Academic journal article Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute

Politics and Gastropolitics: Gender and the Power of Food in Two African Pastoralist Societies

Academic journal article Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute

Politics and Gastropolitics: Gender and the Power of Food in Two African Pastoralist Societies

Article excerpt


'Look around you, Nyarial, and you will see that the bravest Nuer men are always hen-pecked husbands.'

Gaajok Nuer man (Hutchinson 1996: 200).

The dissolution of the analytical separation of domestic and juro-political domains has been a central feature of recent feminist-inspired approaches to social organization. While in Fortes's (1958) seminal formulation of this distinction, the domestic and political were conceived of as largely distinct spheres of social action - the former being concerned with activities within the family and household, and the latter concerned with the linkages of these units and their members to broader social units and activities - empirical and theoretical studies have shown the two to be intimately intertwined within a broad range of cultural contexts. On the one hand, the separation of the domestic and political has been broadly criticized as an artificial distinction grounded in Western notions of family and household (Yanagisako 1979). On the other hand, empirical studies have demonstrated that activities and relationships which have generally been defined as 'domestic' are frequently critically involved in the const ruction of alliances and other aspects of 'political' activity (e.g. Lamphere 1974). The most compelling outgrowths of this approach seek to synthesize the domestic and political as mutually constituting aspects of social systems (Corner & Yanagisako 1987). This is seen most comprehensively in Corner's (1988) analysis of inequality in classless societies, which suggests that features intrinsic to the conjugal bond are the driving force behind systems of differential power and moral evaluation (Peletz 1995). Within such an approach the domestic and political are not only inexorably linked, but the former is, in some sense, logically prior.

Despite the substantial theoretical attention brought to these issues, I argue here that Yanagisako's 'realization that domestic relationships are part and parcel of the political structure of society' (1979: 191) has not significantly recast anthropological understandings of the social systems of African pastoralists. Pastoralists have long been viewed as quintessentially male-centred societies, with elders in particular at the core of social action (Spencer 1965; 1997), and males constructed ideologically as the 'true pastoralists' (Galaty 1979). Certainly, a growing literature has made important strides in problematizing what Hodgson (2001) has termed the 'myth of the patriarchal pastoralist'. Particularly since the 1980s there has been a marked increase in attention paid to the role of women in pastoralist societies (e.g. Ensminger 1987; Fratkin & Smith 1995; Talle 1988), and such studies have shed important new light on the role of pastoralist women in a variety of domains, ranging from livestock product ion (Dahl 1987) to religious systems (Broch-Due 1999; Straight 1997) to kinship (Bianco 2001). At the same time I will suggest that, while these are important in providing a more nuanced view of pastoralist gender relations, they rarely challenge the central assumptions upon which models of male dominance are predicated.

In this essay I argue that, in order to move beyond long-standing conceptions of pastoral social systems as driven by the machinations of patriarchs and warriors, it is necessary to recognize the extent to which the masculine roles and identities of these 'patriarchs and warriors' are constructed in relation to women as active agents. Drawing on primary research and published sources on two well-known pastoralists societies, the Samburu of northern Kenya and the Nuer of southern Sudan, (1) focus specifically on processes of domestic food allocation as a crucial domain for a reordering of our understandings of the domestic and political domains. Food allocation is a crucial arena which is largely the purview of pastoral women, and it has critical and wide-ranging significance for pastoral men. …

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