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“Understanding sex and gender” by Henrietta L. Moore ? Henrietta L. Moore in Companion Encyclopedia of

“Understanding sex and gender” by Henrietta L. Moore


Henrietta L. Moore in Companion Encyclopedia of Anthropology: Humanity, culture and social life, edited by Tim Ingold, Routledge, 1994.

“ In the discussion of sex and gender in human social life, one term emerges as particularly problematic, and that term is natural. In public debates concerning the origins of so-called sex differences and the nature of relations between women and men – debates which are conducted in the media, in day-to-day interactions and in the academic discourses – a series of assertions are made which utilise the word natural in ways which are fundamentally misleading. These assertions are of several kinds, but a common feature of many is that thy describe the differences established in social life between women and men as originating in biology. This apparently quite straightforward proposition has been strongly contested by work in the social sciences over the last two decades. The labour of contestation and refutation has been complicated by a particular view of biology itself: a view which has been shared by many commentators both academic and non-academic. (… ) This new vision of relationship between biology and behaviour, and the revised view of biology on which it is based, have been relatively slow to influence thinking in social sciences because of the way in which social scientist have been, and continue to be, haunted by the shadow of biologically determinism, especially in its most recent guise as

sociobiology. It was, in part, to try and combat biologically deterministic arguments that feminist anthropologists in the 1970s emphasised the importance of distinguishing biological sex from gender. The idea that the terms woman and man denote cultural construct rather than natural kinds had been mooted much earlier by Margareth Mead who, in Sex and Temperament (1935), had argued that considerable cultural variability exists in definitions of femaleness and maleness. This approach was extended and developed in the 1970s, and much new ethnographic evidence for variability in what the categories woman and man mean in different cultural contexts demonstrates clearly that biological differences between the sexes cannot provide a universal basis for social definitions. In other words, biological differences cannot be said to determine gender constructs, and, as a result, there can be no unitary or essential meaning attributable to the category woman or the category of man. The distinction between biological sex and gender has proved absolutely crucial for the development of feminist analysis in the social sciences, because it has enabled scholars to demonstrate that the relation between women and men, and the symbolic meanings associated with these categories, are socially constructed and cannot be assumed to be natural, fixed or predetermined. Cross- cultural data have been particularly useful in this regard, providing the empirical evidence to show that gender differences and gender relations are culturally and historically variable. (… )”