Distinguishing features

A Passion for Difference
June 2, 1995

In this collection of essays, Henrietta Moore openly documents her struggle to develop a specifically anthropological approach to feminist post-structuralist theory. She is largely successful in this tour de force, engaging with key theorists and providing rich illustrations from her own and others' anthropological data.

Her underlying theme addresses a key tenet within contemporary social and cultural theory, namely that of difference, how identities are delineated and the ways in which group boundaries are formed and maintained. Although Moore primarily analyses differences and identities between and within gender, she also examines race, class and other bases of difference, focusing on how they articulate with gender. Her concern is with sameness, difference and identity in terms of the processes of identification and the desire to belong, particularly to some sense of community. She convincingly demonstrates that difference is a relational concept, always experienced relationally in terms of political discrimination, inequalities of power and forms of domination.

Most cultures do not have a single model of gender but rather a multiplicity of discourses on gender. Discourses about gender categories engender women and men as persons who are defined by difference. Moore analyses competing discourses about what it is to be a man or woman and how they vary between social situations. She uses the term "the post-post-structuralist subject" to refer to an individual's multiple, shifting and often self-contradictory identity, which she contrasts with "the traditional subject of anthropological enquiry, the unitary, whole, rational individual which is prototypically male".

In "Bodies on the move: gender, power and material culture", Moore shows how the organisation of space together with particular material items reflect the hierarchical nature of relations between women and men. She demonstrates the value of analysing the structural relations between cultural symbols while emphasing the contextual nature of symbolic meaning. Moore criticises much structuralist and semiotic analysis within anthropology. She develops and applies Pierre Bourdieu's work in terms of differences between women, while emphasing the link between subjectivity and the individual's material conditions.

The unity of the household is cast asunder by Moore. She analyses conflict and bargaining power within households, while at the same time seeing the household as having permeable boundaries, with social, economic and political processes acting outside the household. She integrates a discussion of power and inequalities with cultural ideologies and individual action. A key element of this is that rights and needs are differentially distributed between different sorts of persons. She argues that the ability to define a social identity is the ability to assign appropriate rights and needs; gender, race and class differences encode ideas about the rights and needs of groups of people. It is salutary to be reminded that people's needs always require interpretation and that needs-interpretation is politically contested.

Moore examines post-modernist critiques of anthropology focusing on what anthropologists claim to represent in their texts, and by what authority anthropologists make these representations. This is conducted against the backdrop of anthropology's role in the construction and maintenance of western imperialism. She examines the claims for the primacy of the anthropologist's interpretation over the interpretation of others, while analysing different modes of anthropological writing, and the strategies employed to convince the reader that objective reality has been portrayed. She provides an inspired analysis of the structure and form of anthropological writing, with detailed quotations from the "founding fathers" of anthropology, and includes insights into the reasons for the differences in the way women and men anthropologists write. She notes the irony that the more anthropologists take note of post-structuralist and post-modernist criticism in their writing, the more their own writing becomes self-conscious and the greater the pervasiveness of the anthropological self in their writing.

Each of the seven essays is of interest in its own right but as a collection there is repetition and lack of coherence. The last essay focuses on a particular novel as an example of a piece of fictional writing that Moore uses to illustrate the connections between feminism, psychoanalysis and anthropology. The book ends with an aphorism: "What masquerades as the academic is very often the popular in disguise."

Sara Arber is professor of sociology, University of Surrey.

A Passion for Difference: Essays in Anthropology and Gender

Author - Henrietta L. Moore
ISBN - 0 7456 1307 1 and 1308 X
Publisher - Polity Press
Price - £39.50 and £11.95
Pages - 177

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