002) 817-821
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It is perhaps ironic that collections such as these two books still begin by bemoaning the lack of gender studies in archaeology. While one can argue whether gender has yet "come of age" as a legitimate pursuit in the discipline, by now there are many such volumes to choose from if, as I have done recently, one begins looking for material for, say, an undergraduate course. Counting these two, I have 10 on my shelves (beginning with the now-classic Engendering Archaoelogy; Gero & Conkey 1991) and I know that there are others. Thus it seems fair to say that, while I agree that the archaeological study of gender was late in making an appearance, it has now arrived, and is announcing its presence with authority.
Both of these books are the results of conferences. The first, In Pursuit of Gender: Worldwide Archaeological Approaches, shares much with the books already on my shelves. It is a wide-ranging collection of research questions and answers, all of which have in common an interest in gender, most commonly expressed through the study of women. As the editors note in the Introduction, the archaeological study of gender is experiencing growing pains, and one of the uncertainties of this process is the precise aim of such a study. While in theory, the study of "gender" should (and often does) include as many genders as a culture [End Page 817] recognizes, in fact this is often a code word for returning women to the study of prehistory. While the latter is indeed a laudable goal, it's one of my pet peeves—if you're studying women then call it that, don't call it a study of gender. Of the 19 articles, almost half are only about women. I admit this is a linguistic quibble, but it's hard to envision a study of, for example, men in Aztec society being included in a collection of "gender" studies. As part of the growth process, I'd like to see this focus shift slightly. Gender by its nature is defined in comparison to other genders, and now that the point has been made (and largely accepted) that women have been systematically excluded for a wide range of bad reasons from the study of the past, it's time to move on.
Another common theme among these articles is the "cautionary tale." This is also a legacy from a past that I would like to see gender studies move away from. In this type of approach, the main aim is to point out that many interpretations of past gender attributions based on artifacts, artistic depictions, and other aspects of material culture have been biased by assumptions about normative gender roles based on modern culture. This is a good point, and has been made now in many different places and contexts. What can be frustrating is when no reasonable alternative is offered through analysis of the same material. In a number of the articles here, the main conclusion is that some past archeologist didn't consider other gender options. In other cases, the main contribution appears to be that there is data at some particular site that offers lots of options for a gendered analysis. Good points all—but where does this get us? I would rather see the researcher go beyond this and offer a more convincing analysis. Unfortunately, this is too seldom done.
Lest you get the impression that I disliked the book, there are a number of things to commend it. One of the ethnographic observations that has finally made its way into archaeological analysis is the fact that many cultures do not perceive gender as a binary opposition, but rather see it as fluid and changeable, or as defined in more than two categories. Cultural anthropological studies of gender...