Gender and Genre in Egalitarian Societies

In societies that have traditionally been called egalitarian by anthropologists, men and women often have their own distinct social spheres. Participation in culturally central rituals and concomitant verbal genres is often linked to (though not necessarily absolutely determined by) gender. In everyday conversation there were no marked male or female registers among the Kaluli, a small nonstratified society in Papua New Guinea (Schieffelin, 1987). There was some distinction, though, in other verbal genres: men tended to tell the two major genres of stories (trickster stories and bird or animal stories), and women performed sung-texted weeping at funerals and on other occasions of profound loss. Both men and women composed songs and dances for exchange and ceremonial contexts, although women composed a more limited number of song types. Finally, women and girls engaged in an interactional routine (known as ElEma which means "say like that") used in the linguistic socialization of children under the age of 3.

Sherzer (1987) describes the linguistic practices of the Kuna Indians of Panama. Although he notes that there were relatively few gender differences in phonological variation and intonation, in the speech of Kuna men and women was linked to differences in ritual and everyday discourse. Kuna ritual verbal genres (the chanting of chiefs, the speech-making of political leaders, the curing chants of healers, and the chants of puberty rite directors) in which men, and the very occasional woman, participated had specific linguistic properties distinguishing them from everyday speech, as do the two verbal genres which were unique to women (lullabies and tuneful weeping). However, the relationship between gender and discourse was indirect: "[T]he linguistic properties of the Kuna ritual verbal genres are not defined or viewed in terms of gender. Rather they are associated with the verbal genres themselves" (Sherzer, 1987, p. 104). The genres in turn are generally linked to certain tasks which are gender differentiated.

Recently, Briggs has argued for the need to consider language practices and ideologies in "egalitarian" communities as no less complex, differentially distributed, or historically produced than those in other communities. Ideologies and practices of groups now often incorporated (if differentially) into nation-states as cultural minorities or indigenous ethnic minorities need to be studied for the ways that certain kinds of discursive authority are naturalized. To this end, he has written a series of papers about the Warao in Venezuela, paying particular attention to gender and politics, and how these are linked to different relationships with bureaucrats, politicians and missionaries (Briggs, 1992, 1993, 1996, 1998). Women's ritual wailing after a relative dies can provide comments on recent community events. Because such laments are collectively produced, the critiques they offer and the blame they assign is difficult for others, even those putatively more powerful, to challenge. Men's negative accounts of women's gossip can become a field in which disputes between men of different generations with different claims to relations between state and religious officials are worked through, though not necessarily worked out.

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