Academic journal article Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute

Engendering School Children in Bali

Academic journal article Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute

Engendering School Children in Bali

Article excerpt

In writing this article I wanted to find out the part schooling plays in the process by which Balinese children are gendered and gender themselves. The article grew out of frustration with sex-role socialization theory as an explanatory frame for the way individuals constitute themselves, and with anthropological tendencies to reify culture. More broadly, social science generally overstates the part played by ideology in shaping the experience of the individual. All of these inadequacies suggest that as yet we know very little about human subjectivity and learning, and about the enmeshing of the individual in society. This becomes painfully obvious in attempts to explain social change: apart from somewhat mechanistic response-to-stimulus theories, we lack theories that allow for understanding of open-ended change.

The premiss of this article is that humans are social animals and that they constitute their selves by living amongst other, similarly constituted, beings. Cognition, or knowing, occurs mainly as inter-subjective experience because the individual is a locus of social relations. Subjectivity has many aspects, including conscious knowledge, intentions and imagination as well as unconscious desires, emotions and trauma(1) Subjectivity is both the source and product of a historical process: individuals invent themselves as well as contribute to the constitution of the social groupings among which they live:

Human cognition is an historical process because it constitutes - and in constituting inevitably transforms - the ideas and practices of which it appears to be the product ... Human cognition is predicated on our being simultaneously the (explicit) subjects and (implicit) objects of our own actions and words and the loci of the relations with others in and through which we lead our lives (Toren 1993: 461-2).

It follows that children will not turn out like their parents; that societies will not duplicate themselves; that there will be wide variation among individuals in any one group; that some cultural notions, meanings and practices will be taken for granted and others shared, modified and argued over. The world outside the self exists autonomously, yet 'we live it as a product of our own minds' (Toren 1993: 468).

A theory of subjectivity must allow for the embodied nature of cognition, for we learn and know through living in bodies. The twin Piagetian notions of assimilation, the process of relating new information to existing cognitive structures, and accommodation, the process of modifying existing structures to the new, learned information one is assimilating, are useful. However, it is also necessary to allow the subject an open-ended aesthetic sense and imagination. The subject is not just a rational, conscious being nor is it unchanging, unitary and homogeneous.(2) A theory of subjectivity has to allow for the potential with which experiences are pregnant: experience is potent and may portend the future and summon the past in unpredictable ways. For instance, a smell or a poem is evocative and a childhood trauma may be repressed for years until hooked by some related event. A theory of subjectivity must embrace the positioning of any individual in a multitude of social relations. The self directs its behaviour and speech towards its idea of other selves: hence whole persons produce themselves over time through intersubjectivity or relations with other subjects.

Gender cannot, therefore, be a coercive ideology existing outside of human subjectivity, waiting to mould babies into boys and girls. Humans constitute their own gender, and are constituted in their gender by their own history of interaction with others. Gender is produced through perceptions of, and interpretations of, bodily difference and biological function. Despite awareness of alternative sexualities, most humans constitute their gender identity as one of two, opposite choices: male or female. Consequently, characteristics of the genders are easily represented as natural and eternal. …

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