The Nuclear Family in a Matriarchal Society

by Tarun

In the mountains near Lugu Lake in the high-country of China, a phenomenal community of people exists under completely different societal norms and familial structures. The Mosuo are known to be the last true matriarchal society in existence today, and have both matrilineal and matrilocal practices. What truly make this society unique are the coming-of-age traditions of young women and men. Upon reaching maturity at 13 or 14, girls undergo a “skirt ceremony”[1] in which they are given a room with private street access. Mosuo girls have complete autonomy over who enters their “flower room”; the only strict rule is that guests must be gone by sunrise. “There is no expectation of commitment, and any child she conceives is raised in her mother’s house, with the help of the girl’s brothers and the rest of the community.”[2]. To the Mosuo people, marriage doesn’t exist, only relationships of the “visiting kind” where there is no exchange of vows, property, the care of children, or expectations of fidelity.

Communities like the Mosuo where women enjoy high status and respect are very different from many familiar Western cultures. For example, Steven Goldberg, an American sociologist and author, argues that patriarchy has and always will be the way societies are structured.[3] This male-dominated, nuclear approach to the family unit contrasts the communal approach like that of the Mosuo. Feminist anthropologists would relate these differences to the gendered natures of those societies. The ‘traditional’ nuclear American family may have a skewed gender balance leaning toward masculine authority [i.e. men supporting the household both socially and financially], and strongly associates shame with promiscuity/sexual freedom especially amongst women. The Mosuo family unit is quite the opposite and could be interpreted as having a more equal gender balance. Gender and sexuality within the community is more open than in American culture, which shows a connection between predefined constructs of the sexes and the sexual practices without the constraints of monogamy.

Practice theorists would have taken a different approach, focusing more on the matriarchal vs. patriarchal hegemonic power structures associated with the Mosuo and Western societies. Anthropologists may explain that in Western culture, infidelity within the nuclear family is a way of liberating agency in the socially acceptable structure of a monogamous, patrilineal society. The Mosuo, however, may find agency elsewhere. For example, maintaining a frequent sexual relationship with an individual is abnormal and may express love and desire for monogamy where that culturally doesn’t exist. The Mosuo, a deeply complex culture, give Western anthropologists across fields a unique picture of what a liberated American culture might look like. With contemporary movements toward open relationships, this could be the future of the nuclear family.


[1] “Mosuo.” Wikipedia., accessed 12 November 2015.

[2] Christopher Ryan and Cacilda Jethá, Sex at Dawn: How We Mate, Why We Stray, and What It Means for Modern Relationships (New York: Harper Perennial, 2010), 128.

[3] Christopher Ryan et al., Sex at Dawn (New York: Harper Perennial, 2010), 132.

Posted in 2015 Family Essay | 8 Comments

I Am Not a Tomboy

by Adrien

I grew up in my big brothers’ hand-me-downs, and had short hair until I was older. I spent a significant amount of time with my brothers, but I am not a tomboy. I always get the same reaction in divulging the existence of my two elder brothers: “That makes so much sense.” Following this reaction is an explanation that my sense of humour, assertiveness, span of interests, and general demeanor is “boyish.”

I personally attribute many of these qualities as learned from my mother. My mom left home when she was 17, putting herself through college, finding a career, and starting a family. She got divorced, subsequently starting over as a single mom. She was often forced to rely solely on herself in a largely patriarchal society. She raised me to be capable of the same.

Despite what some call “boyish” qualities, my mother and I shared something apart from the boys. We took “girl time,” went on our own adventures, and talked about issues we could not discuss with the boys. As much as these are meaningful, deeply personal experiences for me, I also understand how Feminism through Practice and Poststructuralist theorists can explain our roles as “strong women” with “boyish” qualities alongside our exclusively “female” experiences together.

Feminist Theory highlights our experiences as gendered[1]. Although this theory can be unpacked further, suffice it to say that the social hierarchy of male dominance has impacted both my mother and myself to exhibit “boyish” behaviour in the public sphere, and to look down upon hyper-”female” behaviour. Insofar as Practice Theory notes there is a difference between what we say we do and what we actually do, the way we act in public does not always carry over to our private “mother-daughter” endeavours. Practice Theorists such as Lila Abu-Lughod would distinguish our performances of boyishness as agency to retain some authority and validity within a patriarchal hegemony, as distinct from our “girlish” alliance in private[2].

Poststructuralism would deconstruct these mother-daughter outings as a form of resistance through discourse[3]. Poststructuralism highlights political, economic, and social structures as enforcers of power. Social structures and discourses are observable through verbal and nonverbal means. My brothers and father never actively seized power over us, and often our “performance” of boyishness left us with some matriarchal clout[4]. Despite this, I found myself confronted with extra rules and earlier curfews than my brothers. Although my mother confronted my father if she vehemently disagreed with his reasoning, she allowed many unequal regulations because I was “her little girl.” Poststructuralism highlights that this discourse is nonetheless consenting to the system of power[5].

The final aspect of Poststructuralism worthy of discussing is the idea of truth and how it unfolds under systems of power[6]. I suspect that it is due to social assumptions of patriarchy in western American society that my mother is not the assumed inceptive force of my independent demeanor, diverse interests, and wacky sense of humour. Instead, I propose that my society’s chosen truth runs patrilineally, and therefore my brothers must give me my “boyish” characteristics rather than my mom.


[1] Lecture, Professor Carole McGranahan, ANTH 2100 Frontiers of Cultural Anthropology, 07 October 2015.

[2] Abu-Lughod, Lila, Veiled Sentiments: Honor and Poetry in a Bedouin Society. University of California Press: 1986, p. 30

[3], accessed 09 November 2015.

[4] Lecture, Professor Carole McGranahan, ANTH 2100 Frontiers of Cultural Anthropology, 12 October 2015.


[6] Lecture, Professor Carole McGranahan, ANTH 2100 Frontiers of Cultural Anthropology, 11 November 2015.

Posted in 2015 Family Essay | 22 Comments

Welcome to the ANTH 2100 Blog – Fall 2015

Welcome to Anthropology2100, a cultural anthropology course blog for Fall 2015.

Anthropology 2100 was originally created by the undergraduate students and graduate student TAs of Professor Carole McGranahan’s Introduction to Cultural Anthropology course, Fall 2010 at the University of Colorado. We are now doing Round Four of this blog in the Fall 2015 semester.

This blog was designed so that students could read and engage others’ work, rather than solely writing for their professor or TAs.  Our goal is to create a space for discussion and debate between students outside of the classroom.

Over the course of this semester, students will write essays on three topics: family, the body, and the non-human.  Students will address these topics from anthropological perspectives, specifically using two different theories in each essay to gain a sense of how anthropological scholarship and argument unfolds.  Depending on what point in the semester the students write any given essay, the theories they are using might be a bit old-fashioned or might represent contemporary theories in cultural anthropology.  Either way, our intention is for students to learn anthropological theory by putting it into use toward topics they find compelling.

(Don’t know much about anthropological theory? Check out our course Theory+Anthropology Wikipage, created by students in the 2010 version of this course.)

We will choose a handful of student essays to put up on Anthropology2100.  As part of their assignment, students are also required to participate in the blog through commenting on posted essays.  Everyone is invited to join in the conversation. Respectful, civil exchanges, questions, and disagreements are welcome; rude, snarky, and/or mean-spirited comments will be taken down.

Thanks for reading, and here’s to good intellectual conversation and anthropology!

Posted in Welcome | Leave a comment

The Art of “Thin-Shaming”

by Skyler

Have you ever seen a young, spindly giraffe try to play soccer, basketball, or rollerblade? That was me for the first seventeen years of my life. While my dad made jokes while embracing me in his arms about how hugging me was like “hugging a number two pencil” (in the most endearing manner), the transition into school was a different story – hearing gossip about me being labeled as an anorexic was a norm for me due to my inherently awkward giraffe physique. In this essay I will examine the overlooked phenomenon of thin-shaming among adolescent girls in American culture through historical particularism & feminist anthropology.

Historical particularism would investigate this issue by looking at how society arrived at a point where the common assumption about very thin women is that they have an eating disorder. In the 1920’s the “desirable” woman was to have a petite, boyish figure with a slim waist. From then forward, we progressed into the hollywood ‘golden age’ which embodied the curvy hourglass figure with large breasts and a plump figure in the 1950’s. Since then we’ve switched back & forth between full figures & dainty physiques. In the 21st century we’ve reverted back to the “thin beauty” ideal, where it’s difficult for most girls to reach this type of uniquely thin physique naturally. We live in a weight obsessed culture, where people often take extreme measures, including nutrition deprivation, to fulfill this ideal. As a result, women whose bodies are inherently thin get caught in the cultural critique & are stamped with an eating disorder. The peak between being ‘too fat’ and ‘too skinny’ becomes increasingly narrow as time goes on. In the end the powerful force of the media dictates how women & men perceive themselves.

Feminist anthropology would question why men don’t face this obstacle. When we are born our bodies are gendered until the time we die, but the difference between men & women in regards to sexualization is crucial to understand. As time progresses, there has been an increase in men objectification, though not nearly to the extent that women experience. As the evolution of women’s bodies continue, any deviation from this frame of the perfect body is scrutinized. For men there are few consequences for this. The implications of being harassed or sexually violated pervade women’s lives. We live in a manipulative culture with a driving force of media behind this body shaming. In the documentary Killing Us Softly, Jean Kilbourne explains the implications of mass media advertising, “The media sells more than products, it sells values, concepts of love, sexuality… and most importantly normalcy.”

The expectation for women’s beauty becomes more complicated and intangible to achieve with each decade. In a culture where advertising profits off self-doubt, it is easy to dislike yourself. Instead of stigmatizing others for being too thin or curvy, we need to realize that ultimately our bodies are just skin made up of cells & tissue, & that they have no power over our virtue, character, or purpose in this world.

Posted in Body Essay (2015) | 57 Comments

The Scarification of Dinka Youth

by Cory

As humans, we innately look for ways to integrate ourselves into a common group. From piercings to tattoos to the clothes on our back to our very beliefs, we are in constant search for connection, and hopefully, a group we can call our own. It is through these actions, decisions and manners of self presentation that we factor into society.

For the Dinka people of southern Sudan, scarring one’s body is not only a way to find your clan in society- it is a full-blown right of passage. The ritual is performed on both boys and girls. The scarring patterns tell a story of personal bravery in the face of extreme pain, as well as where a particular individual belongs. The belonging sought in this sense is one of clan ties: different patterns are associated with different clans. Along with clan ties, scars can also signify physical beauty, namely in female individuals. As an added bonus to females, various scars from their forehead to their liver areas can be regarded as symbols of fertility, good health, eye sight and an increased resistance to headaches. A symbolic and interpretive anthropologist would argue that these scars are the direct result of learned clan traditions. Passed down through the years, from old to new, the symbolic scarring defines the Dinka people. When Clifford Geertz wrote of “webs of significance” defining man’s construction of culture, he argued that the given cultural laws were not scientific, but rather purposed for a “search of meaning”. With the Dinka scars representative of clans and well as being a direct product of culture, the symbols bring the various peoples together through a perceived sense of physical belonging.

Along with a significant symbolic meaning, these practices and rituals can be related to structural-functionalism. Frontier structural-functionalist Radcliffe-Brown suggested that the individual was “irrelevant and replaceable”. In Dinka culture, individuals who show no emotion (wincing, crying, screaming, etc.) are seen as worthy members of the group. They have passed from their adolescence to adult hood, quite literally by the razor’s edge. They now fill a man’s roles and responsibilities in the group, as proven by this test of courage. Alternatively, if the participant breaks this silence, they find themselves losing “a great deal of face” in the community. These individuals find themselves having their responsibilities given to tougher, braver persons. The brave find a pivotal role in society. The weak do not find this same recognition. From this comes the structure and function of the tribe, as decided by strength and courage.

Though painful and bloody the scars of the Dinka are multi-faceted. From beauty to courage to health, from clan ties and a sense of shared belonging, the brutal cuts bring about a great deal of symbolic meaning as well as a physical show of the structure and function to befall these individuals.

Posted in Body Essay (2015) | 22 Comments

Skinny, but Healthy: Perceptions of Bodily Perfection in Japan

by Jaime

Ideas can come from the strangest of places. The idea for this essay came to me as I was struggling to bench what I felt was an immense weight in an attempt to achieve musculature that would make my body more aligned with most American’s perceptions of bodily perfection and attractiveness. In simpler terms, I was trying to get “big”. It seems natural for stronger guys to be more attractive because in movies, social media, and at school the stronger guys almost always get the girls that I perceive to be the most attractive. These observations mislead me into assuming that big muscles were one of those characteristics of attractiveness that transcends cultural differences. This assumption came crashing down after I visited some friends of mine that lived in Tokyo, Japan.

In Japan, there were no really strong guys to be seen anywhere. The movies stars, the models, and just about all of the people were small and skinny. Historical particularism dictates that one should view each culture as unrelated and not governed by universal laws [1]. Viewing Japan through this lens, it is clear to see that its perceptions of bodily perfection developed as a result of its unique history. Japan has historically had a distinguished and cherished cuisine filled with foods that are less energy dense than most western foods, meaning they consume less calories than most “westerners” (calories are a unit of energy that are important muscle growth and the production of fat). Japanese people are also thought to enjoy their food more without even eating it. It is said that they first “eat with their eyes” and try to enjoy the overall beauty of the food even before biting in to it [2]. These behaviors together have historically contributed to Japanese people being some of the thinnest people in the world!

Clifford Geertz believed that specialists within a society could derive symbols and their meanings from the interpretation of observable characteristics [3]. In accordance to this, the perfect Japanese body can be thought of as a symbol of the attitudes most important to the Japanese people. We can observe that a perfect Japanese body is toned, skinny, and healthy, and Japanese author and nutritionist and Naomi Moriyama believes the idealistic Japanese physique is representative of hard work and resilience, (qualities most Japanese men and women aspire to have), thus one can derive that the ideal Japanese body is symbolic of certain cherished characteristics within the society [2].

Attraction is not a static notion. Rather it is an ever-changing part of one’s culture that is unconsciously learned and influenced by one’s upbringing. It is understandable, therefore, for the idea of bodily perfection, (a component of attraction) to vary from culture to culture. Furthermore, notions on attractiveness might inherently be symbolic of important social characteristics within a society.

Posted in Body Essay (2015) | 23 Comments

Kimchi for Christmas

by Kris

“I am half-Korean,” is a response to a question I am asked almost daily, or at least any time I meet a new person. Growing up with a “white” dad and a Korean mom made for some interesting culture clashes. One easy example of my biracial life is Christmas every year. My family spends Christmas with my mother’s side of the family, so it is a fun Korean filled time with hints of American traditions.

My family Christmases fit perfectly with practice theory. My family has managed to dismantle the traditional American Christmas and shape it into a holiday that is somewhat American whilst fitting the Korean needs my family has. Practice theory would classify me as the agent[1] because I am participating in this biracial event and making my own choice to be involved, yet I am doing so within the American social structure. A practice theorist would look at our Christmas dinner with light in his/her eye because our table features ham and mashed potatoes as well as kimchi, bulgogi, and lots and lots of rice from the biggest rice cooker you’ve ever seen. Like Sherry Ortner says, “…the linkage between such structures and any set of social categories… is a culturally and politically constructed phenomenon.”[2] I agree with practice theory because I think there is always resistance to structure and in my family’s own little rebellious way, we are resisting the system in our performance of Christmas.[3]

A feminist theorist would look at our Christmas traditions with a different lense. To a feminist theorist, everything is gendered, which is true, especially of our after dinner traditions.[4] After our Christmas feast (that the women cooked), the men always go to the movie theater with the kids, and the women stay behind and clean up as well as watch a movie of their own at the house. The women in the family do have their time though. In the days following Christmas, the women have a day where they go to the nearest town and shop all day. A feminist theorist would consider this a stereotypical standard for women. Yet, my aunts, mom, and grandmom do not do this because it is a womanly thing they must do. It is their own way to get their free time away from the submersion of family activities that happens around holidays. My opinion may well be a product of feminism because I can not help being influenced by the fact that I identify as a woman, but I take joy in thinking that little tradition is not a product of feminism but a product of their own will.

[1] Lecture, Professor Carole McGranahan, ANTH 2100 Frontiers of Cultural Anthropology, 8 October 2015

[2] Ortner, Sherry B. “Is Female to Male as Nature is to Culture?,” In Women, Culture, and Society. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press. 1974.

[3] Lecture, Professor Carole McGranahan, ANTH 2100 Frontiers of Cultural Anthropology, 8 October 2015

[4] Lecture, Professor Carole McGranahan, ANTH 2100 Frontiers of Cultural Anthropology, 8 October 2015

Posted in Uncategorized | 17 Comments