Definitional angst during the dissertation blues
Due to the subject matter of my dissertation and proposal, I’ve had to include a Glossary. Dear heavens, what a headache. Here’s my introduction to the Glossary, with reasoning:
Because of the ever-changing nature of the English language, the definitions of words can be slippery to pin down. This issue is compounded when particular words or phrases become culturally contentious, with different social groups claiming the word is being twisted to signify things it was not meant to, or that only their definition is correct, or even insisting they are ‘reclaiming’ the word under discussion. I experienced a mild form of this issue while having what I believed was a thoughtful discussion with an acquaintance about misogyny within patriarchal societies. At one point I asked his opinion on what I’d said, and he airily informed me that every time I used the word ‘patriarchy’ he just stopped listening — because he was tired of being told he was to blame for all women’s problems.
Needless to say, we emphatically did not have a shared definition of patriarchy. As a consequence, this issue is of great importance to me — because I wish for my work to be useful to the women about which I write. In such a situation do I use the word or phrase which truly means what I’m trying to say, and thereby potentially alienate or lose possible readers? Or do I keep people’s interest by applying a term which is so watered down as to lose any conceivable political contentiousness? After much reflection I have decided to use what I believe are the correct words for my meaning, regardless of possible repercussions — but to also take the step of including a Glossary, so I may inform the reader of my intended meaning by including the working definitions of particular words used repeatedly within this paper.
I have chosen to initially refer to Oxford’s on-line dictionary due to both its convenience and its well-known and commonly accepted status as cultural arbiter of language and meaning. Admittedly, I often take issue with its rather positivist slant towards the definition of words, but I believe it will be an acceptable beginning from which to start the process of understanding — with the caveat that its use is not a requirement in order to create relevant and egalitarian meaning. Where Oxford’s either gives what I consider an insufficient definition, or does not recognize a word or phrase, I have either turned to other dictionaries or authors, or added my thoughts and beliefs to the Oxford definition, or created my own definition for phrases which I feel are important to this work but which are not in standard usage. Each of these cases will be obvious to the reader, however — either through footnotes, or due to my clearly noting that I am explaining further rather than simply including a definition. Also, in situations where I am personally defining a phrase, I will demonstrate how I arrived at my choice through first applying definitions supplied by Oxford’s for the separate words, then continue from there to work out an appropriate meaning.
From this basis, therefore, we may progress to working out an appropriate and useful definition for words and phrases which Oxford’s either does not recognize, or defines in a manner I consider either androcentric, positivist, or somewhat misogynist. As a final caveat, I will also note that I understand meanings change over time, and so I am consequently aware my definitions cannot be the only true and correct ones — but the reader is asked to abide by them at least while perusing my work here.
Makes the entire process sound so calm and dispassionate and lovely, doesn’t it? Argh. There are some terms where the Oxford’s definition is so glaringly inadequate, though, that I simply cannot let it stand uncontested. Like… indigenous: “Originating or occurring naturally in a particular place; native.” Talk about completely sidestepping the issue there!
On the other hand… trying to pin down all the elements of indigenousness — indigenosity? Sorry ;) — so that you don’t shut out any groups that should be there, and don’t let in those that shouldn’t… well, I have some sympathy for the inherent difficulties in taking on that job. Like with the old preliminary or working definition used by the UN’s Working Group on Indigenous Populations (WGIP) — it gets wordy and legalistic. From what I’ve read, too, even this definition was criticized as inadequate due to it applying specifically — maybe only? — to pre-colonial indigenous populations.
Indigenous communities, peoples, and nations are those that, having a historical continuity with pre-invasion and pre-colonial societies that developed on their territories, consider themselves distinct from other sectors of the societies now prevailing in those territories, or parts of them. They form at present non-dominant sectors of society and are determined to preserve, develop, and transmit to future generations their ancestral territories, and their ethnic identity, as the basis of their continued existence as peoples, in accordance with their own cultural patterns, social institutions and legal systems.
— José R. Martínez-Cobo, Special Rapporteur on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.
Yeah, no. On the other other hand, I’m not sure getting all in people’s faces about this is helpful for my paper either. For example, there’s another Special Rapporteur (which, if I’m going to quote any of them, I should look up what a ‘rapporteur’ is — it’s giving me vague mental images of some guy helping beginners at mountain climbing & rappelling or something!) named James Anaya who says indigenous peoples are “living descendants of pre-invasion inhabitants of lands now dominated by others. They are culturally distinct groups that find themselves engulfed by other settler societies born of forces of empire and conquest.”
Urgh… closer, but not quite. While I’m not big on white expansionism and colonization, the anthropologist in me likes pointing out that all of our ancestors — with the sole exception of those still living in Africa — migrated out of Africa at some point. Technically, does that make us all invaders? I don’t buy that, honestly… but coming up with a definition of my own is, well, a battle in and of itself. Here’s what I’ve got so far, and my thoughts… and a headache.
Indigenous: “Originating or occurring naturally in a particular place; native.” Intriguingly, Oxford’s seems to imply that indigenous peoples are equivalent to wilderness or nature. This assumption — and the conceptually linked, binarily oppositional and hierarchical connection of women with nature — is the basis of ecofeminism’s protest of patriarchal manipulation and oppression of women, people of color and indigenous, and non-human others. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Oxford’s also completely ignores the long history of oppression and colonization suffered by indigenous peoples.
While the exact meaning of indigenous is highly contested — to the point that there is no precise definition for indigenous even in the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples — for the purposes of this paper my (admittedly rough) explanation is as follows:
A culturally distinct people … [things to mention: territorial linkage? needing to keep their sovereignty/culture & environment/traditional ways of living to survive, usually subsistence-based production and most often not urban, Wikipedia (which I CAN NOT use in the paper): “certain indigenous people are vulnerable to exploitation, marginalization and oppression by nation states formed from colonizing populations or by politically dominant, different ethnic groups.”]
Of note: the two groups referred to as indigenous and people of color have a great deal of overlap, but are not identical. For example, African-Americans are people of color who are not indigenous to North America. Also, the indigenous Saami of Sweden are pale-skinned. [see also Women (or people) of color]
Throwing all this out onto my blog as a chance to clear my head and maybe let my non-conscious mind work it out for me. For now… think I need a break. ;-p