RE: International Women's Day; thoughts on Esther Goody's 1987 article

From: Steve Gabosch (
Date: Wed Mar 10 2004 - 13:49:30 PST

Last night and today I read Esther Goody's article "Why Must Right Be
Right? Observations on Sexual Herrschaft," from the Quarterly Newsletter of
the Laboratory of Comparative Human Cognition, April 1987 (sans its first
three pages). I appreciate many of her insights into the ideology, culture
and individual reasoning that form part of the foundations of domestic
violence. I especially like that she extends this inquiry to the two ends
of the historical spectrum of social systems.

A little further along in my remarks, after pointing out numerous strong
points in Goody's article, I will point out that she suspects, in essence,
that the origins of male dominance over women is biological, whereas I
suggest an alternative, sociological explanation, the development of
patriarchal institutions. But first, the really good stuff.

One major thread she explores is ideological. Goody relates justifications
of gender relations in many contemporary pre-literate societies to their
traditional mythologies pertaining to the origins of the relations between
men and women, and she links contemporary Western ideology about men and
women to the 2000-year old Judeo-Christian mythology about Adam and
Eve. In her analysis, Goody demonstrates the existence the ubiquitous
ideology of male dominance over the female.

Goody emphasizes the common denominator of the existence of male violence
against women in conjugal relationships in all the societies she discusses,
and the violence of men against women in many of these mythologies. She
suggests a variety of sociological and biological explanations for this
violence, both in the pre-literate societies she has studied (for example
Australian, South American, and especially African, where she has conducted
extensive field studies), and particularly in modern European and North
American society. Well informed by contemporary studies, she discusses the
dynamics of domestic violence, socially and psychologically, from the point
of view of both men, and women, who are the overwhelming majority of victims.

Goody's feminist approach is essential. It does the absolutely necessary
thing that patriarchy-biased anthropology can never do: understand human
culture, society and biology in terms of women, along with men, and not
just understand women and all other "aspects" of the human experience in
terms of men. Goody makes use of the term "herrschaft," (male-power) to
focus on the power of violence that men have held over and used against
women in patriarchal societies for millenia.

An insight Goody offers in the next to last paragraph, viewing male
domestic violence in terms of the motives of violent husbands, suggests a
way to explore the boundary between the cultural and the psychological. As
I see it, this boundary can be viewed as the place where the social is
internalized in the individual (the intra-psychological), and at the same
time, where the individual struggle to relate to others is manifested (the
inter-psychological). If domestic violence is seen not as exceptional, but
endemic, including in the U.S. and U.K., the "twist" Goody talks about is
an even sharper insight into the social, cultural and psychological
relations between men and women, and the complex meaning of being human in
a patriarchal society. She asks:

"But why do men trouble to justify the beating of a wife if indeed a man is
free to do as he please in his own home? Obviously male freedom to behave
as they choose is not complete, and it is by invoking norms which he
believes are shared by the wider society (a wife should not be promiscuous,
a wife should cook for her husband) that a man seeks approval for his
actions. So there is a further twist. These husbands want both the power
to define what is right within the family, and they want it to be
recognized that they are *right* to do so. They want to be approved of,
and to feel that they are behaving as a husband should. Case material also
makes it plain that despite their violent behaviour, most of them want to
retain the affection of their wives. So they need to convince themselves,
their wives, and others that what they do is right."

This is an important insight into motive, which helps understand not just
the point of view of physical abusers, but also the reasoning process of
their victims, and how domestic violence is part of a general social
system. It points directly to a place where the socio-cultural and the
psychological intersect, where motive and behavior intertwine, and a place
that can no longer be shrugged off: it is a place where society is at war
with itself.

Another dimension I would like to add to the threat and reality of domestic
violence in men's attempts to enforce society's and their own values over
women, is the relative freedom men have to neglect and abandon women and
children. In my opinion, this goes hand and hand with the possibility and
reality of domestic violence, and with it also plays an enormous role in
the oppression and exploitation of women.

I have one last, somewhat critical point I'd like to bring up about Goody's
article, which I hope does not cloud the many excellent themes she
explores. In my opinion, Goody's analysis suffers some compromise when, in
seeking explanations for the origins of domestic violence, she focuses on
biological explanations for the dominance of men and does not forthrightly
address its social origins. In my opinion, a consequence of lacking
scientific *social* explanations for cultural and personal behavior,
especially in the realm of the relations between the sexes, can be a
tendency to reduce the inquiry to *biological* explanations, which seems to
be exactly what Goody does.

She enters the methodology of sociobiology, evolutionary psychology and
behavioral genetics when she speculates, for example, that men evolved as
generally physically larger than women as an "adaptation" for conducting
hunting and warfare, and women evolved as generally physically smaller than
men as an "adaptation" to a) avoid "challenging" men, and b) to men's
"reproductive strategy", which includes the supposed need for knowing their
progeny and therefore controlling the sexual behavior of women, thereby
needing to physically dominate them. In so many words, this implies that
women evolved biologically in order to be dominated by men.

This and similar speculative biological explanations for human behavior
raise a host of problems, from every feminist and scientific angle, but
these issues become muted if one does not rigorously focus on how human
psychology, culture, society and biology historically interweave and
develop, and especially, if one does not focus on the key role that
socio-economic relations have played in human cultural and even biological
evolution. In my opinion, anthropology requires first and foremost a
rigorous understanding of human development in terms of human social
evolution, and not just human biological characteristics, or just its
ideologies, or perhaps a mixture of these two.

In my thinking, one key issue to focus on that can help drive out the
social as the basis of culture and behavior, and avoid the pitfalls of
biological determinism and reductionism, is the problem of the origins and
development of patriarchy, exploring, for example, the impact of the advent
of social surpluses, private property, etc. on domestic and family
relations and the general relations between women and men, one possible
material cause for the origin and growth of patriarchal institutions and
ideology. This employs a genuinely cultural-historical method, and not
just a cultural-biological approach. It also offers some important hope -
if domestic violence is endemic to patriarchy and not just human biology,
it can be abolished if patriarchal society is.

The biology-based thoughts about the origins of human gender behavior that
Goody offers, and my suggestion of a sociology-based alternative, can be
treated as a separate discussion. This discussion of methodology should
not and does not diminish the value of Goody's insights into gender
relations in pre-literate societies, the power of mythology in reinforcing
male violence over women in those cultures, or her discussion of the
ideology and reality of male domestic violence against women in modern
society. She offers much to work with, including valuable insights into
where the social, cultural and psychological intersect in this pervasive
social crisis. I thank Esther Goody very much for her most enlightening
article and valuable scholarly work, which I enjoyed thoroughly and learned
much from.

- Steve Gabosch

PS All the above was written before I read the missing first pages, which
clarify Esther's approach to the question of the whether the socio-economic
is the basis of the political and cultural (a key thesis of Marxism). She
explicitly dismisses this method of analysis, especially in what she calls
technologically simple societies. This explains why her paper has little
to say about patriarchy, which generally requires a socio-economic-based
explanatory system to track its socio-historical development. Her
introductory pages pack together quite a few points which are worth
discussing, such as sexual herrschaft and the pervasive existence of the
"Might Is Right" paradigm. In my opinion, these ideas, and especially
Esther's rich data on mythologies pertaining to the dominance of men and
their historic defeat of women as the "evil" sex, can all be explained by a
cultural-historical analysis of early society that emphasizes the
development of social institutions such as private property, social class,
and the patriarchal family.

At the root of all ideas about human society and the origins of women's
oppression, whether they involve the notion of patriarchy or not, lies an
essential assessment of the origins of culture. This is a crucial question
to all the social sciences and to cultural-historical activity
theory. Esther makes her non-socio-economic approach to culture explicit,
which is to her credit, because it helps clarify the methodology of her

- SG

This archive was generated by hypermail 2b29 : Tue Nov 09 2004 - 11:42:23 PST