Male-Female Separation and Forms of Society

Essay Excerpt

In this article I will briefly consider some earlier Australianist accounts of gender, and then the separatist ones, to illustrate some of their differences, and the shared emphases and difficulties that I have outlined. I will argue that the notion of separation plays a key role in all these accounts, but as noted above, it is able to be so differently interpreted and evaluated in each account because it has, with little variation, been treated at a structural level, rather than in relation to any development of notions of social action and event. In support of my contention that the examination of social action is crucial to overcoming the debilitating tendency toward structural abstraction shared by the various accounts of gender, I then examine a specific kind of social action, drawn from my observation of women's sex-separate ritual events in northern Australia. I use this material to move toward a view of male-female separation different from any in the previously examined accounts. I show that, although sex-separate action is central to these events, it is crucial that such action is centrally focused on intersexual relations. Sexual separation is a crucial moment and mode of reproduction of societally specific dimensions of intersexual relations. Although the intersexual focus of such ritual has been identified in other Aboriginalist accounts, it has not been sufficiently recognized that the specific nature of sex-separate action must inform our understanding of the significances of separation here. In other words, it is not sufficient to proceed from the observation that certain kinds of action are sex-separate to an interpretation of separation as having a determinate, single significance. Rather, attention must be paid to the specific nature and content of the action and its relation to other kinds of action. (Merlan, 170-171)

About the Author

Dr. Francesca Merlan is a Professor of Anthropology at Australian National University. "I have done research over many years in Northern Australia, where I have been interested in changes in the lives of Aboriginal people who have moved into regional towns (Merlan 1998). A major emphasis in my work with people of Northern Australia has been their changing relations to what they consider their countries, or home territories, and to towns. Over this time I have been involved in the processes (land and native title claims) by which the state has sought to regulate and restore indigenous associations with land. It has been one of the bases of my theoretical interest in socio-cultural transformation and our attempts to model and understand it (Merlan 2005a).My research in Northern Australia is also part of what informs my interest in the political culture of liberalism (e.g., the engagements of the Australian state with indigenous people). This has been the germ of wider comparative interest in different modes of landedness, and changes in association with land, in the context of differing political cultures.I have done research in the Western Highlands of Papua New Guinea (Merlan and Rumsey 1991), where the lives of people have clearly changed under outside influence, but where relations to land largely remain outside the sphere of state regulation and the land itself under indigenous tenure.My most recent field research has been in southern Germany in a region of Bavaria where farming remains very important, ideologically and as livelihood, and where many see themselves as having deep-rooted relations of indigeneity to specific local areas and villages; nevertheless, the long-term process of exit from agrarian occupation has continued apace. I have attempted to describe how people see and deal with this, and to theorise in terms of the notion of an `illiberal’ political culture the ways in which people here attempt to limit the effects of change (Merlan 2004 and current project). This of course has required engagement with an historically and culturally complex set of issues in relation to the wider German and European setting.Going on from this most recent project, I intend to continue and widen my research into `post-agrarianism’, by which I mean the (widespread, differentiated) phenomenon of disengagement from landed and agrarian livelihoods and the consequences of this for our contemporary world."

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