The Gender of the Gift summary

The Gender of the Gift
Marilyn Strathern

Here is a brief summary of one of the main points discussed in Marilyn Strathern’s book. 

        The author analyses gender relations in Melanesia and critiques western anthropological and feminist approaches to understanding these relations. One of Strathern’s arguments states that social relations, including gender relations, cannot be seen as things that happen in the same contests. Gender relations in different societies cannot be looked upon as identical relations since the idea of gender itself differs from one culture to another.

        Feminist analysis typically involves preoccupation with the conflict between masculinity and femininity, and unfairness of gender roles and domains. For example, western views on domestic and public domains include a notion that female domesticity makes them incomplete, childlike, and less able than men, but domesticity in Hagen is not viewed in the same way, and it does not make women appear weak, silly, or childlike. In Melanesian contest, western ideas on male and female domains and gender roles don’t work in the same way as they do in the West; applying western gender constructs and gender imagery to a different culture is not reasonable. The author believes that there is a need to reexamine and question certain anthropological metaphors and western images of Melanesian people in order to shed away erroneous views on the notion of gender, domination, exclusion, et cetera.

         Some of these erroneous views arise from the western perspective on what is thought to be exclusively male or exclusively female, and that this gender identity in people usually depends on their body. In western culture people feel the need to identify themselves and things as strictly male or female – gender identity is fixed. Melanesians, however, view gender identity differently; for example, “what differentiates men and women […] is not the maleness or femaleness of their sexual organs but what they do with them,” and both men and women can become more or less male or female depending on the circumstances (Strathern 1988:128).   

        Issues of domination and exclusion in terms of division of labor also differ. In the West, work performed by men is seen as more valuable, and commodity-oriented economy goes together with alienation. In the gift economy, however, alienation is absent because people don’t possess alienable items. Moreover, among Hagen work is not directed towards production of things – it is directed towards effectiveness of social relationships, including those between a man and a woman who are subjects which act with one another in mind, contrary to the commodity view where one person is a subject, and other – an object being acted upon.

Strathern, Marilyn. 1988 The Gender of the Gift. University of California Press

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