Making Gender: The Politics and Erotics of Culture. SHERRY B. ORTNER. Boston MA: Beacon Press,19%. 255 pp.
Sherry Ortner's essays, written over a span of twenty-five years, rekindled memories of graduate school debates. The collection brings her earlier writings together with her more distinguished contributions as well as two previously unpublished essays. Well known for her discussions of male and female social status differences, Ortner's early essays reflect this meditation. "The Virgin and the State," written while she was still a graduate student at the University of Chicago, explores why notions of female sexual purity and protection are structurally insignificant in non-state societies but are highly significant in state societies. "Rank and Gender" explores how men and women in Polynesian societies manipulate sexual and kinship rules in their pursuit of power and status. "The Problem of 'Women' as an Analytic Category" uses the story of the building of a Sherpa Buddhist nunnery to explore how female agents' authority, power, and intentionality are similar and distinct from their male counterparts.
These essays, all published prior to 1983, provide a useful summary of the major debates from that era, and of the ways the theories were shaped by emphasis on structures and categories. It is a little like looking back at feminist theory's disciplinary adolescence and reflecting on how Ortner's contributions helped shape the personality of feminist anthropology in the current era.
Perhaps her most memorable essay, "Is Female to Male as Nature Is to Culture?" continues to give the reader much intellectual fodder concerning whether superior male social status is universal. In this essay, which is paired with an autocritique entitled "So, Is Female to Male as Nature Is to Culture?," Ortner dissects three aspects of the gender relations controversy, notably differences in gendered social status, dominance, and relations of power as levels of analysis. For us to be able to interpret differences of status, power, and dominance is an important further step in elucidating the nature of gender relations, though I question whether it resolves the questions of what causes male dominance or the nearly ubiquitous superior social status of males. Similarly, in the autocritique Ortner puts aside the question of universality of the gender dominance and instead focuses on societies in which patterns of gender equity have been documented. Unwilling to play apologist for theories of universal male dominance, Ortner instead demonstrates that androcentric biases in ethnographic fieldwork and theory-making have blinded us to the realities of matricentric (gynocentric) social institutions and practices. Citing examples from small-scale societies in Southeast Asia and South Asia, Ortner concludes that gendered egalitarianism has been documented and deserves greater attention by anthropologists.
There have been numerous theoretical tropes throughout this century. Practice theory, in its fashion, has enabled us to "grasp and render," as one of Ortner's mentors aptly put it, the inchoateness of culture. Ortner hooks together the essays using her brand of practice theory, a unique blend of feminist insight and post-structural observations of cultural habit(us). In this set of essays Ortner uses the notion of "making" culture as a trope which both constructs meaning and enables agents to perform the construction. Ortner's revised practice theory continues to have explanatory power and to provide a much needed trope for the difficulties of grasping nuances of cultural life. In addition, this new form of practice theory is receptive to cultural anomalies, marginalities, and exceptional circumstances. As Ortner describes it,
One can do practice analysis as a loop, in which "structures" construct subjects and practices, but subjects and practices reproduce "structures." Or one can ... avoid the loop, ... look for the slippages in reproduction, the erosions of longstanding patterns, the moments of disorder and of outright "resistance" (p. …