According to Jenell Williams Paris, professor of anthropology at Messiah College in Grantham, Pennsylvania, social scientists and anthropologists are interested in people and how they live, despite the different views and questions that arise among and around them.
On April 27, Paris opened the discussion on gender and identity from an anthropological perspective at the opening keynote for the three-day, “Let’s Talk About Sex, Faith, and Relationships,” conference.
Before Seattle Pacific sociology professors Kevin Neuhouser and Jennifer McKinney joined a panel discussion on what gender is, how it functions in societies and the ways Christians think about it, Paris raised many questions to the audience including, “Where does identity come from?”
Paris illustrated the two most common ideas regarding the origination of identity by contrasting Bruce Jenner of Keeping Up with the Kardashians, with Matthew Crawford, author of The World Beyond Your Head.
“Bruce Jenner is saying, ‘The truth of who I am is inside me. It has always been in there and I need to let it out,’” Paris said. “In contrast, Matthew Crawford argues that by going beyond yourself, binding yourself to a community and contributing to the flourishing of that community, your true self emerges.”
Paris offered two ways of understanding what the human self is: interior, or belonging to the individual; and exterior, or submitting to a community and mastering a tradition.
“Matthew Crawford describes a new way of looking at the world and our place in it,” Paris said. “It is through craftsmanship, by engaging the world in a skilled way and in a way that beholds you to a community that your self emerges. As you craft life, you craft self.”
Many people, Paris said, including herself, have gone to the Bible looking for answers to life’s biggest questions, especially regarding identity.
“I look to the Bible not as a reference book but more as a living text, still alive and still speaking,” Paris said. “We cultivate the ability to read and listen when we live with the Holy Spirit; when we pray, serve and study.”
Acknowledging that her explanation does not settle all the questions, Paris said it nonetheless describes a more alive and rich approach to questions of gender and identity.
In an effort to clarify what she as a social scientist calls a common confusion, McKinney defined the difference between sex and gender.
“When we talk about sex, what we are talking about is the biological, physiological, anatomical pieces that make up a person. However, that isn’t all that describes a person,” McKinney said. “The second part is gender: the social, psychological, cultural pieces.”
Sex, McKinney said, does not vary that much; but gender, what a man or woman looks, acts and sounds like, varies widely across cultures.
For Neuhouser, a longstanding interest in social movements sparked his interest in gender and helped him realize how prevalent it is.
“As a sociologist who is very interested in looking at things cross-culturally, what is amazing to me is the human diversity,” Neuhouser said. “It is amazing how many different ways people can be children of God, and still be children of God.”