Perspectives: Introduction


Welcome to the first installment of Perspectives, an on-going series of articles that will explore gender and sexuality through a cross-cultural lens. The goal of this series is to broaden our understandings of queer genders and sexualities across time and space.

Before I begin the series, though, allow me to go a bit anthropological on you. That is, after all, what I do!

One of the things I love about anthropology is that it helps us better understand the human condition. By learning about the everyday lived experiences of people, we can better grasp what it means to be human. Anthropology is a holistic discipline–no, not the alt-med kind of holistic. Holistic in this sense means that we look at the interconnected parts to better understand the whole. This is why anthropologists look at everything, including non-human primates (or closest living relatives), human origins, biology, ecology, language, ancient and contemporary material remains, and culture. It is this last one that I will be most concerned with in this series, so I think it is imperative to define culture and explain how anthropologists use the term.

What is culture?

Believe it or not, this question is a major point of contention among sociocultural anthropologists. The classic definition of culture that most introductory anthropology classes still use comes from an essay written in 1871 by Edward Tylor. He said that culture is “that complex whole which includes knowledge, belief, art, morals, law, custom, and any other capabilities and habits acquired by man as a member of society.”

Many anthropologists today feel that this definition is a great starting point, but that it does not go far enough. Generally, there are three components of culture as defined by contemporary anthropologists: Culture is shared, learned, and symbolic. That culture is shared means that members of a society with the same culture operate under the mutually intelligible assumptions, knowledge, and beliefs necessary to be a functioning member of said society. Culture is learned, as opposed to innate or instinctual. This is what distinguishes what is cultural from what is biological. Culture must also be symbolic–in other words, language (as opposed to just communication) is necessary for culture.

Suffice it to say that this is a very basic outline of how anthropologists use the word culture. And in this series, this is how I will be using culture. When I use the word “culture,” I am talking more about a process than a group of people. This is why you will see me use the word “social” or “society” when referring to a group or population, and the word “culture” when referring to the processes that create all those things that Tylor mentioned above.

Why are cross-cultural perspectives important?

Cross-cultural perspectives help us learn about the great diversity of what it means to be human. They also help us reduce biased thinking by illuminating which thoughts and behaviors are culturally mediated and not biological or natural. This extends to topics of gender, sex, and sexuality. By better understanding how gender, sex, and sexuality are experienced and expressed across cultures, we begin to see just how much of our gender and sexuality are not natural biological processes, but sociocultural constructions.

Old-School Anthropology: Bronislaw Malinowski in the Trobriand Islands

One of the methods that anthropologists use to get cross-cultural perspectives is cultural relativism. I have elsewhere addressed in more depth how this term is often misunderstood by both the public and the skeptical communities. Very briefly, it is not the same as moral relativism, nor does it imply that we should treat all cultural values as equal. What the method of cultural relativism does is allow us to gain perspective by suspending value judgments. We attempt to minimize our biases and, in this way, better understand how people within certain social groups experience the world.

We call this an emic perspective, which is just a fancy anthropological way of saying an insider’s perspective. The opposite of this is an etic perspective. For example, you have an emic perspective of the society that you were socialized and enculturated into. You have an etic perspective of the cultures of other societies which you were not enculturated into. Anthropologists have myriad methods of gaining emic perspectives, but the most well-known one is ethnographic fieldwork, where anthropologists go and live with a group of people for anywhere from one to three years. This helps the anthropologist see a culture from the inside and learn about the society by participating in the daily life of the society (we call this participant observation). In this way, anthropologists gain an emic perspective (though, admittedly, it will never be the same emic perspective as those native to the society).

The purpose of laying all of this out is that the articles in this series will be from culturally relativistic, emic perspectives. I will be exploring how peoples in different societies with different cultures experience and express gender, sex, and sexuality. It is cross-cultural because we can use this as a tool to help us understand not only the diversity of human gender and sexuality but also our own culturally mediated understandings of gender and sexuality. I will avoid passing value judgments about these societies because that’s not the purpose–but that does not mean I am condoning or condemning anything I discuss.

So what, exactly, qualifies as queer?

Like the question about culture above, the topic of what qualifies as queer can be quite contentious as well. According to Michel Foucault, sexuality is a concept that arises specifically out of the Enlightenment, and this is why we cannot speak of homosexuality in non-Western or ancient societies. While Foucault’s argument is laid out brilliantly and beautifully in The History of Sexuality, I am not quite so sure he was correct. The ethnographic record in anthropology clearly demonstrates that, even if not exactly the same, concepts like sexuality have existed across time and space.

The concept of gender also clearly exists cross-culturally. Gender is usually viewed from an emic perspective as natural and biological; however, work within the social sciences has clearly demonstrated that it is not so cut-and-dry. I am sure we will have time in other articles to go into the concepts of gender and sex, so I shall not touch on them here.

Where there is culture, there are norms; and where concepts like gender, sex, and sexuality exist, there are norms for these categories. It is those that do not fit neatly into these categories of norms that I will consider to be queer. I realize it can be problematic to use this term–especially with people who do not use it for themselves. So, I will always endeavor to use whatever terms people use to describe themselves; however, when I fail to find an adequate term, I will use the term “queer” as an umbrella term for non-normative gender and sexuality.

Future articles

Now that I’ve laid out the bare essentials to understanding my approach in this series, I would like to provide a brief and completely non-comprehensive list of some of the topics I will be talking about in future articles. If there are any groups that are not addressed on this list that you would like to see, please feel free to e-mail suggestions to me using the “Contact” link at the top of the page.

Hijra Protest in Islamabad, Pakistan. Image from Wikipedia.
Hijra Protest in Islamabad, Pakistan. Image from Wikipedia.

Future articles will include information about:

  • Indigenous North America (e.g., Two-Spirit Peoples)
  • Hijras (India)
  • Tombois (West Sumatra)
  • Katohey (Thailand)
  • Tongzhi (Hong Kong/China)
  • Bishōnen (Japan)
  • The Pacific (fa’afafine [Samoa], Fakaleiti [Tonga])
  • Indigenous South America
  • Indigenous and colonial Africa
  • Contemporary North America (LGBTQ social rights movements, drag queens)
  • Ancient Western societies (Greece, Rome)
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  1. Thanks for this great brief introduction to anthopology! I’m really excited to follow along. My only question regarding this article would be, would you consider minority sexual/gender identities that are thoroughly normalized and even valorized within their communities to be “queer”? Perhaps normativity is more of a spectrum…

    • I agree that “normativity” is a spectrum–and it is also dynamic and changes over time. I’m reminded of work by Gayle Rubin (the one who came up with the sex/gender system), who would also probably agree with you that normativity exists on a spectrum. She proposed what she termed a sex hierarchy, where the married heterosexual couple is placed at the top as the idealized normal sexual relationship. Then it moves down from there, with pedophiles at the very bottom as the most stigmatized, lowest, most taboo and unacceptable sexual relationship.

      Of course, this hierarchy most likely cannot universally be applied cross-culturally, but it certainly appears to be a valid system of understanding sexuality norms in many societies.

      So, I guess it would depend on the community. Could you provide an example of minority sexual/gender identities that are completely normalized and/or valorized?

      • Yes, I really enjoyed that essay of Rubin’s! I’m sorry, I don’t have a super thorough understanding of these issues to the point where I could definitively name examples. The comment was more coming from a vague awareness of, e.g., certain classes of “third gender”-type identities having a degree of social prestige and sometimes being attributed shamanic/magical abilities in some societies, and the relative normalcy of certain types of (what we would call) male homosexual behavior in ancient Greece, for instance. But now that I think about it, I’ve got to admit I can’t really come up with an alternative term for the range of practices and identities we’d all like to see covered here. So please carry on 🙂

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