Gender and Sex in Anthropology Essay

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Ethnology: Balinese vs. The Lahu

Gender and Sex in Anthropology

Anthropology 203

A Case Study in Comparative Ethnology: Balinese vs. The Lahu

Defining Sex and Gender

The definition of sex is generally treated as a category by both biologists and cultural anthropologists, a category with mainly two choices: male or female (Worthman 597-598). From a biologist's perspective sex is the exchange of genetic material and the requisite biological functions required for successful procreation activities. For example, sperm and ovum are supplied by males and females, respectively, and women are the only ones capable of gestation and lactation. Primates, including humans, are generally required to make significant investments in child-rearing activities, so parental investment, in addition to mating investment, is thought to be required of both sexes (McIntyre and Edwards 84). The form that parental investment takes can in turn be heavily influenced by social norms, and accordingly sex helps to define what gender roles are assigned by society.

Cultural anthropologists, on the other hand, struggle with the relative genetic and cultural contributions to an individual's sexual identity. Rather than viewing sex as strictly a biological phenotype, sex is the product of both biological contributions and an individual's self view. Although an individual may be anatomically a male for example, the child-rearing environment, both familial and cultural, could have shifted the sexual identity of the individual away from the more traditional male/female dichotomy. Despite the threat that cultural anthropologists may view sex as a continuum between male and female identities, the definition of sex is still primarily viewed as biological and thus treated as a category.

In contrast to sex, an individual's gender is viewed by cultural anthropologists as a continuum between traditional male and female social roles (Worthman 599). Gender roles are defined by the sex of the individual, family environment, schools, social media exposure, peer groups, and governments; therefore a traditional male role in one culture could very well be seen as feminine in another. Although individuals are not normally viewed as able to 'chose' a gender role when immersed in their culture from cradle to grave, the social forces that determine gender roles are considered to be a collective choice society has made on behalf of its members. Gender therefore differs from sex in that it is in part the result of a history of cultural decisions.

2. Bali, Indonesia

Bali has been described as a 'unisex' culture by anthropologists doing research during the middle of the 20th century (reviewed by Parker 500). These researchers found evidence that Bali cultural norms promoted gender equality in all manner of social events. This view has been undermined by a more recent investigation into the role Bali schools play in determining gender. Parker found that school textbooks alone contained a number of examples where gender roles were evident, such as men playing the role of teachers and women pictured in the home, girls doing their homework and boys playing with a toy truck, and a male military column marching past a group of women in traditional dress (503). In addition, gender biases were evident in how teachers interacted with students and the nature of the coursework offered. In general, Parker found that "… girls have responsibility for virtue, moral education and service, principally within the family, and boys are responsible for economic development" (502). The Indonesian government reinforces this gender bias by codifying an equal, but separate status for women relative to men.

Parker's observations fit with the way society in Indonesia is structured. This is evident in the division of labor, where males dominate the ranks of teachers in secondary schools and colleges, and in government offices (Cunningham 1046-1047). The more difficult physical labor is done primarily by males, like plowing fields and fishing, although women may fill-in if a male is absent or away. Women also hold jobs in urban areas, but these tend to be in elementary schools, retail stores, and manufacturing, while men tend to dominate the better paying professions. Overall, the perception is that men are the "… community leaders, decision makers, and mediators with the outside world, while women are the backbone of the home and family values" (Cunningham 1047). Despite labor divisions based on sex, Bali women, and Indonesian women in general,…[continue]

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