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Rachel Garretson

ANTH 375
Final Exam

None of us grow up in a vacuum. We all were raised in a

particular culture and have experienced certain things. These work

together work together to give each one of us a particular angle of

vision (536). Rosaldo states that any person as a positioned subject,

grasps certain phenomena better than others (536) The saying Fish

dont know theyre in water applies directly to mainstream culture. We

are so enveloped by its rules and norms that often times we forget its

there and rarely do we truly understand its underpinnings. We are

positioned to except our cultural norms. A major reason for observing

the margins of society is that by looking at the margins of society we

may better understand how the mainstream works. In this paper we

will be exploring this idea by looking at a few examples. First we will

look at Malinowski comes to the conclusion that an outsider may be

the best to understand culture. Then in the documentary Paris is

Burning we recognize familiar aspects of mainstream society that are

done differently in the queer community that is filmed and by

identifying the differences we may better understand the mainstream

version. Second we will explore how Slocum is using the margins of

history to change our understanding of gender in our mainstream

culture today. Last we will look at how Foucault uses the creation of

margins to further understand mainstream issues.

The simplest way to gain new insight on mainstream society is to

get the outsiders perspective from those on the margins. It is often

very hard to fully understand what makes society tick when you are

immersed in that society. An early theorist who recognized this was

Malinowski. He studied the practice of Kula on the Trobriand Islands

near Papua New Guinea. He says that Not even the most intelligent

native has any clear idea of the Kula as a big, organized social

construction, still less of its sociological function and implications

(156). The reason that they cant understand this big picture is that [a

native] is in it, and cannot see the whole from the outside (156).

Malinowski recognized that while the natives who practice Kula

understood the parts of Kula that were individual and applied to them

they didn't understand the big picture or the underlying rules because

they were so involved in it. Thus Malinowski proposes that it takes an

outsider to truly understand some of the complexities of society. In his

research he is white Western ethnographer attempting to understand a

marginal society however as anthropology begin studying margins

closer to home we begin seeing the margins acting as the outsiders

and giving us clear perspectives on the mainstream.

An amazing example of Malinowskis theory that only outsiders

can really understand a culture is in Paris is Burning. One of the

activities in their show is acting real. In this part they are trying to

act as much as possible like the white society that has marginalized

them and that they need to live within. In studying white society so as

to better fit in they gain perceptive insights into that society. Their

comments on race are particularly insightful and very well articulated.

They have such a clear perspective because they are on the margins

both in race and sexuality and by listening to them we in the gain this

insight into the relationship between white New Yorkers and black New

Yorkers even though we were originally looking at queer New Yorkers.

Another thing Paris is Burning shows how we can learn about

the mainstream community by observing how marginal communities

do certain themes differently. The best example of this is the theme of

family. The queer community in Paris is Burning does not have the

classic Western nuclear family. Instead their idea of family is much

more inclusive. In certain ways they have modeled it after the

mainstream family with the mother at the head of the hierarchy. This

mother has similar responsibilities as a mainstream mother would. She

is very supportive of the members of the family and she often helps

them out in achieving their goals, in this case by helping them make

their costumes and do their hair and practice for the show. When

watching Paris is Burning from the mainstream perspective, this

family is at once very familiar and very strange. The family theme is

similar to that which we have experienced but it is by looking at the

small differences that we can better understand the mainstream

family. When we can pick up small things that we do differently or that

we don't do it all it is making us better understand the mainstream


Slocum makes us rethink the mainstream by looking at not only

the margins of society, in this case women and children, but also the

margins of history. She argues that the questions asked when looking

at the evolution of humanity are extremely biased. They drive us to

only look at males in that early time. And thus overemphasizes their

importance and the importance of male duties and ignoring almost

totally the female half of the species (407). She argues that many of

the human characteristics that we believe are what makes us human

such as communication abilities, coordination, and longer maturation

times are actually more a result of the mother child bond than of male

hunting. This is important because the historical view of men being

dominant and bringing home the bacon validates our current society's

configuration. It makes male domination the natural way of things

the same way the Ahnenerbe in Nazi Germany attempted to use

archeology to argue that Germany was just taking back their ancestral

homeland. While in this case anthropologists are not purposefully

falsifying or misinterpreting artifacts, it achieves a similar end product

of a warped perception of history that affects our present. She relates

our biased perception of the past with a present in which such is the

prestige of males in our society that a woman, in anthropology or any

other profession, and only gain respect or be attended to if she deals

with questions deemed important by men (407). By challenging the

male bias and changing the way we look at the early history, Slocum is

making us rethink our mainstream societys norms.

Foucault takes a different approach. He is looking at how sexual,

something that is more of a sensation or desire, turns into sexuality,

which becomes a label. Essentially, he's looking at how a margin is

created. This has obvious connections to understanding the

mainstream, as it is the mainstream that is creating this margin.

According to him this transformation from sexual to sexuality

happened in the 17th century. At this time the concept of race also

emerged. Foucault looked at how sexuality became a public issue and

found that it was because it became a moral issue. It became morally

wrong to have sexual relations with a partner of the same sex. He says

it became a moral issue when people's sexual desires transformed

from private matters to public matters. This came about in part, with

the institution of the confessional. It became obligation for every

good Christian (511) to seek to transform your desire, your every

desire into discourse. (511) Once it became a public matter it became

discussed openly and that is when our obsession with sexuality began.

Sex became a religious (and at that point religion was political) issue

and Foucault proposes that it was all about population. After all, it is

only heterosexual relations that produce offspring and population

expansion was their goal. Foucault argues one could plot a line going

straight from the seventeenth-century pastoral to what became its

projection in literature, scandalous literature (511). Either way,

despite ostensibly being about margins we understand that Foucault

was really talking about mainstream politics because it was a

transformation in the mainstream that caused them to create a new


It is through the margins that we gain a better understanding of

the mainstream, whether that is through a clearer outsiders view,

exploring the ways in which margins practice familiar themes, using

marginal history to understand and change the present, or better

understanding how the mainstream creates margins. We often view

margins as something mysterious, foreign, or even bizarre, but they

are more similar than we think and it is often through interacting with

the different, that we come to understand that which is closest to us.

Understanding our mainstream society is extremely important because

it is not perfect. There are problems. In studying marginal concepts we

may better understand our positioning in society. As we become more

aware of the injustices in our society, we as the mainstream, have

more power and the responsibility to change them.