Feminizing the Canon: Classics in Anthropology from the Perspective of Female Authors

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PhD Ana Gretel Echazú Böschemeier, PPGSCol/UFRN (Brazil)[i]; PhD Izis Morais Lopes dos Reis, MPDFT/DF (Brazil)[ii];PhD Natalia Cabanillas, PPGS, FAFICH/UFMG (Brazil)[iii]; PhD Olga Rodríguez-Sierra, ICe/UFRN (Brazil)[iv]; MgSc Maria José Villares Barral Villas Boas, UnB (Brazil)[v]; PhD Lucrecia Greco, UBA/ICS (Argentina)[vi]

What is a classic? Have we ever questioned the grounds to consider a text a ‘classic’? As young anthropologists in Brazil, we present this syllabus departing from this very simple question. We have inherited astonishing obedience to the “founding fathers” of the discipline, by reading their monographs, discussing their theories, and memorizing their disputes and polemics (Eriksen & Nielsen, 2001). Often, women appear as subjects of the research only in the background or mentioned in the acknowledgments as wonderful colleagues and partners of their male counterparts. However, female anthropologists have existed, they have written a variety of texts and ethnographies. Where are these female authors represented in the canon? Is it possible that none of their contributions deserve a place in the list of the so-called ‘classics’? Hence, we insist in the question, what is, precisely, a classic?

The literature professor Ankhi Mukherjee wrote about this question and started from a very problematic statement: “the classic is the one who survives critical questioning” (Mukherjee, 2010: 1028). She proposes that the “classics” are a sociological category defined as the “aristocracy of texts” and that the power of canonicity in the formation of a corpus is “to congeal the literary art of memory” (idem, 2010: 1029). We believe there has been a theoretical and experiential alienation from several generations of anthropologists who have been educated by reading, memorizing, discussing and quoting theoretical and ethnographic texts in which the subject that writes is primarily a man.

In Brazilian academy the situation acquires particular contours. Except for the outstanding contributions of the European anthropologist Mary Douglas (1966), the North American anthropologists Margaret Mead (1928) and Ruth Benedict (1934), the Brazilian anthropologists Mariza Peirano (1981) and Mariza Corrêa (1990); the anthropological corpus of classic texts in Brazilian universities has been dominantly masculine. The remarkable research from Miriam Grossi and Carmen Rial (2002) points towards the important contributions of three French women ethnologists and Marcel Mauss’ students: Denise Paulme, Germaine Dieterlain, and Germaine de Tillion. The ethnologist Marcel Mauss is one of the so-called “founding fathers” of anthropology; however, his female students appear more like the living memory of an extraordinary man than as singular contributors to anthropology themselves. The downplay of women contributions has been a frequent situation in our discipline. In this line, Mariza Corrêa states the difficulty of recovering the imprint of women as contributors to anthropology, who appear as “minor characters, people passing through the halls” (2003, p. 17).

Driven by a vigorous interest in diversifying the canon, we propose a course syllabus that gives substance, vitality, and a new light on concerns of past and present female authors. We organized the proposal by geographical locations, intending to decenter knowledge production from the Eurocentric pattern. Our proposal is more provocative than exhaustive: the aim is to socialize our discomfort. We are convinced that bringing female authors into basic anthropological discussions will disrupt opressing disciplinary pedagogies and help grow our discipline towards a more diverse discussion.

Our course addresses the following questions: Who are those women anthropologists? What did they write about? What were their concerns and interests? Which concepts and methodologies they brought to our field? How can we build a timeline made from fragments of a story that has yet to be unified? Further, our general framework includes other systems of power intersecting with the variable gender, such as race and class (Crenshaw, 1995). To this end, our course is not only grounded in feminist theory but also in a postcolonial approach. To say it explicitly, the authors regarded as classics of the discipline were not only men; they were white men writing from the position of privilege where social relations of modernity, capitalism, and patriarchy favored them. We put particular emphasis in searching for those perspectives that have been silenced or given less importance due to their symbolic place of writing.

From a methodological standpoint, the genderization – as well as the racialization – of women during fieldwork is precious to the very constitution of politics of a situated knowledge (Haraway, 2009). The interlocutors in the field, the research focus, and the links between problematic nodes (Oldfield & Salo, 2009) allow the emergence of a differentiated perspective. Our purpose is to start a discussion that brings the theoretical and methodological diversity of women’s voices; for instance, the indigenous, the Afro-descendants, and the mestizas. Also, the voices from collectivities that struggle for their right to representation and proportionality in the scientific field as well as in other domains of society (e.g. the LGBTT community). Facing this era of “post-humanism” haranguing masses all over the world, the deconstruction of the anthropological canon emerges as a platform for diversity and defense of human rights. The history and contributions of female authors deserve to be acknowledged as a precious legacy to be remembered and expanded by new generations of world anthropologists.

About us

This initiative stems from postgraduate students and alumni of the Programa de Pós-Graduação em Antropologia Social at the University of Brasília (PPGAS/UnB), and has been complemented by researchers linked to South African, Mexican and Argentinian universities that spent different academic periods at Brazilian universities. We are authors of monographs and articles that have learned to face the unconscious gender biases that permeate through the practice of science. Silence is the most common survival strategy, silence about gender inequality and violence in our classrooms, syllabus, committees, publications, and congresses. To identify those pitfalls, we have decided to socialize the deconstruction process of the ‘classics’ as a sociological category through discussions and insights happening inside and outside the classrooms. Our hope is to cherish the style, concerns, and positions of all those women who write anthropology.

Find the syllabus below: 

 [embeddoc url=”https://www.teachinganthropology.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/03/Feminising-the-Canon-Syllabus.docx” download=”all” viewer=”microsoft”]


Benedict, Ruth (1934), Patterns of Culture, Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company.

Corrêa, Mariza (2003), Antropólogas e antropologia [Female anthropologists and anthropology], Belo Horizonte: Editora da UFMG.

Crenshaw, Kimberlé (1995), Critical Race Theory: The Key Writings that Formed the Movement, New York: The New Press.

Douglas, Mary (1966), Purity and Danger: An Analysis of Concepts of Pollution and Taboo, London & New York: Routledge.

Eriksen, Thomas & Finn Nielsen (2001), A history of anthropology, Chicago: Pluto Press.

Haraway, Donna (2009), ‘Situated Knowledges. The science question and the privilege of partial perspective’, Cadernos Pagu, (5): 7-41. Available at: http://www.clam.org.br/bibliotecadigital/uploads/publicacoes/1065_926_hARAWAY.pdf

Mead, Margaret (1928), Coming of age in Samoa: a psychological study of primitive youth for western civilisation, New York: William Morrow and Company.

Mukherjee, Ankhi (2013), What Is a Classic? Postcolonial Rewriting and Invention of the Canon, Standford: Stanford University Press.

Oldfield, Sophie; Salo, Elaine (2009), ‘Nurturing researchers, building local knowledge, the body politics project’, Feminist Africa, (13) 87-94.

Rial, Carmen; Grossi, Miriam (2002), Mauss Segundo Suas Alunas [Mauss from the view of his female students]. [Documentary] Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4_bsGMv1Ns8

[i] gretigre@gmail.com

[ii] izis.mlopes@gmail.com

[iii] nataliacabanillas@gmail.com

[iv] rodriguezsierra.olga@gmail.com

[v] zezabarral@gmail.com

[vi] lucreciagreco@gmail.com

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