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Sherry Ortner


By Angela R. Bratton * Posted May 1998


Ortner’s Key Work

Selected Bibliography

References Cited

The field of Anthropology has greatly benefited from the work of Sherry Ortner. Currently a professor of Anthropology at Columbia University, Ortner co-pioneered the sub-discipline of Feminist Anthropology. She is also important to the field of Anthropology because she helped promote and define Practice Theory. Furthermore, Ortner used her anthropological research to help advance political change in arenas that she saw as unequal or troubled. This paper will highlight Ortner’s contributions to the field through an analysis of her work.


Ortner’s current work considers American culture and its influence on the numerous anthropologists who claim American culture as their background. In light of postmodernism, Ortner argues that this cultural background helps us to understand what shapes anthropologists’ perspectives when they are writing. Therefore, I will begin by giving some background information about Ortner herself. In 1941, Sheri Beth Ortner was born into white middle-class Jewish family. Her father was in the packaging-supplies business, and he was also a Republican, a fact the self-labeled radical notes with irony. She graduated from Weequahic High School in 1958 in her hometown of Newark, New Jersey (Levine 1996).

From Newark, Ortner went to Bryn Mawr College where she became involved in the civil-rights movement. In an interview with Levine (1996) she describes her interest in anthropology as stemming in part from a desire to do something different and more challenging than she had experienced while growing up in a fairly secure and relatively privileged environment. She got her wish; the village where she first did fieldwork took 10 days to reach by foot. Ortner opens her first ethnography by describing previous romanticized notions of the Sherpas, which no doubt also influenced her decision to work there.

After graduating from Bryn Mawr College, Ortner continued her studies at the University of Chicago, where she received her MA in 1966 and her Ph.D. in 1970, working under the primary tutelage of Clifford Geertz. At Chicago, Ortner devised a seemingly contradictory fusion of Levi-Straussian Structuralism and Marxist theory. She did her initial field work among the Sherpas in Nepal from 1966-8 with her first husband, Robert Paul, also a 1970 graduate of the University of Chicago. Since then, her interests have included cultural anthropology, social theory, ideology, class, and gender, in addition to the geosocial regions of Tibet, the Himalayas, South and South East Asia, and the contemporary United States.

After receiving her Ph.D., Ortner went on to teach at Sarah Lawrence College in the early 1970s. During a second fieldwork expedition, she also consulted on a film entitled “Sherpa” (1976). In 1977 Ortner was hired by the University of Michigan. Her job talk on “The Virgin and the State” (1976) was later published, and which became an important article for feminist anthropology. During her 17 years at Michigan, Ortner was an editorial consultant for the Journal of Cultural

and Social Practice, chaired the department of Anthropology, and was one of several rotating directors for Women’s Studies. In 1990 she won the MacArthur Award for her work in Anthropology. Ortner briefly moved to the University of California, Berkeley from 1994-6, where she was part of the South Asia Consortium-West, an undergraduate cultural studies program. In 1996 she moved to Columbia University where she currently teaches courses on gender and power, in addition to carrying out research on contemporary American Society.

Ortner’s Work

The main body of this paper focuses on Ortner’s writings and what she reveals about herself in them, as well as the ways in which she has propelled anthropological theory and ethnography forward. I will discuss her work in chronological order, selecting works that I have found influential, and those that were accessible to me.


On Key Symbols (1973)

In this article, Ortner programmatically lays out an analysis for recognizing and using key symbols in culture. This was a previously inarticulated method of cultural analysis, but one nonetheless used frequently by anthropologists. Her purpose was to explicate this analysis before applying it to her monograph on the Sherpas on which she was simultaneously working.

There are two types of main symbols: summarizing and elaborating. Summarizing symbols, not surprisingly, combine several complete ideas into one symbol or sign that the participant perceives. This single symbol stands for all of these ideas simultaneously. This summarizing occurs often with sacred symbols such as the American flag. Summarizing symbols act as a catalyst in order to make an impact on the respondent.

Conversely, elaborating symbols provide a way of working out complex undifferentiated ideas and feelings so that they make sense to the individual. When a symbol is broken down like this, then a person can communicate the idea to other people more effectively. Elaborating symbols sort experience and categorize the world. They can be further subdivided into two categories. Ortner refines Stephen Pepper’s notion of “root metaphor” which is related to the ability to elaborate power. She also turns to G. Lienhardtís work among the Dinkas to give an example of a “root metaphor”; Dinkas’ perception of the world arises from their physical perception of their cattle. In other words, they judge shades, colors, and textures of the world around them according to their cattle’s color which acts as a base for perceptions. Key scenarios are counter to root metaphors. They describe the culture’s basic means-end relationships and the ways these behaviors could ideally be acted out. Finally, these symbols can be uncovered in a number of ways such as being told by the informant, or by noticing what draws an intense reaction from an individual.


Is Female to Male as Nature is to Culture? (1974)

This article was Ortner’s second publication and her first feminist piece. It received a great deal of attention because it supported the notion that male dominance was universal, a very popular idea among Feminists in the 1970s. The article is a good of example of Levi-Strauss’ influence on Ortner’s work. The binary opposition of nature and culture originate with Levi-Strauss, and Ortner borrows them in her structural analysis of male dominance. She also uses this article as a platform to suggest political changes which would enhance equality between men and women.

In “Is Female to Male” Ortner makes her now famous argument that culture is associated with men, and although women are important participants in culture, they are more aligned more closely with nature. A decade later, researchers abandoned this notion and began searching for individual cultural constructions that create and legitimate differences rather than universals. However, to prove her point, Ortner argues that a woman’s body and its functions keep her closer to nature more than a man’s physiology, allowing him more freedom to work in culture. The purpose of culture, in one sense, is to rise above nature; therefore, if women are more aligned with nature then they fall socially below cultural men. Ultimately, both a woman’s body and her social position create a different psychic structure for her.


Sherpas Through Their Rituals (1978)

This text is the published form of Ortner’s 1970 dissertation, originally entitled “Food for Thought: A Key Symbol in Sherpa Culture.” The field research was funded by grants from the National Institutes of Mental Health Predoctoral Fellowship and a National Science Foundation Field Research Grant. Writing of the book was funded by Wenner-Gren Foundation forAnthropological Research.

In this piece, Ortner is concerned with the structure of Sherpa society that can be uncovered by the symbols of ritual, as well as with stress, conflict, and contradictions in their culture. She sets up the book with an ethnographic description, and the following chapters each begin with a description of a Buddhist rite or secular event. She then picks out symbols and shows how they work in the society. Ortner selected this method because she observed that there are inherent problems with beginning an ethnography with the “usual” categories such as kinship or economy. These categories are externally imposed and they do not allow for variation and change. The Sherpas, according to Ortner, perform rituals out of a sense of tradition, and although the world is not disordered, performing the rituals insures that it does not become disordered. Rituals, she says, begin with a cultural problem, stated or unstated, and solutions take the form of reorganizations and reinterpretations of the behavior that make a new meaning. The solutions themselves represent the “fundamental cultural assumptions and orientations with which we are partly concerned” (1978: 3). Lienhardt’s book Divinity and Experience influenced Ortner’s analysis, and led her to focus on the shaping of consciousness through ritual.


Sexual Meanings: The Cultural Construction of Gender and Sexuality (1981)

Harriet Whitehead coedited this volume, which focuses on sex and gender as cultural symbols. The book contributes not only to feminist anthropology, but also to symbolic and hermeneutic anthropology. Ortner and Whitehead compiled the essays that appear in this text because they knew that various people were working on these issues, and they thought that a single volume could demonstrate the breadth of work being done in feminist anthropology. This compilation was also important to them since they felt that understanding gender and sexuality was one of themost important projects in contemporary social science. This book contends that the social organization of prestige is the part of social structure that most directly influences gender and sexuality.

Ortner and Whitehead begin by acknowledging Margaret Mead’s contribution to the discussion of gender and sexuality as cultural constructs, instead of being biologically determined. However, since Mead’s distinction, few people had set out to demonstrate this cultural construction. Therefore, each article in this book begins with definitions of female and male and sex and reproduction in social contexts. These distinctions demonstrate a previously unrecognized diversity in definitions. The symbolic analysis also places social and cultural factors in the spotlight.

There are two basic methodologies in this collection. The culturalist approach emphasizes the structural relationships among cultural symbols. The authors working in this paradigm conclude that social organization determines prestige and status. The second technique is the sociology-of-meaning approach. Ortner’s article is an example of this bottom-up method. This method analyzes associations between symbols and meanings, and social relations, in order to consider ways in which particular types of social order lead to certain perceptions of gender.

Briefly, Ortner’s article on sexuality in hierarchical societies discusses the ways that women have more respect in societies where kinship is emphasized over sexual relationships. Moreover, she concludes that the upper class must follow ideology about virginity more closely than the lower classes, demonstrating the virgin’s kinsmen’s control over a woman, which is seen asa positive attribute.


Theory in Anthropology Since the Sixties (1984)

In response to the continued separation of anthropology into sub-fields, Ortner wrote this article to suggest the development of a new symbol which she calls “practice.” To demonstrate the validity of this turn, she examines anthropological theory from the 1960s to the mid 1980s. I highly recommend this article for students of anthropology since it concisely explains recent theoretical trends and their contribution to the field as a whole.

Ortner claims that she began her review with the sixties because that is when she was introduced to anthropology. Appropriately then, she starts with Geertz’ and Schneider’s work in symbolic anthropology. In her summary of their work, it is easy to see their influence on her. Geertz suggested that culture was not something found in an individual’s head, but something manifested in public symbols. He emphasized the ways in which actors process their world which is also called the actor-centered approach. On the other hand, Schneider looked for “core symbols” or the internal logic of a system. Levi-Strauss was a major influence on him, and his effects obviously reached Ortner in turn.

According to Ortner, there were three major paradigms that covered anthropology at the end of the 1950s: British structural-functionalist, psychocultural, and American evolutionist. The students of these paradigms chose to strengthen particular characteristics, leading to a more refined, but broader group of sub-specialties. Besides symbolic anthropology, Ortner considers trends in cultural ecology, structuralism, structural Marxism, political economy, and Postmodernism. She alludes to the formation of a new symbol which is a culmination of these twenty years of theory. ‘Practice Theory’ which she describes in detail, has enjoyed even more exposure since this article became a classic of the anthropological canon.

In short, Practice Theory examines the things people do and say on a daily basis. By practicing, or participating in, these events people are strengthening their cultural systems, but the systems also shape them. Ortner describes Practice Theory as a blend of Geertzian thick description with a more politicized view of culture that focuses on the relationship between individuals and the overarching social and economic structures that organize their lives (Levine 1996).


High Religion: A Cultural and Political History of Sherpa Buddhism (1989)

This text discusses the founding of the first celibate monasteries among the Sherpas as they represented the formalization or creation of an institution. NSF provided funding for the five month field research for this book, while the writing process was funded by a Solomon R. Guggenheim Memorial Fellowship, another NSF grant, and a grant from the University of Michigan Faculty Fund.

Ortner took an ethnohistorical approach for this research, unlike the tactic used in her first ethnography. Unlike many other ethnohistories, hers turns directly to the people involved in order to draw upon their memories and personal knowledge of their own history. Due to an influx of researchers to the area, people became more and more interested in their own history, and appreciated her research on this topic.

History is important to Ortner because she says practice becomes more detectable over a longer period of time. I think this work is a good example of practice theory applied to an ethnographic work. As an extension to her article “Theory of Anthropology Since the Sixties” (1984) Ortner’s introduction in High Religion further expands her conception of Practice Theory. Ortner recognizes that structure cannot be isolated as a form of culture. Structure does, however, interact with a Marxian notion of practice. In other words, structure does not determine or limit an actor’s behavior, but sometimes it does conflict with what s/he practices on a daily basis. Ortner evaluates this conflict through an assessment of the actor’s reactions. She sees ritual as a dramatization of this structure /practice combination. Therefore, ritual relates the story about a person’s conflict with the structure, and the way in which the conflict was resolved for both the person’s own satisfaction and for the community’s benefit.


Reading America: Preliminary Notes on Class and Culture (1991)


This article is the beginning of Ortner’s latest project: American ethnography and the examination of the relationship between class and capitalism in America. When she began her career anthropology, Ortner notes that research in America was unheard of. Since the advent of postmodernism, reflexivity and the exploration of experience that form an anthropologist’s perspective have gained greater validity. Ortner’s current research is thus follows her high school classmates, whose culture helped form her perspective.

Ortner outlines her preliminary research plan in this article. Since anthropologists have done so little work in America, she turns to the sociological literature. Exhibiting her Marxist influence, she criticizes researchers for turning problems and conflicts that she sees as clearly class-related distinctions into ethnic issues. For Ortner, class is a real structural distinction, but she argues that it is discussed less often in favor of ethnic terminology. She considers the distinctions made in today’s high schools to be about class and sexual differences. Furthermore, she considers some fictional literary accounts of class differences in American society.


Culture/Power/History (1994)

Ortner coedited this volume with Nicholas Dirks and Geoff Eley to bring together a body of work which obviously addresses issues about culture, power, and history. The editors were all members of a multidisciplinary group at Michigan called the Comparative Study of Social Transformations. The book’s introduction describes current trends in history and in anthropology, as well as their relationship to power. This book also contains a reprint of Ortner’s “Theory of Anthropology Since the Sixties.”


Resistance and the Problem of Ethnographic Refusal (1995)

In this article, Ortner claims that studies of resistance have been sorely lacking in discussions about ethnographic refusal. She defines ethnographic refusal as “a refusal of thickness, a failure of holism.” These two methods have at certain times been key aims in ethnography. She examines a select literature on this issue, a method that makes the article reminiscent of her “Theory… Since the Sixties” article.
Ortner finds that resistance was once defined in opposition to domination. She thinks that it has expanded since then due to a recognition that actors can have mixed intentions, as well as psychological ambivalence, and collaboration. While politics are centered around the discussion of resistance, politics are restricted to resistance issues, and Ortner argues that politics should be considered more broadly. On the other hand, notions of resistance can be taken to the level of the individual and his/her relationship to resistance in terms of consciousness, identity, and intentionality. Lastly, Ortner looks at these issues from a textual perspective. She concludes that a text by itself (e.g. one ethnography) cannot reveal reality, arguing that multiple texts should be employed in formulating images of representation.


Making Gender: The Politics and Erotics of Culture (1996)

Ortner’s most recent major publication is actually a collection of some of her previously published essays. The book is dedicated to Michelle Zimbalist Rosaldo who attracted her to feminist anthropology in the early 1970s and also to Ortner’s teenage daughter. The articles share the common theme that women are more aligned with nature while men are creators of culture.
Rather than discussing the articles individually, since their themes have been brought up elsewhere in this paper, I will discuss her response in the book to critiques of “Is Female to Male as Nature is to Culture.” She acknowledges that the “Is Female to Male” article took on a life of its own, through both its critics and by people who were persuaded by her argument. However, she says that she probably would not write the same paper again. This makes sense, especially taken in light of something she says about perspective in High Religion. Here she observes that people have different relations with their culture at different times in their lives, so that what affects them at one stage may not concern them later. She responds to this article’s placement in the canon by saying that as a young, white, middle-class female academic her perspective must have struck a chord with other women who read her work.


Anthropologists in a Media Saturated World (1997)

Ortner presented this paper at the 1997 American Anthropological Association’s annual meeting for the General Anthropology distinguished lecture. With this paper, she continues her work with her high school class. Her research now includes not only her classmates, but their children who are part of the group labeled “Generation X.” She initially interviewed 100 of 304 former classmates and 50 of their children. Her sample basically reflects the ethnic background of the total original class, but her emphasis is on social class not ethnicity.
The reference to the media, found in the paper’s title, refers to a question she formulated about the impact of the media’s assumptions on anthropologists. In other words, are anthropologists influenced by labels and assumptions imposed by the media onto groups and events? Her case in point is Generation X, who carry the label of slacker, among other things. However, she argues that Generation X is actually a response to changes in the middle class, and changes to the job environment. Jobs today are “McJobs” as she calls them, both low paying and low status. Parents of her generation are willing and secure enough to support their grown children so that they remain in the middle class. In her work she came across a good deal of frustration and anxiety from her informants. These feelings reinforced in her the idea that informants are always right. Sometimes they may be emotionally experiencing feelings that the ethnographer cannot objectively identify; however, that does not make the feelings or experience any less legitimate. Her preliminary sense is that the anger is located primarily in the lower-class, and not only is it very real, but it contributes to teen suicides, gang rapes, and other exhibitions of devastating violence. Once again, Ortner hopes that her work in this area will shed light on the maladaptive structures which create these frustrations. Once these problems are recognized there is hope that peaceful, healthy resolutions will be evident.

In conclusion, Ortner is dedicated to humanistic, interpretive anthropology which allows her to bring to light discussions about meaning and value. This humanistic work is evident not only in her research on class structures among her high school classmates, but in her strong advocacy of Feminist Anthropology, and voicing of a female perspective. Ortner also helped define and promote Practice Theory, a practical actor-centered methodology. I find her work to be accessible, yet full of depth. Of course, while not everyone agrees with me, I hope they at least find her arguments to be challenging and provocative.


Contact Sherry Ortner via e-mail at: sortner@anthro.ucla.edu


Select Bibliography

1973 On Key Symbols. American Anthropologist 75(5):1338-46.

1974 Is Female To Male As Nature Is To Culture? In Woman, Culture, and Society. Michelle Zimbalist Rosaldo and Louise Lamphere, eds. Stanford: Stanford University Press.

1976 Sherpas. Consultant. Manchester: Granale Television.

1978 Sherpas Through Their Rituals. Westford: Cambridge University Press. (Published version of dissertation).

1978 The White Black Ones: The Sherpa View of Human Nature In Himalayan Anthropology. James Fisher, ed. Pp. 263-85. The Hague: Mouton.

1981 Gender and Sexuality In Hierarchical Societies: The Case Of Polynesia and Some Comparative Implications In Sexual Meanings. In The Cultural Construction Of Gender and Sexuality, Harriet Whitehead and Sherry Ortner, eds. New York: Cambridge University Press.

1984 Theory in Anthropology Since the Sixties. In Comparative Studies in Society and History. 126(1):126-66.

1989 High Religion: A Cultural and Political History of Sherpa Buddhism. Princeton: Princeton University Press. (A good example of practice theory in ethnography).

1989 Cultural Politics: Religious Activism and Ideological Transformation Among 20th Century Sherpas. Dialectical Anthropology. 14(3):197-211.

1993 Ethnography Among the Newark. Michigan Quarterly Review.

1995 Resistance And The Problem Of Ethnographic Refusal. In Recapturing Anthropology In Working in the Present. Richard G. Fox, ed. Pp. 163-90. Santa Fe: School of American Research Press.

1996 Making Gender: The Politics and Erotics of Culture. Boston: Beacon Press.

1997 Anthropologists In a Media Saturated World. General Anthropology Distinguished Lecture at AAA, 11/21.



Levine, Joe

1996 The Long Way Home. The University of Chicago Magazine. Electronic document. http://magazine.uchicago.edu/9602/9602sherry-ortnerl, accessed 3 May 1998.

Ortner, Sherry B.

1973 On Key Symbols. American Anthropologist 75(5):1338-46.

1974 Is Female To Male As Nature Is To Culture? In Woman, Culture, and Society. Michelle Zimbalist Rosaldo and Louise Lamphere, eds. Stanford: Stanford University Press.

1978 Sherpas Through Their Rituals. Westford: Cambridge University Press.

1981 Gender and Sexuality In Hierarchical Societies: The Case of Polynesia and Some Comparative Implications In Sexual Meanings: The Cultural Construction of Gender and Sexuality, Harriet Whitehead and Sherry Ortner, eds. New York: Cambridge University Press.

1984 Theory of Anthropology Since the Sixties. Comparative Studies in Society and History 126(1):126-66.

1989 High Religion: A Cultural and Political History of Sherpa Buddhism. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

1995 Resistance and The Problem Of Ethnographic Refusal. In Recapturing Anthropology In Working in the Present. Richard G. Fox, ed. Pp. 163-90. Santa Fe: School of American Research Press.

1996 Making Gender: The Politics and Erotics of Culture. Boston: Beacon Press.

1997 Anthropologists In a Media Saturated World. General Anthropology Distinguished Lecture at AAA, 11/21.


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