Linguistik online 2, 1/99

An Agenda for Language and Gender Research
for the Start of the New Millennium *

Victoria L. Bergvall
Michigan Technological University

1  O, Brave New World?

The ticking away of clocks towards a new millennium provokes this consideration of some of the ways in which the last quarter century of work on language and gender (L&G) will challenge the work of researchers in years ahead. Although in California's Silicon Valley, a "new generation" of computers appears now every eighteen months and renders the previous hardware obsolete or at least obsolescent, the compression of "generations" of L&G work has been less rapid, and the new theories do not similarly supersede previous perspectives. Issues of deficit, dominance, difference, and diversity in gendered language use and its research will persist into the "brave new world" of the next century. In this essay, I will consider three "timely" millennial issues where L&G researchers may play critical roles: first, exposing the faulty logic in sociobiologists' assertions of past influences in the explanations of present difference; second, challenging present imperialist tendencies in the use of English (and in Anglo-American scholarship) that echo the past role of Latin; and third, assessing the communicative possibilities and problems in present and future exercises of language and gender in cyberspace.

This essay will, of necessity, be a limited contribution to the huge task of sketching the set of questions and issues we must address as we enter the new millennium. I must also note that even to frame the issues this way risks transgressing one of the principles that I will mention below: to be aware of the cross-cultural variations among societies that we haven't yet considered deeply, and to avoid imperialistic impositions of western categories upon the gender patterns we see arising. To employ a western millennial perspective while other societies use other calendrical systems is thus perhaps ironic, but I hope to take advantage of the re-evaluative unease that seems to accompany the advance of time toward all those abstract round numbers to provoke a consideration of who we are and what we have done in L&G research, hoping that the questions and directions posed herein might be fruitful not only for western L&G researchers, but for others as well.

2 Past: Millennial Arguments

That the general public knows anything of L&G research may be attributed in part to the best-selling popularity of Deborah Tannen's (1990) You Just Don't Understand: Women and Men in Conversation, with its focus on differences between the use of language by women and by men. However, the praises heaped on the book and Tannen by the public have contrasted sharply with the assessments of some L&G researchers (see, e.g., de Francisco 1991, Troemel-Ploetz 1991, Freed 1992, Uchida 1992), who criticize its lack of attention to power and too brief attention to cross-cultural variation. Despite these critiques, the book is still frequently recommended as an accessible initiation to the study of L&G (see, e.g., a recent exchange on FLING, an electronic listserve for discussions of feminist linguistics, FLING digests #197, Dec. 1997, and #200, Jan. 1998).

Two problems with that recommendation are relevant to this paper. One point, which I will take up again below, has to do with the broad strokes with which Tannen paints the behavior of "women" and "men": her popular account of the complex issues of gendered language variation largely ignored cultural variation within those categories (despite her brief demurrals, e.g., pp. 16, 201-202). The second problem arises from first but takes a different direction: although Tannen does qualify her analysis of gender differences as being socially constructed and variable within the groups of women and men (especially later; see, e.g., Tannen 1993b, 1994a,b, c), the further popular citation of her work often strips these important qualifiers away, leaving broad generalizations about how "women"versus "men" speak. Thus, her work has been cited to buttress analyses of gender difference that are biologically essentialist: that is, "women" and "men" speak different languages because their brains evolved that way over the many millennia of human development (see Bergvall 1996 for further discussion of this issue).

For example, John Gray's popular books, starting with Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus, implicitly evoke this "past millennia" argument of the origins of difference as he explains how women and men seem to end up speaking as aliens from different planets: although his male "Martians" evolve to invent space travel to get to the female "Venusians," these men revert to Stone-Age behavior by retreating to their "caves" when confronted with women's "different" communication needs (e.g., Gray 1992, Chap. 3).

Sociobiologists and their popularizers also cite Tannen as evidence to support their explanations of gender differences in language processing in the brain (e.g., Moir and Jessel 1989, Joseph 1992, Nadeau 1996). As the story is usually constructed, women gathered and men hunted; thus, women's brains evolved the capacity to chat and gossip about relationships as they tended children and crops, while men's brains evolved to use language instrumentally, to plan and execute hunts at a distance from the home cave and each other.

These sociobiologist explanations seem difficult to refute at first: they create an apparently plausible account, with a scientific veneer, for the much-cited differences in female and male brains and behavior. However, other researchers argue that any difference is greatly over-interpreted (see, e.g., critiques by Lewontin, Rose, and Kamin 1984; Fausto-Sterling 1992; Bergvall 1996; Bing and Bergvall 1996; Blum 1997). In fact, these putative evolutionary neurological and psychological histories can only be indirectly inferred from present day studies of the brain, for where are the fossilized brains by which we might empirically test or trace this evolution? Where are the prehistoric control groups to compare variation? On what grounds are their hypotheses falsifiable?

More critically, the sociobiologists cannot account in any natural way for how modern humans might have so rapidly acquired any capacity for seeing life any differently (much faster than the natural processes of evolution).

If we are so controlled by our biologically imprinted history, how can we explain this century's massive influx of women into jobs and professions held, until so recently, almost exclusively by men? And how do such biological explanations account for the massive overlap and similarities in conversational practices and in the biological structures of the brain across the genders, or the great variation within genders?

The further exploration of the interactions between biology, evolution, and the human history of gender in language variation - as well as the thorough analysis and critique of their underlying assumptions and interpretations - thus stands as a critical domain for future research.

3 Present: Linguistic imperialism and cross-cultural explorations of gender

The popularity of Tannen's book also contributes to another problem in L&G research (noted above): the book attributes communication problems to gender differences between "women" and "men" socially constructed as separate groups, fairly undifferentiated within each group (Maltz and Borker 1982; but see, e.g., Henley and Kramarae 1991). It thus directs little attention to the great degrees of variation possible both within and outside the fairly narrow circle of the white, middle-class, North American society it attempts to characterize. With such a popular book providing perhaps the most widely accessible account of gender differences, there is danger that those new to the study of L&G (or those with little time to delve further into the field) may take this viewpoint to be representative not only of Americans (and American L&G researchers) in general, but also of L&G practices all over the world. Other L&G researchers offer quite different perspectives: as we look in greater detail at various communities of practice (Lave and Wenger 1991; Eckert & McConnell-Ginet 1992a, b, 1995, forthcoming; Wenger 1998) across a wide range of social groups, we find evidence of greater variation, not the simple model of basic gender difference suggested by Tannen's book. See, for example, Keenan's (1974) analysis of women as confrontational "norm-breakers" in Malagasy; Okamoto's (1995) discussion of changes to traditional Japanese gendered language patterns; Hall and O'Donovan's (1996) analysis of the challenges to the binary model posed by the hijras in India, called the "third sex"; and Bornstein's (1995, 1998) accounts of the many people living multiply transgendered variations, both physical and linguistic; these are just a small set of examples not easily accommodated with a model of dualized gender difference, where "women" are cast as cooperative vs. "men" as competitive.

There is a concern that readers and researchers in other cultures not begin their research viewing variation around them using the single lens of this one perspective of "difference," rather than opening themselves up to a greater variety of possible interpretations (e.g., diversity along a continuum of gender practices, e.g., Bing and Bergvall 1996) and thus miss other critical issues such as dominance and power. In short, the imposition of such a frame - or any single frame - upon the range of possible variations risks asserting a type of western linguistic imperialism. In fact, Tannen's book is just one part of a large and ever-widening stream of L&G research, a rapidly growing research tradition, but one still dominated by Anglo-American researchers who still, too often, draw conclusions about "gender" based on their experiences and observations of the familiar part of the world around them. With so many of our notions of gender arising from studies of western cultures, we risk saturating L&G interpretations with middle-class-white-Anglo-American attributes.

It is difficult, for many reasons, to break out of these bonds of parochialism: good work on gender outside one's own culture or group requires special sensitization to the gender lenses we carry with us, and is not entered into lightly. Though I was trained to do "linguistic fieldwork" and spend nine months doing so in Kenya, my training focused on the formal aspects of syntactic, morphological, or phonological structures, and didn't even begin to consider cross-cultural ethnographic variations. In doing L&G research as a naive outsider, I risked imposing upon other cultures the frameworks and expectations I carried with me from my own background. While outsiders can bring fresh perspectives to a research site, and perhaps discern patterns not clear to those so enmeshed within them, it is also very possible that they might misinterpret the patterns and motivations of the speakers they observe.

Others with better ethnographic training have contributed significant classics to the study of cross-cultural L&G variation (e.g., Keenan 1974; Gal 1978; Brown 1980, 1993; Hill 1987; Ochs 1987, Sherzer 1987, Shibamoto 1987, Goodwin 1990); and there are important emerging studies expanding the range of social groups studied, both by those from outside and inside the social groups they study (e.g., Bucholtz 1995, 1996, 1997; Hall and O'Donovan 1996; Trechter 1996; Meyerhoff, forthcoming; see also, e.g., Galindo 1994, Kakava 1994, Morgan 1994, Mukama 1994, Wodak and Benke 1996, Pauwels 1998). It is a regrettable fact that if such research is to be done at all in many societies, it is often done by better-funded foreigners: as I learned in Kenya, there was little money within the country to allow the luxuries of "basic" (e.g., not immediately applied) research, as we understand it. Thus, ethnographers and anthropological linguists must continue to provide critical links to other cultures, all the while cognizant of their limitations and pre-occupations.

However they are studied, the voices from within these cultures are often filtered through the perceptions of western-trained, western-acculturated minds. Therefore, this is a plea for the development of more home-based perspectives, to encourage those who are actively living within these cultures to speak, write, and interpret for themselves. Of course, there is danger here as well, that these indigenous gender-ethnographers may still approach the study of gender with western-skewed lenses if they begin their observations after reading masses of research papers that problematize the study of gender in western ways. There is always the risk that the research questions taken into these new domains, such as those proposed by Holmes (1993) as potential universals to be explored, may shape what researchers look for - and then, not surprisingly, what they find (as warned against by Freed 1994, Bing and Bergvall 1996, Bergvall forthcoming). Using such questions as first guides may blind us to the possible new variations on gender that might be evident if we moved from the specifics of a society up towards the general, rather than the opposite, from potential universals down.

It would be truly regrettable if L&G research across diverse populations paralleled the history of Latin's influence on language categorization, which saw the application of unwieldy categories in naming grammatical features in European (and other) languages. This resulted in a form of linguistic imperialism that suppressed and misinterpreted rather than revealed variation.

When indigenous researchers do analyze their own linguistic cultures, they often face another problem in the presentation and publication of this new work. If not presented for evaluation and discussion at various national and international conferences (held - expensively - in cities often oceans removed from the research sites), who will hear of these new perspectives? If not phrased in the descriptive categories and theoretical terms framing the conversation in current western journals, who will recognize and publish this new research? If not published in English or other post-colonial languages, how widely will this new work be read? (See van Dijk 1997 for more discussion of this point.)

Yet what will discussion and publication in more widely understood foreign languages mean for the speakers of the languages from whom the data is drawn? How will publication in English reduce or affect the debates and understandings of these new(?) discussions of gender among those who are themselves engaged in these practices in their own cultures and countries? Who will be able to read and contest these new encodings, if not from within? Those working on endangered languages recognize that the culturally effacing or erasing forces of the linguistic imperialism of English are not abstract, but very real; thus, it is critical to observe and collect evidence of the full range of human variability, and to resist the onslaught of homogenization (the linguistic and social equivalent of McDonaldization).

Such linguistic imperialism, however unintended, presents L&G researchers with problems daunting in scale; yet there is some hope. The Berkeley Women and Language Conference is one place where a multiplicity of researchers and cultures are represented, and an ever-growing number of works outside America and England are being produced (though still, largely, in English, to capture the international audience.) (See, e.g., work by and cited in Kotthoff and Wodak 1997, Pauwels 1998). However, more diversity in representation is critically needed.

We need not even go so far afield to other cultures in reconsidering gender variation: there is a continuing paucity of studies of inter- and intra-gender variations only now being addressed (e.g., for "men's language" and masculinities by Johnson 1997; Kiesling 1997; Cameron 1997a), though so much of that work continues to be done by "outsiders," by women observing men's language. As long as that trend continues, "gender and language" research may continue to be viewed as "women and language" research, which, as Johnson (1997) and many others caution, risks casting "men's language" as the unquestioned norm against which "women's language" plays. This is the classic deficit analysis and "otherization" that L&G researchers so deride in Jespersen's (1922) view that the language of "The Woman" constitutes but one chapter in a book on Language.

Likewise, we are only just beginning to tap the variations within and across genders provided by examining the linguistic practices of lesbians, gay men, transsexuals, androgynes, and other transgendered people (e.g., Livia and Hall 1997, Remlinger 1997, Bornstein 1998), not to mention racial and ethnic variation, as well as class, etc. - all significant categories of analysis deserving more attention than I can afford them here.

As we seek to study L&G in these new domains, it is critical to evaluate how the findings of these new (and old) researchers critique or augment our current perspectives. Understanding the full possibilities of gender variation will demand the resources of an ever-expanding body of researchers who enter these exercises cognizant of the limitations of view that their training may impose, alive to the possibilities of variation outside the realm of what they have seen before.

4 Future: L&G in cyberspace - reinventing gender?

As the scope of the world contracts - helped in no small measure by new globe-spanning electronic media - the computer has become both a boon and bane. It may become a great tool for the relatively cost-effective publication of little-known details about previously unstudied cultures and gender variations (which assumes, of course, access to expensive technology - itself a problematic assumption). Yet it may be a tool for the linguistic imperialism noted above, as English continues to dominate the Internet and other international media as the language of exchange. In addition, the millennium presents its own paradox: a modern world dependent upon the massive power of computers faces a sudden, potentially globally crippling loss of power as the year 2000 approaches, due to a small but significant glitch of computer code written without full specification of the century in the dates of its documents.

Assuming that our computer-supported society survives intact into the next century, we face a continued expansion of this new computer-mediated domain of communication, which led initially to quite optimistic hopes for a new equal opportunity of expression. With Internet list-serves and chat rooms having discussion floors generally open to the "posting" of messages as long and often as one wanted, there should, in basic principle, be none of the jockeying for floorspace that led to interruptions and overlaps in face-to-face conversation, often blamed for the silencing of women's voices (e.g., Zimmerman and West 1975, Fishman 1983, West and Zimmerman 1983; but see also James and Clarke 1993).

However, new studies suggest that this opportunity is not everywhere fulfilled: Herring (1994) and Herring, Johnson, and DiBenedetto (1995) report that even where there may be equivalent access (when the many economic and other cultural restrictions on access to computers are themselves overcome), women and men do not engage on the floor in equal numbers or use equivalent linguistic strategies. They cite evidence from the analysis of different discussion groups that women's participation was less extensive than men's in proportion to the numbers of subscribers, and that when women did contribute a greater number of postings, the men on the relevant lists responded as if the women were speaking out of line. Supporting Spender's (1980) conclusion that when women's contributions exceeded 30%, they were viewed as excessively dominating the conversational floor, Herring, et al. point to the continuing difficulty of becoming equal partners on the conversational floor.

Another potentially liberatory effect touted for conversation on-line (e.g., by Cooper and Selfe 1990) was the possibility of anonymity: participants could be free to engage in conversation anonymously or pseudonymously, especially where there were few markers of gender or status in early on-line addresses or in chat-room character names. In the terms of one frequently cited cartoon, where one dog sits before a computer, paw to keyboard, commenting to another dog on the floor: "On the Internet, no one knows you are a dog."

Furthermore, as Danet (1996) reports, there are great opportunities for the (re)creation of gender possibilities in the on-line, synchronous, fantasy gaming sites known as MUDs (Multi-User Dungeons, based on the earlier Dungeons and Dragons games) and MOOs (Multi-user, Object Oriented sites). These forums provide anonymous chat spaces where players can choose from a multitude of given "genders" to present themselves via the characters they design (e.g., female, male, neuter, either, Spivak, splat, plural, egotistical, royal, second, person) - or design their own gender system. Bruckman (1993) concludes her discussion of "Gender Swapping on the Internet" by noting that "Gender swapping is an extreme example of a fundamental fact: the network is in the process of changing not just how we work, but how we think of ourselves, and ultimately, who we are" (Section 5, para. 2).

However, Curtis (1992) and others report that players in MOOs and MUDs who choose to present themselves as females are frequently either subjected to sexual harassment (just as "in real life," frequently abbreviated IRL) or offered unrequested "help," often, as Bruckman (1993) notes, with the gender-stereotypic expectation that women can't fend for themselves, or that such "help" will be repaid later by sexual favors. This problem is intensified by some males who choose to present themselves as females and do so quite flirtatiously, Curtis notes, "for the fun of deceiving others". Curtis continues, "[t]his is such a widely-noticed phenomenon, in fact, that one is advised by the common wisdom to assume that any flirtatious female-presenting players are, in real life, males" - probably adolescent males who are projecting how they wish women would talk to them (Section 2.1, Para. 7). Their language tends more towards a burlesque of the stereotypes about women (also noted by Hall 1996), something akin to the gender-stereotypic exaggerations constructed by the phone sex workers interviewed by Hall (1995). It is clear that, as participants reassert gender in such traditional dichotomized terms, the promises of a gender-neutral, equal opportunity domain in the new frontiers of cyberspace may be difficult to attain.

Thus, while the Internet seems to offer some intriguing new options to play with gender, much of this play is entrenched in and ruled by a male-dominated system of users. As Cameron (1997b) notes, in a critique of Judith Butler's (1990, 1993) work on performativity, this play with codes does little, by itself, to deconstruct the power bases out of which it arises: "Playing with the codes only keeps the codes in play. It is conceivable that the much-vaunted postmodern 'fluidity' of gender boundaries may function, at the level Susan Gal calls 'ideological-symbolic,' to cement particularly cultural constructions of gender even more firmly in place" (p. 32).

In fact, the potential for gender reconstruction via the Internet may not exist for long outside these fantasy gaming sites: a large number of Internet communicators these days mark not only their names (often gender-specific) on their messages, but also give other identifying information via the "signature" space of their e-mail or via photos or other personal data on their web pages. This arises in response, in part, for a need to build an "ethos" for one's claims, especially in an Internet where a search engine may bring up both a teenager's class paper private musings on a web-page, as often as a respected researcher's peer-reviewed, carefully documented argument.

Important questions for this domain abound: Why does gender performance still tend towards the ritualized, dichotomized, often burlesqued portrayals of "female" and "male"? As participants in MOOs and MUDs adopt new pronominal personas, how will that affect their mode of expression both inside and outside these new domains? In online "anonymous" chat, are there still gender-influenced variations in style that are traceable to our training as gendered persons "in real life," stylistic variations that persist despite the surface masking of our physical selves with new pronouns? For example, do women, often traditionally conditioned by society to be facilitators (Jenkins and Cheshire 1990; Cheshire and Jenkins 1991; Holmes and Stubbe 1997) continue in this role, working to soothe, query, abet, link, and otherwise urge the development of extended ideas on-line (as argued by Jasken and DeVoss 1998)?

The whole domain of cyber-research begs for more attention as we attempt to sift out the varied ways that one might present oneself as gendered - consciously or unconsciously - via shared textual conversations in the globe-contracting, technology-driven World Wide Web.

5 Plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose?

As noted in the gender-constructive challenges of cyberspace, a continuing question must be to consider why the public articulation and understanding of gender seems to flow more towards polarities than towards androgyny, towards sharp oppositions rather than common ground. One answer can be seen in the abundance of certain clichés: "Sex sells.", "Viva la différence." and "Opposites attract". It seems that "Variety is the spice of life," as long as that "variety" and "la différence" depend on one major delineation of "difference", a dualized version of gender reverting to the simple and simplistic dichotomy of "women" and "men" (see also Bergvall 1998).

It appears that many people understand what gender is ONLY via opposition: what is called gender is most recognizable when it is cast against a stark, contrastive background, a black shadow thrown up against a white wall. We recognize that gender variation exists in the world, but to make it discussible, manageable, or refinable to the point of hypothesis, we seem called to filter variation, to simplify to black and white with no grays allowed: woman, man; girl, boy; female, male.

At one point (e.g., the preface to Bergvall, Bing, and Freed 1996), I believed that the goal of my work in L&G research was, essentially, to work myself out of a job: to promote gender equality such that future study of the influence of gender on the access to discourse and freedom of expression of variation would not be necessary. But the stubborn persistence of public understandings of gender in dichotomous terms necessitates a continuing analysis of why this is so, and what the effects are. No matter how free I feel as an expressive person, able to command an effective and powerful voice across the many domains of my life, not every person is so free - nor am I, as long as my words are heard through the social filters as "from a woman," and thus denigrated.

6 Moving ahead

The three broad issues sketched here form one possible agenda as we work towards a deeper understanding of gender in language, raising many challenges for L&G researchers: to understand more deeply the biological and cultural intersections in gender variation; to critique and challenge regressive sociobiological interpretations of gender; to study the reflexes and permutations of gender across a broader range of human societies; to encourage the study of new societies and new domains by those native to them - and to foster this work by requesting it, buying it, and reading it; to explore the new possibilities of gender as the domains of cyberspace and computer-mediated communication grow; and to seek to understand why dualisms continue, why stereotypes persist about what "women" and "men" do or say. There is certainly no shortage of ideas here with which to launch a host of research agendas for the new millennium. It is an exciting time to live and do this research.


* I am very grateful to the members of my 1998 graduate seminar on language and gender for provoking me to consider and develop many of the ideas expressed here: Julie Crowl, Danielle DeVoss, Chrystal Holombo, Julia Jasken, Jenny Sheppard, Kathryn Valentine, and Chris Webb (particularly Danielle and Julia for references related to the on-line play with gender).

I thank Jonathan Sterne for suggesting the term "control group" in discussing the problems with sociobiology; and I thank Antje Hornscheidt for her many insightful comments on earlier drafts.

[back to the beginning]


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