Theoretical Debates in the Study of Language and Gender

Most people, when they think of work on language and gender, probably think of works like linguist Deborah Tannen's You Just Don't Understand or perhaps even psychologist John Gray's Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus—studies of "miscommunications" between women and men in heterosexual couples. Indeed, early studies of gender by academics often assumed that gender was most salient "in cross-sex interaction between potentially sexually accessible interlocutors, or same-sex interaction in gender-specific tasks" (Brown & Levinson, 1983, p. 53). Despite an increasing number of different approaches, in studies of language and gender in the North Atlantic this focus remains influential and, at its best, insightful (e.g., Fishman, 1983; Gleason, 1987; Tannen, 1990; West & Zimmerman, 1983; Zimmerman & West, 1975).

However, there are, a number of increasingly controversial theoretical assumptions about gender often implicitly embedded in this approach, including the notions that the study of gender is closely wedded to the study of heterosexual relations, that gender is an attribute rather than a practice, and that the study of gender is the study of individuals (McElhinny, 2003; Thorne, 1990). These assumptions are often highlighted in work done outside North America or with subordinate groups in North America. Studying gender in heterosexual dyads can suggest that "gendered talk is mainly a personal characteristic or limited to the institution of the family" (Gal, 1991, p. 185). A focus on interactions between heterosexual romantic partners assumes rather than investigates the relationship between sexuality and gender, and also prejudges which gendered dyads are central to the elaboration of gender in a given locale. It also draws attention away from the importance of studying the ways that gender is a structural principle organizing social institutions such as workplaces, schools, courts, and the state, and the patterns they display in the recruitment, treatment, and mobility of different men and women (Gal, 1991).

Increasingly, linguistic studies of gender adopt a practice approach. To suggest that gender is something one continually does is to challenge the idea that gender is something one has. A variety of metaphors have arisen to capture this idea: gender as activity, gender as performance, gender as accomplishment (Butler, 1990; Eckert & McConnell-Ginet, 1992; Goodwin, 1990; West & Fenstermaker, 1993). They participate in a wider move within linguistic and sociocultural anthropology since the mid-1970s to use practice-based models (Abu-Lughod, 1991; Hanks, 1990; Ochs, 1996; Ortner, 1984, 1996). Practice theory reacts against structural-determinist social theories (e.g., British-American structural-functionalism, determinist strands of Marxism, and French structuralism) that did not incorporate a sufficient sense of how human actions make structure. A focus on activities suggests that individuals have access to different activities, and thus to different cultures and different social identities, including a range of different genders. We discover that:

stereotypes about women's speech ... fall apart when talk in a range of activities is examined; in order to construct social personae appropriate to the events of the moment, the same individuals [will] articulate talk and gender differently as they move from one activity to another. (Goodwin, 1990, p. 9)

Crucial to note here is that it is not just talk which varies across context, a point long familiar in sociolinguistics. Gender identity also varies across context. Language and gender covary.

However, adopting such a practice-based approach does not always challenge approaches which focus largely on gender in individuals. Thus linguistic anthropologists have recently begun to develop more carefully an approach to gender which considers it as a principle for allocating access to resources. Gender, like class and racialized ethnicity, nationality, age, and sexuality, is an axis for the organization of inequality, though the way each of these axes work may have their own distinctive features (Scott, 1986, p. 1054). Such work considers the role that language and gender together play in political economy, defined here as as:

resource allocation in the sense, for example, of control over goods. Political economy involves the generic economic processes of the production, distribution and consumption of goods, including "non-material" ones, and the patterns and culture of power that control or influence these processes. (Friedrich, 1989)

Coupling studies of practice and political economy means that sociolinguists and linguistic anthropologists who study gender are no longer simply asking how language and gender affects politics, but instead are asking how notions of language or of gender are produced through theories and practices of politics. Notions of politics are also approached in a more nuanced way, moving beyond earlier debates about whether to understand gender as a product of difference or dominance (for reviews see Talbot, 1998; Uchida, 1992) to understanding gender as it is imbricated in complex historical, political, and economic circumstances.

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