La Différence

Anthropology – Society, Difference and Identity

The first professor of anthropology in the United States, Daniel G. Brinton, published in 1890, a compilation of ethnography lectures, Races and Peoples, that included a craniology survey listing features used to classify races. Brinton explained: “We are accustomed familiarly to speak of ‘higher’ and ‘lower’ races, and we are justified in this even from merely physical considerations. These indeed bear intimate relations to mental capacity” (Lee D. Baker 1998: 34). Anthropology was born rooted in a main discourse on race applied to society.

Difference, identity and society have been at the heart of anthropological studies since the very early years. We will analyze these concepts through the historical context of anthropology, the intervention and legacy of Franz Boas on American anthropology and the contribution of Feminism and Post-Marxism theories in the studies of contemporary social order.


The post civil war foundation of industrial capitalism rapidly augmented the gap between a selected part of society accumulating wealth and the other part of this society. Disparities and inequalities were rising exponentially and answers were needed to explain the extremes of enrichment and poverty. A rationale was soon proposed by anthropological research: there was a natural hierarchy of class and race where only the fittest individuals or races advanced. The first professional departments of anthropology were created by the end of the 19th century and anthropology writings of the day would justify racism with the natural inferiority of the savage. Social Darwinism was at the center of the birth of anthropology applying the biological evolution concept to natural selection in society and race.

The three founding fathers of professional anthropology, John Wesley Powel, Frederick Ward Putnam and Daniel Brinton defended the “orders of races” where inequalities between the civilized and the uncivilized were ranked from superior to inferior. In this hierarchy, the civilized white man was at the top and the savage or the Negro at the bottom. This ranking was applied to language, religion, culture, nationality, ethnicity and race where labels were assigned to people based on their perceived differences.

The reaction to racial segregation appeared in the early 1910s with Franz Boas who took over a leading role in anthropological studies and headed the anti-racism thinking. Boas argued that people of color were not inferior but had unique and historically specific cultures. His writings on society focused on culture, philosophy and history more than biology. Culture became the argument behind difference and Spencerian evolution theories were dismissed. Boas developed the principle of cultural relativism where culture, developed historically through interactions of groups and sharing of ideas, could not be ranked since there was no natural process towards higher cultural forms. Boas argued that the object of anthropology should be “the dissemination of the fact that civilization is not something absolute, but that it is relative, and that our ideas and conceptions are true only so far as our civilization goes” (Baker 1998: 104). Based on this principle, difference and inferiority ceased to be read as synonyms. Cultural relativism was based on a neutral concept that intended to study human differences without judging them. On the one hand, Boas was the promoter of that thought, but on the other he would state the primary reason for African American inequality was racism and that the progress of colored people would be only reached if they were given the opportunity to live with the whites on equal terms. Negroes, for Boas, had the potential to reach the white status of development. Despite his separation from the white supremacy’s anthropology, Boas was still including a comparison where the white civilized was on a more developed phase. In his attempt to help “advance African American equality” (Lee D. Baker 1998: 123), Boas maintained an important level of bias where the savage’s different was still implying an advantage of the white men.

Difference, as may be seen in anthropology, lays in the constitution of the Other. The Constitutive Other denotes a person other than one’s self. The formation of the self needs to be constituted by another self that is identified as different. From the very early anthropology to Boas, the meaning of difference changed from an unresolvable inferior/superior rank of the other, to potential equality through development.

Difference remains at the center of anthropology today. The constitutive other can be seen in Roy Richard Grinker studies of the Lese and the Efe in his work Houses in the Rainforest. He defines his main argument as the incorporation of the Efe into the Lese house by a particular Lese discourse about Lese-Efe differences. “Through metaphor, the Lese seek both to define themselves and to denigrate the Efe” (Grinker 1994: 74).

Difference creates a need of identification away from the other.

Difference and identity

Identity politics turned to the study of this otherness where permanent distance is maintained between the subject of analysis and the analyzer. Anne Maxwell, in her studies of the Museum history, presents this otherness in the scene of the exhibition. The display of colonized people would intensify the distance between the colonized and the colonizer. Boas focused his analysis on the differences in society, with a view to help the other to advance; contemporary identity politics focus on differentiation in order to empower the other. While Boasian cultural relativism distinguished separate but equal cultures in society, there was a space open for interpretation in the neutral approach to the study of difference. Multiculturalism fills this space with the need to add a special value on the less advantaged people falling into the essentialism of the other. In his book, Genealogies for the Present in Cultural Anthropology (1996), Bruce M. Knauft defines Multiculturalism as the valorization of the differences that exist between the multiple ethnic or cultural groups within a society following the belief that cultural diversity needs to be invigorated. Identity politics, Knauft criticizes, gathers everyone in one oppressed group based on universal assumptions that tend towards the creation of one stereotyped other that shares a unique collective identity. David Scott studies the effect of identity politics applied to the African Diasporas that have been at the center of anthropological studies for years. He argues that the anthropological problematic of the “New World Negro” uses the terms “Africa” and “Slavery” as “virtually interchangeable terms” (David Scott 1991: 263) essentializing the African history with an unbreakable link with the horrors of slavery. The main criticism of the essentialism approach to society is that not everyone that is included in the group falls into the group’s concern. Knauft explains how identity politics undervalues the diversity inside the group – he uses Mikhail Bakhtin’s intrinsic outsidedness term – denying any possibility of hybridity or bivalent collectivities.

Brackette F. Williams studies identity in her writings about the ethnic group, one of the main subjects of anthropology. Her analysis of the ethnic group is based in terms of interconnections with economic and political relations to see how an ethnic group interacts with other groups and how it would struggle for income or housing within the context of the State. She concludes that ethnicity is that process of identity formation that “subordinated to nationalist programs and plans – plans intent on creating putative homogeneity out of heterogeneity through the appropriate processes of a transformist hegemony” (Williams 1989: 439). Ethnicity then, is labeling the cultural and political struggle while identity politics identify who is not included in the circle.

All these theories, related or opposed, place culture and society as the focus of the anthropological debate. Some anthropologists would defend the objective of anthropology to be the documentation of difference while valorizing diversity and criticizing oppression. Some would emphasize and strengthen these differences to understand society.

Feminism, difference and identity

Difference and gender identity has been at the center of feminism anthropology. Matilda Coxe Evans Stevenson, the first woman to be remunerated as a government anthropologist during the first wave of feminism, was part of the first research mission to study gender based on the position of women in different cultures. She focused primarily on the American tribe, the Zuni, where women were landowners, had properties, legal rights, and the ability to divorce. Her first work, The Zuni and the Zunians, was printed in 1881 when the white and civilized women had no legal rights (Visweswaran. 1997: 599). Almost a century later, in 1975, Karen Sacks, a feminist anthropologist following and rethinking the Marxist theories presented a study comparing the Mbuti and Ganda people. In her analysis, Mbuti women represented the adult social status, working collectively as part of the productive public sphere, lying outside the domestic sphere. Ganda women on the contrary, represented the private sphere, as the dependent wife working domestically (Sacks, Engels Revisited, 1975: 222). These two studies presented the influence of work and property in the definition of gender roles. The owner and the owned explained the difference between men and women and property was a defining element of the disparities between men and women.

Property as an element of power is at the center of the materialist philosophy of Marxism. The division of labor is based on a natural separation first, within the family, and then within society through individual and opposed families that result in an unequal distribution of labor and property. The first form of property lies in the family where the husband dominates the wife and children. Marxist feminist anthropology explains that with production and property man became the wage earner and women became subordinated. The work division opposing women and men roles in society was also studied by Sacks in that one of the problems is to consider domestic work as private, placing women at the bottom of the society and not recognizing her contribution in the system.

Another consequence of work division is one of Karl Marx’s most important notions, the alienation of labor occurring when the outcome of production becomes someone else’s property. The workers provide the labor force that represents their only asset in exchange for a wage yet the workers’ wage is never enough to afford the final good produced by their own labor force. In this sense, women’s domestic work seen as private without a tangible exchange for her work can be seen as the alienation of women.

Another feminist anthropologist, Gayle S. Rubin focuses on the patriarchal sex and gender system that represents the main driver of work and sex oppression. He studied Lévi-Strauss’ work on marriage as the most basic form of gift-giving where women become “the most precious gift”. In this perspective, women cannot truly benefit from the exchange, since men are the givers and women, the gifts. The approach of essentializing women as the most precious gift takes us back to the essentialism of identity politics. Anthropologist Kamala Visweswaran in her work Feminist Ethnography, cites one of the pioneer feminist anthropologists, Elsie Clew Parsons, in the early twentieth century: “The main objective of feminism in fact might be the defeminisation, the declassification of women as women, the recognition of women as human beings or personalities”. In other words, the main objective of feminism is to diminish the differences between men and women.

Post-Marxism, difference and identity

As per post-Marxism, Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe reject the notion of class struggle as being the only defining antagonism in society and criticize identity politics as being reductionist. Society, they explain, is not a closed system and is different for everyone. Discursive formations of truth are shaped through society that evolve continuously and cannot be reduced to one simple and finalized concept. On the contrary, Post-Marxists recognize in society a plurality of different antagonisms. Difference is then studied through the articulation of happenings where the element is the difference that is not articulated. The articulatory practice establishes relations between different elements by modifying their identity. It gathers all the elements and ideas into a structured totality they call discourse. LaClau and Mouffe see identity politics as a futile exercise since difference emphasizes isolated particularities that will change either way trough articulation. Identity politics are therefore not a viable path since there is no possibility to generalize or stereotype.

How do identity and difference converge at the base of anthropological studies of Power? In terms of identity politics, power would reside in who is in control to decide and determine what history and heritance is, what the oppressed group is oppressed for, or who is within this oppressed group. On the contrary, as we will study further on the second section, in their attempt to fight identity politics and reductionism, LaClau and Mouffe present power as the ability to define reality no longer based mainly on class but including differences on gender, culture, race and history and studying society as an open system in permanent elaboration.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s