March 27, 2013
Name: Nabiella Syifarani
Language and Gender (also known as ‘Gender and Language’ or ‘Feminist Linguistics’) is a relatively new field within sociolinguistics. Ethnographically, linguists keen to gather authentic data to explore and explain folk-linguistic beliefs that males and females speak and act differently. Ideologically, language and gender scholars aimed to show that language – both in use and as a form of representation – was a primary means of constructing gender differences, and at times hierarchies and inequalities between men and women.
– History of the area
Most language and gender research on use assumes a ‘sex-preferential’ perspective – a male/ female preference for using different forms of the same language. Classic variationist studies looked for evidence of sex-preferential speech in large-scale Interactional studies
The field of language and gender is most strongly associated today with a range of ‘interactional’ studies, which focus on the distinctively gendered ways in which people interact in various social and professional contexts. Three early but still highly influential theories (deficit, dominance, difference).
Lakoff’s (1975) ‘deficit’ theory posited that from an early age, girls are taught how to use a separate ‘woman’s language’: they are socialized to use language in a ‘ladylike’ way.
Lakoff’s (1975) thesis that women constructed their own subordination through their language use was a forerunner of ‘dominance’ theory. This had two distinct, parallel branches: language as social interaction, which considered how gender inequalities were constructed through routine interactions between men and women, and language as a system focusing on ‘sexism’ within the language.
Cultural difference theory
The contrasting conversational goals corresponded to differently gendered speech ‘styles’, whereby ‘women speak and hear a language of connection and intimacy, while men speak and hear a language of status and independence’ (Tannen 1990: 42). So, Coates (1988) argued that women’s talk should be ‘re-valued’ in much more positive ways by feminist linguists as different but equal, as complementary to men’s, not deficient.
– Main current issues
Social constructionism and the ‘post-modern turn’
According to the social constructionist theory, individuals don’t have gender, they do gender through repeated behavioral and linguistic interactions. This post-modern perspective argues that males and females do not have an individual essence, character or ‘core’. Any apparent characteristics are the effects we produce by way of particular things we do. Language is not just a medium to convey social life and interactions, but an essential, constitutive factor. So particular uses of language become culturally associated with masculinity and femininity; they become symbolically gendered or ‘index’ a gendered identity, rather than being the property or attributes of males and females.
Gender and sexuality
Sexuality is perceived as fluid, multi-faceted and a form of desire/identity that is constructed and performed through speech and behavior, and not simply determined by the sex of people’s bodies at birth or by early socialization.
A social constructionist perspective allows theorists to contest the culturally dominant association of (for example) same-sex preference with gender deviance because it transgresses the traditional gender dichotomy, and to reframe this as an investigation of alternative, hybrid, and exploratory identities and practices.
The salience of gender
A social constructionist approach does not lead logically to the demise of the field if it is extended to consider the construction and representation of gender and sexuality in text and discourse. Here, the notion of relevance, the idea that gender becomes relevant in some contexts but less so in others, is an important theme across both local and global perspectives.
– Future trajectory and new debates
The new debates are emerging within language and gender literature which are mentioned here are: the rise of biological essentialism, an extended role for communities of practice, and exploiting the plurality of research methodologies.
The first is the possible challenge posed by a resurgence of biological explanations of gender, spearheaded by the Darwinist science of evolutionary psychology. One of the discourses of biological essentialism is that women are ‘hard-wired’ to have more advanced verbal and linguistic abilities whereas men have more sophisticated spatial and mathematical skills.
A second new direction in the field is a proposal to extend the well-established concept of ‘communities of practice’ (within language and gender research in order to enable an ‘articulation between the local, the extra-local and the global’). According to the CofP concept, social practice emphasizing the social significance of what people do, goes well beyond simple individual acts or conversations (as studied by conversation analysis) to socially regulated, repeated and interpreted collaborative doings. On the other hand, Eckert and McConnell-Ginet (2007: 35) argue that it is unreasonable to expect single researchers always to link their study of specific communities of practice to global or ideological patterns, they propose that a unified interdisciplinary research community ‘can keep its collective eye on those connections’.
This interdisciplinary note, as a third new direction for language and gender, concerns the wide range of research methodologies through which the discipline is currently investigated. Here, research methodologies are not simply instrumental, but are conceptually driven with specific theoretical and epistemological imperatives.