Skip to Main Content
Have library access? Log in through your library
The Gender of the Gift

The Gender of the Gift: Problems with Women and Problems with Society in Melanesia

Marilyn Strathern
Copyright Date: 1988
Pages: 437
  • Cite this Item
  • Book Info
    The Gender of the Gift
    Book Description:

    In the most original and ambitious synthesis yet undertaken in Melanesian scholarship, Marilyn Strathern argues that gender relations have been a particular casualty of unexamined assumptions held by Western anthropologists and feminist scholars alike. The book treats with equal seriousness-and with equal good humor-the insights of Western social science, feminist politics, and ethnographic reporting, in order to rethink the representation of Melanesian social and cultural life. This makesThe Gender of the Giftone of the most sustained critiques of cross-cultural comparison that anthropology has seen, and one of its most spirited vindications.

    eISBN: 978-0-520-91071-3
    Subjects: Anthropology

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Preface
    (pp. ix-xii)
  4. Acknowledgments
    (pp. xiii-xvi)
    Marilyn Strathern

    • 1 Anthropological Strategies
      (pp. 3-21)

      It might sound absurd for a social anthropologist to suggest he or she could imagine people having no society. Yet the argument of this book is that however useful the concept of society may be to analysis, we are not going to justify its use by appealing to indigenous counterparts. Indeed, anthropologists should be the last to contemplate such a justification. Scholars trained in the Western tradition cannot really expect to find others solving the metaphysical problems of Western thought. Equally absurd, if one thinks about it, to imagine that those not of this tradition will somehow focus their philosophical...

    • 2 A Place in the Feminist Debate
      (pp. 22-40)

      Feminist debate lies beyond the social sciences in another sense. Its premises are not those of an incomplete project, an openness to the diversity of social experience that presents itself for description. Its openness is of a different kind, its community of scholars differently constituted. After all, the idea of an incomplete project suggests that completion might be possible; feminist debate is a radical one to the extent that it must share with other radicalisms the premise that completion is undesirable. The aim is not an adequate description but the exposing of interests that inform the activity of description as...


    • 3 Groups: Sexual Antagonism in the Guinea Highlands
      (pp. 43-65)

      The Papua New Guinea Highlands were opened up to investigation at particular moment in the expansion of post-war anthropology. None the ethnographic reportage from that era is untouched by the concerns of the day, and the residue of those concerns is deeply sedimented in the way in which the ethnographic materials themselves were shaped. Although my remarks are not confined to the region, I use it as the site a minihistory of the changing formulations of what first the study male-female relations and then the study of gender relations has come to mean.

      It is easy to overlook how recently...

    • 4 Domains: Male and Models
      (pp. 66-97)

      Whereas in the Eastern Highlands male collective life outside warfare once focused on cult activity of various kinds, including the all-important initiation of boys, ceremonial exchange takes that place of prominence in the Western Highlands. In opening his study of Wola,¹ Sillitoe refers to exchange as “the sociological principle which forms the backbone of Wola society” (1979: 1):

      The premise of this study is that to understand Wola society it is necessary to appreciate how these people resolve a universal paradox which faces mankind. This paradox concerns individual freedom and the restrictions which society places upon this freedom. That is,...

    • 5 Power: Claims and Counterclaims
      (pp. 98-132)

      Interpretations of sexual antagonism in the Papua New Guinea Highlands have never taken men’s claims at face value. I do not mean as to whether their domination over women is effective but in reference to the way the claims as such are promoted. For these are seen to express anxieties on men’s part about their ‘real’ control of women’s powers, and hence indicate both the extent to which these powers present a challenge and the extent to which men’s social institutions fail to acknowledge an ultimate dependence upon women. Withdrawal into all male activities, it is held, by denying also...

    • 6 Work: Exploitation At Issue
      (pp. 133-168)

      Feminist concerns with the ideology of sexual identity and feminist anthropologists’ concern with the nature of the political-domestic divide would not have quite their critical edge if it were not for what seems one pervasive and near universal fact of life: the apparently persistent misrecognition of women’s work as somehow less than work. Either women’s labors are hidden from sight or else, where they are visible, do not give women the social scope that men’s activities enjoy and may well be overshadowed by other criteria of public importance. Such evaluations inhere in cultural arrangements and classifications. Since these are often...


    • 7 Some Definitions
      (pp. 171-190)

      Speaking of the regenerative power that Tubetube people in the southern Massim, off the coast of Papua New Guinea, ascribe to shells, Macintyre observes,

      [w]hereas commodity fetishism abstracts the human activity that produced an item from its producer and ascribes it to the product, the ascription of reproductivity to shell valuables ideologically reaffirms the centrality of human agency in production. (1984:113)

      To the far east of Tubetube lies Sabarl. The wealth items that there flow between people are said to look like people, the shadow they cast being linguistically classified as animate (Battaglia 1983a: 291). Battaglia’s description of wealth items...

    • 8 Relations Which Separate
      (pp. 191-224)

      The societies of the Massim briefly alluded to in the last chapter—Tubetube, Sabarl, Gawa—are all ‘matrilineal’ in terms of their kinship organization. The affairs of women and men are, nonetheless, governed by constraints similar to those elucidated for the central Highlands dominated by ‘patrilineal’ kinship ideologies. Indeed, the Massim will advance the argument in important respects, for it bears comparison through the nature of ceremonial exchange. Although mortuary ceremonies in many of these societies should be given first prominence‚¹ my initial interest is in the exchanges that take men away from their home communities. While it by no...

    • 9 Forms Which Propagate
      (pp. 225-267)

      There is one point on which accounts of male initiation ceremonies for Papua New Guinea Highlands seem generally agreed: boys are represented as having to be separated from the domestic sphere where they were nurtured. Separation is construed as removal from maternal influence, with no doubt about the extractive idiom. The children must torn from their mothers. Whether or not there is accompanying female initiation, the parallel with the boys’ bride-to-be is sometimes overlooked. As is clear from Gimi practices, a girl must in turn be detached from paternal influence, separated from an identification with own father. Simultaneously, she becomes...

    • 10 Cause and Effect
      (pp. 268-306)

      There is a final concreteness to be discarded in approaching Melanesian societies from the viewpoint of Western/European ones. To concentrate on the objectifications of Melanesian cultures appears to eliminate subjectivity. The acting agent is seemingly not required in my explanation of how people manage their affairs—and I write as though cultures proceed independently with their reifications, persons appearing only as the reflex of relationships. In fact, the individual subject has been present in my account all along; she/he just does not take the shape we are used to seeing.

      Leenhardt (1979 [1947]) faced this problem in New Caledonia. With...


    • 11 Domination
      (pp. 309-339)

      The as-if and so-to-speak hesitations in my account have been quite deliberate. I have not authored ‘a perspective’ on Melanesian society and culture; I have hoped to show the difference that perspective makes, as one might contrive an internal dissociation between the character of an author and the character of his/her characters. Consequently, I have not presented Melanesian ideas but an analysis from the point of view of Western anthropological and feminist preoccupations of what Melanesian ideas might look like if they were to appear in the form of those preoccupations.

      The account was therefore not phenomenological in the ordinary...

    • 12 Comparison
      (pp. 340-344)

      This is in the nature of an epilogue rather than a chapter. In so far as I have been trying to make the conventions of my account explicit, the strategy of comparison has been obvious throughout. Viewpoints have been played off against one another. I do not intend to make the obvious more obvious. What possibly remains of interest, however, are the questions that have in the course of this process disappeared.

      One concern is laid to rest. It is not the dreary case that in society after society we encounter example after example of men displaying dominance over women...

  9. Notes
    (pp. 345-384)
  10. Bibliography
    (pp. 385-406)
  11. Author Index
    (pp. 409-412)
  12. Subject Index
    (pp. 413-422)