- Spring 1998, Vol. 6, No.2
- Examining Secrecy and Sexuality
- Celebrating Ten Years
- Fellows Look Back at the
Center's First Decade
- His Long Home
Secrecy and Sexuality
Gilbert H. Herdt is the William S. Vaughn
Visiting Fellow and a visiting professor of
anthropology. He comes from the University of
Chicago, where he is professor of psychology and
professor of social sciences in the College. He
teaches in the graduate study program of the
Committee on Human Development and is director of the
Center for Research on Culture and Mental Health.
Professor Herdt is participating in the 1997/98
Fellows Program on person-centered approaches to
culture. He discussed his recent work with
LETTERS: How did you come to
dedicate so much of your work to studying the Sambia
in New Guinea?
HERDT: As in many other areas of our
lives, there is both a personal and an intellectual
response. On the personal side, the Sambian people
are warm and friendly. They create in you some of the
deepest feelings of friendship and attachment. I have
seen this happen not only in myself, but in many
other visitors. For example, Paul Reddish, the BBC
producer of my film about the Sambia, Guardians of
the Flutes, just fell in love with the people. I
have many, many deep old friendships now with people
who are the children of people I knew twenty-five
Then, of course, there is the beauty of nature in the
rain forest throughout Sambia, which has one of the
world's last great rain forests. For me, growing up
in rural Kansas, this was completely exotic, and I
never failed to be impressed by the natural beauty of
the area. So that was certainly another draw to return.
the intellectual side, the Sambia pose some very
interesting questions for anthropology and, more
generally for any student of the human condition,
because they challenge one to think about what is
possible in the range of diversity of human customs.
They pose profound questions about gender and sexual
behavior and development, which have been the focus
of my work for the last two decades.
original assignment as a Ph.D. student was to examine
the ritual initiations of Sambia boys. I wanted to
study an intact tradition, that is to say, a culture
in which initiations were being performed in a more
or less traditional way. I did not want to go to a
place and just have people tell me their memories of
initiations that no longer took place.
I sought a place that was remote. There were no
schools or trade posts. For about a year, when I was
there for my original field work, I was really the
only European in the area for about fifty miles.
degree of isolation ensured the continuity of the
ritual traditions, in the face of great social change
and missionization throughout the entire area of New
Guinea. In the early 1980s, a small air strip was
built in the valley, and the mission opposed ritual
customs. In 1985, the government opened a primary
school in the valley. The effect of those forces was
simply overwhelming and the initiation practices
largely came to end in the middle and late 1980s.
I write about the Sambia today in terms of their
initiation practices, I really think about them as an
historical reality. They shed light on the effect of
warfare on communal life as well as the effect of
warfare on gender roles, particularly what is called
sexual antagonism, that is to say, a highly
institutionalized hostility between men and women, as
well as the implementation of boy-inseminating
practices, through the men's secret society. These
all created a cluster of important concepts, beliefs,
and relationships that I felt was a
unique "experiment" in the human condition and
warranted sustained attention over the last two and a
I am doing at the Warren Center this year is
completing the second part of a study that I began in
early 1980s, which is called Guardians of the
Flutes. This is really my magnum opus in bringing
together the entire body of my observations of ritual
initiation — not only what people say, but what I
actually witnessed myself.
LETTERS: How does your research
relate to debates about culture?
HERDT: I would like to focus my answer on two aspects
of culture. One has to do with the study of secrecy,
which is one of my pet projects. The other has to do
with the study of sexuality, which is always my
ongoing area of study in a broader sense than New
secrecy, I mean here not individual secrets but
rather collective systems of secret knowledge,
typically implemented by rituals, which are, in the
case of New Guinea, religious practices. It is
perfectly clear, if you follow the cultural logic of
these systems of secrecy, that they are intended to
create two different cultural realities. One is the
public reality, which is for public consumption. This
really involves representations and performances on
the stage of society, the
high stakes of political and economic roles, and all
the other things that we believe to be important to
the social realm.
addition to this reality, in
New Guinea societies and probably in many others as
well (certainly in our own social history prior to
the modern period), the secret society was intended,
among those initiated into it, to provide an
alternative reality to use in competition with or
contestation of the public realm.
might ask why it
is necessary to create two cultural realities; it
is difficult enough to sustain one! Why add another
huge, laborious, and enormously psychically expensive
project? I think the answer to that can be summed up
in one word: warfare. Warfare, in the historical and
the material environment of the Sambia and many of
the other people in New Guinea, created absolute
conditions of survival that meant people could never
really trust those outside their own village.
because of the necessity of social reproduction,
which meant that women would be brought in from other
villages in order to ensure that incest would not
occur, women were being brought from hostile,
essentially enemy villages to marry into a local
patriarchal group. In a small village, these women
were treated tantamount to being enemies. When they
came in, then, they became a proxy for that enemy
was created a double symbolic
representation—of enemy as a political group, which
is the "men over there," and "enemy as Woman,"
who is "inside the group" and potentially disloyal and
disruptive. The antagonism was exacerbated greatly by
the fact that since these small villages had such
highly ritualized relationships with each other, they
had to arrange marriages as political agreements.
Hence, marriages were created in which people were
almost strangers when they were wed. Men and women
alike had virtually no say over whom they would
marry. The elders arranged marriages.
There would be, therefore, almost no concept of
romance. While I would not say that there was no
concept of love, because I think love exists as a
kind of emotion, a human emotional array, there is
no concept of romantic love attached to sexual
relations in the way that we think about it in our
arranged marriages thus furthered
the process of objectifying the Other. So
Woman becomes objectified and almost
fetishized. There is no
easy way to personalize and make what is an object
into a subject. Only aging and time do that. Having
children, becoming a parent, becoming a
grandparent, being around many years, becoming
trustworthy and loyal are what create affection for
women, particularly on the part of men who were
strangers to them.
course that is very different
from the affection of the children to the mother.
Many, many Sambia men were greatly afraid of the
strong attachment that developed between a mother and
her children. After all, they
still have the perception that the mother's best
interests do not lie in the village. They lie in a
village somewhere else. She might then turn the
loyaltles of her sons against her husband.
ensure that the men would have loyalty to their
primary male group, men used secret initiations and
forcibly severed the relationship between mother and
son by bringing the boy into the men's house and
creating extremely powerful avoidance taboos. Boys
could have absolutely no contact with women once they
were initiated, between the ages of seven and ten.
could not talk to or see their mothers. They
could not take food or other goods directly from
their mothers. The mothers could never go close to
the men's house and certainly could never enter
it—that was absolutely forbidden. All of the secret
activities surrounding war and rituals were off
limits for women and young children.
secrecy within the men's house, the men provided an
alternative reality to the maternal reality that
the boys grew up
with, which was the reality of the
public domain, as well as their experiences with
their mothers and
the subjectivities of being close to
their mothers and other women.
We can think of that alternative
secret reality as a kind of male
utopia in the world. This reality
in some sense denies the existence
of individual and personally distinct women and
proxy in a shadow game in which
abstract Woman, as an ideological
puppet figure, is introduced. The
boys, through years of ritual practices, become
increasingly disengaged from the real women they
effects of all of these secret
practices are to deny the dependency of men upon
women and to create a bond among the men, which is
more powerful and stronger than anything else that
existed before it. In such a utopian world, the men
go to the farthest extreme, which is to claim that
they, within themselves, can reproduce the world,
which denies an absolute relationship to women in
order to reproduce the culture. That is what I think
is at stake in secrecy.
Contained within the secret
society are many, many parts that have to do with
how we think about culture. What is culture? Is there
one culture in a society or are there many? Must
culture be only public or can it also be private or
secret? Of course, mixed in with issues of culture,
and even as telling for our own society, is the
question of when, because of gender, people have
quite divergent developmental pathways leading from
childhood into adulthood, do these pathways create
different cultural realities by the time these people
have grown up?
our society, it so happens that
we have a huge investment in the perpetuation of an
ideology that everybody is the same: all men are
created equal, all women are created equal, and there
are no intrinsic differences between people. Whether
in fact there are any differences or not is a very,
very complicated question.
can argue that men
and women do, to a certain extent, have divergent
developmental pathways with divergent subjectivities.
By the time they move into adulthood, into
their social roles, this diversity is sufficient to
create some sense of social and cultural difference
between how men and women in our society think, act,
behave, handle emotions, create relationships, and
deal with politics and sex. So I do not feel the
argument I am making about the Sambia is unique. It
has certain implications for how we think about
gender in the United States as well.
second aspect of culture that your research sheds
light on, you said, was sexuality.
sexuality comes in because erotics in social and
cultural study, not just anthropology, was often
treated as a rather uninteresting derivative of
biology. Anthropology created a new
and very important idea through the work of Bronislaw
Kasper Malinowski, Ruth Benedict, and Margaret Mead:
the idea that culture could create diversity in many
domains in the human experience, including the
sexual. But anthropologists never really followed
this idea out to its logical conclusion. They seldom
thought that the social construction of human
experience could go so far as to change people's desires.
the earlier part of this century,
cultural theorists regarded variations of sexuality
as biological deviations. Sex was a weak form of
biology, but it was still a form of biology, and
culture was not so powerful that it could overturn
biology. Malinowski's theory of culture was one in
which humans have innate biological needs, including
sexual needs, and the role of culture is to fulfill a
set of functions that will meet those needs. The
biology is creating the culture.
we have extensive
evidence from the cross-cultural record that
suggests that theory is probably erroneous. (See my
1997 book, Same Sex, Different Cultures.) In the
development of most individuals in a cultural
context, whether they are Russian, American,
Sambian, or whatever, the interaction between nature
and nurture, beginning at the earliest moments in
development, before age one, is so emotionally
bound and so creating of their realities—their
ontologies—as individual agents, that it is probably
almost impossible by around the age of six or seven
to undo what is biology and what is culture.
probably the case that sexuality, contrary to the
view of the early cultural theorists, should be
thought of in a very different way. The way in which
a culture creates its sexuality system, or to use the
term of Gayle Ruben, its sex and gender system,
provides a unique window on understanding a culture.
That window tells us something about what is special
and distinctive about this particular culture's world
view and beliefs and about how it handles and
idealizes "human nature" in male and female.
believe that each culture constructs what we could
call its sexual culture. A culture's system of
beliefs, rules, norms, symbolic objects, gender
roles, meanings, and devices is a way of creating as
well as controlling sexual behavior. All cultures
have a stake in the control of sexual behavior,
because that is about the concept of personhood, as
well as marriage, property, and reproduction, which
are highly politically and morally charged questions
for every culture.
creation of a sexual
culture is an epistemology, a system of knowledge
about the world, and about things in the world.
Sexual culture provides for a culture its received
theory of what human nature is. What is a man? What
is a woman? What is manliness? What is womanliness?
What is a boy? What is a girl? What is
heterosexuality? What is homosexuality? What is sex
for? What is good about sex? What is bad about sex?
Those questions are all being iterated as a set of
distinctions from the locally created theory of human
sexual nature. This theory is then being promoted
and taught to children, becomes part of their
individual ontologies, and then feeds back into what
we might call the collective pool of the sexual
culture and its public representations for the
culture as a whole.
that all sounds like a
very neat and tidy system, but it has seams. It has
many, many possibilities for rift, conflict, and
what today's postmodernists like to call certain
sites for cultural resistance, particularly to the
norm, if you follow out the argument of Michel
Foucault, the French philosopher, and his proteges.
The norm itself becomes both the focus of conformity
as well as a focus of resistance to convention.
example of such a norm is the concept of heterosexual
marriage today. On the one hand it is a focus of
conformity to be married, to have the church ritual,
to have children. On the other hand, it is a focus of
thought that marriage is a site of entrapment and
imprisonment for a woman. It is also a site in which
emotional turmoil may occur, and possibly child
abuse. There can be discord between the religion of
the husband and wife. They may argue over their
careers, where one may have to give up some of one's
person in favor of the other and lose some of one's
independence. All of that becomes a whole set of
debates within a culture about sexual nature. Debates
also occur with homosexuality. A whole set of ideas
are created through our culture about what is
necessarily natural and unnatural.
you describe your participation in the seminar on
person-centered approaches to culture?
fellows are a very nice, extremely diverse group of
people. The seminar, in a broad sense, is about the
relationship between concepts of person and concepts
of culture. Person-centered ethnography is a means
of talking about accounts of social and cultural
life, which provides understanding of the
relationship between a certain kind of text or
experience and some broader framework for thinking
about what the human condition is.
a very strong humanistic interest. A lot of our
discussions have centered around
poetry, writing, art, and the organization of
religious experiences. My role is, first of all, to
present my own work. I talk about the Sambia and what
I am working on this year, volume two of my study,
Guardians of the Flutes.
am a clinically trained
anthropologist. After I received my degree in
anthropology, I had clinical training at UCLA in the
department of psychiatry, which enabled me to use
clinical concepts and techniques. One of the
distinctive things about my work is that it is more
about individuals than many anthropological works
are. I am interested in individual lives, individual
histories, and individual narratives.
of this interest, I tend to listen. I want to hear
what people have to say. I find I am at tempting to
create some kind of gestalt of an entire seminar, to
think, "Well, now, how does it all add up? This
person is interested in German literature, this
person is interested in the sociology of religion,
this person is interested in Amazonian culture, and
this person is interested in psychiatry and the
ritual of psychotherapy." What I do, which I think is
particular to me, is listen to each person's
perspective and try to put various perspectives
together into a whole. Because that is what studying
culture is. It is understanding parts as a whole,
putting parts back into a context, into a gestalt.
For more information, contact the Center's executive director, Mona C. Frederick.
[ RPW Center for the
About the Center |
Howard Lecture Series |
Seminars and Programs |
Programs since 1987 ]
Site Index |
Created by Vanderbilt University
Publications & Design.
Photo credits: Gerald Holly
and Vanderbilt University Publications &
Copyright © 1998, Vanderbilt University
Last Modified: Tuesday, 9 May 2000
For more information: