Anthropological Quarterly 77.1 (2004) 153-159
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Gender, Economy, and Creativity
Susan A. Johnston
George Washington University
This is a very interesting and important collection of articles examining aspects of economic life as they are informed by gender. It covers a variety of geographic areas and cultural settings, including one archaeological study. Apart from the overall subject matter, what unites these papers and makes them particularly interesting is threefold: all question assumptions that have been made about gendered organization and work; all do more than simply point out those assumptions, providing a reanalysis in each particular area; and all firmly ground their analyses in concrete data. It is not only this last which seems to set them apart from many recent cultural studies, but also the fact that they do not seem to sacrifice more perceptive and nuanced interpretations in the process.
If anything will ultimately be described as the major epistemological issue in anthropology in the late 20th and early 21st centuries, it will be the impact of what is variously called post-processsualism, post-modernism, or post-colonial theory. Hopefully, the legacy of this paradigm shift will be that it made anthropologists of all kinds think about human agency and issues of interpretive bias. Both of these were sorely in need of questioning, and much of the resulting research considerably improved both the credibility and (on occasion) [End Page 153] readability of the literature. "Culture" truly is the sum of the individual actions of particular people in particular contexts with particular concerns, and the tendency to ignore this reality in favor of grand generalizations and semi-scientific conclusions was a trend that certainly needed to be reined in. One apparently universal truism is that things are more complicated than they originally seemed to be. Insisting that we develop approaches that recognize the complexity of human behavior has been beneficial overall. And wasn't that always the significant contribution that only anthropology could make? Where other disciplines relied on the broad strokes painted by large-scale investigative techniques, we talked to individual people and found out what they were actually doing, thinking, feeling.
As a result of the recognition that things were more subtle and textured than sometimes assumed, however, many of us seemed to lose sight of the other reality—that however much interpretive bias factors into our research, people did actually do things which can be observed, investigated, counted, discussed, tallied, and reported. There are data out there, which forms evidence which is the basis of interpretation. Whether or not there is objective reality (a subject perhaps best left to late night discussions when all other topics have been exhausted by alcohol and fatigue), we experience it that way. And since part of the anthropological goal is to provide a bridge to gaining insight into other cultures, evidence is necessary in order to assess whether those cultures have in fact been portrayed accurately. The challenge is not to throw up our hands and drown in the implications of flawed interpretations, but rather to use evidence with a perspective that is informed by a full range of interpretive possibilities.
Towards this end, it became common to approach various cultural analyses (particularly, it seems, in gender studies) as a sort of "cautionary tale." Previous analyses were examined, the flaws of those analyses were pointed out, and the paper was finished, leaving the reader with a sense of satisfaction that we, at least, wouldn't be making such assumptions. Unfortunately, while these are needed critiques, they don't do much to forward anthropological research. For one thing, it seems slightly self-serving to criticize without offering an alternative interpretation that might equally leave the author open to criticisms. After all, it seems a given that 100 years from now many will be amazed at how obtusely we phrased our research questions. By contrast, we should be moving anthropological research forward, and criticisms without reanalysis just don't do that. They're fine as far as they go, but we should do better.