Thursday, September 20, 2007

Mundurucú Culture

The next course reading, “Mundurucú Culture,” is a chapter from an important ethnography, Women of the Forest by Yolanda and Robert Murphy.

Much of the material in the chapter is a straightforward presentation of basic cultural features of the Mundurucú, a Native American society from Central South America, including discussion of the gendered division of labor in horticultural and foraging practices, kinship and marriage patterns, residence patterns, etc.

One key topic to consider when reading and thinking about the chapter is the role of architecture and the social organization of space in shaping interactions between people, especially in relation to gender. The Murphys talk a great deal about the ways in which men’s and women’s houses are constructed and laid out within a village, as well as a concentric organization of social space, with the village the inner circle, the gardens in a ring around the village, and the forest as a nearly purely men’s area surrounding that.

Another key topic is not just the presence of male domination, but the particular way in which it is organized in practice. We discussed in class June Nash’s account of the growth over time of patriarchal male domination in certain class contexts of the Aztec polity. Here we encounter another society characterized in part by male domination, though in a distinct form referred to by some anthropologists as fratriarchy.

Another issue the Murphys address, though more in other parts of their book than in this particular chapter, is the relationship between ideas or perceptions and practices. If we ask whether the Mundurucú society is male dominated, our answer depends in part on our definitions.

My inclinations are generally to define something like “male domination” in terms of regular or typical social practice. In practice, women’s actions and movements are highly restricted while men’s are not; men’s activities are more highly valued (by men, and by women much of the time); men tend to have more influence in the community in general; men occasionally physically control women through physical violence, including occasional gang rapes. At the same time, the Murphys stress that Mundurucú women, for the most part, do not see themselves as oppressed or dominated. If domination or oppression are conceptualized mainly in terms of perception (to be oppressed is to feel oppressed), then Mundurucú women are not oppressed. If domination is conceptualized in terms of practices, the Mundurucú are a male-dominated society (and the absence of publically reported feelings of being dominated can be seen as a further example of male domination in practice, in terms of influence on the culture’s discourse on what is properly masculine and feminine, i.e. women’s lack of feeling dominated in society in which their actions are thoroughly regulated can be seen as an instance of socialization of "false consciousness" – or an instance of hegemonic control, for those familiar with the thought of Italian Marxist philosopher Antonio Gramsci).

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