My Divine Pet Rock: Notes on Gender and Authority in Anthropology

Posted by J Foster on Dec 17, 2016 in Cultural Anthropology, Fieldwork in Nepal, Gender Studies |

“Isn’t He just adorable.” Gangadevi laughed, clutching the small Krishna Govinda Shaligram in her right hand. “I have had Shaligrams for many years but He is special, you see. Krishna was my very first Shaligram. The very first Shaligram I ever dressed or offered praśadam to. The first every morning to received sandalwood tilak and water. You know, I call him my divine pet rock.”

Chuckling together, I feigned incredulity. “A divine pet rock?”

“Oh yes!” She replied with glee. “But we wouldn’t use those googly eyes for his face. That would just be cruel.”

The first time I related this story, I was conducting a fieldwork presentation to a room full of colleagues, students, and peers some three months after returning to the United States in the fall of 2012. It had always struck me as a particularly humanizing and fun anecdote from my fieldwork in India, one that demonstrated the multiple, and sometimes humorous, ways in which people engaged with their religious traditions and sacred objects. Gangadevi’s use of the term “divine pet rock” was also particularly fascinating because it helped her not only to explain her beliefs and actions to someone not otherwise familiar with them (me) but allowed her to interact with her faith in compliment with her ebullient and jovial personality. In fact, I had many such stories from Gangadevi, several of which included joking renditions of ritual failures told with animated delight or notations on the amusing tales she loved to tell her grandchildren about the occasional slap-stick exploits of God in the world. It was therefore to my surprise when my tale was suddenly met with harsh criticism.

“You shouldn’t mock your informants.” An older, male, professor warned sternly. “You need to take your work seriously. Poking fun at your research isn’t going to be viewed lightly.”

“Yeah!” A male graduate student interjected approvingly. “You should watch your tone if you want to present this at a conference.”

The women in the room looked at the floor.

Negotiating authority and respect both in the field and in academia is nothing new to female scholars. As an anthropologist who works in religion, I am often deeply cognizant of the ways in which I interact with my research informants, often in terms of what I say; especially in cases where women are not allowed to fully participate in certain practices (as is the case in some types of Shaligram worship) or are not considered to be capable of holding expertise in esoteric subjects. But my use of humor also uncovered the deeply troubling truth about negotiating authority and respect in academia as well; where, ostensibly, my advanced PhD candidate status and extensive fieldwork in South Asia should equalize my claim to a seat at the scholarly table. Or, at least, as I had assumed, earn me the benefit of the doubt.

This was not the first time something like this had happened. Once, while teaching an undergraduate class in the Anthropology of Religion, a male upperclassman repeatedly and disruptively challenged my description of a particular ritual drawn directly from my own ethnographic work. Later on, while we discussed the incident in office hours, he admitted to knowing nothing himself about the ritual in question but simply shrugged and said “You didn’t sound like you knew what you were talking about.” Even in my course evaluations, which are generally positive overall, I am apparently constantly swinging between “should be more nurturing” and “acts entitled to use complicated words.” I have also faced down my fair share of peer reviewers and conference participants who’ve rejoined with some variation on “you should be more scholarly.” Nothing specific to the content of my research or the quality of my analysis, just the presentation of my character. Apparently, as long as I maintain a “mind-to-be-reckoned with/take-no-prisoners” attitude, I can enjoy the derision of one side who feels that my demeanor is arrogant and inaccessible and the policing of the other who is sure to let me know exactly what it means to be “professional” and “academic.” What is not lost on me, or really any other women for that matter, is that these critiques largely come from men. The critique and engagement of my female mentors, while strict and to a high standard, have never taken this form.

Balancing wit and wisdom is often difficult for even the cleverest scholars, but it has become clearer to me over the years that the icons of the venerable sage and the irascible raconteur are images largely reserved for men. In short, we as a culture don’t quite seem to know how to interact with women who don’t obviously fit the role of the “loving, maternal, guide” or the “power-hungry, frigid, bitch.” The former, of course, being highly regarded for supporting their students and academic departments under a load of uncompensated emotional labor (see especially Bellas’ “Emotional Labor in Academia: The Case of Professors” and Guy and Newman’s “Women’s Jobs, Men’s Jobs: Sex Segregation and Emotional Labor”) and the latter being the ivory-tower elitist everyone just loves to hate. If the only way to demonstrate my knowledge is to be mean about it, it starts to feel an awful lot like having to be mean to the guy constantly asking you out on a date, because if you’re nice he doesn’t get the message.

The worst thing about it all, sadly, is that the majority of my male colleagues have absolutely no idea what I am talking about, and when I bring it up, they shake their heads and throw up their hands. “Well, I’ve never seen it. Maybe it was something you said.”

But it wasn’t about what was said. It was about who said it. They use humor and crack wise all the time, to no detriment (rather, they are usually lauded for it). Their students don’t write out class evaluations complaining about their emotional distance or about not feeling sufficiently cared about. Their colleagues don’t remind them to watch their tone otherwise people won’t take them seriously. But my female colleagues know it all too well, nodding their heads in silent solidarity each time someone sees fit to pipe up during a roundtable and call out the woman presenting for how she presumes too much, takes herself too seriously (or not seriously enough!), how “stuck up” her tone is. How “condescending.” How “ ‘splaining.”

It was a really funny story about a pet rock though. Or maybe you just had to be there.

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