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Robin Whitaker

Many feminists have been troubled by questions of friendship in ethnographic research. For some critics, such assertions elide power imbalances, invoking a 'sisterly identification' built on essentialist models of gender. In this article I combine insights gained from partisan ethnography in the Northern Ireland Women's Coalition with feminist theory to argue that the problem lies not with claims to friendship as such, but with a naturalized model in which friendship is treated as a power-free zone. A more politicized approach to friendship offers analytical tools for thinking about methodological, epistemological, political and applied problems in feminist anthropology and politics and to wider questions about the relationship between intellectual and political life, critique and solidarity.

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Robin Whitaker and Pamela J. Downe

Feminist ethnography was a hot topic at anthropology conferences in the 1980s and 1990s. As students, we remember meeting rooms so packed that people crowded in the doorways, straining to hear energetic debates over the negotiation of power, the embodiment of systemic and structural violence, the possibilities for combining scholarship and political activism, and issues of identity and difference – not least the dangers of imposing an ethnocentric feminist agenda on ‘other’ women. By early in the new millennium, that passion had waned; feminist sessions at major conferences were fewer in number, audiences smaller. At the same time, even thinkers foundational to the field began to decry the lost promise of feminist anthropology, arguing that the Y2K version was less political and less effective (e.g., Alonso 2000; Moore 2006). For many feminist anthropologists who remain actively committed to engagement and advocacy, this is a troubling and puzzling trend. It is not as if the problems are all resolved or the injustices all redressed.