Sensitive zones – Relativising universals

The body in a cross-cultural perspective

Written by Éva Nagy

Why is it so complicated? – The diverse interpretations of the body

Thinking about the human body we head into a tumultuous discourse of many different voices. Numerous scientific fields, political and cultural movements, religions, arts are represented in this multivocal dialogue. Despite the common interest toward the human body, these approaches reflect on the phenomena around the body in divergent ways, however influence and form each other. According to Shilling (Shilling 2005) the body is ubiquitous and at the same time elusive phenomenon in the modern thought, but not just modernity shows great interest toward this subject. One hardly can find any community in time and space which leaves the human body blank or untouched, and doesn’t ‘use’ it to demonstrate its rules, values, concepts of power, existence and social boundedness. Maybe one possible explanation of the omnipresence of the human body is coming from its bifold characteristic, namely its individual and universal quality. On the one hand, body is the territory of unconscious and instinctive, and as such it is a source of highly intimate, deeply personal talk and subjective reflections. On the other hand human body is considered as universal category, something which is possessed by all human beings, where the word ‘possession’ refers to the universal experience of embodiment, as a fundamental part of human existence. To put it in a  simpler way, we all live in a body which is at the crossroads of personal and social, common and individual, material and spiritual. Typical conflicts of the modern health care systems, such as doctor-patient relationship, or in more general, the interpretation of definitions of illness, disability and health, even the problem of modern societies’ relationship to the human body (for example the ideas about beauty, death, suffering and pain) are somehow connected to this kind of duality.

The socially embedded body

The medical anthropological approach interprets this kind of duality through the lens of social embeddedness of the body. In a more simplistic way it is about the differentiation between the two coexisting dimensions of bodily experiences, namely the physical body and the social body. We all have a physical experience of the body, which is never standing alone, but it is deeply embedded into a social context. Therefore the social body is a collection of socially and culturally defined categories which always modify the knowledge about the physical body. The way we think about different attributes of bodies, like the optimal size and shape of it, or the different conditions, functions and structure of the body, even the gender, the age, the colour of the body are socially constructed, and express a universe of culturally defined meanings. (Synnott 1993). At the same time, the body is a filter through which we get in touch with the world around us. So, the physical and social body permanently influence each other. Howson illustrates this embeddedness with great plasticity through a short experiment of self-examination: “Just for a moment think of your own body. Where do you start? With your appearance (the spot that has materialised from nowhere, the bad hair day)? With its shape and size (…)? Are you more aware of your body at some times rather than others, such as when you trip over your feet in a crowded room, belch unexpectedly or break wind in company? (…) Now think about the bodies of other people. (…) soon you will find that the bodies of other people become conspicuous in other ways – smell, size and shape, personal habits. (…) People experience and engage with the social world and with other people from an embodied perspective. Put another way (…) the physical characteristics of our own bodies contribute to shape our perceptions and interactions with others in everyday life.” (Howson 2004:2) Human body has a great symbolic value. With reference to Mary Douglas’s  thoughts, the physical body can be considered as a natural symbol, that is, body symbolises naturally “the relation of parts of an organism to a whole”, more concretely, the individual’s relation to his/her society. In primary sense, the physical body serves as an endless resource of analogies for social and political life (like head of the government, a social body, heart of a country, etc.). Additionally, in the practices of body regulations we can identify the ways of control conducted by the society over its members. Growing social control implies strengthening and widening bodily control: it is expanding to a wide spectrum of body related phenomena, just as smells, noises, movements, and communication about its inner processes. For instance, it is not allowed to show certain parts of the body publicly, or it is not acceptable to talk (or sometimes even think) about different functions or organs of the body. With the increase of control, the body seemingly becomes more and more invisible in social interactions. “The more complex the system of classification and the stronger the pressure to maintain it, the more social intercourse pretends to take place between disembodied spirits. Socialization teaches the child to bring organic processes under control.” (Douglas 1996:76) As a summary, body is a symbol of the self, the embodied identity of a person, something what we are. Simultaneously, the body is a symbol of the society: it is something we have, the greatest determinant of the self because of the social meanings manifested through body regulations. (Synnott 1993:1-2) As a consequence of this relationship between the physical and the social body, the symbolic power of the body serves a perfect territory for medical anthropology to take a look on power relations, social differences, family systems or religious beliefs of different cultures. The body itself through its ever-changing conditions (from birth, anomalies of the body to death) offers special field for anthropological investigation of culturally diverse answers on universal experience of fragility of human life. The cultural connotations of malfunctioning or disabled body not less inspiring for anthropological research. However, medical anthropology started its carreer after WWII, and the first references to applied anthropological approach in the field of medicine have arisen in the early 1960s (Sobo 2011), the body itself remained out of inquiry within medical anthropology till the 1990s. (Lock 1993, Green 1998) Due to the growing consciousness and interest around the body from the late 1970s, problematisation of the body slowly became the part of the medical anthropological horizon. Questions of biopower and governmentality elaborated by Foucault, and the recognized discrepancies between medical taxonomies and subjective illness experiences of patients, draws anthropology’s attention to biomedical categories. (Lock 1993:140-141) Within the realm of medical anthropology a critical view has  emerged as a response to the dominance of the biomedical model over body issues in modern societies. Where is this dominance  coming from? Due to the triumph of modern medicine based on natural scientific traditions, medical understanding become the most legitimate and competent way of speaking about the human body for the 20th century. The biomedical model reduces the bodily events to somatic questions, so the social, cultural, psychological or mental aspects are closed from its cosmology about body-related phenomena. It considers body as an anatomically, physiologically defined complex unit, and malfunctions of it can be analysed and treated with the help of universal classification system of medicine. With the rise of the clinical medicine from the middle decades of the 19th century, the patient is more or less passive actor of the healing process, who subordinates himself to the directions of the physician. (Jewson 2009) Modern medicine established the foundations of mass-medical care which handles thousands of cases. According to Weber, the effectiveness of these complex organisations is guaranteed by the rationalisation of all levels of work, hierarchy of authority, and regulation of actors (Larkin 2011). The rationalisation process (Ritzer 1993) is necessarily extended to the patients, too. A category of the ‘average patient’ is needed to maintain effectiveness, so the culturally, socially coloured, more and more diverse individual needs, special or rare problems and conditions are easily stay invisible. As a consequence, the patient, who is an individual with individual identity, needs, life story, fears and knowledge, experiences impersonalisation, obscurity and maybe insecurity in the uniformalised system of health care. Moreover, the rationalisation of medical delivery systems (Ritzer 1988) and changing lay concepts and knowledge about the body affects the medical profession as well. As a response to these challenges anthropology observes the actors in the world of health and illness in their totality, never cuts them away from their social and cultural contexts, and consider body as multidimensional, complex phenomena, which should be examined alongside diverse aspects and methods. (Bánfalvy, Molnár 2000).

Examples of the body social – the identity and technologies of body alteration

Seeking for examples of intersection of the physical and the social body, alteration of the body could be one of the most referred illustrations. The body is an interface between the self and  society: the two spheres use it like a message board for continuous communication, so far, that we cannot think of the body in purely physical sense even if it is represented in its most natural conditions. Temporary modes of body alteration, like body painting or permanent techniques like tattoos or circumcision can be identified in variable societies. (Sanders-Vail 2008) People use it as an aesthetic practice to be more attractive, or as a tool of self-expression. But body alteration is also a means of performance of social status. Ebin mentions the ritual tattoo of married Ainu women in Japan, who got a blue moustache-like tattoo to distinguish them from the unmarried female members of the community. A smaller version of the tattoo has been prepared during their puberty which gains its final form after the wedding. Beside the face the hands of the married women are tattooed as well, to express their loyalty and allegiance to their husbands. (Ebin 1979) Body alteration, for example cosmetic surgery in modern societies, maybe interpreted as an inscription of the body, that is, the society through the preferred resizing and reshaping techniques represents its standards of normality, health or beauty, which is a way of discipline and regulation of its members. At the same time in the era of flood of images about bodies, tattooing or piercing of the body could be action of protest against the virtuality of the body, and emphasise the “flesh and blood” reality of it. Schildkrout says “these practices may highly symbolic, but they are not metaphorical. They represent a kind of ‘border skirmishing’ (Fleming 2001, p. 84) between selves and others and between social groups. They inevitably involve subjects who experience pain, pass through various kinds of ritual death and rebirth, and redefine the relationship between self and society through the skin.” (Schildkrout 2004:320) To put it in a nutshell, the physical and the social body is reflecting on each other through the relations between the natural and artificial alteration of the body. The traits of passing time like wrinkles, changing weight, height or physical capacity evoke social answers in the form of body alteration. Nevertheless, there is a significant difference between the traditional and modern consumer society. As Featherstone explicates, in traditional societies all relevant milestones of life are signed by body rituals, where activities with physical and biological roots (eating, drinking, decoration, mutilation, purity rituals) symbolises the changing social status of the naturally changing body. So body alteration draws attention to the lapse of time. In modern societies body alteration techniques occur in an opposite way: the reshaping of the body is happening with the aim of hiding the marks of time, the boundaries between life-cycles disappear or at least become blurred and porous. The symbolic effects of body alteration possibly reach under the skin. The maintenance or conservation of the body is  time-consuming and turns into  a distinguished lifestyle form. The young, capable and thin body is a masterpiece of life, and the social relevance of attractiveness gains increasing significance in the interactions between the members of the society. It is the era of the self-preservationist conception of the body. (Featherstone 1982)


The flourishing concepts and binaries around the body mirrors its inner symbolic power, but during the analyses of meanings and interpretations of these symbols, it is important to make analytically difference between having a body, doing a body and being a body. “It reminds us, that self and the body are not separate, and that experience is invariably, whether consciously or not, embodied.” (Nettleton 2010:57) From the point of view of the everyday practice of health care, the recognition of this kind of interconnectedness shows a way to a complex model of health, illness and disability, and in a more general sense, it creates a chance for a more self-reflective understanding of medicine and health care work.


Bánfalvi A. – Molnár P.(2000):Az orvosi antropológia státusáról. Egy hallgatói dolgozatkérdés tanulságai. In: LAM, 10(11-12):916-922 Douglas, M. (1996): The two bodies. In: Douglas, M.: Natural Symbols. Routledge, London-New York. pp 69-88. Ebin. V. (1979): The Body Decorated. Thames and Hudson, London Featherstone, M. (1982): The Body in Consumer Culture. In: Theory, Culture and Society, 1(2) pp18-33. Green, L. (1998): Lived Lives and Social Suffering: Problems and Concerns in Medical Anthropology. In: Medical Anthropology Quarterly. 12/1 pp 3-7. Howson. A. (2013): The Body in Society. Polity Press, Cambridge Jewson, N. D. (2009): The disappearance of the sick-man from medical cosmology, 1770-1870. In: International Journal of Epidemiology, 38: 622-633 Larkin, M. (2011): Social Aspects of Health, Illness and Healthcare. Open University Press, pp 191 Lock, M. (1993): Cultivating the Body: Anthropology and Epistemologies of Bodily Practice and Knowledge. In: Annual Review of Anthropology, 22 pp 133-55. Nettleton, S. (2010): The Sociology of the Body. In: Cockerham, W. C. (Ed.):The New Blackwell Companion to Medical Sociology. Wiley Blackwell Reischer, E. – Koo, S. K. (2004): The Body Beautiful: Symbolism and Agency in the Social World. Ritzer, G. – Walczak, D. (1988): Rationalization and Deprofessionalization of the Physicians. In: Social Forces 67 (1):1-22 Ritzer, G. (2014): The McDonaldization of the Society. SAGE Pub. Sanders, C. R. – Vail, A. D. (2008): Customizing the Body. The Art and Culture of Tattooing. Temple University Press, Philadelphia Schildkrout, E. (2004): Inscribing the Body. In: Annual Review of Anthropology. 33:319-44 Shilling, C. (2005): The Body in Culture, Technology and Society. SAGE Pub., London Sobo, E. J. (2011): Medical Anthropology in Disciplinary Context: Definitional Struggles and Key Debates (or Answering the Cri Du Coeur). In: Singer, M.– Ericson, P. I. (Ed): A Companion to Medical Anthropology. Wiley-Blackwell, 9-29. Synnot, A. (1993): The Body Social. Symbolism, Self, and Society. Routledge, London Turner, B. S. (1997): A test elméletének újabb fejlődése. In: Featherstone M. –Hepworth, M. – Turner, B. S: A test: Jószöveg könyvek, Bp.


The social construction of gender

Written by Diana Szántó

Gender in cross-cultural perspective

In intercultural studies several attempts have been made to identify a definite number of dimensions along which cultures may differ. One of the leading interculturalists, Hofstede (2001), has proposed 6 dimensions, one of which would be the  masculine/feminine axis.  In his theory masculine cultures would value competition and strength, while feminine cultures would attribute more value to caring and tenderness. This division corresponds so much to the stereotypical image of men and women in Western cultures that it just appears natural. But do we have any reason to believe that the distribution of these values along the division female/male is universal? Gender is the social meaning attributed to sexes – male, female and – in societies which allow it – to individuals not conforming to this basic duality. Gender is based on the biological attributes of the sexes, but it is not determined by them.  It is not about biology, it is about representations and social expectations.  Of course, Hofstede knows that gender roles are socially constructed and consequently they may vary greatly from society to society, but even he maintains an implicit assumption about the universality of gender roles as we think of them in most of our Western societies. Ethnographic evidence from different parts of the world contradicts this assumption.  One of the first anthropologists, who managed to scatter ideas about the universality of gender ideologies, and with that to scatter American ethnocentrism, was Margaret Mead. With her “Coming of Age in Samoa” she showed to the American public that not only different ideals about sexuality and gender relations exist in the world but apparently Samoan girls that are exposed to much more libertarian moeurs than contemporary American girls grow up to be healthier and happier young women.  Studying different cultures help question our most basic ideas about gender.  In Europe for example we tend to take it for granted that “mothers are caring, fathers are more distant”, “mothers represent safety, fathers discipline.” We even often believe that sexual emancipation and equal rights for women is a question of development and hence an advantage that modern societies have over traditional ones.  We think it is logical that in “traditional societies the female role is to give birth and nurture the offspring (these two roles being inseparable), the male’s role is to protect the family”. Studying gender from an anthropological perspective allows a better understanding of the subtle interrelatedness between biology and culture, and contributes to the important realisation of the fact that not everything that sounds logical is necessarily true or universally distributed. Scientific research amongst the primates seem to confirm that male aggression and female tenderness are inscribed in our biological heritage and this fact is explained by the functionality of such separation of social roles.  In most (although not all!) non-human primate societies such patterns are indeed demonstrated (Smuts 2001). However researchers observed also that male and female primates behave differently in the presence of the opposite sex. Captive macaque males, when separated from females showed a variety of infant caretaking, inversely in all-female groups, female primates developed behaviours that otherwise characterise males in mixed groups.  Interestingly, deeper explorations in the animal world seems to support anthropology’s relativism according to which both female and male individuals carry a wide range of behavioural potentials which are getting activated by social structures or alternatively remain latent if they contradict normalised social patterns. Already in the non-human primate world: gender is both biological and social! In the human world cultural variations are even more to be expected.  But intuitively there must be some universality behind the differences!  In all human societies babies as a rule are born as biologically male or female (it does not mean that there are no exceptions to the rule).  Structuralist thinkers, such as Lévi-Strauss (1964) and Francoise Héritier (1996) think that the duality of the sexes is indeed the basis not only of the social structure but also of symbolic (and hence also of scientific) thinking. All our cognitive functions are based on the elementary capacity of categorisation, the most fundamental building brick of which is the ability to think in binary oppositions.  ”The duality of the sexes is good to think” – as structuralists say, by which they mean that this primary opposition helps us to understand the world as a series of related oppositions between identical and different. However, the fact that – if structuralists are right – all societies are based on the dual relationship of the sexes does not mean that their thinking is absolutely determined by biology.  Amongst the Inuit for example the biological sex and the identity of the person were separated (Heritier 1996). It is not the biological sex of the baby that would determine his/her identity but the sex of the soul-name he/she was supposed to reincarnate. Accordingly, a boy carrying a female soul-name could be brought up as a girl until the puberty – a fact that would not stop him from performing social tasks associated to his sex as an adult man, without ever losing his female part of identity.  “With the same symbolic ’alphabet’ – writes Heritier – which is rooted in a common biological nature, every society works out different cultural ’phrases’ that are unique to them” (Heritier 1996). For Héritier, there is more to the difference between the sexes.  Male and female are not only universally thought of as different, but are also situated on a symbolic scale that is inherently hierarchical of nature. Accordingly, she thinks that male domination is universal, perceptible even in matrilinear societies, although she admits that domination may translate into very different practices and representations, some of them being more subtle than the others.  She affirms that the essential reason of this hierarchical order is not the real or supposed biological fragility of the women; rather it is the consequence of human, i.e. mammal procreation.  Amongst humans there is an evident biological tie between the mother and the child, while this same tie is logically only hypothetical between the father and his offspring. Consequently males always try to control reproduction by social means – hence the necessity of their domination. Comparative ethnography tends to support Heretier’s thesis. Indeed, it is difficult to find a society where some kind of inequality does not exist between the sexes, and our modern societies in the West certainly do not constitute any exception.  However, ethnographic explorations seem to suggest that there is a direct correlation between the extent and scope of the contribution of women to the domestic economy on the one hand, and their social position on the other.  Equality grows with the recognition of the weight of female work in the household.  Also, domination is seldom an absolute relation. Our own cultural expectations (especially our stereotypes of so called “traditional societies”) might blur our vision and can stop us from recognising elusive mechanisms that work towards an equilibrium in the couple, enhancing the social position of the women. Even in societies well known for their male supremacy, women might have an important leverage which is not always immediately observable.   The Javanese is such a society. An important corpus of anthropological literature describes how in Java social status is associated with mystical power, a quality usually attributed to men, as men only are believed to possess the self-mastery necessary to achieve it.  The external signs of mystical power are calm and refined comportment and speech style in public.  Women are thought only exceptionally able to attain this ideal. In an interesting study, Suzanne Berner (2001) demonstrates that although this picture is not false, it reveals only half of the truth. Berner argues that in Java (and probably elsewhere too), there is not one, but at least two gender ideologies: a hegemonic and a counterhegemonic one.  The mainstream ideology is usually represented by men (and that is why it is also more accessible to anthropologists who tend to be men too) and it reflects gender relations exactly as described above. There exists however a counterhegemonic ideology according to which gender relations look quite different.  First of all, it is a fact that in Java women are quite active economically. They often trade or have other jobs, which non-infrequently makes them de facto the provider for the family, while the men can enjoy leisure at home.  The market, where most of the sellers are women (male merchants are Chinese, Arab or European!) symbolically bears the mark of lower social status, because according to the dominant ideology dealing with money is regarded as vulgar and unrefined. In the facts however, women’s involvement in commerce enhances their economic independence. Women also keep the domestic economy in their hands: husbands are expected to turn over the totality or most of their salary to their wives, who then decide on the spending in the best interest of the family. Girls can inherit in the same way as boys and after marriage they keep their own belongings. Thus, from a material point of view, women enjoy an equal or quasi-equal status with men. From a symbolic point of view, however, women have defiantly less prestige then men, not despite, but precisely because of their involvement ineconomic activities. Women do argue loudly in the market, slap each other in a joking manner, and use a verbal style which would be incompatible with the composure demanded from men.  According to the hegemonic ideology, this very behaviour is the proof of women’s incapacity to control themselves, a fact that naturally relegates them to the second place, after men.  At the same time, the counterhegemonic discourse (which is not simply only the women’s voice) holds that to the contrary, men are less capable than women to control their passion, that is why it is prudent to keep them away from money (which they would probably spend childishly on women).  This alternative ideology recognises women’s double (economic and symbolic) strength and evaluates their social position accordingly. At the end, this double distribution of gender roles, and gender styles, remarks Brenner, serves the collective interest of the family. Wealth is necessary for prestige but the process of acquiring it compromises social status. Because women take their social status from their husbands, their economic activity does not disadvantage them socially, while it contributes to the family’s wealth.  It is not that women “naturally” behave in a less dignified manner than their husbands; they are obviously capable of composure. In fact they are the ones who teach their daughters and sons of good manners at home, but in public they are allowed to be less self-restrained than their husbands. Consequently, they have at their disposal a broader range of styles in public than men.  Men however might show less self-control at home where they are not on a public scene. This is an interesting example that proves how discourses and practices regarding gender statuses might be contradictory within the same society and while there is a universal tendency to imagine difference organised on a hierarchical scale, hierarchy might look different when seen from different angles. The Javanese example sheds light on the important nuances that colour gender relations in most societies, but certainly does not contradict the idea that motherhood and fatherhood prescribe social roles that are deeply rooted in biology.  There are however strong ethnographic evidences that prove that motherhood is not less socially constructed than fatherhood. The Baule (Etienne 2001) represents a particularly interesting case from this point of view. Amongst the Baule men’s and women’s contribution to economic production are equally recognised, women might achieve high social status in their own right and until colonisation female chiefs were not rare. As in many African societies wealth and social recognition are related to the number of dependents.  A  large number of children is thus considered as a source of recognition in the present and that of social security for the future.  However, as the descendance is patrilinear amongst the Baule and women live in their husbands’ house, their children are considered as dependants of the husband and his close relatives. Adoption and fosterage might be a solution for women to increase their social status as adopted children, as opposed to biological children, remain under the control of the woman who receives them as a “gift” from the biological mothers. While adoption is a natural part of the kinship system both in rural and urban communities, it has a special role in contributing to the social and economic ascendance of rural women who migrate to the city and devote themselves to petty trade. Rural families are happy to send some of their children to the city to foster mother’s in the hope of assuring the schooling of their children in this way. Maternal care in Baule’s society is not considered as an automatic attribute attached to biological motherhood. To the contrary, some biological mothers are thought not to be gifted to raise children, while some adoptive mothers have the reputation of being a good parent and consequently might receive a big number of children to raise.  This case, which does not stand alone in West-Africa, undermines the assumption “that maternity is irrevocably natural” as opposed to fatherhood which is admittedly social. Paradoxically the recognition that fatherhood is socially constructed entails a supposition that fathers everywhere and at all times “naturally” develop less bond with their infants than mothers.  Hewlett (2001) compared the time fathers spend with their infant in the USA and amongst the Aka Pygmies of the Central African Republic and he came to an interesting conclusion.  He found that American fathers hold their babies between 10 and 20 minutes a day, while Aka fathers tend to hold their infants an hour during the daytime and 25% of the time after sunset.  Not only Aka fathers spend more time with their children, their parenting style is also different from American fathers.  American studies emphasise the importance of fathers’ “vigorous play” with babies.  Aka fathers seldom engage in such play. Instead, they demonstrate tenderness: they kiss, hug and soothe more than mothers. Why is father-infant bonding so conspicuous amongst the Aka?  Hewlett’s answer is that this is because Aka fathers are simply more present in children’s lives and this is a consequence of the organisation of Aka life where men and women often engage in food seeking activities together. Aka people practice net hunting, in which men, women and bigger children equally participate. Therefore the sexual division of labour is less strict in Aka society than in most hunting (and non-hunting) societies. Consequently fathers know better their children and they do not have to use strong stimuli in order to trigger an answer when interacting with them. (It is interesting that according to Hewlett not only American fathers but also American working mothers who have less interaction with their babies use strong stimuli with their children.) The Aka example reveals an interesting correlation between the women’s status, parental roles and general ideas about hierarchy and equality. The Aka are notoriously egalitarian, they have several mechanisms to maintain “individual, intergenerational and gender equality” (for which they are notoriously despised by their neighbours, who see in this liberty a lack of order). (Hewlett 47) Although there are specific male and female roles, inversing roles by no means counts as strange or rare and little boys and girls are also socialised in this way.  This observation seems to confirm another theory on gender relations according to which the less a society separates gender roles according to a strict division of labour, the more freedom and equality its women enjoy.  It also shows a strong relation between shared parental roles and gender equity. If ethnographic case studies prove that male and female identity are always constituted in culture-specific ways, shedding doubt on a universally shared symbolic dichotomy between men and women, it still seems natural to suppose that everywhere there is a direct relation between sexual identity and gender identity.  In reality, there are also great variations in how sexual identity is constituted in different societies.   As opposed to modern Western cultures where it is assumed that sexual identities are more or less fixed, in many parts of the world sexual identities are fluid, multi-faceted and do not necessarily function as basic constituents of gender identity. Herdt (2001) offers a case in point with his study of coming of age amongst the Sambia. The Sambia is a hunting and horticultural people of New Guinea.  They live in small hamlets in the mountains. Society is divided in exogamous clans but marriages might occur within the same hamlet.  Nuclear families live together in small huts. The Sambia do not believe that sexuality determines gender: while girls obtain their full sexual female identity progressively and without any major social drama, boys have to be progressively initiated by adult men into adult sexual roles.  Girls continue to dwell with their parents until their marriage. However, boys, when they reach about 7 to 10 years of age are abruptly drawn out from the family unit and are transferred to the men’s house. Masculinity, strength and combativity are highly valued in this society and cohabitation with women is considered to “pollute” the male identity with woman-like elements. Time passed in the man house therefore has the main goal of „cleaning” the boys from female pollution. While the girls’ sexual maturation is considered a natural process, the boys’ sexual maturation has to be enhanced socially. Initiation is in the hands of the men’s secret society and is repeated several times until the young men reach their full adulthood, sealed by the birth of their first child. “Maleness, unlike femaleness, is not a biological given” (165). Girls are believed to possess a menstrual blood organ, the tingo.  Boys possess another organ, the kere-ku-kereku, the repository of semen, which is empty in the beginning and has to be filled up progressively until full maturity. Through initiation adult males inseminate the boys orally in order to provide them with the necessary quantity of semen “the very essence of maleness”.  For the Sambia initiation entailing homosexual practices does not relativise the masculine sexual identity, to the contrary, it is the royal path to full masculinisation. Just like the Sambia boys who engage in homosexual practices in their youth before contracting heterosexual marriages, girls in some cultures also have available socially acceptable forms of same sex relations that do not compromise their future chances of married life.  Evelyn Blackwood (2001) reports on several such cases. In all these cases women and girls engage in same sex sexual and emotional relations but the examples vary in the extent to which these relations and corresponding practices become an essential and fix attribute of their gender identity.  In Lesotho (South Africa) for example, school girls may engage a culturally institutionalised relationship that they call mummy-baby.   This type of friendship links an elder, more experienced girl to a younger one.  The younger one may have only one “mummy”, while “mummies” may have several “babies” at a time.  As the small ones grow older they may turn into  mummies for others.  This is an intimate and loving relationship involving exchanging love letters, gifts and initiation to adult sexuality. As girls grow up, they may start to have boyfriends as well.  Heterosexual relations tend to replace the strong same-sex mummy-baby bonds, but some women keep these relations throughout their married lives, without provoking resentment on the part of their husbands.  Such practices have been reported from South Africa from the 1950s.  Aboriginal Australian women constitute another case. According to Roheim, before missionary times, extramarital same sex and heterosexual relations were accepted both for women and men.  For girls, erotic ritual play was part of initiation.  Such plays amongst adolescent girls are also part of normalised culture for the Kung of the Kalahari Desert. While in these instances adolescent sexual homosexual plays and even institutionalised sexual relations do not have consequences for adult marital life, other cases are recorded where changing sexual identity can transform totally gender identity. In the 19th century China marriage (arranged marriage as a rule) was an essentially oppressive institution for women. The development of the silk industry allowed some of the young girls to earn their own wage and postpone marriage infinitely with the approval of the parents who benefited from the financial support of their daughters. With time, resistance to marriage produced intimate sisterhoods. Sisters lived in the same households in which heterosexual relations were banned.  A young woman who chose this life style took a public vow to refuse marriage that established her legal status and secured her a due place in ancestor worship in her natal house (Sankar 1986). In Indonesia too, there is a way for young girls to escape their gender status. Tomboi are a category of girls who act like boys. “Although tombois have female bodies, they are locally understood as female-bodied men who are attracted to (normatively gendered) women” (243).  The variety of these examples show that there is no one specific way in which a direct relation could be established between dominant gender ideologies, kinship and political systems and the construction of sexuality. While anthropologists explore diversity in contemporaneity, historians allow relativise norms held to be universal based on temporal variations.  Thomas Laqueur (1990) who investigated the changing representations of biological sexes in the West pushed social constructivism even further.  He demonstrates that not only gender is socially constructed but there is also nothing natural in the way how biological sex is understood.  In our Western tradition, starting with the ancient Greeks, for many centuries what he calls the “one sex thesis” was upheld. Women were not imagined as essentially different from man; their sexual biologies were rather represented as inversed versions of male sex organs. Their sexuality was also pictured as identical to  that of men.  Conception was thought to be a condition of female orgasm and women’s sexual pleasure was thought to be equal or even stronger than men’s.  This situation changed radically with the advent of capitalism.  In the 18th-19th centuries women were already pictured as radically different from men biologically as well as mentally and spiritually. Female sexuality became a taboo and even the existence of female orgasm was questioned.  Laqueur supports his thesis with an ample collection of visual material taken from ancient anatomy books and artistic representations.  His aim is not only to prove that biological sex is socially constructed before gender, but also to show that social representations about the sexes, just like those of gender roles, are always political responding to ideological demands of the dominant political order.  The normalised, gendered and sexed body is the mirror picture of the idealised society, in the West and elsewhere. That is why ideas about what is male and female is a classical and one of the most sensitive of sensitive zones in intercultural encounters.


Berner,Suzanne (2001): Why Women Rule the Roost: Rethinking Javanese Ideologies of Gender and Self-Control,  In Brettel and Sargent (eds.) Gender in Cross-Cultural perspective, Prentice-Hall Blackwood, Evelyn (2001): Women’s intimate Friendships and Other Affairs: An Ethnographic Overview In Brettel and Sargent (eds.) Gender in Cross-Cultural perspective, Prentice-Hall Etienne, Mona (2001): The case for Social Maternity: Adoption of Children by Urban Baule Women In Brettel and Sargent (eds.) Gender in Cross-Cultural perspective, Prentice-Hall Heerdt, H. Gilbert (2001): Rituals of Manhood: Male initiation in Papua New Guniea In Brettel and Sargent (eds.) Gender in Cross-Cultural perspective, Prentice-Hall Héritier, Françoise (1996): Masculin-Féminin I. La Pensée de la différence, Paris, Odile Jacob Hewlett, Barry S. (2001): The Cultural Nexus of Aka Father-Infant Bonding In Brettel and Sargent (eds.) Gender in Cross-Cultural perspective, Prentice-Hall Hofstede, Geert (2001): Culture’s Consequences: Comparing Values, Behaviors, Institutions and Organizations across Nations, Sage Laqueur, Thomas (1990): Making Sex. Body and Gender from the Greeks to Freud, Harvard University Press Levi-Strauss, Claude (1964): Le Cru et le Cuit. Paris, Plon Mead, Margaret (1928): Coming of age in Samoa; a psychological study of primitive youth for western civilisation,  New York : W. Morrow & Company Smuts, B. Barbara (2001): Biology, Gender and Human Evolution, In Brettel and Sargent (eds.) Gender in Cross-Cultural perspective, Prentice-Hall


Dying, mourning and end of life rituals in different cultures

Written by Attila Dobos

Death and dying

The problem of death – as being the limitation of our known world – certainly concerns one of the most important and vital questions of all humans of all time. The answers given to it tell us much more about the worldview of the community than any statement of this purpose. At the same time the more general claims we would like to make, the more ambiguous we will be. It is because there are many different aspects we can take once we would like to understand our mortal lives, so ourselves, and these differences, sometimes contradict each other. For instance through the lens of science, one cannot catch the essence of spirituality or soul, as these will transcend the possibilities of scientific tools. Vice versa: in a religious context, it makes no sense to argue for or against scientific achievements as belief has another nature and function than that of knowledge. Yet both perspectives seem to be very important for us. However, few universal characteristics of mortality can be found throughout space (culture) and time. As many historians of religion pointed out from the very beginning of our collective memories, there has always been a belief that by the death of our bodies ‘we will not die’ entirely so that we have a part of us which  remains alive, what is independent of our body yet definitely belongs to us. „Belief in a survival after death seems to be demonstrated, from the earliest times, by the use of red ochre as a ritual substitute for blood, hence as a symbol of life.”[1] Skulls and lower mandibles are preserved with religious purposes from 400.000-300.000 BC, and we can speak with certainty of burials from 70.00-50.000 BC. Another important absolute character seems to be the collective consciousness around the image and ritual of death. In each community, there has been numerous and definitive meanings surrounding the loss of the deceased and expressed in rituals, although in very different forms and purposes. These meanings also help processing feelings about loss, like grief. Keeping health care in focus, we cannot avoid discussing the biological, medical or simply the scientific understanding of this elementary phenomenon. Moreover, our times, often referred to as ‘late modernity’ appear to value highly (if not exclusively) the scientific explanation of reality. From this regard, we should take biology – the ‘science of the living’ – as a widely accepted context in our profession. Naturally, this will not be satisfactory, but a necessary starting point. One common way to understanding death is to start with finding the smallest living unit in human life, which is the single cell. Multicellular creatures – like humans – composed of huge amount of cells, in our case it is over a hundred trillion individual cells (1014), each with a life of its own. Therefore, “The death of a human being is a direct, irreducible consequence of the death of his or her component cells.” [2]  Investigating death in the level of cells revealed many unexpected complexities and adventures, e.g. the suicide of certain cells. However, most of all it seems that the earliest forms of single-cells did not share a cardinal feature of life – what would also define us as alive –, i.e. the programmed, hence obligatory death. They may die – also today – as a result of changing environment, like lack of food or the presence of more powerful hungry cells, or accidents, but there is nothing programmed into them that they must die by ageing.   “Death is not inextricably intertwined with the definition of life.” [3] And it was the case for at least the first billion years of life on earth. How can it happen? The answer lies in the first fundamental feature of all living creature: capability of the replication of their own DNA and the transmission of it to the offspring. Single-cells have asexual reproduction, which means that they do not need any other peer from a different sex to produce offspring: they reproduce themselves by fission, by self-division. As a result, two (theoretically) identical cells will come into life as offspring with the same DNA and then the process continues. Hence, these organisms never die (due to ageing) as we cannot really imagine death without the dead corpse – at least if they die due to another reason, there is always a cadaver and we will understand this clearly as the ultimate end of the cell. Death, in this reading of biology, is not a consequence of life, but that of reproductive sexuality. Another approach in modern biology that drives us toward philosophical considerations focuses on an additional cardinal feature of life: metabolism. It is known to be a feature that every living creature has and no dead things have. To our knowledge life only exists in the physical form of organisms. If the organism fails to do metabolism, it dies. We can say, “organisms are entities whose being is their own doing. That is to say that they exist only in virtue of what they do.”[4] Their existence lies  in their operation and they do not exist apart from this doing. However, since this operation depends not only on themselves, but also on the environment in which they are living, the “peril of cessation is with the organism from the beginning. Here we have the basic link of life with death, the ground of mortality in its very constitution.”[5] In this regard, death is the state without metabolism. Speaking philosophically within the European continental tradition, we tend to consider death both as a potential (we may die at any time) and a necessity (we have to die once) at the same time. From these two brief introductory thoughts one may see the complexities of defining death even on the level of biology. However, we should make a distinction in defining death and establishing criteria to which something or someone has to be considered dead. In the case of human beings, it has even greater significance that leads us to cultural and thus to moral considerations. The dominant death criteria used today serves as a good example of this. The classical approach to death has been linked to our oxygen demand: the most important component in maintaining human life – among others – is oxygen that can make cells work by circulation. Therefore, losing spontaneous breathing or heart beating meant death. To verify it was relatively easy, but held many possibilities for mistakes (e.g. Romeo and Juliet), still – together with cadaveric rigidity – it has been used until  the middle of the 20th century. Due to technological advancements, South African surgeon Christiaan Barnard  conducted the first successful and public heart transplantation in Cape Town in 1967[6]. Obviously, the criteria of being dead needed to be revised afterwards: one may be still alive without her beating heart, but with a heart of someone else. In the following year at Harvard Medical School an ad hoc committee composed of doctors, lawyers, philosophers and theologians set the new criteria, what was basically a special case of irreversible coma, known today simply as brain death. The developed method can guarantee a 100% reliable diagnosis – even with spontaneous heart beating. This definition has begun to be introduced in most of the countries worldwide in the coming years, except a few, like China, Japan and other Asian countries. Here comes our point: it was simply impossible (and still is) in some cultures to identify life with neurological activities – it is deeply against their traditional perception and collective knowledge on life and death.[7] To sum up these considerations above, death should be seen more as a continuous process in which a certain point is defined by the given society according to its tradition, morals, beliefs and technological opportunities to divide the living from the non-living. In the following paragraphs, some instances of these differences will be given.[8] The expression of experiences of lethal illness, death and dying and grief varies heavily throughout the world. Additionally, the function of these expressions and experiences differs profoundly in various cultural contexts on the top of the already mentioned – seemingly – universal characters. Moreover, within one context many different components may play a part in funeral rites and burial: the circumstances of death (e.g. violent behaviour, illness, and suicide), age at death, social status, reputation, gender and naturally the dominant religion / belief of the family. Lastly, the same or very similar rites could have radically different or opposed meanings in diverse cultures: e.g. pouring alcohol into the ground (libation) amongst Yoruba people means to summon the spirit of the deceased if help is needed, while in many Roma communities numerous things have to be done in order to avoid the return of the spirit, e.g. pouring alcohol to the ground during the wake is for the peace of the departed, to support her way to heaven. Giving drinks to or feeding the newly deceased can be found all over the world but for different reasons: to get closer to, to respect, to purify, to avoid return, etc. Treating the dead corpse has basically two opposed approaches: in one end of the range the cadaver is dangerous, dirty and represents the risk of connecting the realm of the dead with witches, wicked spirits, diseases, curses and nightmares, while in the other pole it is for the sake of communion and maintained connectedness to stay as close as possible to the dead body. In the first case they mostly bury the body as soon as possible, feasibly within a day, try to make death happen in a distant place and apply massive purification strategies with everything attached to the corps, the deceased person or to the place of death (e.g. in certain aspects in the Navajo, Japanese, Greek cultures). In the latter case they apply long rituals, wakes, death-watches, staying close (even sleeping next) to the corpse for days (e.g. in certain aspects amongst the Yoruba, Maori, Romani or British people). The Yoruba buried the corpses under the floor of the house outside the door often in unmarked sites – if the death was natural and in timely fashion. However, those whose deaths are considered ‘unnatural’ for numerous reasons (e.g. infants, disabled, albinos, suicides, killed by lightning, etc) are treated differently: in some cases no mourning is allowed, the burial takes place outside the town in the bush, or – in the case of suspected witches – there is no burial at all, but their bodies are thrown into bush areas. The Greek buries their passed away relatives within 24 hours in a loosely made wooden coffin to help decomposition of the corpse, so they can perform a rite of exhumation after a period of 3,5 or 7 years to see the condition of the exhumed bones: if the bones are clean and white, the sins of the deceased have been forgiven and she managed to get into heaven. If a young girl or boy dies among the Roma people, they often cover the body or the coffin with woods in piles in the grave to protect the body from the weight of the ground. The expressions to be used during terminal stage, funeral rites or in mourning are also showing very different attitudes throughout the world. While under the reign of the biomedical scientific approach it is obligatory to share every available information with the ill person (unless she forbids it) in a very concrete and understandable way, in many parts of the world the domain of usable expressions are strictly ruled. For instance in traditional China the word “cancer” is not allowed to use in front of the patient for the sake of the patient: it is held that they would not be able to tolerate it and it would make them sicker. So they simply do not use it. Among Romani people, quite often they avoid using the proper names for illnesses, as it would make them ill; or try to keep the stay in hospital as short as possible as it is not clean, being full of diseases what makes the patient really sick. In Mongolia, when discussing the death of a close individual they use euphemisms instead of talking about death, like: to come of age, to become a spirit. Fortunately, these instances can be continued through hundreds of pages, but perhaps the few above mentioned examples could also serve to make it tangible and clear: death and the social reality around it with following patients of lethal diseases, mourning, expressions of grief and rites of funerals are totally embedded into the cultural realm of the given community and can only be understood through the lens of it.


Berta, P.(2001): Halál és kultúra. Tanulmányok a társadalomtudományok köréből I. [Death and Culture. Essays from the field of social sciences] Janus/Osiris, Budapest Clark, W.R.(1998): Sex and the Origins of Death. Oxford University Press Eliade, M. (1981): History of religious ideas, Volume 1: From the Stone Age to the Eleusinian Mysteries. University Of Chicago Press Ember C.R. – Ember, M.(2004): Encyclopaedia of Medical Anthropology I-II. Kluwer Academic / Plenum Publishers, New York Irish, D.P. – Lundquist, K.F. – Jenkins Nelsen, V. (1993): Ethnic Variations in Dying, Death, and Grief: Diversity in Universality. Taylor & Francis, Washington Jonas, H. (1993): The Burden and Blessing of Mortality. In: Shannon, Th. A. (ed): Bioethics. Paulist Press, New Jersey, (4th edition) p:155-166 Kalányosné László, J. (1997): A halálhoz kapcsolódó szokások az őcsényi beás cigányoknál. [Customs related to death among the beas Roma of Őcsény]  In: Bódi, Zs.: Tanulmányok a magyarországi beás cigányokról. [Studies on the beas Roma people] Magyar Néprajzi Társaság, Budapest, p: 110-115 Kleinman, A. (1998): Experience and Its Moral Modes: Culture, Human Conditions, and Disorder. The Tanner lectures on human values. Delivered at Stanford University Koenig, B.A. – Gates-Williams, J. (1995): Understanding cultural difference in caring for dying patients. Western Journal of Medicine 163(3): 244–249. Pilling J.(2010): A halál, a haldoklás és a gyász kultúrantropológiája és pszichológiája. [Cultural anthropology and psychology of death, dying and mourning] Semmelweis Kiadó, Budapest Wilkinson, I. (2005): From the Sociology of Risk to a Critical Sociology of Suffering. Draft paper for presentation at the conference of the SCARR Network, January 28–29th. [1] Eliade (1981) p. 9 [2] Clark (1996) p.3 [3] Clark (1996) p.54 [4] Jonas (1993) p. 155 [5] Jonas (1993) p. 156 [6] Although we should note that it was not a real success as most of the patients died within few weeks after the transplantation with this method. This resulted in a world-wide moratorium on heart transplantation until the beginning of the 80’s when the procedure has developed into a much more reliable level with an acceptable mortality rate. [7] It took nearly 30 years in Japan to introduce this approach into the legislation by the 104/1997 act on ”The Law Concerning Human Organ Transplants” [8] Most of the examples are taken from the Encyclopaedia of Medical Anthropology I-II, edited by Carol R. Ember & Melvin Ember