Thinking about sex and gender: exploring disciplinary approaches

Posted on April 26, 2010


Ancient Bodies, Ancient Lives emerged from an interdisciplinary course, and that meant that I needed to establish from the beginning how different disciplinary approaches worked. I wanted to discriminate between documentary histories and histories based on other kinds of material traces, created in the past and examined in the present. Within anthropology, I wanted to bring out the links among biological, archaeological, and ethnographic perspectives, while exploring the different methodologies used.

The main argument I am advancing as an archaeologist is that we bring to the study of sex and gender in the past unique perspectives that allow us to explore how the material world works to produce the effect of sex/gender.

While I want to avoid beginning this course by defining terms like sex and gender, students at this point need some orienting framework.

I provide that by offering them the concepts of difference (as explored by Henrietta Moore) and Anne Fausto Sterling’s discussion of biological Developmental Systems Theory. Fausto Sterling’s book allows us to start with an agreement that there are different forms of biological sexuality, while taking apart the assumption that biological being is cleanly divided into two categories.

I begin by using a simple graphic I return to over and over: boxes to represent categorical notions of sex; a continuous arrow for characteristics that vary continuously. By asking students to identify the characteristics that allow them to recognize different sexes, and either placing them in the category boxes, or distributing them along the continuum arrow, we are able to work together to recognize that very few of the things they use to recognize sexes in everyday life are actually clearly differentiated in two categories.

By comparing chromosomal sex, sex hormone variation, and other kinds of possible markers of sexuality, students see visually that different ways of defining sex do not cohere neatly. I start by asking the students to offer specific examples of characteristics that Fausto Sterling identifies as the basis for sex identification. Then we go on adding to that list, with students coming up with things like facial hair, muscularity, and even, as they get into it, clothing, body ornaments, or other social signifiers of sex/gender.

Goals: to establish core vocabulary (sex, gender) and introduce concepts of difference and essentialism; to begin questioning the universality of a single sex/gender system; to establish why it is worthwhile to study sex/gender systems in other times and places; to situate archaeology within other disciplines and identify the forms of evidence archaeologists can and do use, including information about biological sex.


Fausto Sterling, Anne 2000: Sexing the Body, New York, Basic Books: Chapter 1 and Chapter 9

Grosz, E. 1995: Space, Time and Perversion, Routledge, London: Chapter 3 and Chapter 4

Moore, Henrietta, 1994: A Passion for Difference: Essays in Anthropology and Gender, Bloomington, Indiana University Press: Chapter 1 and 2