Language and Gender Studies

Language and Gender Studies

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Language and gender is an interdisciplinary field of research that studies varieties of speech (and, to a lesser extent, writing) in terms of gender, gender relations, gendered practices, and sexuality.

  • In The Handbook of Language and Gender (2003), Janet Holmes and Miriam Meyerhoff discuss the shift that has occurred in the field since the early 1970s--a movement away from "essentialist and dichotomous conceptions of gender to a differentiated, contextualized, and performative model which questions generalized claims about gender."

What Are Language and Gender Studies?

  • "Regarding gender, extensive research on language, culture, and identity has sought to uncover 'the logic of the encoding of sex differences in languages,' to analyze the 'oppressive implications of ordinary speech,' to explain miscommunication between men and women, to explore how 'gender is constructed and interacts with other identities,' and to investigate 'the role of language in helping establish gender identity as part of a broader range of processes through which membership in particular groups is activated, imposed, and sometimes contested through the use of linguistic forms… that activate stances' (Alessandro Duranti 2009: 30-31). Other work explores how language is used to reproduce, naturalize, and contest gender ideologies, drawing from many disciplinary perspectives… Critical discourse, narrative, metaphor, and rhetorical analysis have been used to examine other gendered dimensions of processes of meaning making, such as gender bias in cell biology (Beldecos et al. 1988) and factory farm industry language used to conceal violence (Glenn 2004)."
    (Christine Mallinson and Tyler Kendall, "Interdisciplinary Approaches." The Oxford Handbook of Sociolinguistics, ed. by Robert Bayley, Richard Cameron, and Ceil Lucas. Oxford University Press, 2013)

Doing Gender

  • "We act out gender roles from a continuum of masculine and feminine characteristics; we are therefore gendered and we are involved in the process of our own gendering and the gendering of others throughout our lives. In the field of gender and language use, this performance of gender is referred to as 'doing gender.' In many ways we are rehearsed into our gender roles, like being prepared for a part in a play: gender is something we do, not something we are (Bergvall, 1999; Butler, 1990). Over our lives and particularly in our early formative years, we are conditioned, prompted and prodded to behave in acceptable ways so that our gender, and our community's acceptance of it, aligns with our ascribed sex. "Some scholars in the field question the distinction that sex is a biological property and gender is a cultural construct, and both terms continue to be contested… "
  • (Allyson Julé, A Beginner's Guide to Language and Gender. Multilingual Matters, 2008)

The Dangers of Abstraction

  • "Our diagnosis is that gender and language studies suffer from the same problem as that confronting sociolinguistics and psycholinguistics more generally: too much abstraction. Abstracting gender and language from the social practices that produce their particular forms in given communities often obscures and sometimes distorts the ways they connect and how those connections are implicated in power relations, in social conflict, in the production and reproduction of values and plans. Too much abstraction is often symptomatic of too little theorizing: abstraction should not substitute for theorizing but be informed by and responsive to it. Theoretical insight into how language and gender interact requires a close look at social practices in which they are jointly produced." (Sally McConnell-Ginet, Gender, Sexuality, and Meaning: Linguistic Practice and Politics. Oxford University Press, 2011)

Background and Evolution of Language and Gender Studies

  • "In the United States during the late 1960s and early 1970s, women began to examine and critique societal practices that supported gender discrimination in consciousness-raising groups, in feminist cells, in rallies and media events (see Alice Echols, 1989, for a history of the women's movement in the United States). In the academy, women and a few sympathetic men started to examine the practices and methods of their disciplines, subjecting them to similar critiques for similar ends: the elimination of societal inequities based upon gender. The study of language and gender was initiated in 1975 by three books, the latter two of which have continued to significantly influence sociolinguistic work: Male/Female Language (Mary Ritchie Key), Language and Women's Place (Robin Lakoff), and Language and Sex: Difference and Dominance (Barrie Thorne and Nancy Hedley, Eds.)… Overly dichotomous ideas of gender pervade Western society in ways that must be challenged. Because, however, it is important that challenging exaggerated notions of difference does not simply result in women assimilating to male, or mainstream, norms, feminist scholars must simultaneously document and describe the value of attitudes and behaviors long considered 'feminine.' In doing so, feminist scholars challenge their exclusive association with women and point out their value for all people."
    (Rebecca Freeman and Bonnie McElhinny, "Language and Gender." Sociolinguistics and Language Teaching, ed. by Sandra Lee McKay and Nacy H. Hornberger. Cambridge University Press, 1996)
  • "In the first phase of language/gender research, Many of us were eager to piece together an overall portrayal of differences in the speech of women and men. We invented notions like 'genderlect' to provide overall characterizations of sex differences in speech (Kramer, 1974b; Thorne and Henley, 1975). The 'genderlect' portrayal now seems too abstract and overdrawn, implying that there are differences in the basic codes used by women and men, rather than variably occurring differences, and similarities."
    (Barrie Thorne, Cheris Kramarae, and Nancy Henley, 1983; quoted by Mary Crawford in Talking Difference: On Gender and Language. SAGE, 1995)
  • "Interactional sociolinguistics IS serves as one of many theoretical orientations that have been drawn on to investigate gender and communication. The pioneering study of Maltz and Borker (1982) provided a starting point for Deborah Tannen's (1990, 1994, 1996, 1999) writing on language and gender in which Tannen investigates interactions between women and men as a kind of cross-cultural communication and firmly establishes IS as a useful approach to gendered interaction. Her general audience book You Just Don't Understand (Tannen, 1990) offers insights into everyday communication rituals of speakers of both genders. Much like Lakoff's (1975) Language and Women's Place, Tannen's work has fueled both academic and popular interest in the topic. In fact, language and gender research 'exploded' in the 1990s and continues to be a topic receiving a great deal of attention from researchers using various theoretical and methodological perspectives (Kendall and Tannen, 2001)."
    (Cynthia Gordon, "Gumperz and Interactional Sociolinguistics." The SAGE Handbook of Sociolinguistics, ed. by Ruth Wodak, Barbara Johnstone, and Paul Kerswill. SAGE, 2011)
  • "Language and gender studies have seen significant expansion to encompass sexual orientation, ethnicity and multilingualism, and, to some extent, class, involving analyses of spoken, written, and signed gendered identities."
    (Mary Talbot, Language and Gender, 2nd ed. Polity Press, 2010)

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