Feminist Anthropology Part II

By Emma Louise Backe

Feminist anthropology began in the 1970s not merely to promote a wider paradigm shift in ethnographic research, but to galvanize the discipline into remodeling how anthropologists functioned in the academy and the field. Although feminist ideologies were incorporated into anthropology’s postmodern turn, and the work of feminist anthropologists gained purchase outside of the discipline, feminist anthropology was largely treated as the niche province of female practitioners. As Marilyn Strathern writes, “a milieu of tolerance has also reduced feminist scholarship to just another approach, one way among many into data […] Feminist anthropology is thus tolerated as a specialty that can be absorbed without challenge to the whole.” Strathern laments that while feminist anthropology had the potential to transform the way anthropologists thought about themselves and their interlocutors, it did not initiate the sorts of changes or disciplinary reconfigurations many hoped and longed for.

The “accommodation” of feminist anthropology has meant that one ethnographic research area in particular has remained notably under-researched and unacknowledged: gender-based violence (GBV). In their attempts to advance more nuanced and contextualized understandings of human culture, anthropologists have avoided imposing ethical standards on ethnographic communities. Notions of morality are not universal and often depend upon the religious, social, and cultural milieu of a community. Without absolving acts of violence or harm, anthropologists attempt to provide a complex framework, through which to conceptualize and understand different sets of norms and ideals. Many anthropologists work in marginalized communities whose sense of political, economic, or social instability may result in participation in occult economies, gang activity, or drug use as modes of survival.

Ethnographers are also wary of the politics of representation—anthropologists are careful not to fall into the trap of the spectacle of suffering and violence. In representing another group’s life world, anthropologists do not want to unintentionally recapitulate stereotypes or turn their ethnographic field site into a voyeuristic exhibition. Perhaps in part due to the hesitancies and the ethical quandaries elicited by studying violence, very few anthropologists have explicitly studied gender-based violence.

Madelaine Adelman was one of the first anthropologists who attempted to understand the factors that contribute to gender-based violence. In her 2004 article “The Battering State: Towards a Political Economy of Domestic Violence,” Adelman drew connections between domestic violence and poverty in the United States, indicating that the political disenfranchisement of women (particularly poor women) and the country’s economic structures needed to be taken into account when studying “private” violence in the home.

Adelman’s work built upon that of Paul Farmer, whose 1996 research on HIV and AIDS in Haiti is framed around the concept of structural violence. Structural violence refers to the formal and informal institutions that affect an individual’s agency and ability to exercise certain rights. Farmer’s ethnography includes the stories of young women in Haiti whose families have lost their jobs, whose homes are displaced by the construction of a dam, and who are offered little recourse for economic empowerment or social mobility—except to engage in risky sexual relationships for money and social support, a phenomenon often referred to as survival sex.

More recently, in her 2009 book Gender Violence: A Cultural Perspective, Sally Engle also addressed sexual violence through an anthropological lens: “interpersonal gendered violence and structural violence—the violence of poverty, hunger, social exclusion, and humiliation—are deeply connected. It is impossible to diminish violence against women without reducing these other forms of violence and injustice.” Merry, like Adelman and Farmer, situates gender-based violence within cultural contexts and along continuums of the kinds of violence that occur symbolically, politically, and socially, which depends upon on a person’s intersectional position in society.

Most anthropologists who study gender-based violence tend to focus on issues of rape and sexual assault in war or conflict settings. Yet, over the past ten years, anthropologists have begun to turn their attention towards the structural conditions that precipitate violence or undermine the needs of survivors in domestic settings. Sameena Mulla’s fieldwork in Baltimore centers on the caregiving dynamics of forensic nurse examiners and survivors of sexual violence seeking rape kits. Jennifer Wies studies the bureaucratic obstacles to justice for survivors of campus sexual assault through university administration and the Title IX Office.

Despite the prescience of this research, however, anthropology has yet to acknowledge the problem of gender-based violence among practitioners themselves. This gap was thrown into sharp relief in the winter of 2016 when a research assistant accused Brian Richmond, a former curator for the American Museum of Natural History and paleoanthropology professor at George Washington University, of sexually assaulting her in his hotel room in Florence, Italy. The sexual assault allegations brought against Richmond shocked many, but also revealed the discipline’s inattention to the safety considerations associated with fieldwork.

Indeed, in an anonymous survey of academic fieldwork experience released in 2014, 64% of respondents reported experiencing sexual harassment in the field. 47.9% of the respondents identified as anthropologists. More than 20% of the participating female bioanthropologists reported having experienced physical sexual harassment or unwanted physical contact at a previous field site. Most perpetrators were identified as colleagues of superior professional status or peers. Few of the participants in the survey knew of any workplace policies or mechanisms for reporting associated with harassment, and only 18% of those who reported were satisfied with the results. These statistics are particularly jarring given that fieldwork is a central component of an anthropologist’s career.

The gender dimensions of safety and vulnerability in the field should not be lost on anthropologists, and yet, there is a systemic misconception that gender-based violence can’t happen to or be perpetrated by anthropologists. In an autoethnographic essay of her own experience of sexual assault, Eva Moreno writes that if an anthropologist experiences violence in the field, they are blamed. Similarly, Mingweig Huang recounts her advisor’s suspicion and skepticism about Huang’s decision to write about her rape at the hands of an interlocutor, also noting the victim-blaming that followed her disclosure. Amy Pollard’s study of stressors associated with fieldwork found that many female anthropologists feel physically unsafe or harassed at their sites, but they are afraid to report for fear of being perceived as a bad ethnographer. Just as Marilyn Strathern expressed disappointment that feminist anthropology did not promote more internal conversation and self-reflexivity, Moreno pushes further, arguing that “anthropology has yet to come to terms with the fact that anthropologists are themselves gendered […] For female anthropologists, one of the consequences of the fictitiously ‘gender-free’ life we lead at university is that, if we bring up issues that are specific to us as women in the academic context, we run the risk of doing damage to our identities as anthropologists.”

Part of this misrecognition of gender has meant that anthropologists have not been given a space to discuss the possibility of sexual assault in the field. As Eva Moreno says, “As far as the danger of sexual violence is concerned, it may be part of a woman’s daily life, but it is not seen to be relevant to the professional part of ourselves—the ‘anthropologist’ part. ‘Anthropologists’ don’t get harassed or raped. Women do.” This myopia seems to stems from the assumption that if you study anthropology and are trained to attend to the politics of privilege and power, then you are incapable of perpetrating violence. Disciplinary oversight regarding sexual violence harkens back to the problematic dichotomy of “us” and “them” that infuses studying communities outside of your own. Although anthropologists take pride in the difficulty of fieldwork, few programs discuss the role of mental health in the field, develop safety plans for students, or equip ethnographers to handle the emotional contingencies of fieldwork.

After news of the allegations against Richardson broke, the American Association of Physical Anthropologists issued updated statements on sexual harassment and assault and the American Anthropological Association reiterated their “zero tolerance policy” for sexual harassment. Also in response, George Washington University is currently developing and training a cohort of Peer Advocates to work with the University’s Title IX Office to field reports and disclosures, provide support to individuals experiencing harassment, and implement training modules for students, staff, and faculty members alike.

The issue of sexual violence in academia is not unique to anthropology—departments around the country have begun to reckon with the phenomenon. Unfortunately, female students and students of color tend to bear the brunt of unwanted sexual advances and contact along a broader continuum of benevolent sexism that still pervades higher education. Responsibility, however, should not fall to students; mechanisms of accountability need to come from those in power, those whose careers aren’t at risk from reporting. As Mingweig Huang writes, even among feminist ethnographers, rape still remains unspeakable—“Sexual violence during fieldwork is a reality we should be talking about.”

Further Reading

Johnson, Alix. “The Self at Stake: Thinking Fieldwork and Sexual Violence. Savage Minds (2016). http://savageminds.org/2016/03/16/the-self-at-stake-thinking-fieldwork-and-sexual-violence/

Torres, M. Gabriela. “The Prominence of Consent.” Anthropology News (2016). http://www.anthropology-news.org/index.php/2016/06/14/the-prominence-of-consent/

Quinn, Naomi. “What to Do About Sexual Harassment: A Short Course for Chairs.” American Anthropological Association. http://www.americananthro.org/ParticipateAndAdvocate/Content.aspx?ItemNumber=2151

Emma is a Master’s student at George Washington University, where she studies
Medical Anthropology and Global Gender Policy. In addition to her fieldwork on
gender-based violence and survivors’ healing narratives, Emma also works as a gender
consultant on women’s rights issues, including violence, sexual and reproductive health, and
trauma. In her spare time, Emma manages and writes for 
The Geek Anthropologist, runs a
feminist podcast called 
Witching Hour, and serves as an advocate for survivors of sexual