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Nature–culture divide

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Title: Nature–culture divide  
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Nature–culture divide

The nature–culture divide, refers to a theoretical foundation of contemporary anthropology. Early anthropologists sought theoretical insight from the perceived tensions between culture, as a social entity, and nature, as a bio-physical entity. The argument became framed as to whether the two entities function separately from one another, or if they have a continuous biotic relationship with each other. Debate during the 1960s and '70s extended the debate to the role of women (as nature) and men (as culture).


  • Western and indigenous concepts 1
  • Sustainability 2
  • Is female to male as nature is to culture? 3
  • See also 4
  • References 5
  • Sources 6

Western and indigenous concepts

In Western society nature and culture are conceptualized as dichotomous (separate and distinct domains of reference). Some consider culture to be "man's secret adaptive weapon" [1] in the sense that it is the core means of survival. Humans manipulate their environment to create relative safety and provide what they think they need to survive. But humans participate in the natural world as organic beings, just like any other creatures.

Not all peoples make the distinctions between nature and culture, and for many the boundary is blurred. Being natural can mean something more than not 'cultural'. The debate over nature and culture is, for western society, grounded in a dichotomy that doesn't always exist for non-western societies.[2] By contrast, the Native American Jon Mohawk described nature as "anything that supports life".[3]


It has been suggested that small scale-societies can have a more symbiotic relationship with nature. But less symbiotic relations with nature are limiting small-scale communities' access to water and food resources (Nelson 2008). Greenwod and Stini argue that agriculture is only monetarily cost-efficient because it takes much more to produce than one can get out of eating their own crops,[4] e.g. "high culture cannot come at low energy costs".[5]

Indigenous knowledge has been proposed as a solution. (Indigenous knowledge is defined by the Canadian International Development Agency as representing the accumulated experience, wisdom and know-how which is unique to cultures, societies and communities of people living in an intimate relationship of balance and harmony with their local environment.) Scientific studies have highlighted many ways in which science and indigenous knowledge are one and the same.[6] They share many of the same objectives but they achieve them through different means or from a different framework by adopting the principle of "alliantecnik" (technology in alliance with nature).[7]

Is female to male as nature is to culture?

The nature/culture debate has evolved into much more than a battle between the concepts, it has been metaphorically transformed through feminism.[8] The most heated topic has been the comparison of women to nature as men are to culture. This concept proposes that women are the nurturers and mothers while men are the workers and brains. In this scenario men are viewed as the actors (subject) and women as the acted upon (objects).[9]

The premise is that, throughout history, women have been deemed subordinate to men, inferior and devalued [10] and thus women have been equalled with nature and men with culture. The foundation for this ideology was produced through women’s roles, especially motherhood.[11] The biological separation between men and women is rooted in the relationship that women have as mothers to nature (or even to Mother Nature). This concept has led people to believe that a woman’s only goal in life is to reproduce and to be a mother, and it is because of this assumption that a man’s main goal in life is to achieve ultimate mental activity.[12]

The power of culture is its ability to manipulate nature and shape its surroundings in a way that demonstrates its boundless influence [13]). Men have been given this status as scholars and contributors to the realm of technology and symbols.[14] In society they have been given the authority to create rules and to mandate what our "culture" can and cannot incorporate. Throughout history they have been the leaders and the acknowledged ancestors of great lineages. Yet women are the only ones who can reproduce and thus secure the ancestral lineage.

However, this can be seen in a different light in this context for those who deny women equal status alongside men. Human beings inevitably perish, but technology is continuously advancing in a world in which men apparently dominate.[15] Therefore, women create only perishables, but men's advancements will be acknowledged forever.

There is an argument that women can only be understood through the particular roles they stereotypically partake in, such as childrearing and housework. Women have been excluded from decision making, high positions, traditional ritual and more. The Laymi Indians of the Bolivian highlands connect men symbolically with the sun and women with the moon. During the daytime the God realm is worshipped with gifts of incense, while at night the evil realm is worshipped with offerings of animal faeces.[16] Within other societies, such as the Crow Nation, menstruating women are a threat to warfare and victory.[17] Thus the expulsion of women from participating in events of social significance is a concept which sprouted from the unconscious of the human mind.

Women and men both bear a relationship with nature and are both equal in their contributions to the 'culture' which they have surrounded themselves with. Neither can function nor survive without the other and they each mediate between the cultural and social realms.

See also


  1. ^ Green, Wood and Stini 1977: 393
  2. ^ Strathern 1980
  3. ^ Nelson 2008
  4. ^ Greenwood and Stini 1977: 397
  5. ^ Braun and Castree 1998
  6. ^ Latour 1999
  7. ^ Hans-Geog Gadamer
  8. ^ MacCormack 1980: 1
  9. ^ MacCormack 1980: 12
  10. ^ Ortner 1974: 69
  11. ^ Bloch and Bloch 1980; Jordanova: 1980
  12. ^ Bloch and Bloch 1980: 33
  13. ^ Jordanova 1980: 46
  14. ^ Ortner 1974: 75
  15. ^ MacCormack 1980: 16
  16. ^ Harris 1980: 84, 85
  17. ^ Ortner 1974: 70


Bloch, Maurice and Jean H. Bloch. 1980. Women and the dialectics of nature in eighteenth-century French thought. In Nature, Culture and Gender, edited by Carol MacCormack and Marilyn Strathern, pp. 25–41. Cambridge University Press, New York.

Braun, Bruce, and Noel Castree. 1998. Remaking Reality: Nature at the millennium. 1st. New York. NY: Routledge.

Cornwall, Andrea. 1997. Men, Masculinity and ‘Gender in Development’. Gender and Development 5: 8–13.

Flax, Jane. 1987. Postmodernism and Gender Relations in Feminist Theory. Signs 12: 621–643.

Greenwood, David J and William A. Stini. 1977. Nature, Culture, and Human History. 1st. New York: Harper and Row, 393–408.

Harris, Olivia. 1980. The power of signs: gender, culture and the wild in the Bolivian Andes. In Nature, Culture and Gender, edited by Carol MacCormack and Marilyn Strathern, pp. 70–94. Cambridge University Press, New York.

Jordanova, L.J. 1980 Natural facts: a historical perspective on science and sexuality. In Nature, Culture and Gender, edited by Carol MacCormack and Marilyn Strathern, pp. 42–69. Cambridge University Press, New York.

MacCormack, Carol P. 1980 Nature, culture and gender: a critique. In Nature, Culture and Gender, edited by Carol MacCormack and Marilyn Strathern, pp. 1–24. Cambridge University Press New York.

Nelson, Melissa. 2008 Original Instructions. 1st. Rochester, Vermont: Bear and Company.

Ortner, Sherry B. 1974 Is Female to Male as Nature Is to Culture? Feminist Studies 1: 5–31.

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