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Nisa: The Life and Words of a !Kung Woman | Study Guide

Marjorie Shostak

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Nisa: The Life and Words of a !Kung Woman | Context


Anthropology and Ethnography

Within the larger field of anthropology, Marjorie Shostak is a cultural anthropologist or ethnologist. Anthropology is the study of human beings and contains four main subfields of research: (i) physical or biological anthropology, focused on the biological variability in humans, their ancestors, and their relatives; (ii) archaeology, concerned with the material remnants of past civilizations; (iii) linguistic anthropology, interested in communication; and (iv) cultural anthropology or ethnology, the study of living populations.

While today ethnologists are concerned with understanding specific issues within specific populations, during the period Shostak wrote Nisa, ethnologists were concerned with producing ethnologies or studies recording the minute details of a specific human culture in an effort to intimately understand its people. Nisa is considered an ethnography. However, unlike many other classic ethnographies, it is largely narrative based with minimal contribution by Shostak. Equally, unlike many other ethnographies, Nisa focuses on one individual as a conduit for explaining society-level patterns.

An ethnography such as Nisa concentrates on providing an in-depth description of a specific cultural group, such as the !Kung. The first component of an ethnography is the fieldwork. To do fieldwork an ethnologist must determine a study population, such as the !Kung, and integrate themselves into the community. This is why Shostak learns the language and tries to live as the !Kung do. By integrating into the community, not only was Shostak able to obtain multiple, in-depth interviews with Nisa, but she was also able to give a more complete picture of !Kung life. These include details such as the physical characteristics of the !Kung (body types, health, longevity) and descriptions of their language.

The other major component of an ethnography is the presentation of the fieldwork. An ethnologist strives to understand a culture based on the culture's own perception of itself. This is known as the emic perspective. The ethnologist can never truly know the emic perspective of the group because they are outside of the group; however, they can describe the etic, or outsider, perspective by applying the concept of cultural relativism to their work. Cultural relativism is the idea beliefs, behaviors, and norms are all appropriate when judged within the confines of that culture. In order to apply the concept of cultural relativism, an ethnologist must suspend any judgment of the culture they are studying. For example, although Shostak is American and polygamy is outlawed in the United States, she does not make judgmental remarks about the !Kung practice of men having co-wives. Instead, she describes the practice with scientific detachment, recording verbatim the words and actions of Nisa and those around her. By acknowledging her biases, Shostak allows the reader to draw their own conclusions.

The San People

It is unclear how long the San people have been in existence, though it is estimated the hunter-gatherers and pastoralists have lived in the region for around 100,000 years. The San are sometimes called Basarwa or Bushmen, broad labels that refer to a large number of tribes. Each of these terms have slightly different meanings within historical and cultural contexts of their use. Traditionally, Basarwa refers to an ethnic identification and Bushmen is seen as pejorative by many San groups and as a result is generally not used today. While the term San is still not agreed upon by all tribes, it is the most commonly used designation by many groups and thus is the most culturally appropriate term.

The !Kung San are one tribe (and language group) of the San hunter-gatherers living in the Kalahari Desert of southern Africa; some of the other tribes are the Tsoa and the Jul'hoan. The San people are identified in part by their unique "click" language system. As Shostak explains in the introduction to Nisa, the !Kung language features "four different click sounds and two throat sounds" that are not used in English. One of these click sounds is represented in writing by the exclamation mark in !Kung.

The San are believed to be the descendants of the original inhabitants of southern Africa and are historically viewed by anthropologists as a "gentle people," since they were not known to instigate wars. However, this reflects an antiquated view of hunter-gatherer and pastoralist groups. As Shostak notes, the San did try to defend themselves against their Bantu-speaking neighbors prior to the arrival of the Dutch in southern Africa in 1652. The Dutch then devastated the San population, wiping out an estimated 200,000 members in the next two centuries. During this era, the San were viewed by many as "living fossils" and considered subhuman by some. Some of the Bushmen were even "paraded around Britain in popular Victorian freak shows." The San continued to be marginalized by encroaching cultures and were often forced to become dependent workers to neighboring groups (Tswana, Herero), as Shostak describes in Chapter 10. Often these workers were treated as second-class citizens and paid only in food or in "grazing rights" to the lands they themselves once claimed.

An estimated 100,000 San people live primarily in Botswana, Namibia, and South Africa, and practice a variety of lifestyles, from working on commercial ranches to living in independent villages, where they forage and work on neighboring farms. Some !Kung continue to live in or near Bantu villages and cattle posts. Other San have been unwillingly resettled by the government as their lands have been taken over and converted into wildlife preserves, such as the Etosha National Park in Namibia. In 2012 a group of San in Botswana were illegally arrested for hunting within the Central Kalahari Game Reserve (an area the size of Denmark), although they had a legal right to do so. Some worry the San culture will one day survive only as a tourist attraction, as the San people find fewer and fewer opportunities to live the nomadic lifestyle of their ancestors.

Gender and Feminism

Shostak was highly interested in the 1970s women's movement in the United States. In the introduction she writes the movement called for "re-examination of the roles Western women had traditionally assumed," including issues such as marriage and sexuality. Across the country women marched in protest and went on strike in support of equal rights for women. Organizations such as the National Organization of Women (NOW) and the League of Women Voters supported women's rights and fought for the passage of the Equal Rights Amendment. Congress passed the ERA in 1972, though it was never ratified by the required number of states (38). The Education Amendments of 1972 included Title IX, a statute designed to protect people "from discrimination based on sex in education programs" and other federally funded activities.

Shostak's interest in feminist issues like these shaped her studies of the !Kung and resulted in her decision to focus on the experiences of !Kung women. Unlike many ethnographies prior to this point, Shostak focused on woman through the perspective of a woman and her experience. She takes pains to describe the relatively equal status of !Kung women to their male counterparts, pointing to their economic contributions as a key factor. She even states equality for !Kung women "is probably greater ... than in most other societies around the world," probably including her own. Feminists embraced Nisa, which remains a perennial text on reading lists for women's studies classes.

While still considered an immensely influential work by both anthropologists and women's studies alike, recent research on gender equality among the !Kung San has argued gender inequality exists within the !Kung society. Gender imbalances, such as male social and economic power as well as gendered violence against women, have always existed within !Kung society; however, they were exacerbated during the 1970s and 80s due to militarization in the region. Since Shostak's work, few anthropologists have focused on the gendered experience of the !Kung, but those that have question the conclusion the !Kung are an egalitarian society.

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