Platforum Volume 13: 2012

Platforum Volume 13: 2012
Volume 13 2012
Journal of Graduate Students
in Anthropology
Volume 13 2012
Journal of Graduate Students in Anthropology
Graduate students in the
Department of Anthropology,
University of Victoria
UVic Department of Anthropology
Faculty of Social Sciences
Faculty of Graduate Studies
Office of the Vice President Research
Graduate Student’s Society
Cover Design
Stella Wenstob
Rachel Hansen
Cover Photos
Stella Wenstob
Jenny Cohen
Managing Editors
Amanda Robins
Stella Wenstob
Denise Lee
Jennifer Robinson
Jude Isabella
Nicole Westre
Shereen Kukha-Bryson
Ryan Acebedo
Celeste Pedri
Web support
Jennifer Robinson
PlatForum is published annually (ISBN 1922-7043) by the graduate students
of the Department of Anthropology, University of Victoria. All rights
reserved. General enquiries may be forwarded to: Editor-in-Chief, PlatForum,
University of Victoria, Department of Anthropology, Cornett Building 228B,
PO BOX 1700 STN CSC, Victoria, BC, V8W 2Y2. No part of this publication
may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic
or mechanical, without written permission from the publisher. Opinions
expressed by individual authors are not necessarily those of PlatForum,
the Department of Anthropology, or the University of Victoria. All authors
retain the right to republish their materials. The editors assume responsibility
for typographical errors. Copyright © 2013.
The 2012 PlatForum editorial team welcomes you to the 13th
volume of PlatForum, the longest running student organized
Anthropology publication in Canada. We are proud to continue
the legacy of providing an open platform for discussion for all
Anthropology students across the country. The range of papers
presented in this volume speaks to the rich and multifaceted
diversity of the authors’ academic and personal backgrounds, while
highlighting the holistic and sub-disciplinary approach of the
discipline as a whole.
Themes of power relations and production are prevalent
throughout this volume. The authors examine how historical power
dynamics permeate into the present, and how they affect individuals
and groups of people to internalize and reinforce, modify, reject and
subvert, observe, and make social commentary of these underlying
structures. Forouz Salari positions herself within a North American
society that normalizes and idealizes a slim female figure. She
addresses historic religious, medical and ideological perspectives
that play a role in influencing women to perform their gender and
reproduce their physical bodies in alignment with the slim bodily
Alex Pysklywec, in his paper, presents the underlying patriarchal
power structure that continues to marginalize and racialize
poorer classes in post-apartheid Namibia, from the persistent yet
de-formalized segregated communities to the use of language by
municipal powers that act to marginalize poor and largely black
communities. Adrienne Mann looks at how similar overarching
power dynamics are internalized, tailored and re-enacted by
employees at a seafood processing plant in the Pacific Northwest.
Here, she shows how the use of obscenities to create humour
and entertainment both rejects the social norms of the broader
community and maintains a social hierarchy within the workplace.
Both papers show how communities perpetrate discrimination
through socially tolerated lines of sex and/or class though other
contributing factors such as race, age, or seasonal employment may
be present.
Kelsey Timler’s paper shows how sensitive socio-political topics
can be explored in a socially sanctioned space through hyperbole and
humour by contemporary stand-up comedians. She draws parallels
between the role of contemporary anthropologists and comedians
and suggests ways in which they can learn from each other. David
Fargo puts into practice issues of representation through his
archaeological analysis of stone tools from a site in southern British
Columbia. His research included analysis of lithic waste material,
which is commonly overshadowed by formed tool analysis. Though
the scope of his paper specifically looks at general patterns of tool
manufacture at the site, he also points to depositional and cultural
complexities and other variables that should be taken into account
in order for archaeologists to make informative assessments of
human agency through material remains.
We invite readers to draw connections and distinctions between
themes in this volume in hopes of fostering an exchange of ideas that
contribute to broader discussions in Anthropology. Anthropology
is a discipline that continually renews itself through an adaptive
capacity to reposition itself along shifting theoretical foundations
and through applied techniques. In turn, this enriches how we come
to know the world in which we live - through collaboration and
circulation of ways of seeing and shared knowledges and practices.
As part of PlatForum’s goal in facilitating dialogue, we have created
an online version of this volume to make readership more accessible
and as a tool for open anthropological debate. You can find this and
earlier volumes from previous years at
php/platforum. We hope you enjoy!
Jenny Cohen
David Fargo is a Masters of Arts student in Anthropology
at the University of Victoria. While his Master’s research
focuses on patterns of animal domestication and animal
husbandry in northern China during the Early Bronze
age, his research interests also include Northwest Coast
archaeology. His specific interest in lithic material
stems from a number of courses relating to archaeology
within British Columbia that he took during his time as
an undergraduate at the University of Victoria.
Adrienne Mann is a fourth year undergraduate student
pursuing a major in Anthropology and a minor in
Indigenous Studies at the University of Victoria. Born
and raised in a small and rural community, Adrienne
has a passion for increasing child advocacy and social
justice in remote areas across Canada. Her topics
of interest include cultural appropriation and the
dissection of the colonially created “Other,” examining
underlying linguistic ideologies, and supporting crosscommunity collaborations.
Ileana I. Diaz (Illy) is a PhD student in Anthropology
at the University of Victoria, specializing in biological
anthropology. Her research explores anthropogenic
impacts on the environment, forest fragmentation,
disease and effects on primates. Diaz received a BA in
Film, and a BA/MA in Anthropology from universities
in the United States.
Kelsey Timler is an Anthropology honours student
at the University of British Columbia. Her research
interests focus within medical anthropology,
specifically the improvement of pediatric healthcare
through engagement with the narratives of vulnerable
populations. Through her research into these sensitive
topics, as well as through personal experience, the
therapeutic uses of humour have become one of her
Forouz Salari completed her Master of Arts degree
in Social Anthropology at York University. She has a
Bachelor of Arts degree from the University of Toronto
in Anthropology and Psychology. She plans to continue
her studies in Social Work and Education. Her areas
of interest include gender and sexuality, religion, and
transnationalism and diaspora studies.
John Alexander Pysklywec is in his first year of the
Master of Arts program at the University of British
Columbia, and graduated from UBC with a Bachelor
of Arts in (Human) Geography. His research interests
primarily involve interactions within and between state
and non-state actor(s) in a North American context. His
three main areas of focus are: race, gender, and identity
politics; nationalism, national imaginaries, colonialism;
and peace, oppression, and contestation. He specifically
is researching the social/cultural impacts of increasing
militarization and (fear of) violence along the US/
Mexico border using an embodied queer, feminist, anticolonial, and anti-racism lens.
In this paper, lithic debitage from the Kosapsom Park site (DcRu4) in Victoria, British Columbia is analyzed in order to investigate
the use of local raw materials and stone tool manufacturing methods
over the past 3000 years in the area around the Gorge waterway. An
analysis of broken flakes and shatter produced strong evidence for
late stages of tool manufacture and retouch. An analysis of cortex
cover and dorsal flake scars revealed the presence of early, middle,
and late stages of lithic reduction. Therefore, the debitage from
Kosapsom reveals an entire sequence of tool manufacture, from
core reduction to eventual retouch.
In 1994 and 1995, excavations at Kosapsom Park (DcRu 4)
uncovered the material remains of an ancestral village of the Songhees
and Esquimalt First Nations (Mitchell 1995:2). These excavations
were undertaken over two field seasons by Archaeological Society
of British Columbia (ASBC) volunteers as well as a number of field
school participants from the University of Victoria. The site is located
along the Gorge waterway in Saanich, on the heritage grounds of
the old Craigflower Schoolhouse (Mitchell 1995:2). While the upper
layers of the site were disturbed by historical events relating to the
activities at the nearby schoolhouse and the more recent Gorge
Waterway Beautification Project, the site represents around 3000
years of continuous occupation (Mitchell 1994:3). While historic
materials relating to the schoolhouse were also excavated and
documented, the material remains of pre-contact occupation at the
Songhees and Esquimalt First Nations ancestral village are the focus
of this study.
Among the roughly 3500 artifacts uncovered, 1300 were found
in pre-contact contexts. Many of these artifacts were lithic tools
associated with both Gulf of Georgia (1800-250 BP) and Locarno
Beach Culture Type phases (4000-2200 BP). In addition to tools, a
large amount of lithic debitage (stone flakes that are the by-product
of stone tool-making) was also collected across many different parts
of the site. Since this debitage represents a significant portion of the
excavated material, it provides a suitable sample size for analysis.
This project will attempt to use certain diagnostic characteristics
of debitage flakes in order to identify different stages of stone tool
production, also known as the “lithic reduction process.”
In 1994, during the first of two field seasons at Kosapsom, a total
of 23 units were excavated along the site of a proposed walkway
(Mitchell 1994:4). In 1995, during the second season of excavations,
nine of these units were reopened and 15 additional units were
excavated. Due to time constraints, excavations did not expose the
full extent of cultural deposits within these units (Mitchell 1994:3).
Initial excavation units were 1x1 m in size and excavated in 5 cm
arbitrary levels, although several larger amalgamated units were
created during the 1995 field season (Mitchell 1995:4). All artifacts
found in situ were recorded through the use of three dimensional
point records. Faunal material was also recorded and collected by
level (Mitchell 1995:4). All excavated cultural material was water-
screened through aluminum fly-screen and brought back to the
University of Victoria for further analysis (Mitchell 1995:4).
Broadly speaking, retouched stone tools (tools that have been resharpened or altered along the working edge through flaking) only
make up around 3-5% of an entire lithic assemblage at a prehistoric
habitation site, although this percentage fluctuates depending on
the type of screening that is undertaken during excavation (Odell
2003:118). The vast majority of an assemblage falls into the category
of lithic debitage. This term refers to any flake or flake fragment that
has not been retouched or formed into a tool (Odell 2003:118). Since
debitage constitutes such a large portion of the lithic assemblage
at many archaeological sites, including Kosapsom, it represents
a critical source of information relating to the activities of a site’s
inhabitants. The process of creating a flaked stone tool can be broken
up into several stages that are associated with various activities
including core reduction (primary reduction stage) and tool retouch
(tertiary reduction stage). It can therefore be used to reconstruct
the process of creating and maintaining a lithic tool (Kooyman
2000:51). Lithic material goes through a series of reduction stages
that produce debitage with particular characteristics (Kooyman
2000:51). The way in which these stages are defined and identified is
discussed below. By analyzing the characteristics of debitage, both
on an individual and mass scale, researchers can gain insight into
the stages of production that occurred at a site or an area within a
In order to conduct an effective analysis, flakes are broken
down into several diagnostic features that can be examined on
an individual basis. Information about each of these diagnostic
features can be taken together and used to classify a piece
of debitage as being the result of a particular activity or set of
activities. Pokotylo (1978) and Magne and Pokotylo (1981)
identify that an examination of the width of striking platforms
(the area where a flake is struck in order to remove it from the
original core) provides important information for identifying
the stage of reduction that is represented by a flake. This is an
example of one of the many examinable diagnostic features of
a flake (Figure 1). Andrefsky (1998:20) identifies a number of
diagnostic characteristics relating to the distal end of a detached
flake. This type of analysis is concerned with identifying
feathered terminations, step fractures, hinge fractures, and
plunging terminations, all of which are used to determine specific
manufacturing techniques. For example, while a feathered
termination means that the distal end of a flake tapers off into
a sharp edge, a step fracture happens when breakage occurs
perpendicular to the original direction of force, leaving a squared
bottom edge, rather than a tapered one. Lithic debitage has been
an important source for analysis at a variety of sites in British
Columbia. Magne (1985) as well as Sullivan and Rozen (1985)
each devise systems by which debitage can be classified into early,
middle and late stages of reduction. As elements of both of these
systems are incorporated into my research, it is necessary to
provide a brief overview of each method.
Figure 1. Schematic of a flake showing features discussed in the study.
Illustration by Jenny Cohen.
Magne’s (1985) system accounts for the amount of cortex (the
unworked raw outer surface of lithic material, produced by chemical
and mechanical weathering), and the number of flake scars on the
dorsal surface of a flake. Magne (1985) also outlines a number of
other characteristics, such as weight, platform scar count, and
platform width, although none of these diagnostic features were
used within the confines of this study. Previous studies have utilized
a quantitative analysis of dorsal cortex cover in order to shed light
on lithic reduction stages (Morrow 1984; Sanders 1992). These
stages are commonly conceptualized through the categories of
primary, secondary, and tertiary lithic reduction. The idea behind
this method is that flakes that are the result of core reduction or
other primary stages of lithic reduction are more likely to have
cortex cover on the dorsal surface (Andrefsky 1998: 115). Secondary
flakes will have less cortex than primary flakes, and tertiary flakes
will have less cortex than secondary flakes (Andrefsky 1998:115).
Flakes with a greater number of scars on the dorsal surface are
also associated with later stages of lithic reduction, including tool
manufacture (Magne 1985:113). Since the completeness of a flake
is such a contributing factor in terms of how many flake scars
will be present on the dorsal surface, only complete flakes may be
used for this sort of analysis. Although the use of these categories
for debitage analysis is widespread, there are some issues with this
approach. Some researchers have pointed out that cortex may be
removed at any stage of reduction, not just earlier ones (Jelinek et
al. 1971:199). Therefore, there is no definitive package of traits that is
representative of a particular stage of reduction. Rather, identifying
a particular set of flake characteristics simply suggests that a certain
stage of reduction is more likely.
Sullivan and Rozen’s (1985) analysis of debitage from an Archaic
Period site in east-central Arizona focuses on examining debitage on
a more macro scale. Rather than looking at the various diagnostic
characteristics of individual flakes, they instead categorize the flakes
very broadly as either complete or broken (Sullivan and Rozen
1985:759). In this case, all debitage is taken into account, as are cores
and core fragments. The idea that Sullivan and Rozen (1985:759)
present is that complete flakes and cores are more associated with
earlier stages of reduction, while broken flakes and non-orientable
lithic debris (shatter) is more likely the by-product of later stages
of reduction, including tool manufacture. This is because the larger
primary flakes produced by primary stage core reduction are less
likely to break or be classified as shatter. As the manufacturing
sequence continues, and more precise shaping of lithic material is
required, smaller and thinner flakes are produced (Sullivan and
Rozen 1985:764).
Research Question
This project is aimed at providing a comprehensive analysis of
the debitage at the Kosapsom Park site (DcRu-4) in order to shed light
on the use of local raw materials and the subsequent manufacture of
stone tools in the area around the Gorge waterway over the course
of the past 3000 years. An analysis of this material will determine
whether the inhabitants of the Kosapsom site were bringing large
amounts of raw material to the site to engage in core reduction, or
whether large cores were more often reduced elsewhere and brought
to the site. More generally, this research is aimed at determining
whether the debitage assemblage at Kosapsom represents the byproducts of earlier stages of core reduction, or the later stages of tool
manufacture and retouch (tool repair or resharpening). If the lithic
assemblage at Kosapsom reflects earlier stages of manufacture, one
would expect to find a large number of cores and complete flakes with
significant cortex cover on the dorsal surface. Alternatively, if the
assemblage was dominated by smaller broken flakes with complex
patterns of flake scars on the dorsal surfaces, this would indicate
more secondary and tertiary stages of stone tool manufacture.
In order to conduct this analysis, efforts were taken to make the
sample of debitage as inclusive as possible. For this reason, I examined
flakes with and without remnant platforms. Following Sullivan and
Rozen’s (1985) quantitative analysis of lithic material, cores were also
examined within the confines of this study. Any retouched material
that was found during the course of cataloguing and recording was
removed from the sample. Evidence of bipolar reduction was also
found during the cataloguing process. These flakes are marked
by two points of percussion. Bipolar flakes and cores have certain
diagnostic characteristics that differ in comparison with the bulk of
flakes at the site, which were marked by a single point of percussion.
It is therefore problematic to combine multiple methods of reduction
within the same quantitative analysis. Due to time constraints, I was
unable to conduct a separate analysis for flakes that were reduced
using bipolar technology. For this reason, best efforts were made to
remove the products of bipolar reduction from the sample. However,
since these characteristics have varying degrees of expression within
debitage assemblages, it is likely that some less obvious examples of
bipolar reduction remain in the sample. In order to limit error due
to small sample size, material from various excavation units, levels,
and layers were combined and analyzed together. As a result, this
study represents a general analysis of lithic debitage and cores at
the Kosapsom site as a whole, rather than a comparison of different
areas of the site or different time periods.
The sample consisted mainly of basalt flakes. Dacite was also
present in significant numbers. Chert, andesite, and quartzite were
present within the sample in very limited quantities. The abundance
of basalt suggests that there was a nearby source. There were a
number of flakes that showed evidence of having been burned,
which suggests that they may have been found in association with
a hearth feature. While length and width measurements were not
taken, the flakes were qualitatively noted as being quite variable in
In order to facilitate the quantitative analysis of lithic material
at Kosapsom, debitage was classified and recorded using the
hierarchical scheme outlined in Figure 2. Sullivan and Rozen
(1985:769) and Jelinek (1976:19) suggest that lithic assemblages with
higher proportions of complete flakes represent the by-products of
core reduction and earlier stages of lithic reduction. In contrast,
they suggest that assemblages with a higher proportion of broken
flakes and shatter signify later stages of lithic reduction and tool
manufacture. The classification scheme illustrated in Figure 1
identifies flakes as complete or broken, while further differentiating
incomplete flakes into the more specific categories of: proximal, split
platform, crushed platform, medial, medial/distal, flake fragment,
and shatter.
Non Orientable
Non Platform
Figure 2. Debitage Classification Scheme.
While non-orientable flakes are often classified as shatter (Shott
1994:70), they have been split into two categories for the purposes
of this study. The ‘shatter’ category refers to lithic material that
is not orientable and lacks diagnostic flake characteristics like a
visible conchoidal fracture or bulb of percussion. The category
of ‘flake fragments’ refers to material that I was unable to orient,
but appears to have diagnostic characteristics that someone with
more experience may be able to use to identify the portion of the
flake. Any broken flake that could be oriented was categorized as
proximal, medial, medial/distal, or split. While the categories in
Figure 2 are much more specific than the ones used in the actual
analysis, the sorting and recording of debitage in this way creates
a more comprehensive pool of data that makes future inter-site
comparisons more viable. It also facilitates future analyses of the
Kosapsom material that are beyond the scope of this research project.
For the purposes of analyzing the proportions of complete flakes and
cores in comparison with broken flakes and shatter, the categories
of split, proximal, medial, and medial/distal were combined into a
single ‘broken flake’ category. Flakes with crushed platforms could
fall into the ‘complete flake’ or ‘broken flake’ category, depending on
their completeness. Cores were also counted and classified, but no
further analysis was undertaken on them.
During the classification stage of analysis, complete flakes were
set aside for further analysis based on Magne’s (1985) diagnostic
criteria for analyzing debitage. Here, a number of quantitative
secondary flake characteristics can be used to identify the stage
of reduction that a particular flake represents. These categories
include: weight, dorsal scar count, dorsal scar complexity, platform
scar count, platform angle and cortex cover (Magne 1985). Due to
project constraints, only the weight, dorsal scar count, and cortex
cover categories were recorded for each flake, with a dorsal scar
count and cortex cover analysis being the focus of this second stage
of analysis. The thickness of each complete flake was also measured,
but as with the weight category, this information was not used for
the purposes of this study. The amount of information collected
during the cataloguing stage of analysis went beyond that necessary
for the purpose of this study; this was done, however, in the interest
of facilitating further research on this material.
There are a number of different methods for recording the
amount of dorsal cortex within a debitage assemblage. Andrefsky’s
(1998:115) method of recording the presence or absence of cortex does
not account for the varying degrees of cortex that tend to be present
at different stages of lithic reduction. For example, an assemblage of
ten spalls (flakes with 100% cortex cover on the dorsal surface) would
be statistically indistinguishable from an assemblage of ten flakes
with less than 10% cortex cover on each. For this reason, Magne’s
(1985) method of creating four categories that represent increments
of 25% as well as two independent categories for 0 and 100 percent
cortex cover was utilized. This system employs categories that are
specific enough to allow for a reasonable estimation of cortex cover
in the assemblage while not being so specific as to create a large
amount of error relating to the estimation of cortex cover on an
individual flake.
A dorsal scar count was also undertaken with the view that
flakes that are the by-product of later stages of tool manufacture
(including retouch) would have a greater number of dorsal flake
scars when compared to earlier stages of core reduction (Magne
1985:114). In many ways, this measurement is an extension of
the idea behind measuring cortex cover. Flakes from early stages
of reduction are much more likely to have some degree of cortex
cover on the dorsal surface. As the sequence of tool manufacture
continues into advanced stage of reduction, more cortex is removed
as material is flaked away, creating a complex pattern of flake scars
on the dorsal surface of each new flake that is removed. Within the
confines of Magne’s (1985) study, data from a series of experimental
debitage assemblages was used to determine the number of flake
scars that best fit the categories of primary, secondary, and tertiary
reduction. Using this data, flakes with zero or one dorsal scar were
categorized as representing early stages of reduction; flakes with
two dorsal scars were categorized as representing a middle stage
of reduction; and any flakes with three or more flake scars on the
dorsal surface were categorized as the by-products of late stage
reduction. As mentioned in the introduction, there is no inherent
link between a specific number of dorsal flake scars and a specific
stage of reduction. Rather, these categories simply represent the
most likely stage of reduction, as illustrated by experimental flintknapping studies (Magne 1985).
Results and Discussion
I utilized Sullivan and Rozen’s (1985) framework for the
categorization and subsequent analysis of debitage and cores for the
first part of the analysis. The results of the first stage of analysis are
presented in Table 1. The entire sample of lithic material is included
in this table, and the percentage of material that falls into the
categories of complete flakes, cores, broken flakes, and shatter/debris
are listed. The shatter category is the largest of the four, representing
approximately 40% of the entire sample. It should be noted that
although best efforts were made to ensure the correct categorization
of flakes and flake fragments, a conservative approach was taken
in order to minimize error. Therefore, since the shatter category
encompasses any non-orientable material, it is likely that the shatter
category is overrepresented. However, the effects of this possible
overrepresentation of shatter is minimal within the confines of this
study because the first stage of analysis focuses on the combined
numbers of complete flakes and cores versus the combined numbers
of broken flakes and shatter/debris. It is much more likely that
broken flakes as opposed to complete flakes would be incorrectly
classified as shatter due to the possible absence of a platform or bulb
of percussion.
Table 1. Classification of lithic material by general category
Lithic Category
Complete Flakes
Broken Flakes
Number of
Together, broken flakes and shatter represent over 68% of the
entire sample of 431 flakes. This is compared to just over 30% that
is represented by complete flakes and cores. Viewed separately,
shatter makes up almost 40% of the sample, while broken flakes
account for 28.54%. Complete flakes represent 22.04% of the
sample, while cores make up the smallest portion of the sample
at less than 10%. A smaller number of cores are expected, as they
are generally used to produce multiple flakes. These percentages
are further illustrated in Figure 3. Following Sullivan and Rozen’s
(1985) debitage analysis, the large amount of material attributed
to the broken flake and shatter categories suggests that the
debitage material at Kosapsom, as a whole, is more indicative of
advanced stages of tool manufacture and retouch, as opposed to
early core reduction. However, the amounts of complete flakes
and cores are still quantitatively significant, suggesting that in at
least some cases, raw material was brought directly to the site,
where the entire sequence of manufacture took place.
Complete Flakes
Broken Flakes
Figure 3. Percentages (%) of diagnostic categories within the sample.
The second part of the analysis more closely examined the
complete flakes, which were identified during the first stage of
analysis. The results of the dorsal scar count are displayed in Table
2. Out of the total 94 flakes, I identified 37 complete flakes with zero
to one dorsal scars, 20 flakes with two dorsal scars, and 37 flakes
with three or more dorsal scars.
Table 2. Dorsal scar count by category.
Stages of Lithic Reduction
Number of Flakes
(0-1 dorsal scars)
(2 dorsal scars)
(3+ dorsal scars)
It should be noted that the second category is the least
inclusive in terms of the number of flake scars that are attributed
to a particular stage of reduction. Therefore, the smaller number of
flakes attributed to the second category may be partially explained
by these categorical inequalities. Each category is represented by
a significant amount of flakes, while the early and late reduction
categories are especially evenly distributed. The results of the dorsal
scar count, therefore, do not provide any strong indications that a
specific stage of reduction dominated the manufacturing activities at
Kosapsom. However, the relatively significant number of flakes with
little or no evidence of dorsal scarring suggests that raw material
was brought to the site and that core reduction did occur there. As
with the results of the first stage of analysis, these results suggest
that the entire sequence of stone tool manufacture is represented
within the debitage assemblage at Kosapsom.
The third part of the study involved the quantitative analysis
of cortex on the dorsal surface of complete flakes. As stated earlier,
the presence of cortex is generally associated with earlier stages of
lithic reduction (Magne 1985:114). The results of this analysis are
displayed in Table 3.
Table 3. Amount of cortex cover by category
Percentage (%) of Cortex Cover on Dorsal Surface
of Flakes
1-24.9 25-49.9 50-74.9 75-99.9
The majority of complete flakes did not have any cortex cover on
the distal surface. It is important to remember, however, that there
are a number of other possible variables that can affect the amount
of cortex in a lithic assemblage. Quarried rock, for example, may not
have as much cortex as a piece of river cobble. The size of the cobble
can also affect cortex amounts. Nevertheless, the number of flakes
with significant dorsal cortex cover is fairly low in comparison
to flakes that have either very little or no cortex cover, suggesting
that the assemblage is more representative of later stages of tool
manufacture as opposed to core reduction. This is in line with the
analysis of broken versus complete flakes, which also pointed to
more advanced stages of manufacture. However, the presence of a
significant amount of cortex on a number of flakes, including six
spalls, suggests that all stages of lithic reduction occurred at the site.
This evidence therefore also supports the conclusions drawn from
the dorsal scar count portion of the study.
Summary and Conclusion
The results of this study highlight the complex nature of debitage
analysis. While there are certain diagnostic flake characteristics
that can be quantitatively analyzed, such as the amount of cortex
or the number of flake scars on the dorsal surface, it is difficult to
definitively characterize an assemblage as representing a particular
stage of reduction. It is also important to consider that this project
did not address the spatial or temporal aspects of lithic distribution
at the Kosapsom Site. Further analysis of site material may result
in the identification of different site activity areas, representing
different stages of manufacture. In addition, the ongoing process
of lithic reduction can often obscure evidence for the early stages
of tool production, such as primary core reduction. In the future,
a more complete debitage analysis that incorporates formed tools
and bipolar technology would be a valuable source of data for the
analysis of lithic technologies as well as manufacturing techniques
at the site.
An analysis of the numbers of complete flakes and cores in
relation to broken flakes and shatter produced strong evidence for late
stages of tool manufacture and retouch. An analysis of cortex cover
on complete flakes also produced evidence for late stages of lithic
reduction. Alternatively, the analysis of dorsal flake scars revealed
the presence of early, middle, and late stages of lithic reduction.
The relatively large number of cores found at the site also points to
earlier stages of reduction. Therefore, the analysis of debitage from
Kosapsom reveals an entire sequence of tool manufacture, from
core reduction to eventual retouch. It is likely that large amounts of
local basalt were brought to the site in raw form and reduced on site.
Due to the larger amount of material within the assemblage that is
attributed to later stages of reduction, it is possible that only some
of the raw material was reduced at the site, and the rest was reduced
elsewhere and brought to the site for final shaping and eventual
Future Research
A large amount of data was collected that could not be analyzed
within the scope of this research project, including weight and
thickness measurements as well as information about the portions
of broken flakes that remained (i.e. proximal, medial, distal).
Information about the specific excavation units that material came
from also was not utilized, and therefore future research could focus
on whether or not specific areas of the site are linked to specific
stages of tool manufacture.
References Cited
Andrefsky, William
2005 Lithics: Macroscopic Approaches to Analysis. Cambridge,
UK: Cambridge University Press.
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By method of autoethnographic examination and Dell Hymes’
Ethnography of Speaking, this linguistic study focuses on the
development of a specific register within a speech community of a
seafood-processing establishment. Workers employed a register of
obscene language in this setting to create intense and multifaceted
relationships, revealing a greater language ideology determined by
the establishment’s setting. In association with the obscene register
and language ideology, specific language tools were exposed by
individual employees’ salient and personal utilization of them. The
author concludes with an analysis of whether this register, language
ideology, and instrumentalities, are representative of a greater
hidden social consciousness and metaphor.
First, I would like to acknowledge my utmost respect
and admiration for those individuals who make it their life’s
profession to work in the seafood-processing establishment that is
the subject of this paper. It takes great determination, dedication,
physical capability, and employee solidarity to perform this type
of work. As well, I would like to commend the seafood-processing
establishment that is the setting for this paper. As an employer, it
provides its community and workers with many benefits and an
excellent support system. Lastly, I would like to thank Professor
Chad Uran for the inspiration and encouragement to write this
paper. During his time at the University of Victoria, Dr. Uran
provided me with innovative, alternative methods of exploring
my education in anthropology through a critical lens. His
ingenuity, visions, and passion for linguistics and other subjects
in anthropology are contagious.
Since the age of 15, I have worked in customer service. My
everyday attitude was defined by the expectancy to be chipper and
polite, all smiles, and no bad days. This behavioural expectancy for
the workplace was turned on its head as I transitioned into working
at a seafood-processing establishment on a night crew. In this
paper I demonstrate that, as a blue-collar employee at a seafoodprocessing plant, I was part of a speech community and a greater
language ideology that utilized a register of obscene speech to
produce humour and entertainment, to create strong relationships,
and to establish seniority within an otherwise tedious workplace
(Uran pers. comm. Sept 13, 21 2011). Language instrumentalities
such as code switching, including shocking language and privileged
jokes, defined the members of this speech community and produced
solidarity while excluding those who did not labour in the same
setting, or engage in the same language (Fuller 2005; Khosroshani
1989). Finally, such dialogue illuminated the community’s rejection
of social norms surrounding prestigious language in the work place
setting (Uran pers. comm. Oct 7 2011).
Methodology and Motivation
Autoethnographic research has developed in response to the
ultimate goal of analyzing and understanding underlying cultural
systems while still addressing researcher bias and interpretation
(Chang 2008). Autoethnography utilizes ethnographic research
methods in union with autobiography to study the cultural
connections between one’s self and others represented in society
(Chang 2008). By situating my research within my own experiences
as primary data, I hope to present an intimate perspective on
this subject while also providing an engaging piece of writing. In
this way, the material presented is liberated from what has been
traditionally believed to be the easily attained “objective” and
impersonal data collection that pervasively seeks to define the
“Other” (Chang 2008). Autoethnography helps me, as a researcher,
to examine and self-reflect over my own preconceptions. In turn,
I hope to share a comprehensible and non-exclusive (as in, easily
understood and utilized by those outside of the “ivory-tower” of
academia) methodology that others can employ to also increase
their self-awareness and cultural consciousness (Chang 2008). It
is important to emphasize that all mistakes and assumptions are
my own, reflecting only the understandings of one employee from
this community who tried their best to conceptualize potential
underlying ideologies.
This study was conducted using Dell Hymes’ model of
Ethnography of Speaking (1962). Through Hymes’ Speaking I will
examine evidence of how a particular speech event within a seafood
processing workplace demonstrated a greater level of meaning
to the everyday relations between employees. This methodology
analyses a language interaction through the setting (time and place,
as well as physical circumstances); the participants (speaker and
audience); the ends (purpose or goals); the act sequence (form and
order of the event); the keys (cues that establish the “tone, manner,
or spirit” of the speech act); the instrumentalities (forms and styles
of speech); the norms (social rules governing the event and the
participants’ actions and reactions); and the genre (the kind of
speech act of the event; the kind of story) of a situation (Uran pers.
comm. Sept 13 2011; Hymes 1962: 55-60). The purpose of this model
is to reveal that the language spoken within such a work community
is influenced primarily by the mode of work and its environment.
Simultaneously, this language influences the behaviour and actions
of its employees by shaping their identities and relationships
within the labour context, creating larger underlying ideologies
(Hymes 1962; Sapir-Whorf 1956). Throughout this investigation,
my argument will be based on the fundamental notion that the
seafood-processing employees comprised a self-constructed speech
community (Khosroshani 1989). This speech community developed
because the employees were separate from the greater population
and subsequently created their own dialogue of language to manage
their lifestyle, while defending their language and exploiting it only
with accepted members of the language community (Khosroshani
1989). By accepting these premises, it is then possible to study
how the speech community employed a specific language register,
became competent in this register, and developed a unique form of
code switching (Fuller 2005; Lybeck 2002; Khosroshani 1989).
Ethnography of Speaking
It takes a certain determined individual to be able to persevere in
a dark, wet, and grimy setting inhaling packaging chemicals while
being gored by the dying motions of spiky prawns. In this situation,
each employee is placed in a position denoting their skills such as
transporting prawns into the establishment by hijab, preserving
the prawns in a chemical dip, grading the prawns (sorting them
by size and weight by means of machine), carrying baskets of
prawns to the packagers, packaging and weighing the prawns into
sized boxes, organizing the boxes onto racks, and finally freezing
and transporting the packaged boxes. Every person is part of a
system that works together to produce the end result. The majority
of employees perform the duty of packing prawns of specific
sizing (e.g., medium, large, extra-large, and jumbo-sized prawns)
into boxes. Packaging entails standing in one spot and repeating
the same motion constantly for up to 16 hours while striving for
placement perfection. Needless to say, this work is monotonous,
resulting in the employees’ need to create diversions to relieve the
tedium of labour. Such entertainment includes creating strong and
intense relationships with coworkers. Most of the time, such social
relationships are the only ones to be nurtured over the three-month
season due to the nature of the work as night shift employment in a
rural environment. I was involved in many experiences relating to
the underlying ideologies that I will be explaining shortly. However,
my arguments will focus on the characteristics of one particular
event to more effectively demonstrate how these principles may
A specific example of an act sequence is useful in demonstrating
the type of language often utilized by people in this type of
environment (Hymes 1962). On this particular occasion, my partner
had driven me to work and we had stopped on the side of the road.
During that time several of my co-workers passed me while they
were driving to the plant for that evening’s shift. When I arrived
to work, on the floor, two of my senior female co-workers made
very direct sexual innuendo statements concerning our pause on
the road, insinuating that I had performed sexual favours for my
partner. I playfully returned this teasing. Our banter continued
throughout the shift and was even referred back to on several
occasions subsequent to that night in the form of “double voiced”
words that I will later discuss (Hill 1982: 729).
Discerning who the participants of the interaction were is
important to uncover who would be generally accepted into this
specific register. In the prawn processing setting, sex ratio (when I
was employed) was equally divided in the workspace, perhaps with
a slight inclination towards higher numbers of males over females,
with age ranging from 15-70 years old. Most individuals came from
a low- to middle-class economic stance. The majority were either
post-secondary school students, young individuals working for a
living, or long-term employees residing locally. The location of the
processing establishment is important because it anticipates the
setting and separateness from the general population of the area.
The processing plant is located in a wooded area by the ocean,
isolated from the community at large. By itself, the establishment
has a very industrial-like feel. The local residents of the entire rural
community are tight-knit and often comprise of families that have
subsided there for many generations. Although I had met many of
my coworkers before this experience, I had never interacted closely
with them until working in this setting. In this particular speech
event, the participants were two females with high seniority, two
friends of the same age as I (who had been employed for the same
duration as myself), and of course, myself. Interactions of this nature
across sexes would generally only occur between close friends as the
company had strict policies concerning sexual harassment.
In this particular engagement, and many others like it, I believe
that the end goal of this particular speech event was to determine
what my reaction would be to such teasing (Hymes 1962). I was
able to receive this mockery without taking offense, and, in turn,
reciprocate it jokingly. By doing so I demonstrated my capacity to
function and integrate into a setting that was not always supportive
(as sometimes cliques would form) or enjoyable. This language was
utilized to explore social connections intimately and establish close
associations in otherwise uninspiring surroundings. In addition, it
was a method employed by women to test and define how individuals
fit into the work place system. It was important in such a setting
that my co-workers could implicitly perceive that I was a reliable
and dedicated worker, who would do my part of the job so that they
would not have to pick up any slack after me. In this way, workers
support each other through completing their tasks in a timely and
efficient manner. Also, by testing me emotionally, my coworkers
were able to determine whether I was durable enough to persevere
during the hardest, longest shifts. Lastly, it appeared that in some
scenarios women did this simply for their own personal enjoyment.
In other situations, first-hand accounts told of circumstances where
the language use had ventured into the derogatory and offensive,
resulting in the emotional upset and alienation of members of
the workplace. Not only was this potentially for pure malicious
entertainment value, but also for these employees to situate
themselves as higher-ranking in seniority.
The keys used in this language register were often objective
words implemented to characterize actions and objects; “double
voiced” words, in which the dialogue employed could be reformed and shaped in subsequent interactions; and metaphors
in which associations and comparisons expressed vivid imagery
and symbolism (Hill 1982). The objective words in this specific
interaction were words employed against me to indirectly describe
an action that my co-workers imposed on me metaphorically. These
words were then applied in later dates as “double voiced” words to
recall earlier amusement. Body language as a key was not utilized
significantly in this register as employees had to maintain visual
and tactile focus on their duties.
In addition, the obscenities and sexual comments aimed towards
me during this event and similar interactions were also repeated
in later encounters as “double voiced” words; privileged jokes and
icebreakers in either situations of conflict or boredom (Hill 1982).
These allusions were referred back to in order to evade tension or
produce humour. In this way, and as in previously discussed methods
of solidarity and seniority production, the separate language register
of obscenity was employed as a tool by this speech community to
connect individuals within the work space context and provide a
unique variety of language instrumentalities (Khosroshani 1989;
Hymes 1962). One of these instrumentalities was code switching,
in the form of emphasized obscenity. Code switching in the obscene
form was utilized as a method for the participants to defy the status
quo that the community considered it apart from, create strong
relationships, and demark seniority (Fuller 2005).
The true integration into the workspace speech community
required a unique form of implicit communitive competence and
socio-linguistic competence (Uran pers. comm. Oct 7 2011; Lybeck
2002). Communitive competence is understood to be linguistic
knowledge and structure that is not consciously known, but
implicitly understood; socio-linguistic competence is the ability to
interpret social meaning from linguistic choice, and employing this
language within the appropriate social situation (Lybeck 2002; SIL
International 1998; Hymes 1972: 54). Although the obscene register
was actively encouraged, it was essential that the participants had
a competent awareness of the rules and appropriateness of their
language use within specific contexts and what their seniority allowed
them to employ. Several inherent competencies were required by the
participants of this speech community in order for individuals to
be accepted. Firstly, it was understood that to take something “too
far” - such as to make physical transgressions against a coworker or
to repeat statements that were voiced as inappropriate- was wrong.
Secondly, to make direct comments about an individual’s personal
life choice - such as sexual orientation or substance abuse - was
wrong. Lastly, to use “taboo” words such as racist slurs was also
viewed as wrong. If an individual were to transgress such unspoken
rules, they could be threatened with the possibility of being reported
to higher management, which ultimately jeopardizes an individual’s
employment with the company (Lybeck 2002; Uran pers. comm.
Oct 7 2011). By understanding and identifying these unspoken
rules, the participant could then employ strategic competence - that
is verbal and non-verbal techniques to support them in overcoming
problems appearing in communication - in order to achieve their
linguistic ambitions, gain or improve their relationships with coworkers, and strengthen seniority standing (Lybeck 2002; Uran
pers. comm. Oct 7 2011).
In this community, participants rejected the social norms
of language use (Hymes 1962). Participants of diverse income
backgrounds, long-term employment, or young individuals newly
entering the workforce would generally ridicule language of
“privilege” and “purity” due to their division from and conceptions
of such systems within the work setting. Purism and idealism are
not generally compatible in a visually unattractive environment
of cold concrete, splattered dead seafood, and noxious chemicals.
Linguistic imperialism is therefore discarded and actively rebelled
against through the use of obscene language (Uran pers. comm.
Sept 30 2011). Cultural rules of language conduct, such as grammar,
are viewed as flexible and optional. If an individual were to utilize
“proper” or idealized language in a particular conversation or
in everyday vocabulary they would not necessarily be met with
cynicism, but might find that their coworkers would engage with
them less, resulting in their isolation from the speech community. In
the next section I address the hypothetical genre of this interaction
and why this register may have evolved.
Discussion and Theories
Through the lens of Dell Hymes’ Ethnography of Speaking
(1962), I have argued that the evolution of obscenity as a language
adaptation in the seafood-processing community is a reaction to
the setting and type of work that defines the space. Individuals can
establish themselves within the hierarchy of the speech community
based on their knowledge and proficiency of this distinctive register
(Hill 1982). Through the daily negotiation of their workplace
identities, created by the purposeful exclusion or inclusion of others,
individuals in this space have created a distraction for themselves in
a normally dull environment (Hill 1982).
This system of seniority manipulation has set up a contradictory
setting that situates solidarity against personal prestige (Hill 1982).
When workers with higher seniority ostracize those with less
seniority from the workspace by utilizing this register against them,
the cohesiveness of the team diminishes. In this way, by attempting
to authenticate themselves through isolating and estranging others,
participants sacrifice the solidarity of their speech communities
and social relationships (Hill 1982; Uran pers. comm. Sept 30 2011).
Hence, members of the speech community must balance such systems
to function to their own individual needs and desires, which allows
for a certain saliency in the language register use (Uran pers. comm.
Sep 16 2011). Likewise, to succeed in this specific speech community
and register requires that an individual have a set of competencies
to deal with situational context. Therefore, individuals seeking to
enter the register require that they be somewhat predisposed to
discarding status-quo beliefs concerning an ideal, pure language,
and society (Uran pers. comm. Oct 7 2011).
On a much greater scale, this obscene register may also be the
result of an indirect indexicality: a negative subconscious association
towards the presence of women in the workplace (Hill 2005). This
is attributable to the recent history and ongoing attitudes of sexism
and discrimination in the public space (Hill 2005; Wierzbicka 2002;
Khosroshani 1989). This history of obscene and sexual language
employed across sexes in the past has only recently been replaced by
current employment policies that have only superficially disposed of
prejudicial language. Such historical presumptions likely still linger
within the workplace, and may translate into the creation of female
gendered hierarchies. While women might use obscene language
with the palpable belief that they apply it to “toughen” one another
up, strengthen friendships, or humour themselves, this derogatory
language may undermine their intentions by being established in an
indirect indexicality which perpetuates intolerant, sexist conceptions
(Hill 2005; Uran pers. comm. Sept 23 2011). For example, within
this unique workplace register, the most appropriate obscenities
were those of a sexist nature, versus racist obscenities. This history
and continued sexist language use in the workplace may reveal a
meta-language about how society has valued and judged the female
gender in the workspace (Wierzbicka 2002; Uran pers. comm. Sept
28 2011). These factors may also translate into why there has been
a creation for competitive gendered hierarchies within the speech
community as females still seek to validate and substantiate their
presence through competing with each other.
I approach my experience and thesis with the bias of an
individual who had fully integrated into what I perceived to be a
speech community (Khosroshani 1989). Individuals who chose not
to assimilate into this register may have had a completely positive,
independent experience while not being engaged with the language
dominant of the space. The conception that the workplace comprises
of a speech community is an assumption from an “insider” whose
opinions may be a reaction to validate such a supposed register.
On the other hand, my co-workers may have also been in the
process of actively resisting such a register, and whether this is still
an interaction within the greater speech community is debatable.
From my observation, those who often resisted this register were
younger, only seasonally employed workers, who did not have as
much personal time invested into the workplace. Perhaps, for those
employees engaged long-term and year-round, these relationships
and distractions were more important to the development of their
personal workplace identities as much of their time and energy was
devoted to the area.
The creation of personal identities is greatly influenced by the
language that we speak (Sapir-Whorf 1956). In this workplace
setting, employees enter into a unique process of acculturation
(Lybeck 2002). Through a combination of both subliminal and
deliberate actions a distinct register has developed within the
seafood-processing establishment, which employees then apply as a
tool to cope with their setting and achieve their individual motives.
Concealed factors such as the historical indirect indexicality
of sexism and the construction of seniority-based relationships
are conceivable contributing influences for the obscene register,
while humor and entertainment are most definitely participating
components of its development. Overall, these mannerisms have
led to a predominant language ideology within the space, built
from unique instrumentalities and a saliency shaped by individual
experiences that reject social norms of language prestige and create
a linguistic commonality for employee interaction.
References Cited
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University of Victoria. Victoria, BC.
In the mid-1970s, Dr. Elayne Zorn began anthropological
research in Peru and Bolivia documenting the transformation of
textiles and communitarian tourism. Specifically, she conducted
long-term ethnographic research on Taquile Island, Peru for over
thirty years before her death in 2010. She was fluent in many
languages, especially Quechua and Aymara and worked very
closely with communities. She was a professor of anthropology
who mentored many students, including myself. As her student, I
was inspired to undertake my own investigations of the Andes and
Taquile Island. After her death, I travelled to Lake Titicaca and met
many of the people who were the focus of her studies. These photos
convey a phenomenographic experience and exploration.
1. Head of the Puma (sacred rock), Bolivia.
2. Mama Jatha: the Potato (seed of Andean society), Lake Titicaca, Bolivia.
3. Sheep on Taquile, Peru.
4. Futbol on the lakeshore, Peru.
5. Taquilean weaving, Peru.
6. Taquilean youth, Peru.
7. Taquilean child, Peru.
8. Taquilean dance on market square, Peru.
One of the main mandates of cultural anthropology is the study
of assumptions within a given culture. This analysis is echoed by
contemporary standup comedians, who perform ethnographic
cultural critiques within their own cultures. Although both
anthropologists and comedians practice participant observation,
I will argue that the comedian’s use of hyperbole and humour
creates a safe space in which sensitive socio-political topics can be
explored, and that the comedian presents a dynamic oral narrative
that allows for interactions with current events and the audience.
Drawing from contemporary ethnographic and comedic works I
will analyze both representational forms, suggesting ways in which
anthropologists can look to comedians for new ways of dealing with
issues of representation, subjectivity, and accessibility.
… We want to evoke a combined sense of familiarity
and strangeness in US-university educated readers
by selecting subjects that share something of a
frame of reference and experience with them, but
then differ in often radical and startling ways from
them. - Marcus and Fischer (1993:3).
I think it’s the duty of the comedian to find out
where the line is drawn and cross it deliberately. George Carlin (1974).
It has become clear throughout the history of anthropology that
objectivity is impossible, and that within the crisis of representation
rests an essential need for reflexivity on the part of the ethnographer.
Focusing on anthropology-at-home as social commentary and a
critique of the researcher’s own surroundings, I will explore the idea of
the stand-up comedian-as-ethnographer and how the deployment of
hyperbole, reflexivity, and the de- and re-mystification of normative
aspects of culture make comedians excellent native critics. Humour
facilitates the comedian’s dealings with thematic elements in ways
that are unavailable to anthropologists; taboo topics and sensitive
socio-political themes can be explored within the safe spaces
created by the comedic context. The standup comedian’s portrayal
of culture is delivered verbally, creating an interesting alternative
to the standard textual, and recently implemented filmic forms of
representing the Other. As contemporary anthropology continues
to struggle with the static quality of textual ethnographic data, the
comedian presents a dynamic oral narrative that allows the audience
to interact with current events. Drawing from ethnographic and
comedic works I will analyze both forms of representation. I will
argue that the comedian can be seen as both a native anthropologist
and an ethnographic subject, and will suggest ways in which
contemporary anthropologists can engage with comedians. Not
only are comedians rich anthropological subjects, due to their active
engagement with their own cultural norms, but also innovative
agents of ethnography, offering new insight into ways of dealing with
the issues of representation that the discipline continually faces.
De-familiarization can lead to the self-critical realization that
the world in which we feel comfortable is just as constructed and
non-natural as the exotic realms inhabited by the Other (Marcus
and Fischer 1986:138). The standup comedian uses humour forged
from the seemingly banal within their own cultures to highlight
the Otherness found within their cultures, as well as alternative
ways of experiencing that same world (Marcus and Fischer
1986:135). Participant observation has become foundational within
anthropological discourse, and in regards to anthropology-at-home,
the standup comedian relates common sense knowledge and ways
of acting in such a way that conscious reflection can occur (Koziski
1984). Anthropology-at-home, or native anthropology, is the act of
engaging ethnographically with one’s own culture. And despite the
difficulties associated with defining the boundaries of one’s culture
at home, the anthropologist works to make the normative strange
(Spiro 1992). As a social commentator the standup comedian evokes
altered understandings of the seemingly common sense, thus creating
a space in which they verbally reflect on certain aspects of culture
while their engaged listeners simultaneously begin to contemplate
the previously invisible and taken-for-granted elements of their lives
(Koziski 1984:57-60). As Victor Turner (1997:63) so eloquently put
it, the anthropologist “cut[s] out a piece of society for the inspection
of [their] audience [and] set[s] up a frame within which image and
symbols of what has been sectioned off can be scrutinized, assessed,
and perhaps remodeled.” This process furthers societal reflection
on the part of the audience in regards to that specific section of
culture, its implications, and its worth. This also resonates with the
performance of the comedian, seen in the exceptional example given
by Ellen DeGeneres (2003) as she takes something as normative
as modern yogurt packaging, and places it within a framework of
Western values and temporal understandings:
We’re lazy. We’re on the go. We’ve got Goghurt.
Yoghurt for people on the go. Was there a big
mobility problem with yoghurt before? How time
consuming was it, really? “Hello? Oh hi Tom. OhI’ve been dying to see that movie! Mmm… no…
I just opened up some yoghurt… I am in for the
night… Not even later, it’s the kind with the fruit on
the bottom. Oh well… have fun.” [Mimes hanging
up phone, shaking head]… That’s a shame.
-Excerpt from Here and Now (2003).
Reading this excerpt, the seemingly passive yogurt tube in the
fridge enters into the audience’s critical attention, becoming an
active signifier of cultural values, made effective through DeGeneres’
humourous positioning of the object.
Both the cultural anthropologist and the standup comedian
study living cultures to distinguish significance within cultural
understandings, doing so to reveal hierarchies of power and critically
engage with normative ideologies within their worlds (Marcus and
Fischer 1986:144). Koziski (1984:63) posits that the anthropologist,
“by training” is a “sympathetic outsider,” and suggests that, in
contrast, the standup comedian is, “by temperament, a cynical
insider”. This positions the anthropologist and the standup comedian
as very different, even opposite. Yet, while the anthropologist is
trained to remain reflexive and aware of their biases, the intense
subjectivity of the comedian can lead to altered perceptions of reality
and changed behaviours amongst the audience. Furthermore, since
the comedian performs what is generally assumed to be their own
opinion, intense use of humourous cynicism deflects some of the
critical response that their vulgarity and subject matter may garner.
In a sense, cynicism allows the comedian to speak bluntly to other
members of their own culture, requiring no ethical review or
academic qualification. It is also important to note that although the
anthropologist is trained to be sympathetic and objective, subjective
emotions are impossible to divorce from one’s own research, and
the overt subjectivity of the comedian can be seen in a refreshing
light. Academia as an ivory tower can be used within anthropology,
and other disciplines, to glaze over a researcher’s biased voice.
However, the level of accessibility between the anthropologist and
the comedian, and their respective audiences, must be considered
when understanding comedians as being overly subjective.
Anthropologists do use humour, as demonstrated in Clifford
Geertz’s (1973) recounting of a Balinese cockfight, which ended
with him hiding, with his wife, from law enforcement in a courtyard
under the guise of drinking tea. The humour in the situation is
clear, especially once they are removed from potential jeopardy, and
it gives anecdotal evidence to the use of humour in anthropology
as an infrequent explanatory tool, as opposed to humour as the
quintessential method of analysis within comedy (Koziski 1984:62).
I argue that the standup comedian’s use of cynical humour offers
an avenue for reflection that is more accessible than many offered
through ethnographic studies. As Rusty Warren (1977), a comedian,
explains: “if we can open them up and make laughs with them, or
see them in picture form, people are bound to loosen up,” and while
Warren was specifically discussing her overtly sexual humour, I
posit that humour is therapeutic as well as an effective agent for
change. An interview with contemporary comedian Louis C. K.
(2008) on Conan O’Brien’s late-night talk show offers a window into
the change that humour can inspire within the audience:
Flying is the worst one… because people come
back from flights and they tell you their story, their
horror story. They act like their flight was like a
cattle car in the 40s in Germany, that’s how bad they
make it sound! They’re like: “It was the worst day of
my life!… First of all - we didn’t board! For twenty
minutes. And then we got on the plane and they made
us sit there! On the runway! For forty minutes! We
had to sit there!” Oh really, what happened next, did
you fly through the air… incredibly?! Like a bird?!
Did you partake in the miracle of human flight?
You non-contributing zero?… that you got to fly YOU’RE FLYING!!! IT’S AMAZING! Everybody
on every plane should just constantly be going: “OH
MY GOD!” [Leans back in his seat, eyes wide open,
in awe and terrified], “WOW!”… Here’s the thing,
people say there’s delays on flights, delays! Really?
New York to California in five hours. That used
to take thirty years… to do that. And a bunch of
you would die, on the way there, and have a baby…
you’d be with a whole different group of people by
the time you got there! Now you watch a movie and
you take a dump and you’re home.
I can personally testify, as an individual who flies frequently,
that the humour surrounding the technology and Western
notions of patience has impacted the way in which I interpret my
personal experiences within airports and planes. My previous
behaviours were brought to mind while listening to C. K. speak,
causing unintentional self-reflection about the way in which I
had previously interacted with the world. Cultural relativism is
completely abandoned by most standup comedians, yet I propose
that humour offers a non-threatening tool that can be used to alter
perceptions and release social tensions. The objectivity sought
after by most anthropologists can lead to inapplicability, with realworld problems and struggles analyzed merely for the purposes of
theoretical discussion. As the cover liner for the DVD set The Golden
Age of Comedy (2010) explains: “in [comedy] clubs these days you
get group therapy, prayer meetings and sociological community.
You get thinking . . . you know your mind is doing something, and,
you know you’re enjoying it, but it isn’t until later than you realize
that you’ve been thinking.” The standup comedian’s relationship
with their own subjective, and typically brusque opinions allows for
easier accessibility to the issues discussed, allowing a wide audience
to formulate their own reactions to the comedian’s perspectives.
It is clear that the stand-up comedian does not offer scientific
nor literal representation, that embellishment and truth are
integrated and distorted. But these manipulations of truth are used
to reflect understandings back in such a way that confronts their
audience with themselves, and in many cases touches on topics
that would seem too sensitive to discuss, but which situate the
comedian, and their audience, along the boundaries of normative
morality within their culture (Koziski 1984:65). Dick Gregory
(1964), an African American comedian, positions morality within
a humourous framework in relating how he had never believed in
Santa Claus because he knew “no white dude would come into [his]
neighbourhood after dark.” Anthropologists aim to give accurate
accounts in which every contextual perspective is explored, and the
reader reaches judgment as they move between the text and their
own personal assumptions and biases. By contrast, the standup
comedian positions his opinion and personality as central, through
which the cultural norms he explores and the humour of the
situation reveal themselves. As George Carlin (1975) shows in his
highly subjective view of football:
Football is weird anyway, man. Football is… what
is football? Our national pastime game now. And
what is it really, except: eleven guys line up and beat
the shit out of the other guys and take their land.
It’s a land acquisition game. Except we take it ten
yards at a time. That’s what we did to the Indians work them a little at a time. First Pennsylvania, the
Midwest is next to go…
Humour not only positions guilt and morality into a discussion
of something that is commonly seen as morally neutral (football), it
is also used to bring up historical events in such a way that, although
not wholly accurate, sheds light on contemporary ethical trends and
normative views of a shared past.
This discussion of historical events leads us into an unpacking
of oral tradition within this context. Oral traditions encompass all
accountings of the past, transmitted by individuals through the use
of verbal language (Vansina 1961:19-20). Not all standup comedy
deals with the past, yet the transmission of the narrative anecdote,
from the comedian to the audience, and from the audience
outward, through any number of nexuses of social connections,
creates a tradition. The controlled transmission of the act, which
is repeated, altered, and specialized by the comedian throughout
his or her career also adds to its orality. Vansina (1961) categorizes
two types of oral traditions, the referent (testimony) which is
transmitted verbatim, and those which are more fluid, and are
altered by the informant how and whenever he or she sees fit. In
both cases the testimony is in some way altered by the subjectivity
of the informant (Vasina 1961:72). A significant link between the
classical oral tradition in the anthropological discourse and the
verbal transmissions of the stand-up comedian is the stock phrase,
also referred to as a stereotype, which carries latent meanings
within that specific culture (Vansina 1961:72). An example of a
stereotype expressed through a stock phrase in American culture, as
explained by ethnographer Sherry Ortner (2003), is the unconscious
assumption that success as a term implicitly references material
wealth within her peer group. In comedy, these stock phrases create
similar links with commonly held beliefs, so that, like ethnography,
one must have a firm understanding of the language and culture of
the informant, anthropological or comical, to fully understand the
reference, and in the case of the comedian, the joke. Informants, the
transmitters of the referent in oral tradition, have been enculturated
since birth and are expected to draw connections between past and
present within culturally acceptable frameworks (Vansina 1961).
To illustrate the importance of knowing the cultural language,
far surpassing a simple understanding of the linguistic codes of a
people, a skit by Indian-Canadian comedian Russell Peters (2006)
integrates cultural norms, so that an outsider might not grasp the
ironic twist he delivers, while also highlighting the power dynamics
implicit within the intersection of cultures:
My Dad’s been in this country for forty years now,
forty years! And you know what’s scary; I think my
Dad’s turning into a redneck now. I swear to god
he’s starting to say stuff that scares me, you know? I
walked into my parent’s house a couple weeks ago,
my Dad was sitting there on the phone, he had the
newspaper open in front of him… he had an ad
circled. Somebody was selling a couch, right? So
my Dad’s on the phone, he calls the ad, and on the
other end of the phone some Eastern European lady
answers, and she couldn’t speak any English. And
all I hear is: [in a thick Indian accent]:
“Hello, I’m calling about your couch.”
[Speaking with an Eastern European accent]: “Uhhello.”
“Hello. I- uh, I want to know about your couch.”
“Okay. I’ve said hello twice. I would like to purchase
your couch.”
“Ahno English.”
“I’m sorry?”
“Ahno English.”
[Mimes slamming down phone].
My Dad looks at me and goes [shaking his head in
frustration and with a heavy accent]: “Immigrants!”
I go, Dad! You’re an immigrant!
[In Indian accent]: “Hey, you watch what you say to
-Excerpt taken from Outsources (2006).
Another essential aspect of the standup comedian is the use of
body language. The comedian typically uses the entire stage, creating
dynamic positions with their body, facial expressions, and in some
cases, props. The vocal tone of the comedian is also significant in
their delivery. An excellent example of this is a skit done by Maria
Bamford (2008) in which she relates the trials and tribulations of
being a female comedian. In the skit, she describes how difficult it
can be to get an audience to like her. This entire section is related in
her trademark low and raspy voice. She then explains that she has a
back-up skit, in case the crowd is not responding: the quintessentially
typical female comedian skit. At this point her voice switches to a
high, bubbly, and obnoxiously giggling tone; “Ladies! Okay! Guys
[giggling endlessly], don’t listen!…” from which point she continues
to systematically go through the tropes of the female comedian:
dating stories, menstrual mood swings, chocolate cravings, and
sexual misadventures. The verbal transmission of this joke creates a
palimpsest of meaning, allowing the audience to become integrated
into the familiar web of cultural meaning, twisted about for
them, by the comedian-as-catalyst, to analyze from new angles.
Bamford’s skit allows us to see the ways in which orality can alter
the thematic content of a message, as well as offering insight into
the ways in which comedians deal with issues surrounding gender
and representation. Spindler and Spindler (1983:68) elucidate how,
due to the majority of anthropologists being male, they focused
on male-dominated portions of any given society, including their
own. This lead to an assumption within the discourse that since
American men had held greater cultural status and were thus easily
noticeable, that men could, and should, stand in for all American
people, including women (Spindler and Spindler 1983:68). The flux
of female anthropologists in the mid-twentieth century is paralleled
within the standup comedian community, although, as Bamford
references, the role of the female comedian is by and large limited to
feminized thematic tropes, with the singular alternative being that
of the lesbian comedian, as evidenced by the earlier quotation from
Ellen DeGeneres’s work. Discourse within comedy is gendered by a
patriarchal framework and is far behind anthropology in terms of
equality of voice and gendered content; still, there are comedians,
both male and female, making important statements surrounding
these assumed gender roles. Jennifer Kober (2009), as a large woman,
discusses the bias of the ideal female form in the West, stating that:
“I don’t like the word fat, I think it’s harsh. I prefer the phrase: ‘hard
to kidnap’. You are not throwing my fat ass into a moving vehicle
anytime soon.” Tim Allen (1990) highlights the foundational issue
of male hegemony ever so gently, announcing that: “Men are pigs.
Too bad we own everything!” I argue that the use of humour allows
for more explicit critiques of patriarchy and defuses tensions that
can easily arise in academic discussions on parallel themes. Perhaps
men confronted with anti-patriarchal comments contextualized
within a comedy club would react better to those same sentiments
elucidated within an academic context.
Edward Hall (1973:30) felt that a “culture hides much more
than it reveals,” and that what is hidden is hidden “most effectively
from its own participants.” While a textual ethnography does offer
insights, the layered meaning and significance in the vocal range,
kinesics, proxemics, and facial expressions of performance allows
for a multitude of entryways into reflexivity for the viewer. This
‘silent language’ of objects, ways of acting and speaking, can be used
as a means to understand the unconscious yet vital components of
human life and action (Hall 1990:3). Stand-up comedians use this
silent language to explore and analyze the seemingly inconsequential
normative qualities of their culture.
The orality of delivery also helps the referent to escape,
what Clifford Geertz (1973) calls inscription. The ethnographic
interpretation, the fictitious creation is written down, and is
therefore robbed of its dynamism, thus leading cultural analysis
into the dangerous territory of becoming out of touch with the
“hard surfaces of life - with the political, economic, stratificatory
realities within which men are everywhere contained” (Geertz
1973:27). However, the comedian creates transformative spaces and
refocuses cultural frameworks against the backdrop of the home,
the most easily relatable arena of human life (Koziski 1984:66-67).
The comedian uses verbal timing and the multiple levels of context
available in orality to create spaces of self-reflexivity (Hall 1990:220). It is through “the flow of behaviour - or, more precisely, social
action - that cultural forms find articulation” (Geertz 1973:18). I
argue that cultural critics, such as comedians, who take dynamic
cultural elements and represent them within a theater of fluid and
uninhibited interaction, are engaging with this cultural flow in a
more dynamic way; they inscribe less and reassess more.
The standup comedian fills the role of the storyteller in our
contemporary culture, of the conveyor of cultural consciousness
(Koziski 1984:73). Like the ethnography, the comedian’s anecdotes
“are not privileged, just particular” (Geertz 1973:23). Similar to
the anthropologist, the comedian performs many roles within
our globally connected world. Through their comedy they draw
from various sources, some familiar, some strange, but all align
together to create conversations and question assumptions, all the
while directing their skits towards other members with shared
understandings, using humour which is completely contextually
placed (Peirano 1998:123). Yet, the dialogues of the comedian remain
more accessible to the everyday individual within their collectivity.
The crisis of representation which Marcus and Fischer (1986)
explored, and which continues to be relevant within the discipline
today, calls for anthropology to engage with audiences outside the
walls of academia through a cultural critique that pays attention
to both the differences inherent across and within peoples, as well
as the homogeneous realities of globalization. I have argued that
the comedian, who speaks the truth through comedy, holding up
a mirror for the audience to see themselves as they are, offers an
interesting alternative to the systematic ways in which ethnographic
inquiry is being done (Warren 1977). Although the utter subjectivity
of the comedian makes their craft far from academic, anthropologists
can learn to create new levels of accessibility and begin to engage
with wider populations through a similar use of personal opinion.
The potential to increase dialogues within the discourse could
lead to new ideas, methods, and increased applicability to realworld problems and questions. Although the theoretical aspect of
anthropology is both fascinating and essential, given the world’s
current socio-political climate, academia must make strides toward
applied problem solving. The use of humour offers a means to deal
with situations in more blunt and accessible terms. Anthropology,
the discipline of quotation marks, can learn from the comedian’s
lack of tact and use of humour to open doors to more straightforward
inquiries. Stand-up comedians not only offer humourous release
from the everyday, but also do so in such a way that confronts the very
notion of everyday and creates spaces of change. Furthermore, the
comedian can offer anthropologists interesting subjects of analysis,
since the comedian both exists within, and critically engages with,
their own cultures. Anthropologists can find comedians to be
fascinating subjects of inquiry, as pioneers of ethnography who
influence cultural understandings and ask the important questions,
such as: why it is that “when we talk to God we’re said to be praying,
but when God talks to us we’re schizophrenic” (Lily Tomlin 1976).
References Cited
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2008 Stereotypical Female Comedian Skit. Chick Comedy.
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Available <>.
C. K. (Szekely), Louis
2008 Everything’s Amazing and Nobody’s Happy. Excerpt from
Late Night with Conan O’Brien.
DeGeneres, Ellen
2003 We Are Lazy. In Here and Now. Joe Gallen, dir. HBO
Production. Film.
Fischer, Michael M. J. and George E. Marcus
1999 [1986] Anthropology as Cultural Critique: An
Experimental Moment in the Human Sciences, Second Edition.
Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press.
Geertz, Clifford
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1973 Thick Description: Toward an Interpretive Theory of
Culture. In The Interpretation of Cultures. C. Geertz, ed. Pp.
3-30. New York: Basic Books.
Gregory, Dick
1964 Dick Gregory Running for President. AGM Production.
Tomato Records. Album.
Hall, Edward T.
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Edition. Print.
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Understanding Cultural Differences: Germans, French, and
Americans. Pp. 1-29. London: Intercultural Press.
Holbrook, Hal
1954 Mark Twain Tonight! New York: Columbia Records.
Kober, Jennifer
2009 Hard to Kidnap. Chick Comedy. Chick Comedy Inc.
Online. Internet. Accessed 24 Feb 2011. Available <http://www.>.
Koziski, Stephanie
1984 The Stand-up Comedian as Anthropologist: Intentional
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Peirano, Mariza G.
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of a Single Discipline. Annual Review of Anthropology
Peters, Russell
2006 My Father is A Redneck. In Outsourced. Alan C.
Blomquist, dir. Parallel Entertainment. Film.
Reiner, Rob
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Peter, dirs. Creative Light Entertainment. Film. Cover liner
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of Anthropology (12):49-78.
Spiro, Melford E.
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Thought. In New Anthropological Other or Burmese Brother?
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Production Company. Television Special.
Turner, Victor.
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Liminality. In Performance in Postmodern Cultures. Michael
Benamon and Charles Caramello, eds. Madison: Coda Press.
Vansina, Jan
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Third Edition. H. M. Wright, trans. New Jersey: Transaction
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Album and Cover liner.
Over the past 50 years, Judeo-Christian ideology, the North
American biomedical system, capitalism, and feminist movements
have all played a role in naturalizing and legitimizing the slim
body ideal for North American women. In North American
society, women’s social worth has largely come to depend on their
management of the slim body ideal, while their body size has
become a representation of a sense of personal responsibility, values,
and discipline. Following Judith Butler (1997), I argue that through
their acceptance of, and attempts to embody these ideals, women
perform their gender and play a part in recreating and validating
these socio-cultural norms.
I would like to thank Dr. Maggie Cummings, my professor and
mentor, of whose inspiring course in the anthropological subfield of
gender and sexuality provided me with the opportunity to research
and write this paper. I would also like to thank Dr. Donna Young
whose mentorship and support motivated me to continue studying
anthropology and improving my writing skills. Finally, I thank my
loving and incredible family and friends who have always supported
my studies, interests, and accomplishments. I owe my success to
I have struggled with my weight all my life. Since the onset
of puberty at the age of ten, I have been taught to despise my
womanly curves and have been reprimanded for my presumed
lack of willpower and self-control. Hence, I spent the majority of
my adolescence restricting myself to a diet of fat free products, raw
fruits and vegetables, and dry corn flake cereal. I also walked two
hours per day and worked out daily with exercise videos at home.
However, at a height of 155 centimetres (5’1”), the lowest weight I
have ever achieved was 58 kilograms (128 lbs.), which, according
to the Body Mass Index (BMI) (Figure 1), still placed me just below
the overweight category. Although my body was quite fit and toned,
I still felt huge and ugly, which led me to constantly hide my body
under layers of oversized clothing.
Figure 1. Body Mass Index (metric). BMI = weight (kg) ÷ [height (m) x height
(m)]. People with BMI scores below 19 are considered “underweight” and
people with scores higher than 39 are considered “morbidly obese” (http://
140 cm
145 cm
150 cm
155 cm
160 cm
165 cm
170 cm
175 cm
180 cm
185 cm
190 cm
195 cm
200 cm
205 cm
Weight (kg)
When my busy and stressful university life prevented me from
sticking to a strict diet and exercise regimen, I began to put on
weight. Consequently, I faced increased chastisement from relatives,
family friends, and doctors. My female relatives even encouraged
me to purchase laxatives and other dietary supplements to help me
lose weight. The products would work for a few months, but I would
eventually regain the weight, if not more. I finally realized that
nothing I did was good enough. My body simply could not fit into
the ideal biomedical weight categories and would never fully satisfy
my family. Therefore, I gave up dieting and exercise. After marriage,
I began juggling housework, part-time employment, volunteering,
and full-time university classes, leaving me no time for “self-care.”
As a result, I began to put on more weight quite rapidly. Today, I
cannot bear to visit a doctor for any medical inquiry because I am
always lectured about weight-loss and told that the root of all of my
problems is my weight. I am told that I am slowly killing myself by
my own volition. I am refused the opportunity to explain my reasons
for the visit and my right to request a full round of diagnostic testing.
Hence, my family and the North American biomedical system
have never accepted my body type as healthy and have consistently
lowered my self-esteem and confidence by instilling in me a fear of
disease and ugliness.
My story, however, is not unique. It speaks to the experiences
of many women in North America. As a society, we have stumbled
upon an era where a woman’s voluptuous curves are no longer
seen as beautiful, feminine, and sexy, but revolting: a sign of her
immoral indulgences in food. We have entered a time where an
overly slim and almost boyish figure is seen as the ideal of feminine
beauty and allure. We have gone from idolizing and admiring
the voluptuous figure of Marilyn Monroe to the anorexic figure
of Kate Moss. What influenced this change in North American
society? Overall, women’s bodies have not changed or evolved
In this paper, I will show that, over the past 50 years, JudeoChristian ideology, the North American biomedical system,
capitalism, and feminist movements have all played a role in
naturalizing and legitimizing the slim body ideal for women. These
powerful systems have socialized women to adhere to this ideal in
order to reveal their “true femininity”, which today is represented
by a slim, toned, and petite body. I argue that, in North America,
women’s social worth has come to depend on their management
of this slim body ideal, with their body size now symbolizing their
values and sense of personal responsibility and discipline. While
North American society is culturally, religiously, racially, sexually,
and socio-economically diverse, the slim body ideal has become a
dominant discourse with widespread social influences. In following
Judith Butler (1997), I further argue that it is through their acceptance
of and attempt to embody these ideals that North American
women perform their gender and help recreate and validate this
socio-cultural norm. Nevertheless, some North American women
choose to resist this body and gender ideal by embracing fatty or
muscular body types, making them susceptible to significant social
Theory of Gender Performativity
Judith Lorber (1993:568, 578) argues that “believing is seeing,”
meaning that what we think about something affects how we
perceive it. Hence, if we believe that there are only two sexes (male
and female) and two genders (men and women), we come to perceive
precisely this in society (Lorber 1993:578). Moreover, Judith Butler
(1997:536) argues:
Construction not only takes place in time, but is
itself a temporal process which operates through
the reiteration of norms; sex is both produced and
destabilized in the course of this reiteration. As a
sedimented effect of a reiterative or ritual practice,
sex acquires its naturalized effect, and yet, it is also
by virtue of this reiteration that gaps and fissures
are opened up.
Butler’s (1997:532) phrase “reiteration of norms” can be
understood as signifying the acceptance and performance or reenactment of the norms set forth by a society and/or culture, in
this case regarding the characteristics and roles of different genders
and sexualities. It is through the process of continual acceptance
and performance of these norms that one’s gender and sexuality is
constructed and reconstructed throughout time (Butler 1997:532).
Her point is that all people construct their own genders and
sexualities by choosing to repeatedly accept, adopt, and act in
accordance with the norms that their society and/or culture sets
forth for their specific gender and sexuality, thus reiterating them.
However, rarely do people wholly accept and live in accordance
with all of the norms in their society and/or culture, resulting in
the creation of “gaps and fissures” (Butler 1997:536) in the actual
embodiment of and identification with gender and sexual norms.
Most people, therefore, fall somewhere between the norms for men
and women or heterosexuals and homosexuals.
The brilliance of Butler’s theory of gender performativity is
that it has moved us beyond conceptualizing man and woman or
heterosexual and homosexual as static binary opposites towards
recognizing that gendered and sexual identities exist along a vast
continuum, from the archetypal “man” to the archetypal “woman”
or from the stereotypical “heterosexual” to the stereotypical
“homosexual”. Moreover, it highlights the repetitive and arduous
“process of becoming” (de Lauretis 2002) involved in constructing
one’s gendered or sexual identity, and maintaining or reproducing
it over time. In fact, as Teresa de Lauretis (2002:54) argues, identity
and identification are not synonymous. Identity “is a matter of social
regulation, the allocation or the assimilation of each individual to a
social group, a class, a gender, a race, a nation,” while identification
is about being, knowing and desiring, a question of whom or what
someone is (de Lauretis 2002:54). This makes identification an
ongoing and dialogical process: a matter of adapting, reacting to,
adopting, or resisting the available discourses on different forms of
identity, in this case gendered or sexual identity.
Providing an alternative point of view, Henrietta Moore
(1999:157) shows that while contemporary theories have made gender
and sexuality seem fluid and ambiguous, allowing for the possibility
of resistance of the normative construction of these categories, we
should remain critical of the theoretical effectiveness of explaining
gender and sexuality based on ambiguity and resistance alone (Moore
1999:156). Moreover, she reminds us that Butler’s theory of gender
performativity was not meant to and should not be interpreted as
overemphasizing individual agency or the voluntariness of gender
and sexual performativity and identification (Moore 1999:158).
In fact, she states that while the theory of performativity seems to
allow for the possibility “to destabilize the regulatory discourses on
sex and gender through the repetition and the mimicking of gender
categorization… [it under-theorizes] the use and management of
the body as a mechanism for the construction and management of
identity” (Moore 1999:160).
Moore (1988:3) alludes to the fact that the theory of performativity
does not exist outside of or reject the dominant discourses in a
culture or society. In order to be accepted into society, people must
perform their identities – whether gendered, sexual, racial, etc.
– within the acceptable boundaries outlined by their culture or
society’s dominant discourses; such social performances of identity
often involve the management of one’s body (Moore 1999). In order
to maintain the status quo, societies tend to label and categorize
socially resistive forms of bodily modification (e.g., through body
art, certain cosmetic surgeries, bodybuilding, or even anorexia and
obesity) negatively. Hence, while mainstream gender and sexual
constructions can be resisted, such forms of resistance are often met
with significant social ramifications.
In North America, women who embrace the slim body ideal
reiterate and legitimize their society’s gender norms, maintain
the status quo, and thereby attain the social status of a morally
responsible and socially disciplined citizen. On the other hand,
those who resist or cannot adequately embody this socio-cultural
ideal (e.g., due to extreme slimness, fatness, or muscularity) are
socially stigmatized in North American society.
Brief History of North American Body Ideals
In the 19th century, the women who were idealized as the most
beautiful and sexy were tall, large-busted, and full-figured (Seid
1994:5). Small waists and large arms, calves, buttocks, and hips
were highly valued (Seid 1994:5). “Plumpness was deemed a sign of
emotional well-being... good temperament... a clean conscience...
temperate and disciplined habits, and... good health” (Seid 1994:5).
However, at the start of the 20th century, members of the middle and
upper classes began to idealize a “slim” figure because of its ability to
move more easily and quickly, allowing for a more modern and fastpaced lifestyle (Seid 1994:6; Stearns 1997:43-47; Thompson 1994).
A change in fashion towards tighter and more revealing clothing
restricted the use of thick structural undergarments, such as girdles
or corsets, and the petit-bourgeoisie began to feel that it was no
longer necessary to represent one’s wealth through a corpulent body
(Seid 1994:6; Stearns 1997:43-47; Thompson 1994).
After World War II, insurance companies created demographic
charts relating premature mortality to fatness, urging the health
industry to persuade North Americans to lose weight (Seid
1994:6; Stearns 1997). Certainly, North Americans had begun
to put on more weight than in the past, enlarging by an average
of two pounds per decade from 1920 to 1990 (Stearns 1997:133135). This weight gain coincided with more sedentary lifestyles: a
decrease in agricultural and manufacturing jobs; an increase in
office-based service sector jobs; an increase in the mechanization
of all types of work; the advent of automated transportation; and,
the invention and advertisement of more fatty snacks.
The 1960s saw the fame of supermodel Twiggy, a 5’ 7”,
98-pound British teenager who had achieved the ultimate level
of slimness (Seid 1994:6-7). Almost immediately, women across
North America and Western Europe began to imitate everything
about her, from her hairstyle, makeup, and clothing to her slender
figure (Brumberg 1997:119-124). Many women obsessively and
restrictively dieted, feeling more and more dissatisfied with
their bodies (Brumberg 1997:119-124). The 1970s and 1980s
then saw the rise of the fitness industry, pushing the ideal from
slim to lean and toned bodies (Brumberg 1997:123; Dworkin
and Wachs 2009:152-155). The health industry finally caught
up with these changing body ideals and declared that slimness
was equivalent to health (Seid 1994:7). Therefore, by being linked
to the consumption of food, slimness and, by extension, health
became the responsibility of the individual (Seid 1994:7). The
health industry also began using the Body Mass Index (BMI) –
created by Belgian polymath Adolphe Quetelet in the mid-19th
century – to determine people’s “healthy” weight categories based
on their height (Figure 1) while disregarding bone-structure,
muscle-mass, body-type, genetic differences, and much more
(Seid 1994:7).
The health industry ignored some very important scientific
facts in creating “healthy” weight standards, emphasizing the
fact that biomedicine is highly influenced by changes in culture
as much as, if not more than, science. For example, most of the
fat tissue in our bodies cannot be lost permanently; individual
genetic differences restrict the speed and amount of weight-loss;
lack of nutrition from restrictive dieting leads to irritability,
fatigue, depression, and illness; prolonged dieting leads to the
malfunctioning of the body’s natural metabolic rate, which,
consequently, leads to weight gain; and fat tissue is necessary for
the long-term storage of energy, insulation of the organs and, in
women, for the start and regulation of ovulation and menstruation,
the sustainment of pregnancy, and lactation (Anderson et al.
1992:199; Burgard and Lyons 1994:213; Seid 1994:7-8). As follows,
the recent North American trend towards a slim body ideal has
very little to do with health. Many more complex issues are at
play in the construction of this socio-cultural ideal, as will be
discussed below.
Naturalization of the Slim Body Ideal
The Judeo-Christian story of Genesis states that God created
Adam in His own image and directly breathed life into him, making
Adam an image of divinity on Earth. Eve, however, was indirectly
created by God from one of Adam’s ribs (Wolf 1991:93). As a
result, her attainment of perfection and divinity could only occur
through Adam, a man and the root of her creation (Wolf 1991:93).
Wooley (1994:29) argues that this conceptualization legitimated the
patriarchal power of the Judeo-Christian religious institution by
reversing the natural order of the world, making men the creators
or “mothers” of women.
In this way, the story of Genesis may be teaching women that
they are imperfect, inferior to, and dependent on men for their
existence (Wolf 1991:94). In fact, Wolf (1991:93-94) argues that
this story instills in women a sense of deficiency, malleability, lack
of power and personal value. In order to attain divine perfection,
women are encouraged to undergo weight-loss procedures (e.g.,
extreme dieting, excessive exercise, and liposuction) to modify their
body’s femininity into the ideal of masculinity (Wolf 1991:93-94).
Therefore, Judeo-Christian ideology naturalizes the slim body ideal
by linking it to the generally slim and toned body of men, which
it deems as representative of human perfection. In this case, the
women who attempt to embody the ideal of slimness can be viewed
as performing the Judeo-Christian moral and religious ideal of
masculine divinity.
Moreover, the story of Genesis extends its views on women’s
immorality and inferiority through the notion of Eve’s Original Sin.
Being the one who is tempted by the serpent to defy the command
of God by eating the forbidden fruit, Eve and all women thereafter
are seen as weak, immoral, evil, the source of misery and death, and,
ultimately, inferior to men (Wooley 1994:29). Interestingly enough,
the very act of eating a forbidden “fruit” implies that women’s fatness
is the result of their own sinful indulgence in food – also known as
the sin of gluttony (Wolf 1991:96). In fact, the health, beauty, and
fitness industries have adopted the notion of fatness as sinfulness in
order to offer women a never-ending array of weight-loss procedures
to help them transcend their naturally imperfect bodies and
morality (Wolf 1991:96). These industries identify women’s lack of
self-control (like Eve’s) as the cause of their imperfections of fatness
and ugliness (Wolf 1991:96). It is through this link that body size
becomes symbolic of women’s social and moral value.
The Original Sin also led to the banishment of Adam and Eve
from the Garden of Eden, after which procreation became Eve’s
punishment, only achievable through sexual intercourse, which still
carries strong taboos across many cultures and religions (Wooley
1994:29). Nevertheless, following the sexual revolution brought
forth by the North American hippy and feminist movements of the
1960s and 1970s, abortion and contraception were legalized and
sex, particularly premarital sex, lost its stigma in North American
society (Wolf 1991:97). The female guilt and shame regarding
sexual pleasure, which had been inherited from the sins of Eve, was
then rerouted towards the pleasure of and oral appetite for food
(Wolf 1991:97). Thus, just as sexually unchaste women were seen
as “fallen” in the past, women were now seen as “falling off” their
diets; just as they “cheated” on their husbands in the past, they now
“cheat” on their diets (Wolf 1991:98). Women who eat “forbidden”
foods (e.g., carbohydrate-rich or fatty foods) are now considered
bad, disobedient, or immoral, similar to Eve after her consumption
of the forbidden fruit (Wolf 1991:98).
Hence, in North American society, Judeo-Christian teachings
of the story of Genesis have established the management of the slim
body ideal as women’s moral responsibility, thereby associating
notions of spiritual damnation and immorality to female fatness.
In order to prove their moral and social value, women must modify
their bodies to de-emphasize their feminine sexual features (e.g.,
large breasts, hips, and buttocks), which signify women’s lack of
discipline and sinful indulgence in food. Judeo-Christian ideology,
therefore, teaches women that they are “good” only when they
can embody or perform slimness. By extension, slimness becomes
synonymous with the female gender ideal.
Fatness has been medicalized as a disease in many different ways.
Biomedicine has, over the past few decades, conducted numerous
studies linking obesity to a myriad of other life threatening
medical conditions, such as diabetes and cardiovascular disease.
However, epidemiologists have found that the risks of obesity have
been overstated by the biomedical system (Burgard and Lyons
1994:214). Being overweight, or being categorized as falling above
the biomedical system’s classification of average and “healthy”
weight based on the BMI (Figure 1), is not necessarily equivalent
to poor health (Burgard and Lyons 1994). Many large people are
quite fit and healthy, especially when compared to the ultra-slim
members of society who fit the status quo (Burgard and Lyons 1994).
The biomedical system’s medicalization of large and fat bodies as
diseased, however, is significant because it has naturalized and
legitimized the North American societal ideal for slim bodies.
In the mid-18th century, Charles Bernard argued that diabetes,
a disease traditionally linked to fatness, must be treated through
the reduction of both fatty and glucose-producing foods, such as
starches and sugars (Huff 2001:40). This biomedical development
has been incorporated into many contemporary weight-loss
regimens (e.g., the Atkins diet) that insist on the dietary restriction
of both fats and carbohydrates for successful weight-loss. Later, in
1863, William Banting published a diet regimen aimed at helping
people lose weight rather than improve their overall health (Hugg
2001:39-40). This regimen was widely accepted and circulated
in England and across Europe and North America; because it
was based on Banting’s personal weight-loss success using the
prescribed methods, he was deemed highly credible (Huff 2001:3941). Banting’s inventive approach using personal experiences has
inspired many contemporary developers of weight-loss methods,
including supplements, recipes, and exercise regimens.
More importantly, the 18th century British widely believed that
fat was an external agent that entered the body through food and
remained there, in the same way that parasites and bacteria infected
the body (Huff 2001:45). This ideology has been crucial to the
medicalization of fatness. Fat, therefore, is seen as an external agent
capable of infecting people’s bodies, leading to the development of
the “disease” of obesity. Hence, just as infections can be purged or
cured using medication or surgery, it is assumed that fatness can also
be purged or cured using weight-loss supplements (e.g., laxatives)
and surgical procedures (e.g., liposuction, tummy-tucks, and gastric
bypass surgery).
In addition, recent scientific research has led to “discoveries”
regarding the biological “causes” of obesity. For instance, the 1994
discovery of the “obesity gene” in mice led many to believe that
obesity would soon be eradicated using genetically engineered
medicines (Kent 2001:132-133). Many still fail to realize, though,
that the gene was yet to be located in the human genome and may
not even exist in humans (Kent 2001:133).
More specifically, recent correlational research (Chumlea et
al. 1992) has linked female fatness to the early onset of puberty.
A study with approximately 450 North American university-aged
women, in 1970 and 1987, found that those who started menarche
(menstruation) after the age of 14 were taller and leaner with low
or “healthy” BMIs, supposedly because their bodies had more time
and energy to dedicate to their growth in height (Chumlea et al.
1992). In comparison, women who started menarche before the age
of 12 were shorter, heavier, and more voluptuous with relatively high
or “unhealthy” BMIs (Chumlea et al. 1992). This research indirectly
identifies women who reach menarche at a younger age as biologically
inferior to women who reach menarche and womanhood at an older
age, simply because they are larger and shorter, which, based on the
BMI (Figure 1), categorizes them as more likely to be overweight
and unhealthy. By extension, this study may also be implicitly
suggesting that women with more prominent female secondary
sexual characteristics are biologically inferior to men, whose figures
are mimicked by the taller, leaner, later menstruating women,
thereby reifying the Judeo-Christian ideologies discussed above.
Throughout history, developments in the biomedical system
have led to the classification of fatness as a disease. As a result,
several treatments or cures have been proposed, the use of which are
deemed the choice and responsibility of each individual. Moreover,
some of the developments in biomedicine have linked fatness to the
voluptuous anatomy of women. Therefore, women who use weightloss treatments to attain the socio-cultural bodily ideal of slimness
actually reify the norms and perform the gender identity prescribed
for them by North American society, thus enhancing their social
and moral value.
Social Change Legitimizing the Slim Body Ideal
Capitalism has had a long history in North American society.
However, after World War II, its importance and influence increased
even further, especially with the invention and advertisement of
new commodities for every aspect of life, including health and
beauty. Within this system, the slim body ideal can be understood
as “capitalist ideology embodied [because] it reminds us that we
must know when to say when” (Koo and Reischer 2004:301).
Capitalism and the market economy function on the basis of
regular cycles of control and release (e.g., work to play or weekday
to weekend) (Bordo 1993:199-201). In this system, goods must be
produced through the control of the working population and later
consumed through the indulgence of consumers (Bordo 1993:199201). By working and earning a wage, people are able to purchase
food, which consequently requires more work to convert raw
materials into meals. People are then able to indulge in the food
attained through their hard work. Nevertheless, people must exercise
self-control in their consumption of food in order to produce the
idealized slim body, which can be viewed as a sort of commodity.
Indulgence in the slim body, however, is not physiological but
social: the acceptance and praise of others for the hard work put
into attaining a slim body and achieving the socio-cultural norm.
With the rise of the fitness industry in the 1970s and 1980s,
North Americans were given new ways of controlling their bodies
(Dworkin and Wachs 2009:152). The advent of this new industry had
little to do with health and more to do with appearance (Dworkin
and Wachs 2009:155). In fact, the fitness industry is linked to
increased commodification in North American society: those who
engage in fitness are constantly surrounded by the latest trends
in fitness products and regimens because the fitness industry, in
general, targets individuals whose identity and/or desires shift with
changing trends (Dworkin and Wachs 2009:155). People consume
the regimens and products of the fitness industry as a means of
controlling their bodies against fatness. This consumption, however,
is not seen as an indulgence, but as a necessity. An inversion,
therefore, has occurred in people’s priorities: whereas in the past,
especially for the majority of our species’ existence, food was seen as
the ultimate necessity for survival, it has now become an indulgence
in North American society. Instead, expensive fitness and weightloss products have replaced food to become necessities. This change
has certainly favoured capitalism, especially since food is a cheap
commodity in North America whose consumption does not fuel
capitalism as much as other more expensive commodities, such as
fitness and weight-loss products.
Nevertheless, there is an extremely fine line of balance between
control and indulgence, which most people cannot achieve
easily (Bordo 1993:199-201). In recent decades, there has been an
exponential rise in anorexia, caused by excessive control, and
obesity, due to excessive indulgence (Bordo 1993:199-201). Bulimia,
on the other hand, is a special case because it falls in between both
anorexia and obesity. Bulimics binge by indulging in food and
later re-control themselves by expelling what they have consumed
through forced vomiting or the use of laxatives (Bordo 1993:199-201).
Unfortunately, the North American health and fitness industries
indirectly support bulimics’ use of laxatives by recommending
them as healthy weight management supplements that cleanse the
body of toxins, in this case food in general (Bordo 1993:199-201).
While North American society views anorexics as having overachieved the slim body ideal and the obese as lacking the willpower
to adhere to it, bulimics maintain a liminal position in which they
are stigmatized for failing to control themselves while binging but
generally praised for attempting to attain the ideal through purging.
Therefore, capitalist ideology has created a dilemma for North
American women, as they must simultaneously control themselves
and indulge. This ideology naturalizes the slim body ideal as it
socializes women to control their eating and discipline their bodies
through exercise, while also indulging in trendy fitness products and
regimens. North American women who achieve this fine balance
also attain the slim body ideal and the high social and moral status
attributed to it. The difficulty of maintaining this fine balance,
however, has led to eating disorders such as anorexia, bulimia, and
obesity, which are met with extreme social stigmatization, especially
in the case of the latter.
The first-wave feminist movement of the late 19th and early 20th
century, also known as women’s suffrage, led to the legalization of
women’s rights to vote and own land. This movement may have
also sparked changes in women’s fashion, as women’s clothing
became tighter and more revealing throughout the 20th century.
It is possible that women chose to represent their changing sociopolitical status by making their bodies more noticeable in the public
sphere with these new styles of clothing. However, what may have
seemed revolutionary during this era later became the source of
increased societal control over women’s bodies. By wearing tighter
and more revealing clothing, women could no longer benefit from
the body contouring effects of structural undergarments (Brumberg
1997:123). Instead, in order to fit into the changing body ideals of
the fashion industry, especially following Twiggy’s stardom in the
1960s, women were forced to restrict their diets and, beginning in
the 1970s, conform to the regimens of the fitness industry (Brumberg
1997; Dworkin and Wachs 2009; Seid 1994; Stearns 1997).
The second-wave feminist movement of the 1960s and 1970s
coincided with the rise of the pornographic industry, which
intensely objectified women’s bodies as sexual objects (Wooley
1994:42). In response, many North American professional women
felt an increasing need to decrease the “alluring” or sexual aspects
of their bodies (e.g., by wearing boxy and non-form-fitting suits
with big shoulder pads or engaging in intensive dieting) as a way of
resisting such objectification, thereby attaining a more masculine
figure (Lester 1995; Wooley 1994:42). Ironically, this feminist act
of resistance reified, reproduced, legitimized, and performed in
accordance with North American society’s feminine bodily ideal of
slimness and the Judeo-Christian ideal of masculine perfection.
Moreover, the sexual and feminist revolution of this era led to
an increase in premarital sex and pregnancy, divorce, and single
motherhood (Anderson et al. 1992; Wolf 1991). As a result, women
were heavily burdened with the responsibility of managing their
families’ financial and nurturing needs independently (Anderson
et al. 1992:220). In order to control their sexual reproduction and
fertility, many women engaged in intensive weight-loss regimens
to decrease their body fat and, thereby, the likelihood of ovulation,
mensuration, and the sustainability of a pregnancy (Anderson et al.
1992:220). This strategic form of body management allowed women
to wait for more advantageous social and environmental situations
(e.g., stable employment, financial security, a stable relationship, or
a generally improved and secure standard of living) to ensure their
own and their children’s biological and socioeconomic survival
(Anderson et al. 1992:220). As more women entered into the maledominant sectors of the labour market, many began to mimic the
leanness of the ideal male figure in order to justify and ensure
their socioeconomic and political advancement in the workplace
(Anderson et al. 1992:220). Some took this conceptualization even
further by building more muscular figures, which have traditionally
been associated with masculinity (Koo and Reischer 2004:313; Linder
2007:465). Muscular women send the message that the associated
qualities of strength and discipline, traditionally attributed to men,
are equally demonstrative of women’s abilities and values (Koo and
Reischer 2004:314).
In controlling the size of their bodies, whether through
intensive weight-loss or the building of a muscular figure, North
American women both reify and resist the socio-cultural bodily
ideal of slimness, respectively. What is interesting, however, is that
many women exercise agency in their performance of the slimness
ideal, using it in ways that benefit their survival and advancement in
North American society.
Big Bodies as Resistance
North American women are presented with two choices:
embody and perform in accordance with the bodily ideal of slimness
or resist it. Those who embody slimness successfully perform their
gender, receive positive social attention, and are praised for their
morality; thus, their weight-loss efforts are positively reinforced in
North American society. Unfortunately, resistance comes at a high
price: social and moral reprimand and chastisement. Resistance
leads to the development of a large body, either through fatness
or muscularity. Studies have shown that North American women
with African or Hispanic ethnic ties are much more resistive of the
dominant slim body ideal, more self-accepting of their bodies, and
possess more flexible ideas about feminine beauty than Caucasian
North American women (Becker et al. 2003; Gremillion 2005:16,
17, 20; Nichter et al. 1995). In addition, African and Hispanic North
American women’s approach to body modification tends to involve
the accentuation of their most unique and appealing bodily features,
rather than a heavy focus on weight-loss procedures (Nichter et
al. 1995). Instead of directly supporting fatness or muscularity
as alternative body aesthetics, these women support overall body
care and nurturance (Becker et al. 2003:70). Therefore, the bodily
practices of African and Hispanic North American women reveal
that, while the slim body ideal is a dominant aesthetic in North
American society, it is not an all-encompassing or universal ideology
(Becker et al. 2003:70).
Nevertheless, in general, both fat and muscular women are
disrespected and seen as unfeminine, androgynous, and sexually
unappealing in North American society. Whereas muscular women
are chastised, based on heteronormative standards, for attempting
to embody and perform the gender of masculinity, fat women are
reprimanded for their overindulgences and lack of self-control and
discipline. In both cases, their poor treatment by society is based
on a patriarchal fear: the increasing social, political, financial, and
intellectual power of women in society begins to question and abolish
traditional gender roles and power relations (Hartley 2001:64-65).
The patriarchal system’s only defence against total loss of power is
the control of women’s physical power (Hartley 2001:65). This is why
big bodies, both fat and muscular, pose such a dangerous threat:
they defy patriarchal societies’ denial of nurturance, space, power,
and visibility to women (Hartley 2001:65).
In this paper, I have shown how, over the past 50 years, North
American society has constructed the slim, petite, and lean figure as
the ideal of feminine beauty. Women have been socialized to adhere
to this ideal through the following: Judeo-Christian ideology based
on the story of Genesis; the developments of the biomedical system,
including the advent of the BMI, weight-loss supplements, exercise
regimens, and surgical procedures; the capitalist ideology of balance
between control and indulgence, complicated by the increasing
commoditization in North American society; and, the first- and
second-wave feminist movements, which granted women entrance
into the public sphere and led to changes in women’s socio-political
status, fashion, gender roles, and engagement in the labour force.
While North American society is highly diverse – culturally,
religiously, racially, socio-economically, and sexually – the
feminine ideal of slimness remains a dominant discourse with
widespread social influences. It is extensively propagated via mass
media portrayals, including television series such as “The Biggest
Loser” and “America/Canada’s Next Top Model,” cosmetic and
clothing advertisements on television, the internet, billboards, and
magazines, or medical data and recommendations offered through
online blogs, magazine articles, television talk-shows, and news
By adhering to the feminine ideal of slimness, North American
women perform their socio-culturally constructed gender identity
and reify and legitimize this socio-cultural ideal (Butler 1997),
thereby receiving positive reinforcement for their weight-loss or
weight-management efforts from society. On the other hand, some
North American women, especially those with Hispanic or African
ethnic ties, resist the slim body ideal by developing large muscles or
embracing their naturally large bodies. Unfortunately, these women
are socially reprimanded either for stepping outside of the bounds
of the feminine gender identity or failing to control and discipline
their bodies to avoid excessive indulgence in food.
Nevertheless, it is important to recognize that the very existence
of the ideal of slimness depends on the existence of large bodies,
both fat and muscular. Without the existence of a spectrum of
bodily shapes and sizes in society, the existence of an ideal would
be meaningless. Yet, if North American society is comprised of a
spectrum of different bodily shapes and sizes, why, then, would
we need to construct a bodily ideal? Do we simply enjoy torturing
ourselves and others? Are we only driven in life if we have an
unattainable goal dangling above our heads? Or are we so delusional
that we simply cannot accept reality? The fact remains that ideals
function just as any other laws would in society; they serve as
methods of control by the powers at large, ensuring the continual
existence of hierarchies and inequalities within society.
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Using the case of the informal settlement of Havana 6, Namibia,
I argue that apartheid in Namibia created a highly paternalistic and
patriarchal state that racially divided the urban landscape. This
state structure continues to operate through the marginalization of
racialized lower classes. This is achieved through the state rhetoric
policies coupled with a public discourse that constructs certain
groups of people as dirty and incapable of comprehending what is
‘best for them’. I demonstrate how apartheid policies have entrenched
systematic discrimination against poor, non-white citizens and how
the language and actions of municipal authorities is used to place
thousands of people in a state of contested precarious existence.
Apartheid left an indelible mark upon the social landscape of
Namibia. More than a decade has passed since the official policy of
segregation based on race ended, yet it continues to play an unofficial
role in race and class relations. These relations are most notably
expressed spatially in urban Namibia, in places such as the capital
city of Windhoek. The paternalistic apartheid policies racialized
the urban form. Non-whites were required to live in sequestered
quadrants where access to the broader city was tightly regulated
through environment and national legislation. Since the official end
of apartheid and the independence of Namibia from South Africa,
urban centres across the country are witnessing an unprecedented
rate of growth as more and more people migrate to the city from
rural areas in search of work and better opportunities (Friedman
2000:12). Many migrants are coming from situations of extreme
systemic poverty as a result of (former) apartheid policies, and have
little to no money to start their new lives in the city. This, coupled
with the lack of appropriate infrastructure to facilitate migrants,
has given rise to multiple informal settlements at the fringes of the
urban landscape (Freidman 2000:13-14).
In this paper I explore urbanization in post-apartheid Namibia.
I argue that apartheid fostered a highly paternalistic and patriarchal
state that racially divided the urban landscape. Furthermore, I posit
that this patriarchal structure continues to operate by marginalizing
racialized poorer classes. I argue that this is achieved through the
state and public discourse that constructs poor people as dirty and
incapable of comprehending what is ‘best for them’. I demonstrate
this through the case study of an informal settlement on the
outskirts of Windhoek called Havana 6 that the local government
has slated for removal for the reasons of illegal occupation and
poor sanitation. I will begin by tracing the historical rootedness of
patriarchy in Namibia by examining some of the social dimensions
of apartheid, and how this shaped the development of Windhoek.
Next, I will discuss how the end of apartheid and the shift away
from race-based national policy has not heralded the inclusion
of the non-white population as was originally hoped. Rather,
racial divisions now operate within a structure of class divisions
and paternalistic classist-based discourse. I will then focus more
specifically on Havana 6. I demonstrate how the racialized policies
of apartheid have entrenched a systematic discrimination against
poor, non-white citizens in which paternalistic language and actions
of municipal authorities continue to place thousands of people in a
state of contested precarious existence.
Before I continue, I would like to take a moment to situate myself
epistemologically and discuss some of the choices I have made for
this paper. I approach the subject matter as a self-identified white,
middle-class, queer, male settler in what is now known as Canada.
I have not personally been to Namibia, nor have I spoken with
any residents of Windhoek or Havana 6. The evidence that I use
to support my argument has been gathered from various scholarly
articles and my personal analyses of Namibian newspaper articles.
In an attempt to give voice to the people of Havana 6 and other
actors in Namibia, I have drawn quotes from the newspaper articles
used for the research presented here. All of these statements have
been quoted directly from these articles. The names that I use here
are those that appeared in the newspaper. I have chosen to do this
in light of the fact that the statements and identities of the people
who made them have already been entered into the public record.
It must be noted that utilizing quotes from newspapers to represent
the voices of Havana 6 residents and municipal authorities can be
seen as problematic because the quotes could have been selected by
the news reporter for any number of reasons, some of which may be
politically motivated. Also, it could be the case that these statements
were never even made. I admit that this is a shortcoming of my
approach. Yet, I must trust in the ethical conduct of the newspaper
reporters that I draw from. Furthermore, I believe that it is the
only way that I could bring the thoughts, feelings, and emotions
of the affected peoples into this conversation. By making use of
these quotes I hope to provide a glimpse into the lives of people I
have never met. Any misrepresentation of people or places is my
responsibility, albeit unintended.
I would also like to outline and unpack a few central terms and
concepts used in this paper. I will begin with the term patriarchy.
The Dictionary of Human Geography states that patriarchy is a
“system of social structures and practices through which men
dominate, oppress and exploit women” (Pratt 2009:522). I expand on
this definition in that I apply it to describe the relationship between
a masculinized state, and a feminized subordinated/marginalized
The Oxford English Dictionary (OED 2011) defines paternalism
as “[t]he policy or practice of restricting the freedoms and
responsibilities of subordinates or dependants in what is considered
or claimed to be their best interests” (emphasis added). I use the
term to describe the relationship between whites and blacks, rich
and poor within Namibia.
Also, for the purposes of the discussion in this paper I will be
using the terms white(s), non-white(s), and/or black(s) to describe
the various ethnic groups, as well as rich and poor to describe social
classes within Namibia. This is not intended to over-simplify the
richly diverse cultural make-up of the country, nor is it to say that
there is no middle class, or mobility between classes in Namibia.
However, within the context of apartheid and post-apartheid
Namibia, I feel that such dualistic language is appropriate as it
reflects what I perceive as visible divisions in society.
Finally, I use the term informal settlement to describe “an
unplanned and unregulated urban settlement erected on land not
officially proclaimed as a residential area” (OED 2011). I stress that
this is neither a neutral, nor uncontested term. The term ‘informal’
can have the effect of delegitimizing the plight of millions of people
around the world who struggle to survive and make ends meet in
urban contexts. These processes of de-legitimization naturalize
or erase the racialized and/or classist structures of power that
are perpetuated through the state’s claims of legal authority to
determine what is formal and informal. The concept informal can
also insinuate that life in these settlements is unorganized and
chaotic. While this may be the case in some informal settlements,
this cannot be taken as a universal truth. I assert that my use of
the word informal here does not mean illegitimate, chaotic, or
unorganized. Rather, I would like to focus the term on the actions
(or lack of) of the state by highlighting that these settlements emerge
from the failure of the state to plan and prepare for the needs of
their citizens, as well as formally recognize and act upon issues of
poverty. I will now turn my attention to the exploration of the rise,
fall, and impacts of apartheid policies in Namibia.
The Rise, Fall, and Impacts of Apartheid in Namibia
The South African occupation of present-day Namibia began in
1915 during the First World War (WWI) with the invasion of South
African troops into what was then known as German Southwest
Africa (United Nations 2011). At the end of WWI the continued
South African occupation was legitimized by the Permanent
Mandates Commission of the League of Nations which conferred the
administration of the territory to the Union of South Africa (United
Nations 2011). The rise of the National Party and the implementation
of the apartheid system in South Africa in 1948 were subsequently
reflected in Namibian territory (Friedman 2000:3).
Apartheid formalized the colonial-era race-based hierarchical
structure of the Namibian cultural landscape as the country’s
population was officially divided along racial lines between whites
and blacks. The incorporation of apartheid laws ensured that “[a]
ll political and economic power was assembled in the hands of the
white minority” (Friedman 2000:3). Although whites ‘benefited’
from apartheid policies, they were rooted in Afrikaner nationalist
sentiment in which “[d]eeply encoded patterns of paternalism
and prejudice [were] an essential part of the Afrikaner nationalist
tradition ... [ and that notions] of superiority, exclusivity and
hierarchy [had] long existed as more or less conscious ‘habits of
mind’” (Dubox 1992:210).Therefore, within this paradigm, the moral
justification for racial separation was based on the nationalistic
belief of Afrikaner (and other white) racial superiority and the idea
that whites needed to ‘care’ and ‘assist’ in the development of the
‘inferior’ blacks. This created a dualist and patriarchal society in
which the white elites lived in Western-style industrialized urban
centres and farming operations, while the black population were
relocated and/or restricted to rural ‘black areas’ or ‘homelands’
(Friedman 2000:3).
Afrikaner Nationalist belief was that ‘black tribes’ had
historically lived as bounded entities in a rural setting, hence the
creation of these homelands (Friedman 2000:3). By allotting people
to these areas it would allow for a ‘natural’ development scheme. This
rationale denied the fluid nature of cultural practices and subsistence
strategies, forcing people to change and adapt to a more rigid and
restrictive colonial system that effectively erased the capacity to
conduct any semblance of their pre-apartheid life. Many different
groups of people were lumped together into geographic spaces that
did not contain sufficient resources to support their populations.
Ultimately, this created conditions of extreme hardship in the
homelands while providing a steady supply of tightly controlled
cheap labour for the industrialized white elites on farms or in urban
areas (Friedman 2000:3).
In addition to the paternalistic control of settlement and
subsistence patterns of the black populations in rural settings,
the apartheid government also asserted a high degree of control
within urban centres. This meant that in order to reside within the
‘white cities’, blacks were required to live in designated areas. In
the nation’s capital, Windhoek (home to roughly 10% of the total
Namibian population), black residents were initially confined to
a small settlement at the periphery of the city centre, at the time
called the Main Location (now referred to as the Old Location)
(Friedman 2000:4,7; Penndleton 1996:26). However, beginning in
the 1960s, residents of the Main Location were forcefully removed
and relocated to the present-day settlement of Katutura, situated
farther afield in the Northwest corner of the city (Friedman 2000:6;
Pendleton 1996:29).
Municipal authorities believed that the expansion of white
residential areas, the squalid condition of the Main Location, and
the desire to maintain a physical separation of white and black
populations as sufficient reasoning to close down the settlement
(Pendleton 1996: 29). The construction of Katutura was a successful
attempt to further segregate and control the black population
through their confinement to a relatively isolated suburban-like
location that was surrounded by industrial areas and highways with
limited entrance/exit points and access to transportation (Friedman
2000:5-6). Furthermore, Katutura residents were required to carry
identification cards that proved they were registered, and had the
‘right’ to live in the city.
The 1970s ushered in an era of relaxed settlement regulation
for black residents; however, the cycle of poverty that had been
created through apartheid policies restricted the movement of
marginalized populations into the more affluent areas of the city.
Additionally, despite the freedom to move throughout the urban
landscape, black children were still required to attend school in the
‘formerly’ black neighbourhoods, which further disincentivized
any voluntary relocation (Friedman 2000:7). With the exception of
some neighbourhoods that immediately lay next to Katutura, the
racial division of Windhoek stayed (and continues to stay) intact
(Friedman 2000:7).
With the independence of Namibia from South Africa in 1990
came the end of apartheid, which resulted in the supposed freedom
of spatial movement for all citizens within the country. Black
citizens were no longer confined to homelands. Subsequently, there
has been a sharp increase in migration to urban centres throughout
the country. Migrants who had been economically marginalized by
former state policies throughout the apartheid-era, experienced a
number of barriers with living in the city. For example, migrants
who arrive with little to no means of support are often unable to
afford formal housing rent in the city (Mitlin and Muller 2004:170174). Thus, in the capital, many informal settlements sprung up in
and around Katutura, following much the same urban development
model originally instigated during apartheid (Friedman 2000:13).
However, the spatial organization of the city has now shifted from
being exclusively along racial lines, to more explicitly one of both
race and class.
Formerly, the economic and social marginalization of nonwhites was a by-product of apartheid policies. As Friedman (2000:12)
notes: “[i]n the Namibian context, racial segregation is inextricably
interwoven with socio-economic segregation. Windhoek’s black
population was, and still is, largely congruent with the city’s low-
income group.” She continues to note that, in light of the recent
past, an avoidance of racialized language has given rise to the
deployment of class-based terminology to describe marginalized
populations (Friedman 2000:13). Although this has the effect of
erasing the racialized nature of poverty in the public eye, it does not
change it. Therefore, I assert that a continuing settlement pattern
within the city of Windhoek based along racial, and now class, lines
has been firmly entrenched after years of segregation policies in
Namibia. I will now demonstrate how these race- and class-based
divisions of the urban landscape are punctuated by the continuance
of paternalistic and patriarchal attitudes or policies enacted by
municipal authorities.
Post-Apartheid Paternalism and Patriarchy
To the north of Katutura, near a dump site, is an informal
settlement of approximately 2000 people called Havana 6 (Nonkes
2008; Sibeene 2008). People began to construct unauthorised
housing in this area in early 2008 (Issac 2009a). According to city
officials there is no running water, sewage system, electricity, or
roads to the site (Isaac 2009a, 2009b, 2009c; Nonkes, 2008; Shejavali
2008a, 2008b, 2009a, 2009b, 2009c), and residents assert that the
entire population is serviced by only two toilets (Sibeene 2008).
People began to occupy this area, which is owned by the City of
Windhoek, in response to the lack of residential land, and the
high cost of housing (Isaac 2009a, 2009c; Nonkes 2008; Shejavali
2008a). The lack of services and land to build on within the Havana
6 settlement is not unique to Windhoek or Namibia as a whole.
Although statistical accuracy is impossible in most cases, local news
sources state that approximately 20-25% of Windhoek’s population
of 300,000 presently live in informal settlements (Nonkes 2008;
Sibeene 2008), and local government institutions are ill-equipped to
handle the massive influx of migrants to the city.
These facts and figures paint a bleak picture of Havana 6, and in
many cases, life in such circumstances are due to complex processes
occurring in Namibia. That is to say, life in an informal settlement
is not a product of one person’s behaviour, but rather the behaviour
of the society within which the individual finds themselves making
particular decisions. The decision to move into such tenuous and
uncertain conditions is not an easy one to make, and there are
multiple factors that must be considered, such as rent costs and
personal space. Petrus Shaanika, a Havana 6 resident, describes the
effects of some of these factors:
... [D]ue to the escalating costs of paying rent and the
fact that it became uncomfortable and intolerable to
reside with another big family, my family of eight
people and I immediately moved to Havana 6 when
we learned that other people have moved there and
started to construct their shacks. (Isaacs 2009b)
What is not made clear in this statement is how people like
Petrus are found at the nexus of a racialized class structure that
is created, reinforced, and further advanced by public policy and
uneven economic development. This, however, is not lost on other
residents of Havana 6. Ruben Kamutuezu, for example, states how:
“Our people don’t have anything to eat, and many are just crying the
whole day because our brothers are being arrested. The Government
only seems to be good for rich people, and we are not rich” (Shejavali
2009d). He carries on to say that “[f]rom my birth until now, I haven’t
felt free. I only see the rich people enjoying Namibia’s freedom, but
the poor are meaningless. No one can see us” (Shejavali 2009d). This
is a sentiment echoed by Rudolph Kahuure, who argues: “They have
no concern for suffering people. They should respect us the way we
respect the municipality” (Shejavali 2008b).
In late 2008 the Windhoek government demonstrated its lack
of respect for Havana 6 residents when it enacted certain policies
that are born of inequality and continue to reinforce the exclusion
of people living in Havana 6. Residents began to be evicted by
municipal authorities who claimed that the eviction was part of a
larger city-wide ‘crack-down’ on informal settlements (Isaac 2009a,
2009b, 2009c; Nonkes 2008; Shejavali 2008a, 2008b, 2009a, 2009b,
2009c; Sibeene 2008). The City of Windhoek, in a letter that had been
addressed to the “illegal land invaders” (Shejavali 2008a, 2009b) of
Havana 6, advised residents that “[t]his site has serious potential
health risks and therefore it is not suitable for human habitation.
The site is close to the refuse dumping site and it is not serviced
in terms of water and sanitation” (Shejavali 2008a). In another
statement to The Namibian, the Chief Executive Officer of the City
of Windhoek, Niilo Taapopi, reiterated the city’s position as to why
it needed to clear the settlement, yet he also revealed his concern
about the image and reputation of his city and its government:
We understand that there are great numbers of
people in need of places to stay, but the area where
they have settled has not been demarcated as an
area for settlement. There are no water, electricity,
or sanitation services there, and if we let them to
continue to settle, this same municipality will
be accused of not providing adequate services.
(Shejavali, 2008b)
What can be extrapolated from this statement is that, within the
context of post-apartheid Namibia, the displacement of residents
and the erasure of their settlement will allow the state to continue
to not provide essential services to those most in need. Meanwhile,
the state continues to legitimize their authority to police these same
bodies under the guise of paternalist care and knowing what is in
the best interests of their citizens. The question is: whose interests
are really being advanced?
This notion of displacement and erasure can be further
challenged when it is juxtaposed with the willingness of residents to
pay for these services (Shejavali 2008a, 2008b). One Havana 6 resident
commented that “[a]s a community, we will organize to pay for
water, sanitation, and even electricity” (Shejavali 2008a). Comments
such as this contest paternalistic and patriarchal constructions of
the state and challenge its legitimacy. Not surprisingly, then, despite
the publicly stated intention of Havana 6 residents wishing to
improve the conditions of their settlement, the city began to conduct
‘evictions’ by way of demolition. The municipal authorities were able
to move forward with the removal of homes and other structures
without the need for a court order through the invocation of the
Squatters Declaration of 1985 (Isaac 2009a, 2009b; Nonkes 2009).
This apartheid-era law states that any landowner can destroy any
structures that have been erected on their property without consent,
as well as evict any persons without notification and/or the need for
a court order (Isaac 2009b, Nonkes 2008). The lack of prior notice
effectively removed any opportunity for the impacted individuals
to fight their eviction before it took place. Additionally, any person
being evicted under the Squatters Declaration was then legally
prevented from challenging their eviction once the proclamation
was issued (Isaac2009b, 2009c; Nonkes 2009). The city employed
the use of the police force to tear down the homes of residents or
spray paint targeted homes with the words “ILLEGAL. REMOVE”
(Nonkes 2008, Shejavali 2008a, 2008b, 2009a).
Regardless of the legal manoeuvring to gag, erase, and remove
the residents of Havana 6, this process did not go uncontested. In
the words of an unnamed community member: “We are staying
here because we need a place. We are not against the law, we just
need a place to live” (Shejavali 2008a). Yet the actions of Havana
6 residents went far beyond words. Some people joined together
to form a ‘concern group’ and organized a petition for the city to
stop the evictions (Shejavali 2009c, 2009d; Sibeene 2008). The city
attempted to undermine their efforts by rejecting the petition on the
grounds that it did not constitute a ‘real’ petition. They cited how it
lacked certain legal components, such as a person to whom it was
addressed and/or the signature of a formal group leader (Shejavali
2009c). However, this did not halt the community’s actions. They
enlisted the aid of the Legal Assistance Centre (LAC), a nongovernmental organization that strives to “[p]rotect the human
rights of all Namibians” (LAC 2012) and took the city to court (Isaac
2009b; Nonkes 2009).
With the assistance of LAC, the community argued that the
squatter proclamation was unconstitutional since no court order
is needed to carry out the evictions; and that the evicted person(s)
are barred from pursuing their case in court (Isaac 2009b, 2009c;
Nonkes 2009). Originally, this argument was upheld by the law, and
the actions of city officials were deemed illegal and in violation of
the Namibian constitution (Isaac 2009c; Nonkes 2009). Despite this,
evictions continued with the creation of a “buffer zone” around the
dump site, requiring all structures within the zone to be removed
(Shejavali 2009b). The impact of the evictions on the people of
Havana 6 was deep and indelible. Norman Tjombe, Director of the
Legal Assistance Centre, captures some of the pain and anguish
faced by displaced members of the community:
Imagine children who are evicted from their homes
and have to sleep under a bridge. Their right to
education is likely affected; their dignity is affected.
... For families, their right to privacy and to security
of person is violated. Their right to the peaceful
enjoyment of possessions is violated as many of the
forced evictions occurred without warning, forcing
people to abandon their homes, lands, and worldly
possessions (Nonkes 2008).
Less than a year later the initial decision of the court was
overruled by another judge. The appeal judge stated that the people
of Havana 6 had “approached the court ‘with dirty hands’,” and
that their illegal occupation of the land meant that they were not
entitled to the court’s aid. Justice Johan Swanepoel stated that: “[the
court’s aid] is denied in order to maintain respect for law; in order
to promote confidence in the administration of justice; in order to
preserve the judicial process from contamination” (Menges 2010).
The Havana 6 case is striking as it exemplifies an apartheidera law used to displace people from their homes. This case reveals
the discourse(s) constructed by the state, local news media, and
community members regarding Havana 6 residents’ sanitation,
criminality, and the ability to provide for themselves or improve their
living conditions. The state’s paternalistic discourse surrounding the
Havana 6 site, perceived the land to be ‘unfit for human habitation’
and unable to provide the necessary services to improve the quality
of the environment for the ‘illegal land invaders’ with ‘unclean
hands’. The state thus constructs the image that the land and the
people upon it are dirty, unworthy, and criminal.
By categorizing people into subordinated positions of
uncleanliness and lawlessness, the state and news media
delegitimize, marginalize, and feminize the residents of Havana
6, thus reinforcing the state system of naturalized patriarchy. By
constructing residents in this manner, they are made to appear
incapable of taking care of themselves and are therefore in ‘need’ of
cleaning and reform. This discourse covertly sanitizes the violence
that is being perpetrated against the Havana 6 community in that
they are considered to be dirty and uneducated. This, in turn, then
renders natural the entire structure of class inequality that is deeply
rooted in race and racialized policies, remnants of the apartheid-era
that perpetuate a paternalistic and patriarchal state actor.
Under the guise of concern for the residents of Havana 6, the
government has positioned itself as a benevolent, well meaning,
and law-abiding entity that is acting in the interest of the citizens of
Namibia. However, if this were truly the case, the government would
be housing these people they are evicting. Not simply pushing them
In reality, the people of Havana 6 are ready to help themselves
improve their own living conditions. For at least the past two years,
the people who inhabit Havana 6 are making a life for themselves in
a place and time rigidly controlled by the state. They are constructing
and defending their own homes, asserting the legal rights that they
feel they ought to possess, and in the process have rewritten the laws
of Namibia. Ruben Kamutuezu, a resident of Havana 6 and member
of the Havana 6 Concern Group, highlights the industrious and
tenacious will of the people very clearly when he states: “If we have
land, we can sustain ourselves and create jobs for ourselves through
various projects” (Shejavali 2009d).
In this paper I have argued that apartheid cultivated a highly
paternalistic and patriarchal state in Namibia that racially divided
cities, and that the same patriarchal structure continues to operate
by marginalizing racialized poorer classes within society. I have
used the case of the informal settlement of Havana 6 to demonstrate
how this is accomplished through discursive practices that construct
poor people as unclean and unable to properly care for themselves.
State-directed evictions are thus seemingly justified by health and
sanitation concerns. These justifications for eviction echo those
used during the apartheid-era to evict black settlers in Windhoek,
and exemplify the current paternalistic and patriarchal nature of
Namibian government and society. Yet, these processes do not go
uncontested. As the residents of Havana 6 demonstrate through
their legal challenge that questioned the constitutionality of the
laws that repress them, the poorer classes of Namibia are fighting for
their rights and independence. They are challenging the dominant
minority to recognize and respect them and their presence in
Namibian urban landscapes.
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