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social sciences

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Anthropology is the systematic study of the origin, development, and diversity of the human species. From its nineteenth-century origins, its practitioners have affirmed the need for a multidisciplinary perspective in the study of humanity, incorporating the study of human biology, language, history, and social life.

Anthropologists utilize a wide variety of research methods in their work; the most characteristic of these is participant observation, where the anthropologist lives among a group of people for a prolonged period, learns their language, and participates in their day-to-day activities in order to understand their way of life from a privileged vantage point.

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The relationship between anthropology and the study of human sexuality is an old but ambivalent one. While anthropology was the first of the social science disciplines to take sexuality (and particularly homosexuality) seriously as a field of intellectual inquiry in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, anthropologists and sociologists relinquished their predominance in this area to medicine and psychology in the post-World War II period.

It was only with the advent of feminist and gay liberation-inspired scholarship in the 1970s that the study of sexuality was once again placed squarely on anthropology's scholarly agenda, and earlier achievements in this field were regarded with renewed interest.


Some of the first European writings on homosexuality as such were by nineteenth-century forensic and criminal anthropologists such as Cesare Lombroso and Richard von Krafft-Ebing. These authors were invested in demonstrating connections between human behavior and human physiology. In essence, they were responsible for imagining homosexuality as a condition that inhered in individual human bodies, a form of delinquency that marked certain persons as constitutionally delinquent.

Contemporary apologists for homosexuality who agitated to overturn European sodomy laws, such as Karl-Heinrich Ulrichs and Magnus Hirschfeld, frequently cited these medico-anthropological writings as evidence that homosexual behavior, like its heterosexual counterpart, was not elective but a deep-seated, biologically ingrained human drive that homosexuals could not defy.

The notion that all sexual behavior was biologically and not socially determined enhanced and continues to bolster political claims that homosexuality is intrinsically "natural" by virtue of being common to all human populations as well as many other species and therefore should not be criminalized.

Other anthropologists disputed such claims. The European idea that sexuality was a natural substrate undergirding and precipitating all human social interaction, promulgated by sexologists and psychoanalysts, was given its first serious challenge by anthropological research.

Widely credited with having developed contemporary anthropological research methods, Bronislaw Malinowski challenged Sigmund Freud's dictum of the pre-cultural prohibition on incest as a universal determinant of human social behavior, including homosexuality. Malinowski's 1927 analysis of his own data collected in the Trobriand Islands (near Papua New Guinea) demonstrates that, in this society where children's primary relationship with an adult male is with their maternal uncle, an incest taboo prevails but is nonetheless structured very differently from its European counterpart.

At the same time, Margaret Mead and Ruth Benedict labored to demonstrate that norms of gender-appropriate behavior were not grounded in biological sex but rather determined by cultural context. In some societies, women's aggressive or sexually assertive behavior as well as men's subservient or effeminate behavior received social sanction. Such behavior, seen as a transgression against European ideas of innate masculinity and femininity, included the apparently "homosexual" berdache or two-spirit persons common to many native North American groups.

While Mead and Benedict as well as other anthropologists were inclined to suspend negative assumptions about homosexuality common to their own culture in treating the tremendous variety of gender and sexual behavior they observed--indeed, their works function as powerful critiques of Euro-American beliefs about gender and sexuality--their continued dependence on medical models for interpreting human sexuality is evident in the vocabulary they employ.

Moreover, the argument that homosexuality was contextually dependent spurred claims that its global prevalence was extremely limited, namely to "civilized" societies who paid for their civilization with a greater degree of social deviance and disease.

Scores of anthropologists, including Malinowski, studying "primitive" (that is, non-European) populations asserted on the basis of scant evidence that homosexuality did not exist among these people--or, if it did, that it was a "cultivated perversion" introduced through the pernicious influence of European missionaries or colonial officials.

Anthropology and Homosexuality in the Mid-Twentieth Century

Thus, there was no real consensus among anthropologists about homosexuality, either regarding its cause (the "nature versus nurture" debate) or its universality. In any case, variances in gender and sexual behavior were not perceived as bearing directly on the key debates that had begun to coalesce within the discipline, including the relationship between human biology, culture, and language, the development of social relations and social structure, and the impact of economic life and environmental interaction on human behavior.

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