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Gender Roles of the Trobriand Society to That of East Harlem: Theoretical Approach and Ethnography

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Table of contents

  1. Introduction:
  2. Introduction to The Trobrianders of Papua New Guinea:
  3. Introduction to In Search of Respect: Selling Crack in El Barrio:
  4. Research Question:
  5. Analysis:
  6. Expectations of Labour and Cultural Activities for Women:
  7. Sexual Relations with Male Counterparts:


Throughout history, there has been a clear divide of what is expected of a man versus what is expected of a woman. It is clear to see that in every society and culture, there are gender roles separating men and women. Gender roles in anthropology are defined as “perceived biological differences and the latter as the cultural constructions observed, performed, and understood in any given society, often based on those perceived biological differences.” Gender roles are based on theories of masculinity and femininity.

Many cultures view individuals as either male or female and their roles in society are based on this. The specific aspects of what is expected of each gender may vary considerably among different cultures, but other aspects may remain the same. There is continuing controversy as to what extent gender roles are socially established. Though these roles may vary or remain the same from culture to culture, one matter remains the same; males are seen as more dominant and as the ones with the most power. Women are objectified and viewed as lower than others in many different societies. However, there are movements and groups working towards changing the oppression of women in different cultures. This essay aims to explore and compare the gender roles of the Trobriand society to that of East Harlem.

Introduction to The Trobrianders of Papua New Guinea:

As the focus of this paper is on gender roles, Annette B. Weiner’s ethnography, The Trobrianders of Papua New Guinea, provides an excellent representation of just that. The Trobrianders are a group of subsistence horticulturalists who live on the small island of Papua New Guinea. The synopsis of the ethnography states “This re-examination of the Trobrianders of Papua New Guinea, the people described in Malinowski's classic ethnographic work of the early 20th century, provides a balanced view of the society from a male and female perspective, including coverage of new discoveries about the importance of women's work and wealth in the society.” Weiner conducted her research on the Trobriand society from 1971-1972. The main focus of Annette B. Weiner’s research was on the women of Trobriand society and the power they had on their small island. Weiner took inspiration from Bronislaw Kasper Malinowski who was the anthropologist to first observe and conduct research on the Trobrianders. His research focused mainly on the males who lived on the island and their daily routines. Malinowski implemented participation observation, which is a field method where the anthropologist lives amongst the individuals he/she is observing and engages in the same activities. Weiner used this same method to conduct her research and was able to learn a great deal about the Trobrianders. Much of this ethnography addresses how women in Trobriand society were neglected and were seen as nothing greater than a housewife.

Introduction to In Search of Respect: Selling Crack in El Barrio:

In Search of Respect: Selling Crack in El Barrio is an ethnography written by Philipe Bourgois, a medical and cultural anthropologist. The synopsis on the ethnography says “Philippe Bourgois's ethnographic study of social marginalization in inner-city America, won critical acclaim when it was first published in 1995. For the first time, an anthropologist had managed to gain the trust and long-term friendship of street-level drug dealers in one of the roughest ghetto neighborhoods--East Harlem. This new edition adds a prologue describing the major dynamics that have altered life on the streets of East Harlem in the seven years since the first edition. In a new epilogue Bourgois brings up to date the stories of the people--Primo, Caesar, Luis, Tony, Candy--who readers come to know in this remarkable window onto the world of the inner city drug trade.” Bourgois conducted his research from 1985 to 1989 in East Harlem, which was known as one of the “nation’s roughest ghetto neighborhoods.” El Barrio refers to the spanish neighbourhood in East Harlem.

Most of the ethnography focuses on the lives of minorities in East Harlem and the employment opportunities they are given. Many minorities are forced to work in the underground economy to be able to earn a source of income. Along with employment opportunities, Bourgois also addresses the roles of both men and women in El Barrio.

Research Question:

This comparative analysis is focused on the following research question:

To what extent do gender roles in the lives of women in Trobriand society differ from that of women in East Harlem?


The roles of women in both the Trobriand Society and El Barrio are based on societal norms and structures that have been in place for many years. They are expected to follow these norms and accept their place in society.

Expectations of Labour and Cultural Activities for Women:

In today’s society, there are many stereotypes about what types of work females should be allowed to do. Although society has tried to make changes to allow women to have equal rights when it comes to working, there has not been a significant amount of progress at all. When women try to carry out work that is not common for women, they are seen as defiant for not following what is expected of them. If this was to happen, the female would be viewed in a negative way, as if she does not belong in society. To avoid this from happening, women just abide by societal norms and accept their place in society.

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In Weiner’s The Trobrianders of Papua New Guinea, it is clear to see through her research and observation the role of women on the island. The Trobriand society is established as a matrilineage, which according to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, is defined as “lineage based on or tracing descent through the maternal line.” After determining that descent was traced through the mother’s side, Weiner decided to focus her research on the females on the island. In the beginning of the ethnography, she says “By taking seriously the importance of women’s wealth not only brought women as the neglected half of society clearly into the ethnography picture but also forced me to revise many of Malinowski’s assumptions about Trobriand men”(Weiner 5) Women in Trobriand society were neglected in many different ways, with one being the amount of work females do on the island. Females were seen as housewives in Trobriand society. Throughout the ethnography, it is clear to see instances where women are restricted to doing certain types of work. For example, women were expected to stay at home while the men worked. In Trobriand society, yams were seen as a symbol of wealth; the more yams an individual had, the more wealthy they were. Yam gardens were worked on by the men for the women. Women weren’t able to work in the gardens to help grow more yams, their source of power was dependent completely on men. In certain cases, the gardeners would purposely not work as hard because of a dispute they might have with a women’s wife. This will also affect how many yams are grown and the woman’s status in society. The only work women were allowed to do in the yam gardens was to help place soil. Women were also expected to do stereotypical work such as cooking and cleaning. When women in Trobriand society get married, they are expected to do all the cooking in the household. They were expected to be housewives while men did all the work.

Women in East Harlem were mainly immigrants, so living in a new country was already difficult. What made things more difficult were the stereotypes women had to face. Females were able to work, but many were expected to work at home. Men were seen doing work in public such as fixing cars and work that was seen as more masculine. Women would do stereotypical work such as cooking and cleaning at home. In some cases, women did have more superior work than men. Some women would work in mainstream society, at offices and corporations. The machismo of street culture further aggravates the insult men feel at having to work under the supervision of women. In the ethnography, Caesar expresses his outrage at having been forced “to break the street taboo against public male subordination to a woman” He recounts his time spent at a pharmaceutical advertising agency called “Sudler and Hennessey.” He talks about how his beautiful boss with a mean personality had him doing strenuous personal errands. This was very frustrating for Caesar. The gender disses are ultimately the result of the economic equality and power hierarchies in society. The dealers such as Primo and Caesar express their feeling of powerlessness through racist and sexist idioms. They are both aware of the economic inequality, especially their position in the labor hierarchy. When women are in power in workplaces, men do not like to listen and follow instructions. In Chapter 4, Philippe Bourgois speaks about Primo’s old job at a trade magazine company under Gloria Kirschman where she basically advises him to “go back to school.” Primo believed her advice to be coming from a spoiled point of view in that not everyone can afford to pay for school. Bourgois reads between the lines and interprets her behaviour towards Primo as that of someone who cared about the future of the “bright energetic high school dropout.” Working for her, Primo also had no reference or previous experience to understand some of the tasks asked of him. For example when he was asked to do an inventory he, “didn’t even know what...those things were.” (Bourgois 152) Along with being confused over the apparently irrational mysteries of office work, Primo was also worried about being insulted in any way and not noticing it. Since Primo did not understand his boss’s reasoning behind the urgency and precision she put into overseeing the logistics of her direct mailings, her behaviour toward him appeared overbearing, oppressive and insulting to him. This shows how women, who have worked hard to make a name for themselves in mainstream society, have to face inequality and discrimination from men.

There is a clear difference in the work women do in Papua New Guinea when compared to women in El Barrio. Work in Papua New guinea is done mainly by the men, from growing yam gardens to building houses to sore yams. The only work women are expected to do is typical work society expects a woman to do, such as cooking. The women in Trobriand society are expected to do all of the cooking when she becomes married. Not being able to be independent because of societal rules and norms also affect the amount of power and recognition a woman has in society. Yams are seen as power, but women are not allowed to grow any on their own, which puts their place in society in the hands of men. On the other hand, women in El barrio are not restricted from working. They are also expected to do stereotypical work, but they are also able to work in mainstream society as well. However, women in El Barrio receive rude remarks from men when they are seen having more power than men. These women have to work knowing that some men detest the fact that they are above them. Hence, in Trobriand society, women are restricted from doing work, whereas in El barrio, women receive hate for having a better job than men. In both cases, women in these societies have to endure societal norms when it comes to working.

Sexual Relations with Male Counterparts:

In many societies, women are discriminated against and are objectified. They are seen as objects of pleasure and as a means of sexual intercourse. Immanuel Kant is a philosopher who has views on the objectification of women. He states that the only instance where society won’t degrade a women for having sexual relations is when she is married. In monogamous marriages, both individuals are treated equally and the partners are to “surrender their persons to one another.” However, in both Trobriand society and El Barrio, women are unable to have freedom when it comes to their sexual relations and are treated very unfairly when compared to men. In addition to women being very restricted when it comes to sexual relations, they are also degraded when they are seen having sexual relations with more than one individual. This section of the paper focueses on how women in both Papua New Guniea and East Harlem experience prejudice in terms of their sexual relations.

Sexuality is very important in Trobriand society. Adolescents are encouraged to explore their sexuality from a young age. Chapter four in Annette B. Weiner’s ethnography is called Waiting and Watching & Adolescent Sexuality. In the section Adolescent Sexuality, Weiner states that children at the age of seven to eight begin to imitate sexual attitudes portrayed by the adults and by thirteen, the teens begin to look for partners. Both males and females have different roles when it comes to sexual relations, but young women are equal to men when it comes to finding a lover and refusing others. Men were seen to give more to the females. Males would present females with numerous gifts if they wanted to be lovers with them. Even though they received a gift, the women were still able to reject the man’s offer to sleep together. In this sense, females have power when choosing sexual relations. Both young males and females would dress themselves up compellingly with flowers and herbs, clothes and various decorations, all examples of materiality included in a social practice. They would also cast magic spells of beauty and love to attract lovers. Lastly, youths take advantage of big gatherings like feasts and funerals to find new lovers. This can be seen as them taking the initiative in the achievement of personal goals which can be interpreted as resourcefulness. Adolescents develop skills for influencing people early on in by persuading each other with their sexuality. They negotiate their sexual desires and seductions by supporting them with their youthful and social attractiveness, love and beauty magic. They increase their “aura of seduction” with clothes, decorations, flowers and herbs that they weave into their armbands and their hair. Their sexual intentions are also portrayed in their eyes and physical movements. Shell decorations signify social status. Furthermore, flowers and coconut oil enhanced with magic spells “make somebody want you”. This all shows how females in Trobriand society have control over their sexual relations when they are adolescents, but this power is lost when they become married.

Women in Trobriand society are expected to follow their husband’s commands and beliefs, as he is the one who has power over them. Many cultures control sexual activity and in Trobriand society, this is seen when women become adults and get married. Throughout the ethnography, it is clear to see many examples where a woman's sexual interactions are limited and for men, it is not. One example is seen in chapter six, in the section

The First Exchanges at Marriage. This section in the chapter discusses what a married couple must go through when they are getting married. A woman in Trobriand society is able to reject to be with her husband, but is unable to try looking for another one. The females must wait for men to approach them and try asking for their hand in marriage. If a woman decides not to be with her husband, technically, the husband’s kinsmen can want her back. If the husband decides to leave the wife, usually to be with another woman, the wife’s kin don’t make any efforts to bring him back. This shows that women have some power in the sense of deciding who they want to be with, but on the other hand, they are unable to go find male partners of their own, which makes women very restricted. Another example is of chiefs in Trobriand society. In chapter six, Chief Vanoi is introduced. Only men are able to become chiefs in this society. This chapter talks about Vanoi visiting Linda, a woman in the ethnography. She is not allowed to raise her head higher than the chief and must always bow when he is present. Chiefs are also able to marry other women out of love and partake in affairs with other women. The chief’s wives sometimes fight with each other over their husband, but when this happens, it is seen as poor behaviour by the rest of society. This shows how unfairly women are treated. Men are able to take part in affairs with other women and women don’t have a say in any of this. This shows how women are expected to follow societal norms and do what is expected of them, while men are able to do anything they want.

George P. Murdock is an anthropologist who once said “All societies have faced the problem of reconciling the need of controlling sex with that of giving it adequate expression, and all have solved it by some combination of cultural taboos, permissions, and injunctions. Prohibitory regulations curb the socially more disruptive forms of sexual competition. Permissive regulations allow at least the minimum impulse gratification required for individual well-being. Very commonly, moreover, sex behavior is specifically enjoined by obligatory regulations where it appears directly to subserve the interests of society.” In simpler terms, this quote by Murdock is saying the beliefs and ideologies around sexual relations in a society is created to promote the interests of society. In East Harlem, women are just beginning to attain their basic rights again, although there is still some incidents of gang rape and abuse. There are many females in East Harlem who are victims of rape and abuse. For instance, in the ethnography, Bourgois speaks of a woman named Candy. Candy was abused by her father, left to live on the streets at the age of thirteen. This was just the beginning of a traumatic life for Candy. She went to her boyfriend Felix and ended up getting raped by his gang. Felix would continuously beat her, but she thought he did this out of love. Candy ended up having five miscarriages as a result of all these beatings. Furthermore, if a woman was to get pregnant and have a child, they are obliged to take care of kids unconditionally and men don’t have to share the responsibility. This shows how men are the ones who have power in the relationship. Women are forced to give up their body for the pleasure of men, and this is usually done by force. Men in Western society, such as El barrio, would brag about the number of women they have slept with. Even gang rape in this neighborhood was normalized and some individuals beelieved that girls liked it. This is seen as appropriate and “cool” for men to do. On the other hand, if a woman were to do this, she would be seen as a disgrace to her family and society. She might also get called derogatory terms such as “slut” and “whore.”

Sexual relations are introduced at a young age in both societies. In Trobriand society, females are encouraged to explore their sexuality at a young age. For young female adolescents in El Barrio, this is not the case.

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Gender Roles of the Trobriand Society to That of East Harlem: Theoretical Approach and Ethnography. (2022, December 27). Edubirdie. Retrieved March 5, 2024, from
“Gender Roles of the Trobriand Society to That of East Harlem: Theoretical Approach and Ethnography.” Edubirdie, 27 Dec. 2022,
Gender Roles of the Trobriand Society to That of East Harlem: Theoretical Approach and Ethnography. [online]. Available at: <> [Accessed 5 Mar. 2024].
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