How much of gender-role expectation is biologically based, and how much is based on culture? This lesson asks that overarching question by discussing three different examinations of gender by culture, each of which offers a different perspective on how influential culture is on gender roles.
Culture and Gender
Have you ever thought about how the time and place of your life have influenced the type of person you are? Your culture affects things like the foods you might like, what religion you might be and how much you value political ideas such as capitalism versus communism. Culture also has an effect on your gender roles, meaning how masculine or feminine you are and what kinds of tasks you expect to do as you age. For example, if you get married, will you be in charge of cooking and cleaning? Or will that be something your partner takes care of? Maybe you plan to split those tasks 50/50?
This lesson considers the influence of culture on gender roles. Do you think that your plans for married life would be different if you were raised in a different culture? What about your opinions about things like whether boys or girls are better suited for careers in math and engineering or whether women are better at taking care of children? Our personal opinions often seem like they are the result of individual experiences, such as how our family was structured. But these opinions are probably also deeply affected by the culture in which we were raised.
Let's go over three famous examples of cultures that have been studied because of their interesting gender roles. We'll talk about communities in Israel first, then we'll discuss a famous analysis of many societies that existed before the industrial age and finally, we'll talk about different cultures in New Guinea.
In a kibbutz, men, and women share both masculine and feminine roles equally
In the early 1900s in Israel, Jewish people started to form farming communities based on several idealistic principles. Each community was called a kibbutz, a Hebrew word meaning 'gathering.' Essentially, a kibbutz is a small Jewish community trying to form a utopic society based on principles of equality and hard work.
One of the ideal principles in a kibbutz is gender equality. Men are encouraged to take on traditionally feminine roles, such as cooking and caring for children, but women still do these tasks as well. Similarly, both men and women are encouraged to take on traditionally masculine roles, such as farming and serving as guard for the community. Often, people in a kibbutz rotate which jobs they do on a daily or weekly basis so that everyone contributes equally. This equality of roles is admired by many social scientists around the world, and there are still over 200 kibbutz communities throughout Israel today.
George Murdock and Pre-Industrial Societies
A very different picture of culture and gender emerges when we examine our famous second example, which is a study completed by George Murdock in 1937. Murdock was a famous anthropologist who was interested in pre-industrial societies, meaning cultures that existed before the world changed due to factories, cars and other forms of modern technology.
Murdock did a very comprehensive study in which he examined over 200 pre-industrial societies from all over the world. He found that they had many things in common, including typical gender roles for men and women. Murdock saw that even though these societies did have some differences, such as culture or common types of food, general social roles for men and women were similar for almost every society he studied.
George Murdock found that women in many cultures are given roles related to cooking and childcare
Murdock noted that men generally were expected to complete tasks related to hunting and warfare. These tasks required being physically strong and tough and living in rough conditions away from home, sometimes for weeks or months at a time. In contrast, women were generally expected to complete tasks related to cooking and childcare. These tasks were considered better for women because of their nurturing, more delicate nature. Again, the important thing about Murdock's study is that these general expectations were true across hundreds of different studies.
Murdock concluded that the reason for these cultural similarities was men and women's physical natures. Men are generally taller and physically stronger, so it makes sense that many societies would give them tasks related to physical strength. Women are often softer and give birth to children, so again, it makes sense that societies would assign roles to them related to taking care of those children. Note that Murdock did notice some similarities across different cultures where there was more equality between men and women. For example, Murdock said that men and women were almost equally represented as farmers in the communities he studied, and men and women were equally likely to have body art like tattoos.
Now, let's turn to our final analysis of the overlap between culture and gender.
Margaret Mead and New Guinea
The final culture we'll examine today is that of people who live in New Guinea, an island near Australia. Just like the United States has many different tribes of Native Americans, each with their own culture, New Guinea has many different groups of people. Each group is unique, and a social scientist and anthropologist named Margaret Mead became famous for studying the societies of New Guinea in the early 1900s.
Margaret Mead studied the different societies of New Guinea
Relevant to this lesson, she found that there were three different societies on the island that each had a unique setup when it came to gender expectations. The first culture was in a mountainous area on the island, with a tribe called the Arapesh. Just like we saw in a typical Israeli kibbutz, the Arapesh people lived with basic equality between men and women, with both sexes completing stereotypically masculine and feminine tasks.
In the southern part of the island, Mead studied a tribe called the Mundugumor. This tribe was very different. People in this tribe were actually headhunters and cannibals! Perhaps due to the relatively brutal nature of their society, both men and women in this tribe were described by Mead as selfish, aggressive and masculine. So they did have gender equality, with both men and women acting the same, but both genders in this tribe acted more like stereotypical men.
The third and final tribe Mead studied on New Guinea was on the western part of the island. This tribe was called the Tchambuli. Here, Mead did not find the equality she saw in either of the first two tribes; men and women were very different from each other. However, the pattern was still surprising, because it was the reverse of what most societies have for gender stereotypes! In this final tribe, the women were typically dominant, logical and in charge, while the men were emotional, submissive and more likely to nurture the children.
There are two important conclusions we can make when we think about Mead's research. First, many later critics of Mead suggested that she might have interpreted these societies in a biased way, because she was looking for differences among the three cultures. If she expected to find differences, maybe she simply ignored aspects of each society that didn't support her hypothesis.
Women in the Tchambuli tribe of New Guinea are dominant and men tend to nurture the children
However, in spite of this criticism, Mead's research has a second conclusion that's hard to ignore. There were three different societies, all on the same island, that differed in terms of gender roles and expectations. Even if Mead exaggerated these differences, changes across culture highlight the overall point of this lecture: that culture does have an influence on how men and women act. Think about your own culture, and how it might have impacted your views, behaviors and expectations for the future, both at work and at home.
In this lesson, we discussed the influence of culture on gender roles. We covered three famous examples of culture and gender.
First, communal groups in Israel called kibbutzim are examples of communities where men and women typically share equal roles.
Second, anthropologist George Murdock noted that in most pre-industrial societies, men are expected to do tasks that require physical strength, such as hunting and warfare, while women are expected to do tasks that require more emotional nurturing, such as taking care of children.
Finally, we discussed the famous research by Margaret Mead, in which she compared three very different societies from New Guinea, each of which had its own set of gender expectations.
By noting how different cultures have different expectations for men and women, we can see how large an impact cultural roles have for the personalities and behaviors of each sex.
Upon finishing this lesson, you're going to understand more about:
- Recognizing how culture influences gender roles
- Identifying three different cultures that have an interesting variation to their gender roles
- Identifying George Murdock and Margaret Mead
- Analyzing how different cultures impact gender roles and personalities