Book Précis

This course mainly consists of reading and thinking about monographs (single-authored books). For each ethnography that you read, you will be expected to write a 3-5 page précis ahead of class. A précis is more than just a book report. This assignment is designed to test your analytical and critical skills as well as have you produce work that you will be able to use in your further studies in anthropology, queer studies, or women's studies.

There are two components to a good précis: Analysis and Critique. Although this is a bit of a false distinction since in any good analysis is a critique and most critiques embody an analysis, in your précis I would like you to separate these two parts and handle them separately.

Finally at the end of each précis, I would like you to provide one good question for class discussion, arising out of the material that you read.

Analysis (noun):
1 : separation of a whole into its component parts
2 a : the identification or separation of ingredients of a substance b : a statement of the constituents of a mixture
3 a : proof of a mathematical proposition by assuming the result and deducing a valid statement by a series of reversible steps b (1) : a branch of mathematics concerned mainly with functions and limits (2) : CALCULUS 1b
4 a : an examination of a complex, its elements, and their relations b : a statement of such an analysis
5 a : a method in philosophy of resolving complex expressions into simpler or more basic ones b : clarification of an expression by an elucidation of its use in discourse

In the analysis section of your précis, you should take apart the ethnography into its component parts and understand how the text comes together. What is the author trying to say? What is her/his key hypothesis and how do each of the chapters contribute (or detract) from the argument. You can approach this linearly, illustrating how each of the chapters worked together. You could approach it thematically, exploring how the various themes or topics in the book came together.

Critique (noun):
: an act of criticizing
Criticize (verb:
1 : to consider the merits and demerits of and judge accordingly : EVALUATE

If in the analysis, you took the ethnography and separated it into its component parts (either thematically, linearly, etc.), in the critique you have the task of evaluating how well the ethnography worked. The dictionary definition here is not that useful. How do you fully consider the positives and negatives of a text? I believe you must engage it at the deepest level -- both your own as well as the author's.

If the analysis is written in the author's voice, your critique is your opportunity to have a deep intellectual conversation with the author. In order to write a good critique, you have to have a good understanding of the author's positionality. What type of theoretical perspective or historical trajectory is the author embedded in? Who is s/he arguing against or for? What is your own perspective, how does what you've learned from other courses integrate (or diverge) from the trajectory here.

One of the goals of this exercise is to give you something that you can literally take out of this class. If you're in another anthropology or women's studies class and need to remember what was going on in the 600 page Death without Weeping, you will already have a summary outline in your analysis section. If you are required to give a short presentation on what you thought about the ideas that Nancy Scheper-Hughes was dealing with, then you can look at your Critique section. This is especially helpful when you're in a class that has a final project, you can use your précis to quickly come up with the data/analysis/critiques/discussion you need for the body of the paper. Remembering all the books you've read at both a factual and theoretical level is difficult -- so use the précis to become your own Cliff's Notes.

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Dictionary definitions from Merriam-Webster. © 2007-15 by Karen Nakamura. All rights reserved.

Sample Precis


Précis for The Woman in the Body

The Woman in the Body is an analysis of the images and treatment in American culture of the female body and its functions. To examine these issues, Martin conducted interviews with 165 women of varying age and race categories. With her emphasis on class it is not surprising that Martin looks at notions of the female body in almost entirely Marxist terms. She also looks at the historical reasons, namely the introduction of the biological and social sciences in the 1800s, that helped stabilize male superiority and female subordination (32). Ultimately, Martin searches for the meanings behind the (largely medical) cultural constructions of the female body, and what they say about the way we approach the purpose of existence (13). To contrast this, she looks at the way women describe their bodies, and the implications behind the differences in the two discourses.

Martin’s Marxist leanings cannot be denied. She spends the first part of her book talking about the removal of the worker from their product, and fragmentation of self as an adaptation to this kind of lifestyle (18). Taking this one step farther, she notes that science treats the body as a machine, and, therefore, asks us to separate our “selves” from our bodies (19). This “worker” and “product” mentality is especially espoused in images of menstruation, pregnancy, and menopause. In this system, a baby is the product, and lack of a baby, either through menstruation or menopause, is expressed in negative terms. In the production of a baby, namely during labor, the woman is largely removed from the process and the product of the birth. But we should look at each of these in more depth.

Menstruation and menopause are both described as lack of production. The traditional American definition of menstruation, and I was taught this definition as well, is that the lack of fertilization of the monthly egg results in the breakdown and expulsion of the uterine lining prepared for it. Martin argues that the negative language couched in this definition says more about our cultural constructs of womanly purpose than it does about menstruation. And indeed, phrases in medical books such as, “menstruation is the uterus crying for lack of a baby,” is ridiculous (45). She discusses this in contrast with male spermatogenesis, which is described as “remarkable” and “amazing” (48). She says that the counter argument to her ideas is that menstruation is what it is described as, a sloughing off of cells. She counters that says, “look at other processes in the body that are fundamentally analogous to menstruation… to see whether they are also described in terms of breakdown and deterioration” (50). Using the example of stomach lining, she says this is not the case (50). She offers up another definition saying, “I can see no reason why the menstrual blood itself could not be seen as the desired ‘product’ of the female cycle, except when the women intend to become pregnant” (53). In addition, even most women see menstrual blood as polluting, gross, or dirty. Martin also discovered that middle class women tend to give the scientific view of menstruation, while working-class women generally did not (109). She sees in this the middle-class falling prey to its own definitions used to control the lower classes (110). Menopause suffers a similar fate, being described as the “failure” of the ovaries to produce estrogen. In the production model, the woman then becomes effectively useless since she cannot produce any more children.

Pregnancy and birth was probably the most jolting part of Martin’s book. She and her informants’ stories about rampant C-sections, drugs, and episiotomies were both frightening and absurd. The woman is viewed as the laborer who works separately from the (not her) uterus, which is the involuntary machine of the birthing process (63). Martin’s descriptions of the labor process, while sometimes belying her as the angry, Marxist-feminist she is, are jarring and, I believe, on target. A good example of this is:

It is because the women is really though of as someone to control that scientific management strategies are thought to be appropriate. If there were only a machine lying there, on would simply turn it on and fix it if it broke, not subdivided its movements and exhort it so hold or a certain rate of production.

Additionally, Martin notes that, “[t]he doctor may be becoming the new worker, who (with the help of machines) produces the baby” (146). That is a pretty shocking realization, and out of it has come a degree of resistance by women. It got to the point where I was cheering for the women who bucked their doctor’s authority or ignored doctors all together. Martin makes the good point, though, that most resistance happens in the middle-class among white women; those who are looked down on to begin with have fewer options (155).

Martin does a good job of conveying the skepticism and annoyance of women at the way their bodies are treated by mainstream American culture. It got me angry. She also effectively notes that middle and working-class women both have consciousness about and resistance to these images and procedures forced upon them (201). In fact, Martin argues that working-class women see and respond to the constructs impressed on them by the upper classes more effectively than middle-class women do. Most importantly, however, she uses the actual words of women to show how they feel about their bodies, something we don’t often hear.

As much as I though this book had a good and convincing message overall, I had some significant problems with Martin’s work. The first is her understanding, or lack thereof, of some aspects of biology/science. I realize that she is not a biologist, but there were things she talked about with authority that I could tell she didn’t really understand. She uses metaphors in science to convey her point about the production-centered notions of the female body, including those of DNA, RNA, etc (37). Perhaps this is the biologist/person with false consciousness in me coming out, but my body is similar to a factory. DNA is replicated to accommodate cell growth, the most important of which is development of a fetus. My body could care less whether or not I write a world-renown thesis or become a professional basketball player; at the end of the day, it would really like me to go ahead and continue the species. And while my body isn’t “crying for a baby” (it’ll wait until about thirty-five to do that, so I hear), it’s not going to bother wasting resources on a uterine lining I don’t need this month. So, yes it does cut out on the oxygen, the nutrients, etc, and lets it slough off. It doesn’t have to be viewed negatively, but it is ultimately a negative process; my body says, “Damn. Oh well, we’ll try again next month. Let’s get rid of all the stuff down there.” This is the long way of saying that Martin tries to say that all our bodily functions are in a way socially constructed, an argument I really don’t buy. The reactions to the bodily functions are what are constructed, and she should have stuck to those.

I also had many problems with the way she chose informants. First of all, I don’t know what she was thinking separating African-American women out as the only American racial category. Not only does that trivialize the marginalization that other groups have faced, it sets up African-Americans as “different” from “us.” Looking at Appendix 2, we also see that she use predominately African-American women for her “youngest” working-class group, and only one African-American woman in her “oldest” middle-class group (209). I don’t know where she came up with these breakdowns, especially since there are far more working-class white people (even if we’re just using those of Anglo decent) than there are African-Americans. She also has a tendency to subtly equate “black” with “poor” (149). Additionally, she also separates Puerto Ricans out of her “white” category to describe them individually, and again as ‘disadvantaged’ (150). She had way too many race issues going on here for me to take much of what she said about racial differences seriously.

She also had a tendency to glorify the “primitive.” In her discussion of PMS, Martin claims that an American woman must suffer under a “different level of demand on her time and energy than- say- Beng women in the Ivory Coast.” The image of Beng women is that they get to idle their cares away during their menstrual week, oblivious to the cares of the modern woman. What a load of bunk. She finishes her inappropriate paragraph with the quip, “Perhaps Beng women have fewer burned fingers” (125). Amazingly, she applies this attitude in a similar way to working-class women. She notes their ability to understand and resist the conventions of the middle class because of their position in society (108). Fair enough, but she occasionally makes it sound like they can do this because they don’t really ‘fit’ in the society. In the same way that the Beng woman can enjoy her period, the working-class woman can understand the structures of the middle class.

I also had problems with the way she used her interviews. There were no examples of anything the women said that conflicted with what she was arguing. This is not often a problem for the anthropologist of Bunga-Bunga, but she walked into trap doing it in her own culture. My mother has never described herself as an “object the doctors manipulate” even though she had a C-section (84). She also claims that women would all want to keep their periods, given a choice (101). She should have interviewed me. Martin does not seem open to the fact that women may have differing opinions from hers, and they if they do, they are probably just suffering from middle-class false consciousness. It was very obvious, and hurt my opinion of her as a researcher, and by extension, her research. So, while I overall agree with her conclusions, I think she really needs to take a look at the way this book is constructed and what it says about her own biases.

Question for class: In what ways does Martin seem to reify the categories of gender and race even as she criticizes them?