Rethinking female pollution: The beng of Côte d'lvoire

Alma Gottlieb

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


I have proposed an understanding of Beng gender symbolism that relates to sociological considerations. In so doing, I resist the temptation to link isolated cases of feminine pollution to notions of essential impurity defining all women. At the same time, I borrow from a venerable tradition in anthropology that seeks to understand systems of symbolism in relation to social features. As Marcel Mauss suggested earlier in this century, and as Douglas has continued to demonstrate, ideas about the body must be tied intimately to ideas about society, and notions of gender pollution should be no exception. Indeed, in scanning the now voluminous literature on female pollution, one can't help but notice that many, though not all, of the societies described have a system of patrilineal descent, and a newlywed couple moves in permanently with the groom's family. It is possible to hypothesize that it is precisely in this type of society in which one would expect to find notions of feminine pollution, as a metaphor for the sociological marginality of women. Strathern showed this to be the case for the Mount Hageners of Papua New Guinea. Others have since remarked on this connection between the sociological liminality of women in patrilineal systems, and the corresponding presence of conceptions of female pollution. But this simple correlation of social marginality with symbolic dirt, while seductive, should not be taken as all-encompassing. In the Beng case, another correlation suggests itself. While the Beng system at first glance might appear binary, in fact, it contains far more complex systems of thought operating at several levels. For when it comes to female sexuality, sources not only of pollution but of healing as well are found. This ambivalence concerning women's genitals is parallel to an ambivalence that one finds at a sociological level: at the heart of the matriclan. Yet another aspect of sexuality shifts the focus to relations between men and women and sees shared sexuality (in both legitimate and illegitimate phases) as potentially polluting, and here I look to the entire system of dual descent for a parallel social form. The important point is that in both cases - in patrilineal and bilineal settings - feminine sources of pollution derive not from intrinsic notions of female culpability, but are correlated with sociological factors existing outside the purview of women themselves. The Durkheimian overtones to this discussion must be apparent. Yet I resist the temptation to make the ultimate Durkheimian argument of causality by insisting that it is the descent form that provides the initial direction to society, with the symbolic system limping along placidly in its footsteps. More simply, the two levels of society - which gloss crudely as social structural and symbolic - seem to "work" in tandem. The theoretical advances of the 1960s and 1970s concerning the symbolic dimensions of society have surely gone a long way toward documenting the extraordinary powers of symbolic formulations. Given this, a feedback loop between symbol and society seems reasonable. At this stage, however, even a non-causal connection between descent systems and ideologies of gender pollution can only be a hypothesis, to be tested more systematically on a comparative basis. And we should continue to remain open to explanations that offer other kinds of connections not relevant to descent structures, for not all the societies already reported to have female pollution complexes do fit into this categorization of their descent and residential systems. For example, Okely proposes that notions of female pollution among the cognatic British "Gypsies" are related to a prevailing concern about maintaining ethnic boundaries between the Gypsies and the settled peoples who surround them. While strict unilineal descent is lacking here, there is nevertheless a more general correlation between a concern with symbolic boundaries and a concern with sociological boundaries that is striking. Further ethnographic and comparative studies are clearly needed to explore systematically the many possible relationships that might exist between social formations and ideologies of sexual pollution. In the meanwhile, the present article is offered as a case study of one situation that diverges from what we have come to expect. Unlike, apparently, so many other systems, Beng symbolism cannot be classified as having a binary model of gender relations that sees women as no more than symbolic threats to men. Instead, one finds two very distinct models of gender symbolism: one that stresses female sexuality alone but in both negative and positive guises and that emphasizes female responsibility; another that stresses mutual male-female sexuality and blames the sex act itself as polluting. I have argued that when taken together, the two kinds of symbolic models of gender provide a way of thinking about the complex universe of basic structural relations that define Beng society: matriclans alone, and the entire system of double descent. In short, the Beng case challenges us to consider the possibility of multiple models existing within a single society, as well as to look at varying social contexts that define and redefine what could only be glossed crudely as female pollution. While Simone de Beauvoir's classic model of women as the "second sex" is probably relevant to a good many societies, there is less and less reason to suppose that it is applicable everywhere. Recent work points to important departures from the model of simple universal female subordination. The current essay offers one specific case in which the predicted symbolic correlate to supposedly universal female subordination - an all-encompassing notion of women sexually polluting men - must be replaced by a more complex pair of models that includes women's power both to pollute and to purify, as well as men's power to pollute. The sort of approach to traditional systems of thought used here, that seeks to transcend the limitations of the classic binary schemes so prevalent in anthropology for many years, are now finding reinforcement in other allied fields: not only the history of religion, but social and cognitive psychology as well. Eleanor Rosch and her associates, for example, have been researching human thought processes as rooted in a Wittgensteinian notion of "family resemblances." Although we do construct "prototypes" of objects and concepts that revolve around polar oppositions, we create such oppositions via a series of cognitive family resemblances, which are predicated on relative rather than absolute differences, involving finely graded distincitions based on a context rather than substance. This mode of thinking is characteristic of adults as well as children and is presumably universal - though this point, importantly, remains to be thoroughly tested before it can be assumed. In any case, this emerging body of experimental work is a powerful though tentative reinforcement at the psychological level of the sort of approach I have taken here, which, at the philosophical level, has emphasized context over substance and ambiguity and even ambivalence, over strict binarism. As Irving Goldman continually taught his students, when a theory, no matter how seductive, wholly engulfs the ethnography, the result is disastrous: a blind, data-be-damned insistence on an abstract proposition that cannot help but do violence to the subtleties of the system supposedly being analyzed. It is here where rigid theories of universal female subordination, as well as models of rigid duality, run into trouble, with their fefusal to acknowledge alternative realities that escape through the cracks of these models. The current essay is offered in modest tribute to the teacher who inspired me, above all, to listen to the voices speaking through the haze of another culture.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)65-79
Number of pages15
JournalDialectical Anthropology
Issue number2
StatePublished - Jun 1989
Externally publishedYes

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Anthropology
  • Arts and Humanities (miscellaneous)
  • Sociology and Political Science


Dive into the research topics of 'Rethinking female pollution: The beng of Côte d'lvoire'. Together they form a unique fingerprint.

Cite this