Essence of Culture and a Sense of History: A Feminist Critique of Cultural Essentialism

Hypatia A Journal of Feminist Philosophy (Impact Factor: 0.25). 04/1998; 13(2):86 - 106. DOI: 10.1111/j.1527-2001.1998.tb01227.x


Drawing parallels between gender essentialism and cultural essentialism, I point to some common features of essentialist pictures of culture. 1 argue that cultural essentialism is detrimental to feminist agendas and suggest strategies for its avoidance, Contending that some forms of cultural relativism buy into essentialist notions of culture, I argue that postcolonial feminists need to be cautious about essentialist contrasts between “Western” and “Third World” cultures.

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    • "The similarities between culture essentialism and gender essentialism appear as the focal point of this criticism, with the sharp binaries between 'women' and 'men' serving as a precursor of the differentiation between 'non-Western cultures' and 'Western cultures.' In both cases, argues Narayan (1998: 88), discourses about difference 'often operate to conceal their role in the production and reproduction of such differences,' which are presented as given, natural, and well known. Hence, postcolonial feminist contributions join with realist criticism in arguing that 'culture' (or 'gender') is used to explain 'too much,' but with a twist – namely, suggesting that cultural codes such as 'honor'/'shame' serve as markers that simultaneously create and conceal cross-cultural power differences and hierarchies. "
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    • "I build on post-colonialist work that questions the ethical and epistemological superiority of the stance that theory developed in the North should not be used in the South (Dixon 2004; Mbembe 2001; Narayan 2009; Sitas 2006). Framing Africa as primarily different from the Global North is as ethnocentric and imperialist as assuming sameness (Narayan 2009), and effectively excludes Africa from the remit of social science, exempting power relations there from theoretical analysis (Mbembe 2001; Sitas 2006). Rather than assume that all or no " Western " theory applies to Africa, this article " loots the conceptual toolbox " (Dixon 2004) for theories that help to make sense of social phenomena, letting resonance with local data and context guide the choice of theory. "
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    • "This emergence of new ideas is expressed in the notion of liminality (Narayan and Harding, 1998) in which 'normal' limits to thought, self-understanding, and behaviour are relaxed, leading to new perspectives. Whether viewed as 'border crossing' (Narayan and Harding, 1998) or a more 'dialectic' process of negotiating identities 'hard won', in Leila's words, there is movement towards new spaces where agency can be exerted, on her own terms. "
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