THE CULTURAL APPROACH: CRAFTSMEN AND PATERNITY

Tuesday, April 7, 2009 4:30

To the Marquesan master craftsman, the building process is regarded as a sexual act (Linton). Linton’s report does not indicate whether such building is to be taken as literally sexual (though this is the impression one gets) or metaphorically sexual. Even if the building/sexuality relationship is metaphoric, it still can be understood as fully sexual, to the extent that anything based on the sexual act is itself necessarily sexual. Linton suggests that the craft-building process is conceptualized by Marquesans as similar to the male role in intercourse. If Linton is correct in stating that women are treated primarily as sex objects by Marquesan men, then the details of the metaphoric extension from male/female to craftsman/craft object should be relatively easy to work out.

The “problem” of paternity is an issue in ethnography which can be traced back to Australian observations in the 19th century and to the pioneering works of Malinowski in the Trobriands. In this matrilineal society the husband is not regarded as the father of his wife’s children. Trobrianders are ignorant of “physical fatherhood” (Malinowski). Linton’s Marquesan informants would admit to understanding paternity (“physical fatherhood,” in Malinowski’s terms) but preferred to connect their genealogies to those of household heads, who were not necessarily “blood” relatives (Linton). The Trobriand theory of maternity without paternity is diametrically different from that of the Mehinaku child who has many fathers, as many as mother will acknowledge having had sex with during pregnancy, and the child will relate to these men, more or less, as “fathers” (Gregor). Through “multiple paternity” the Mehinaku believe that pregnancy is a sort of “collective labor project.” When a child is born, every man who regularly had sexual intercourse with the mother may be regarded as the father.

The consequences of this for the social organization of the Mehinaku are considerable, for “multiple paternity” requires children to acknowledge the paternal status of certain men in the village, even if they are instructed to address them as “papa” only when the husband is not within hearing distance. Likewise, the incest taboo generally is extended to prohibit sexual contact between persons related through maternal affairs, just as persons related through marriage are prohibited as sexual or marriage partners (Gregor). Apparently the Mehinaku are not rigid about all this and allow that if a certain man had sexual relations with a child’s mother only “a few times,” he is only a “little bit” the child’s father, and the child may be allowed to have sexual relations with and even marry this person’s children (Gregor).

The area of fertility and infertility is one of the few in the cross-cultural literature that seems to be controlled primarily by women. Even among the sexually repressed Irish islanders of Inis Beag, men are thought to be more naturally libidinal than women (Messenger). However, assuming that a woman is in some control over the men with whom she has intercourse, she can either increase or decrease the total number of instances of sexual intercourse, the number of various partners in intercourse, or the number of occasions of intercourse allowed any one partner. The perceived consequences of these strategies all will be different, given the ideology of the group, but at least in this domain a woman has the upper hand. She hypothetically can control her fertility and equally important to people like the Mehinaku, she can extend her children’s kinship system to include men and their relatives, who will relate to these children at the expense of her designated husband.

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