The Use of the Culture/Nature and Private/Public models to Understand Gender Relations

In a world where the concept of gender and its associated roles have transformed into topics of contention, does it make sense to employ structural models to explain such a complex reality?

The aim of this essay is to examine the utility of the culture/nature and private/public dichotomy in the discipline of Anthropology in order to aid the understanding of gender relations. Cross-cultural ethnographies displaying differing attitudes to the Western idea of gender relations shall be used to illustrate the argument.

During his ethnographic research among the Aka, a hunter-gatherer society found in central Africa, Hewlett (2005) experienced a relatively novel relationship between fathers and their infants.

As a nomadic community, the members, Hewlett (2005) explains, were tight-knit. Kin groups, tended to spend much of their time together since they resided at the same, circularly constructed campsite, where space was therefore limited (Hewlett, 2005). As a result of this, the campsite which was the residential area was to be considered the ‘public’ sphere of their community and time spent away from their residence would be considered ‘private’ (Hewlett, 2005).

This is an interesting observation by Hewlett (2005), who maintains that men were more likely to venture further out of the ’public’ area rather than women did.  His research shows that Aka society was largely egalitarian society that practiced equal rationing of resources. Hewlett (2005) noted a low or inexistent occurrence of violence against women  and amongst members of the community (Hewlett, 2005).

Moreover, their main method of hunting – net hunting – is conveyed to have involved both men and women, as well as younglings (Hewlett, 2005). Women, Hewlett (2005) relates are typically the ones who trap and kill the animal – acts which the western perspective would deem reside in the masculine sphere.

That being said, the idea of what constitutes as masculine or feminine, doesn’t really seem to exist in the Aka community where Hewlett (2005) often observed men and women changing duties. This seems to suggest that the difference between male and female roles might not be that pronounced or of importance in the Aka.

The main focus of Hewlett’s (2005) work is an intriguing one – the bond between father and infant.

Contrary to what many in Western societies have experienced in their family dynamics, Aka fathers are very hands on with their children – both sons and daughters (Hewlett, 2005).

Children are given great importance by their caregivers who were often quick to console and soothe them, as well as offer them the breast whilst remaining calm in situations where the child could be perceived as misbehaving (Hewlett, 2005).

The term caregiver is used because, Aka men were also observed by Hewlett (2005) to offer their nipples to their children. Arguably, this one action pervades the entire association that women are parallel to nature.

In Aka society a good father is one who keeps their child in close proximity and cares for them willingly. Fieldwork proved that men were prepared and desired this bond with their child as a father could easily place his child in the care of another if he so desired (Hewlett, 2005).

In addition to this reality, one may be surprised to find that in hunter gatherer communities tend to exhibit a more distant relationship between husband and wife rather than in capitalist society (Whiting et Whiting, 1975; cited in Hewlett, 2005).

Hewlett (2005) utilizes the nearby Ngandu community who practiced horticulture to contrast the role of the father. He finds that Ngandu fathers tended to show affection towards their children when someone was around to see it, showing that the role of the father in Ngandu community may be a performative and public one, used to attract attention (Hewlett, 2005).

By taking Hewlett’s (2005) into account, one can start to recognise that traditional notions of gender relations aren’t always useful. That being said, by looking at the lifestyle of this egalitarian community, one can come closer to understanding certain things about one’s society.

For example, one can see how the Aka father practices ideal fatherhood whilst Ngandu fathers perform them. By considering Morris’ (1995) article, where he mentions the work of Butler, one really starts to consider the origins of the idea of gender, the effects it has had on one’s sex and ultimately one’s actions in the Western ideological make up.

Apart from this, gender relations set up a type of dichotomy which assert the right and wrong way for a man and woman to act (Morris, 1995). Clearly, however, this notion is not universal as depicted in Hewlett’s (2005) work which seemed to disintegrate the idea of gender and the implications it has on one’s sex.

Jordanova’s (1980:43) work offer’s some great insight into why this gender dichotomy may exist. In her own words she relates:

“Dichotomies such as man/woman illustrate the simplistic model of oppression which is useful because it seems to imply a clear power relationship:

nature :  culture

woman : man

oppressed : oppressor

(because powerless)     (because powerful)

This approach takes a simple social relationship and finds a natural basis for it, so that, for example, women become bearers of ignorance and men of knowledge”

In light of the case of the Aka, this kind of classification seems totally redundant and it is this fact that makes Jodanova’s  (1980) words of ‘ simplistic’ and ‘oppression’ ring in one’s ears.

The construction of the gender dichotomy reinforces the idea of difference. As a result we experience “gender as the effect of discourse, and sex as the effect of gender” (pp.  567, Morris, 1995).

Furthermore, Jodanova (1980) maintains that this dichotomy extends to other factors in one’s life where a woman’s ability to bear children is seen as her purpose, and a man’s ability to reason and spark innovation is seen as his.

From this idea, one can recognise the overlap with the notion of private vs public where a woman is seen to relate to the household and the man to the rest of the world; thus nature vs culture. To examine this notion, Muller’s (1977) paper will be used.

Muller (1977) conducted her ethnographic work in Lesotho, South Africa in a labour reserve. Here Muller (1977) finds that while women are able to effectively engage in the public performances of Lesotho, her work in the private sphere allows her more opportunities to improve her position in life, as well as that of her family. This, she explains, was due to the fact that the husband’s public position was more instrumental in bringing money home (Muller, 1977).

That being said, Muller (1977) relates that whilst men are more likely to engage in traditional roles in the village, women are more involved in the ‘modern’ political climate where they participate in national associations.

This further destroys the idea by indicating that woman are associated with modernity and innovation whereas her male counterpart is involved in activities which are slowly being made absolute. In addition to this, when contesting such an election women are chosen based on their virtues, such as their abilities to lead effectively (Muller, 1977).

Moreover, she does not stand in the shadow of her spouse, as she is seen as a distinct entity from her husband (Muller, 1977). It is also noted, that while the husband is the main bread winner, both men and women are able to find a source of income (Muller, 1977). 

Through this, Muller (1977) exhibits that a woman’s power is not tied to the public or private spheres as she can be active in both. She also shows that women are not powerless as in both areas she uses the situation to the best of her abilities to create the best outcome for herself (Muller, 1977).

It can be deduced that the model of nature/ culture and private/ public is not useful in cross-cultural situations because it was not historically used to explain and therefore reproduce the  ideas it relates.

As mentioned by Morris (1995), gender and gender relations largely consist of something one does in relation to social performance which are recreated and passed down not something that is done naturally.

Thus the model can be useful to examine the ideas that were passed down that were intrinsic in cultural reproduction. However, the model cannot be deemed to be intrinsically useful in explaining the origin in the idea of gender and whether it has any merit in terms of roles and relations.


Hewlett, B. S. 2005. ‘The Cultural Nexus of Aka Father-Infant Bonding’, in Gender in Cross-Cultural Perspective, eds. C. Brettel and C. Sargent (Prentice Hall, 2005), pp. 37-48.

Jordonova, L.J. 1980. ‘Natural Facts: A Historical Perspective on Science and Sexuality,’ in MacCormack, C. and Strathern, M. (eds.) Nature, Culture, Gender. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. pp. 42-69

Leavitt, J. W. et Gordon, L. 1988. ‘A Decade of Feminist Critiques in the Natural Sciences: An Address by Ruth Bleier. Signs, 14(1), pp. 182–195.

Morris, R.C. 1995. ‘All Made Up: Performance Theory and the New Anthropology of Sex and Gender’. Annual review of anthropology, 24(1), pp.567–592.

Mueller, M. 1977. ‘Women and Men, Power and Powerlessness in Lesotho’. Signs, 3(1), pp. 154– 166.

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