Triumph over Western Gender Dichotomy

Māhū: Triumph over Western Gender Dichotomy

      The understanding of gender is in itself, a Western construction based on a dichotomous gender binary system that includes the separation of gender and sex. Gender varies from society to society and its conceptualization can change. In the notable documentary, Kuma Hina, a self-identified mahu and transgender women is portrayed. Her prominent position in her Hawaiian community as a kanaka maoli activist acknowledges her identity as both a cultural practitioner for the mahu identity for kanaka and the rest of the world. In traditional Hawaiian culture, mahu were able to exist and did not reflect an oppressive binary gender identity falling outside of gender expectations. In Western culture, where gender is dichotomous, mahu are not recognized as a gender binary and are bound with other transgender identities from other cultures. Although Hawaii became a Westernized state, the kanaka were forced to adapt to Western structural changes to maintain sovereign legitimacy against Western hegemonic powers. Through Western contact and settler colonialism, the kanaka sense of gender identity and sexuality today is influenced not only by the conceptualization of gender and sexuality in a post-colonial society, but also by the infliction of Western cultural values that prescribe what is masculine and feminine.

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           The documentary highlights various scenes with Hina’s experience as a mahu within her role as an instructor for a dance performance. One scene in particular captures Kuma’s true spirit of dignity and pride as a mahu in her position as a teacher. One of her students, Ho’onani, is a young girl in sixth grade, who Kuma Hina describes as a “middle person”, is getting ready to lead a traditional Hawaiian chant with a group of boys. This act of leadership by Ho’onani gives Kuma Hina great pride and reminds her that when she was young, the “middle people” did not always get the same respect as she did now. Hina did not get the same respect for her mahu identity while she was growing up.  Prior to Western contact, Hawaiian society embraced mahu as “healers, visionaries, spiritual leaders, mediators, teachers, and guides (Towle and Morgan 673). But colonization and Christianity led to many changes, including turning mahu from an honorific to a derogatory term.

     From an anthropological lens, Towle and Morgan argue that gender has become too Westernized and is stuck in a primordial past where “hatred of sex and gender variation is not rooted in human nature” (Towle and Morgan 675).  According to kanaka culture today and the documentary, mahu are alive and well. Previous generations of kanaka learned to understand the mahu identity through a Western model of knowledge.  While kanaka culture recognizes the mahu identity as “sexual practices rather than internalized gender identities” (Towle and Morgan 674), the Western framework of gender has failed to view other culture’s notions of gender as different and unique to that culture. Transphobia is a White Supremacist legacy of colonialism which acts as a barrier to access full understanding of non-Western gender identities. As such, the full understanding of the mahu identity was inaccessible because it is a concept only accessible through a kanaka framework.

         Since gender is determined by socially constructed characteristics of what is masculine and feminine, each society differs in its perception of what constitutes masculine or feminine characteristics. In ancient societies like Hawaii, transgender individuals were valued as special beings, given special roles as healers, spiritual leaders, teachers, and guides. However, as Hawaii has transformed into a state “where mass tourism thrives on the commercialization of every aspect of Hawaiian culture” (Trask 42), the dome of Western influence has dominated the true understanding of mahu identity. The invasive nature of Western gender dichotomy has become deeply entrenched in Hawaiian culture so that “ancient history lives in the contemporary lives of non-Western peoples” (Towle and Morgan 675).  This questions the fact that it is not society itself that is changing how transgender individuals are seen. Rather, it is the evil of cultural imperialism that is shaping how Western culture views gender and sexuality, implying that there is a “single pancultural genealogy from which all humans evolved” (Towle and Morgan 675). The presence of cultural imperialism in Hawaii and Kuma Hina is evidenced by American influence on gender conceptualization, gender norms, gender performance, and gendered interactions in contemporary kānaka maoli culture that differs from its traditional understanding.

       Another character that appeared in Kumu Hina was Hina’s husband, Hema. As an immigrant from Fiji and a newly married man, he worried about how others would perceive him, and that people would think he was homosexual since he married a mahu. Throughout the film, Hina struggles with her identity both as wife and mahu. During an argument, Hema speaks angrily to Hina, swearing and using derogatory names when he finds Hina on the phone with a male friend and gets jealous. Hina portrays a more submissive role during arguments with Hema, questioning her role as a mahu and as a self-identified trans woman. Hina’s husband’s Tongan origins presents an interesting dynamic to his marriage with a mahu; his life as an “outsider” shapes his understanding of how a Western marriage should be. The presence of mahu could not fit into the Western construction of the nuclear family and resulted in the exclusion of mahu in the framework of society.

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   Towle and Morgan critique this notion of “West versus the Rest” through the understanding that non-Western gender systems have “have the unfortunate effect of essentializing other cultures and keeping us from examining other conditions of possibility” (Towle and Morgan 680). Therefore, Hema’s personal interpretation of mahu comes from his non-Westernized understanding of marriage and applies it to what he believes as “Western”. Tongan culture is tied to Christian origins, which may have influenced Hema’s idealization of marriage.  Though their marriage is not a normal heterosexual marriage, Hema applies his understanding to their marriage and thus, does not see his marriage in context with the new culture he has become a part of. This is seen through the portrayal of gender norms, such as how Hema believes how Hina should act because she is his wife. The Western understanding of transgender identity is    “the descendent of the cross-cultural examples and is the standard bearer for worldwide transgenderism” (Towle and Morgan 680). This implies that because of Hema’s Tongan roots, his understanding of trans identity is poisoned with a Western understanding rather than within the context of the kanaka cultural conditions. With their unique marital situation out of context, mahu becomes “over westernized” and distorts the complexity of gender identification that is present in kanaka culture and Hina’s life.

  The active demonstration of Western gender dichotomy resistance is undoubtedly represented in Kuma Hina through the presence of practicing traditional kanaka culture and preserving the native understanding of mahu identity. Although Western colonialism is forever imbedded in Hawaiian culture, the constituency of Hawaiian natives still work to preserve pre-colonial gender identities such as the mahu and to resist the repressive nature of “third gender” definitions from the Western framework. The reclaiming of ancient kanaka culture is exercised through Hina’s identity as a mahu, which is a conscious act of foundational respect for gender dynamics in a non-Western society. In order to draw away from the ignorant practices of “recreating the worlds of other cultures to suit our own intentions” (Towle and Morgan 681), the West must begin to view the contexts of gender within specific cultural settings.


Towle, Evan B. and M. Lynn Morgan . “Romancing the Transgender Native .” The Transgender Studies Reader (2006 ): 666-682.

Trask, Haunani- Kay. “Politics in the Pacific Islands: Imperialism and Native Self Determination.” From A Native Daughter: Colonialism and Sovereignty in Hawaii (n.d.).

Dichotomy between Politics and Public Administration

The argument about the dichotomy between politics and public administration has been around for so many years. Although many scholars have made efforts to state their thesis for why or why not politics and administration should be distinct from each other, there has not been a universal consensus on the topic. Looking critically at both sides of the argument, those who support that the two should be distinct, claim that it will ensure an efficient, effective and neutral bureaucracy. However, the extent of such distinction had not been clearly stated. The other group who argue that the two disciplines should not be separated rest their thesis on the interconnection between politics and administration. To them, politics and administration are complementary. One writer summarizes the two theories; first, those who think “politics and administration are (and should be) distinct but interconnected and second, those who think politics and administration are (and should be) interconnected but distinct” (Overeem, 2006, p5).

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Let us look at some simple definitions. Politics itself lacks a clear-cut definition. The concept has been used synonymously with government. Thus politics refers to what governments do. In this regard Easton’s definition is most appropriate; “politics is the authoritative allocation of values in society” (Easton, 1953). Here politics refers to the formulation of policies as to who is to get what portion of societal resources, at what time and how. It is what political leaders are actually elected to do (making decisions that are binding on the people).
Simply defined, public administration refers to the activities of the administrative (bureaucratic) agencies of government that actually implement policies and programs. Notably, government policies become laws and these laws provide for the creation of administrative agencies with the primary mandate to implement these policy programs. This definition makes no attempt to provide a comprehensive description of public administration but is relevant for the purposes of this discussion. Moreover, it is obvious that the above definitions show a clear linkage between the two concepts.
The paper is an exposition of the politics/administration dichotomy theory and how this affects the effective and efficient operation of federal agencies. It seeks to assess how relevant the concept is in today’s agency operations by first establishing its origin and the prevailing school of thoughts. To cogently present the thesis of the paper, I begin with a brief discussion on the emergence of the politics/administration dichotomy, specifically assessing the two schools of thoughts both for and against the theory. After that, an effort is made to make a direct linkage to the implications of the theory in agencies operation by employing a few selected agencies namely; the Social Security Administration (SSA), Government Accountability Office (GAO) and the Department of Labor (DOL).
Emergence of the Politics/Administration Dichotomy
To a large extent, the argument about politics and administration dichotomy could be traced to the founding fathers (Woodrow Wilson and Frank Goodnow) of public administration and more specifically to the reforms during the progressive era. “While not rejecting politics per se, the public administration reformers of this era sought better government by expanding administrative functions (planning, analyzing), keeping them distinct from political functions (deciding). The politics/administration dichotomy emerged as a conceptual origination whereby the world of government was to be divided into two functional areas ─ one administrative, one political” (Cox, Buck, Morgan, 1994 p6).
During this period, it was thought that the expansion of administrative practice was necessary to improve government operation. Thus the reforms in the Civil Service that sought to replace patronage appointment with appointment on the basis of merit, was a good example of how to manage the work of government effectively and efficiently. Moreover, as Cox, Buck, and Morgan recognized, “the use of independent regulatory agencies, such as the Interstate Commerce Commission, was to bring to bear the expertise and knowledge of civil servants to quickly, factually, and knowledgeably (neutrally) make decisions that would be beyond the ken of political bosses”.
In his writing, ‘The study of Administration’, Woodrow Wilson tried to promote public administration by outlining a distinction between politics and administration. According to him a science of administration would make government more businesslike and cleanse its organization. He stated that administration is a field of business that is removed from the “hurry and strife of politics”. To him, administrative questions are discrete from political questions because political questions are policy questions, whereas public administration is the “detailed and systematic execution of public law” (Wilson, 1968).
In his book, “Politics and Administration”, Frank Goodnow was very much concerned about the negative effects of the spoil system on government administration. He recognized that the spoil system impaired administrative efficiency and was a threat to democratic government. Goodnow rejected party (political) control over administration as the best way to harmonize the expression of the popular will. According to Goodnow, certain areas of administration should be isolated from politics. These include the administration of justice; technical, scientific information gathering; as well as purely administrative management issues. These functions should be performed by politically neutral, tenured and competent individuals who are to act in a semi-scientific, quasi-judicial, and quasi-businesslike fashion (Goodnow, 1967).
The central argument of Wilson and Goodnow was that politics and patronage threatened the efficiency of administration and that, in general, administrative and political questions were and should be distinct. The former should be addressed by technically competent civil servants insulated from politics. In 21st century, Overeem is recognized as one of the advocates of the dichotomy, which is most evident in his writings.
Dwight Waldo is usually cited as one of the writers who disputed the politics/administration dichotomy. His idea akin to scholars of his time was partly informed by the experience from a crisis decision-making atmosphere that characterized the federal government during the World War II period. Thus to the writers of that period the rigid delineation of a distinction between politics and administration was impractical.
In contemporary times, Svara has also attempted to point out the complexity in the political-administrative relations and the limits of the dichotomy concept. According to him, the dichotomy theory obscures more than it illuminates the relationship between politics and administration. For instance, he accuses Overeem for overstating the argument put forward by Goodnow, Wilson and Weber. Svara notes that the traditional arguments for a distinction between politics and administration upon which Overeem based his thesis do not match the restricted role implied by a dichotomy. To him Goodnow, Wilson and Weber also had in mind an interconnection and the need for harmony between the two (Svara, 2006).
Having assessed the two schools of thought, one could argue that both extremes should not be desirable. One is also tempted to question the usage of the word ‘dichotomy’ because in its rightful application the word implies a total separation of politics and administration which is actually unattainable. Politics and administration do overlap as our earlier definition makes it clear that administration begins where politics ends. The earlier reformers sought to put an end to the spoil system that undermined the core principles of managerial efficiency and effectiveness and this was achieved through the Civil Service Reform Act of 1883 (Pendleton Act), which established the merit system and also marked the beginning of today’s Civil Service Commission. They did not advocate for a total separation between politics and administration.
Implication of the dichotomy theory for agencies operation
At this appoint an effort is made to compare the implications of the dichotomy theory on the structure and operation of the following federal agencies; Social Security Administration (SSA), Government Accountability Office (GAO) and the Department of Labor (DOL).
All the three agencies have some things in common with respect to their organizational structure and the staff composition. In each of the agencies a percent of the personnel positions are reserved for presidential (political) appointment whiles the other percent comprise of career service personnel and temporary employees. Thus the staff composition of the three agencies portrays the harmony that exists between politics and administration, which support the thesis that the two are practically inseparable.
SSA and GAO are both independent agencies. However this does not suggest that the two are insulated from every influence of politics- political leaders. A specialized agency like the GAO needs much discretion and authority to effectively deliver on its mission, and could only do that when to a reasonable degree its activities are protected from the sudden changes in the political arms of government. Thus the situation where the Comptroller General of the GAO and the Commissioner of the SSA serve fixed tenures not at the pleasure of the President who appoints them is necessary for continuity. Ones a change in party government is not the end of tenure, they can achieve their program objectives before leaving office.
Again, it is worth noting the activities of these independent agencies are sometimes influenced by decisions of the President or Congress. A case in point, during interactions with the staff at the SSA, it was noted that there were instances when the federal government spent funds in the SSA trust fund. Moreover, GAO activities could be drastically influenced by Congressional mandates.
Lastly, the current situation at the Department of Labor where the Secretary’s position is vacant is affecting the agency in a way that makes the strictest argument for the politics/administration dichotomy unfounded. The absence of the Presidential appointee brings with it a lack of policy direction in the agency. The political leader (appointee) of the agency is a direct link between the agency and the political arm of government. He/she understands the policies of the President and sees to it that the agency work is geared toward the accomplishment of these policies to improve the lives of Americans.
In conclusion, although this paper might be limited in literature review, the point made is that politics and administration should be seen as very interconnected. It is worth reiterating that, public administration is as old as government itself and constitutes an integral part of government without which government cannot function properly. Just as the structure of governments has changed over the years, the structure and role of public administration have also changes dramatically. Moreover, it is important to state that public administration has grown from its traditional role of merely implementing policies adopted by the “political” branches of government to playing very significant role in the formation of public policies. This is more evident by the professional expertise bureaucratic officials provide during problem identification, agenda setting, policy formulation, and evaluation that shape the content of public policy.