Social topologies (1/3). Tattoo interface

As objects of anthropological inquiry, a body, a house, and a territory each pose a similar set of questions in relation to notions of interiority/exteriority; identity/alterity; limit or boundary; and containment. The body, the house, and the territory “locate” these questions on different scales. I will address them through three case studies that overall take up Henri Lefebvre’s challenge to examine how spaces “interpenetrate one another.”[1] My purpose is to explore the relevance of using topology as a method of analysis in these three cases. At this stage in this exploration, for me, topology remains a tool that can help reformulate some anthropological questions.[2] Let me introduce this first text with some general considerations about the common conceptual framework that equally apply to the next two.

In anthropology, Edmund Leach[3] famously drew a parallel between kinship patterns that are reproduced in similar ways across different societies and topology as a geometry of elastic rubber sheeting. Such an analogy served him well in showing that the size, shape or distance between “things” (groups) is less significant than what holds them together: as in an elastic topological space, what matters is the way “things” are connected and the continuity of the relations thus established.

Topology is increasingly making an appearance across the social sciences and the humanities. Various attempts at making use of topology beyond the field of mathematics have turned to other topological figures such as the Klein bottle, the Möbius strip, a crushed handkerchief, or a fold.[4] A common characteristic of these attempts is the understanding that topology deals with the qualitative properties of shapes (geometrical structures) and studies their structural invariance under deformation. Mathematical objects are certainly quite distinct from those in social sciences, but a topological lens can help reveal how social phenomena exhibit a similar dynamic of continuity or constancy of relations in spite of change through space and time.

Moving away from dominant conceptualizations of bounded entities and other totalities and focusing instead on relations and forms of multiplicity and singularity, involves generating the possibility for new social geometries where it is relations that bind and exchanges that group. Such an approach is in keeping with anthropology’s attention to rules of connection or disconnection, and the processes through which those relations are reproduced, and yet continually changed or transformed. A topological imagination enables us to articulate various continuities and limits that are constitutive of the nesting of spaces: in other words, the emergent forms of the spatiality of life.

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The first case study deals with conceptualization of the (woman’s) body in relation to tattooing. It takes us to Southwest China, where Yunnan, Tibet, and Myanmar meet. There, among the Drung people, women’s facial tattoos are still a cultural icon today. However, women abandoned the practice of tattooing two generations ago. For Drung women, the facial tattoo (bāktūq) used to be a key element in a socialization process. Based on what I learned from elderly tattooed women, I wish to highlight how the tattooing process reveals the woman’s body as a cosmological assemblage in which diverse forces condense into an interplay between the outside and the inside.

The tattoo technique, as practiced by Drung women, contributed to their transition to womanhood by means of productive exchanges and influences. Tattoos were the mark of time (both physiological and social) and the mark of destiny, preparing women for when they become fertile. While the tattooing of Drung women was not an initiation rite in a conventional sense, it nevertheless constituted a prescribed and mandatory event for all girls prior to marriage, which contributed to their transformation.

Even before the nubile age, a form of reciprocal fashioning took place between women (or girls) via tattooing games (generally on their arms or legs); acts also effective in transmitting femininity. These trial runs on the arms or legs were a way of experimenting with the bodily experiences involved in the tattooing process (pain, bleeding, swelling, warmth…). The notion of play (agàl), often used to refer to these games, emphasizes a process rather than an event, as play is a modality of the transformation it triggers. Therefore, before having their face tattooed, girls had access—in a playful way—to a sort of “social puberty,” which served as a gradual transition. Following on from the playful trial runs performed by girls on their bodies, the facial tattoo is not in itself the acknowledgement of the menarche but the continuation of a transformative process. In other words, in its cumulative actions, tattooing as a process is comparable to an initiation that prepared a woman for marriage and her role as mother.[5]

Now, as a process of transformation through which a particular fashioning and transmission occur, tattooing involves more specifically an interplay between interiority and exteriority that is full of potentiality and danger.

Both—potentiality and danger—are explicit and particularly salient when the facial tattoo is performed. The power of the exclusively female tattoo artists—of the countless pricks and what they contribute to bringing about—is to reveal a power that is specific to women. In this process that “reveals” the fertile potential of a woman, there is also the potential danger for the tattooist of no longer seeing properly, of having her “eyes affected” (nēq-ma), that is, of her own fertility being reduced.

The tattooed face is coded by a multidimensional corporeal code in which the face is now a surface totally covered in prick holes (eyes). The woman who receives the tattoo manifests a potentiality, a power that threatens the other woman, the tattoo artist, who has enabled this transformation. To be more precise, it is like giving birth. The woman who attends childbirth runs the same risk: of having her eyes and vision affected. In both cases, therefore, the women who help with tattooing or giving birth are in contact with what is a manifestation of a potentially dangerous feminine power—often symbolized by the presence of blood and expressed through an analogy with the eye. They must be given compensation in kind (various typically feminine goods) in order to “wash [their] eyes.”

The gradual construction of feminine power revealed by the tattoo on Drung women’s faces seems to be inseparable from the transmission that takes place between women. It is a specifically feminine transmission and, as such, establishes a form of relatedness (continuity) that associates women with a generative capacity. The tattoos are vectors of womanhood whose effectiveness depends just as much on the cumulative aspect of preparatory play, the multiple pricks of the spine, as on what circulates between and through women: a stimulating flow of female generative properties that allow each individual to ensure her destiny whose collective goal is to perpetuate society. Each tattoo, seen through this relational lens, is a unique actualization but also a sign of belonging and relatedness, of what used to bind women together. This circulation and appropriation of a feminine generative power leads us to consider the body as the site of an intersubjective actualization and participation.

As Terence Turner[6] emphasized, the “social skin” is an interface more than a surface. The outside environment does not stop at the surface of the body, and individuals are not isolated within their own body but interlinked deep in their flesh by social relationships. As a result, a woman’s facial tattoo is an inside that presents the highest relativity—a fold of the outside, the exteriorization of the interior and simultaneously the interiorization of the exterior. As Alfred Gell put it: the tattoo reveals “an inside which comes from the outside, which has been applied externally prior to being absorbed into the interior.”[7] In our case, the face is the interface that mediates the process of the individuation of the woman through the permanence of the tattoo that is necessary to stabilize the generative force of life as socially reproductive. In sum, tattooing among Drung women relied on a strictly female lineality, a flow of similarity, which implies concomitantly an incorporation and an exteriorization, a process that in turn instantiated a differentiation in each woman by unveiling her generative value.


[1] Henri Lefebvre. 1991. The Production of Space. Oxford: Blackwell, p. 86.

[2] I have greatly benefited from discussions with Khashayar Beigi, Kamala Russell, and William Stafford at UC Berkeley where we started a Topology Working Group.

[3] See the introductory chapter in Edmund R. Leach, 1961. Rethinking Anthropology. New York: The Athlone Press.

[4] The various engagements with and discussions of topology in the social sciences are too numerous to be referenced here. This is a work in progress and a literature review goes beyond the scope and limits of this blog post.

[5] For a more detailed description, see Stéphane Gros, 2017. “Quand les femmes font corps. Le tatouage facial féminin chez les Drung du Yunnan.” In Le Battement de la vie. Le corps naturel et ses représentations en Chine, edited by Brigitte Baptandier. Nanterre: Société d’ethnologie, pp.163-187.

[6] Terence Terence. 2012 [1980]. “The social skin.” Hau: Journal of Ethnographic Theory 2 (2): 486-504.

[7] Alfred Gell. 1993. Wrapping in Images: Tattooing in Polynesia. London: Clarendon Press, p. 38.


Stéphane Gros

Stéphane Gros is a social anthropologist at the CNRS (France), Centre for Himalayan Studies. He is the author of a monograph on the Drung of Northwest Yunnan province in China (La Part manquante, 2012), and has written numerous articles and book chapters on issues of interethnic relations and representations of ethnic minorities, poverty and categorization, as well as rituals and cosmology. He has edited or co-edited four collections of relevance to ethnographic theory, Chinese studies, and area studies. For 2012-2016, he was the Principal Investigator for a collaborative project titled "Territories, Communities, and Exchanges in the Kham Sino-Tibetan Borderlands", funded by a ERC (European Research Council) Starting Grant. More recently, his personal research investigates aspects of kinship and social organization, conversion to Christianity, as well as heritage politics and environmental discourses. He is currently a visiting scholar at the University of California, Berkeley.

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