Humanities Blog

Ana Mattioli: does gender precede our body, or does our body precede our gender?

Every interview felt like a mind-bending exercise - an intellectual workout while sipping coffee.

Ana Mattioli

There is a growing number of people who describe themselves as transgender, gender fluid, or non-binary, meaning that their gender identities or expressions differ from their birth-assigned gender.

Despite this, the hegemonic discourse on gender enforces a heteronormative system that leaves little room for diversity. The approval of the Spanish Trans Law has meant a giant step regarding trans rights in and beyond Spanish contexts, but this law has also received its fair share of criticism and rejection. In sum, the negotiations regarding the Trans Law and its application have triggered a diverse - though polarized - array of discourses around the malleability of the body. How and how much can we shape it? How much of this malleability is in service of gender identity? And how much is in service of gender expression? Does gender precede our body, or does our body precede our gender? With these questions in mind, I departed towards the field.

I arrived in the city of Barcelona on the 5th May and stayed there for exactly 6 weeks -until the 22nd June. In the airport, I was welcomed by the open arms of my father, who drove me back to my childhood home. The fridge was stocked with all the foods I love and rarely eat in Estonia. I thought about how different this fieldwork seemed, from, say, me visiting a far-away-place where I know no one and connect to nothing. The field in this research is also a ‘home’ for me, and my position in it is from within. In Writing Against Culture (1991), Lila Abu-Lughod talks about the two segments of anthropologists who defy cultural anthropology’s main assumption: the fundamental distinction between self and other. Those two groups are feminists and ‘halfies’: those positioned as both ‘insider’ and ‘outsider’ within their fieldwork. 

Marilyn Strathern (1985, 1987) also emphasises the problematic relationship between anthropology and feminism, where she identifies two main tensions: the researcher’s relationship to their subject matter, and the way that boundaries are drawn. 

Traditionally, anthropologists studied ‘the Other’, who in turn helped anthropologists understand themselves. This self/other distinction was central to the anthropological paradigm. This process was meant to occur within a relativist approach, so that selves and others, despite their differences, were equals - equally valid in cultural terms. Feminist scholars’ relationship with their subject matters, however, re-shaped this paradigm. Their discovery of the self comes about by becoming conscious of their oppression by the Other (Strathern, 1987). In this case, ‘the Other’ being men, the gender binary individuals, or the patriarchy.

In regard to boundaries, it is important to consider that one of the biggest contributions of feminism to anthropology is the question of positionality, a matter that has proven to be of ongoing importance.

In regard to boundaries, it is important to consider that one of the biggest contributions of feminism to anthropology is the question of positionality, a matter that has proven to be of ongoing importance. Up until the eighties, ethnographers attempted to gather data as if there was no ethnographer in the field: “By pretending that the self was an invisible, permeable screen through which cultural information could be objectively recorded and transmitted, they did not critically examine the often subjective bases of the questions they asked and the kind of data they collected.” (Scheper-Hughes, 2013, p. 115).

As anthropologists became increasingly aware that knowledge was always circumstantial and situational, the discipline entered a crisis of uncertainty in its methods (ethnography), its subject matter (the Other), its medium (the field) and its purpose (production of knowledge). The so-called crisis of representation (Marcus & Fischer, 1986) questioned: was objectivity possible? World maps presuppose the existence of a position outside or above the field that is being surveyed - but how can we construct a map of the world from inside the world? (Connor, 1989). 

These concerns, which were taken on by the profession as a whole, were actually explored by feminist anthropologists years earlier. They were the first to produce ethnographies that emphasized self-reflection and the position of the ethnographer: not only who one speaks for, but where one speaks from. 

When I arrived in Barcelona, I arrived home. Not my only home, but definitely a home of mine. When I heard, listened, spoke, asked, answered, read or thought, it happened in my languages. I did sometimes lack a word, which required me to think of it in English and translate it afterwards. And I surely was not used to that heat that made me sweat like never before. There were reminders, here and there, that Barcelona is not the place where I live, and that I am just visiting. I had a booked flight back, and one of the first questions I was most frequently asked was “how long are you staying?”. From the beginning, I was leaving.

Abu-Lughod warns us of two important biases concerning halfies, the other segment of anthropologists who reveal the problems between the division of self/other. Firstly, the false belief that one can only be objective when talking about another society, that one can never be objective about their own. This statement not only directly affects indigenous anthropologists (Western and non-Western), but also reproduces the idea that selves and others are “givens”. In the words of Abu-Lughod (1991: 468):                                                         

“First, the self is always a construction, never a natural or found entity, even if it has that appearance. Second, the process of creating a self through opposition to another always entails the violence of repressing or ignoring other forms of difference.”

And what happens when the “other” that the anthropologist is studying is also the “self”? Why do we insist on the idea that the anthropologist must stand separately from the “other”? Aren't anthropologists often trying to do the opposite – to bridge the gap? And even if they aren’t, where do we draw the lines that separate? Do these lines precede us, or do we create them as we position ourselves towards another? “Every view is a view from somewhere and every act of speaking, a speaking from somewhere. (...) What we call outside is a position within a larger political-historical context” (Abu-Lughod, 1991: 468). Truths are always partial (Clifford, 1986a) and always positioned (Abu-Lughod, 1991), so there is no true self or true other that is created outside, above or beyond any other “self” or any other “other”. 

Halfies are the individuals that are caught between two or more cultural boundaries. Coming from a partially nomadic family, and being born in a city where my mom and my dad, separately, migrated to in their youth, I have felt like a ‘halfie’ since I was a young child. My grandparents were always far - especially my paternal ones, for whom we had to cross an ocean to visit. My favourite stories were the ones my dad told about his family history: how some ancestors had travelled in a ship called Mayflower and how some others changed the pronunciation of their Jewish surname “Jakob” into the British-sounding “Jacobs”. As a kid, it was fascinating to hear how my dad and his siblings had to pack their things every three years and be constantly ready to be on the move. New home, new schools; they could not take their animals with them because they weren’t theirs. Nothing was theirs. My grandfather came from an Italian family, the Mattioli, whose surname I still carry. My grannie was a British lady who married a non-British - and what an embarrassment that was for the aunties Alice, Lucy and Daisy. However they were happy in that adoptive country, Argentina, with vast endless lands and passionate (also endless) after-lunch discussions. 

My mom and dad also met in a place (and with a language) that was new for both of them. My brother and I had the type of surname that already gave that away. We were asked a lot whether we weren’t from Barcelona - but then we spoke fluent Catalan, and it was clear that we were. My dialogue with (non)belonging has somehow been there from the beginning. Deciding to conduct anthropology at home is a conscious choice towards practising “strangerism”, and also a political move to prove that it is not necessary to go too far away to do ethnography. The Malinowskian method is obsolete from every way I look at it - unless it’s through fiction. Doing anthropology at home when I do not live at home is also a way of being in my natural habitat, which is halfie anyways. I also avoid the challenges of a language barrier. After so many years living in a place without your mother tongues, it felt very stimulating to understand everything that’s being talked about around you. Forget about reading on the tram; people have fascinating lives. 

Initially, prior to visiting the field, I had a few talks with some of my friends in Barcelona, who are very close to the LGBTQ+ community there. They warned me of something I had not thought of before. Looking like a cisgender woman, even though I am nonbinary, could maybe put me in the position of the ‘other. There are many transgender anthropologists and scholars (many of them quoted in my work), so why would they want to meet me when they could be meeting them? There is a sense of familial belonging within the community that is very precious and is kept with privacy. After experiencing so much judgement and discrimination, they have carefully created safe spaces - both physically and symbolically - that they would not open to just anyone. Could I be seen as an intruder or a disrupter? The white privileged coloniser? Why not study cisgenderism instead? But I did not feel any less of an other in this other side of the spectrum either. And from my perspective, I did not think there were ‘sides’ to begin with.

Still, with these warnings in mind, I went into the field, trying to stay self-aware and open to new experience. After every interview, I went for walks or talked to Lauri or Mire. Sometimes I left these conversations feeling as if I had just read ten books on gender theory at once. Sometimes these conversations prompted self-reflection, making the ‘theory’ seem dry and impersonal. Every interview felt like a mind-bending exercise - an intellectual workout while sipping coffee. In the end, I never felt like ‘the Other’ with any of the people I spoke with. Never did I notice resistance from their part. I did feel, each and every time, a unique exchange. One of a reciprocal and genuine kind. I, who was so overtalkatively grateful for their time and their insights, was being met with their profound gratefulness for my questions, my time, or just my interest. Currently, I am still in touch with at least half of my interviewees (not really mine, but I use that pronoun out of love), and I plan to maintain these connections.


  • Abu-Lughod, L., 1991. Writing Against Culture. In: R. Fox, ed., Recapturing anthropology: working in the present, 1st ed. 
  • Clifford, J. 1983 Power in dialogue in ethnography. In 1989 Zones of theory in the anthropology of the Arab world. Annual Review of Anthropology 18:276-306.
  • 1990a Can there be feminist ethnography? Women and Performance: A Journal of Feminist Theory 5:7-27. 1990b Shifting politics in Bedouin love poetry. In Language and the Politics of Emotion. C. Lutz and L. Abu-Lughod, eds. New York: Cambridge UniversityPress.
  • Connor, S. 1989. Postmodernist culture: an introduction to theories of the contemporary. New York, USA: B. Blackwell.           
  • Marcus, G. E. &, Fischer, M. M. J. 1986. Anthropology as Cultural Critique. Chicago: Chicago University Press. 
  • Strathern, M. 1985 Dislodging a worldview: challenge and counter-challenge in the relationship between feminism and anthropology, in Australian Feminist Studies I: 1-25.
  • Strathern, M. 1987. An awkward relationship: the case of feminism and anthropology. Signs 12: 276-92.