Linguistik online1, 1/98


Review of:
Victoria L. Bergvall, Janet M. Bing, Alice F. Freed (eds) (1996):
Rethinking Language and Gender Research. Theory and Practice.
Singapore: Longman.

 by Jenny Neumond


 The book collects a range of essays developed from selected papers presented at the conference on ‘The Language and Gender Interface: Theories and Methods for Research and Teaching’ which was held during the 1993 Linguistic Institute in Columbus, Ohio. It contains 303 pages and is organized in eleven chapters. Two of these take a look at the theoretical framework of language and gender research, nine are concerned with the analysis of empirical data, one with textual analysis and eight with the analysis of conversations in a variety of settings. Feminist linguistic analyses of the gender reference forms of languages are not included in the book.

Overall, "Rethinking Language and Gender Research" is an important book that collects a range of articles which ask new questions about language and gender and thus give rise to new perspectives in language and gender research. Its most important contribution is the fact that it emphasizes in many voices the importance for linguistic research to challenge stereotypical assumptions about gender and its relationship to other social identities.

What I find disappointing is the fact that the only chapters which mention ethnic identity in the title are once more a) the ones not studying white Anglo-Saxon persons and b) to be found at the end of the book. At the same time, there are "general" articles about "adolescent conversation" and "female engineering students" the subjects of which are situated in US-American society and are presumably white though this is not made explicit in the articles. Thus, doing feminist linguistic research in Germany and reading the book, as the title suggested, for new approaches to language and gender research, I found its make-up very much situated in white Anglo-Saxon feminist linguistic discourse.

In my discussion of the articles I will group together the two that take a critical look at the research tradition and the theoretical frameworks of language and gender research, then the five articles which work on the development of theories or methods for specific research fields, and finally the four articles which apply methods of language and gender research to expose institutional injustices and stereotypes in various contexts.

In "The question of questions: beyond binary thinking", Janet M. Bing and Victoria L. Bergvall outline their intention in putting together this collection of essays: to "raise new questions about language which challenge rather than reinforce gender polarization" (p. 23). As a background, they offer a concise analysis of how the questions that are still usually asked in language and gender research reinforce the social construction of a female-male dichotomy. They identify on the one hand the endless quest for differences between the verbal behaviour of women and men and on the other hand any research design which presupposes a biological dichotomy of "women" and "men" as reinforcing biological essentialism and working against new ways of looking at gender. Due to its conciseness and actuality, this analysis could well serve as a standard introductory text for classes on language and gender research, introducing to them the importance of taking a critical approach to gender as a variable in linguistic research.

In the second part of their article, Bing and Bergvall outline the scientific emergence of the gender dichotomy, the way it is medically enforced and the attempts to prove its justification through brain research. They go on to a discussion of difference and gender polarization and offer diversity as an alternative but this discussion lacks the sharpness of analysis and argument of the beginning of the article. What I find especially problematic is their statement that "[o]ne important fact cannot be overlooked: there are some biological differences between most women and most men" (p. 15) and the conclusion that the problem is "not difference, but oversimplification and stereotyping" (ibd) because it is used to limit the opportunities of individuals, especially of women. This undefined use of the category "biological differences" ignores the social constructedness of biology as a category and thus works against the analysis at the beginning of the article. Also, the discussion on the limitation of individuals’ opportunities seems rather short and lacking in depth because the question cannot be simply one of equal job opportunities for "women" but should rather be one of equal opportunities as well as equal responsibilities, meaning shared work-load, for all individuals in all areas of public and private life, including household, family matters, upkeep of social relations etc., no matter what ability, race, class, gender, religion or anything else they are perceived to be. And finally the term "diversity" is not properly defined but only some implications quoted so that it remains unclear what exactly the authors mean by "diversity".

In their conclusion, however, Bing and Bergvall formulate as a guideline for future language and gender research that "[i]n order to move beyond binary thinking to an acceptance of diversity, we need to examine the presuppositions that underlie our questions, seek metaphors and new models, and study different communities of practice without preconceived ideas about language and gender" (p. 24). This outlook ties in well with the initial analysis. It reemphasizes the intention of the book and also works as an agenda for future language and gender research.

In the second chapter, "The language-gender interface: challenging co-optation", Deborah Cameron argues that because "language and gender studies, like other subfields within sociolinguistics, has tended to neglect its ‘socio’ side (in this instance, gender)" (p. 33) and because of a lack of interdisciplinarity in gender research, "linguists are cut off from insights that would be relevant to their work, while feminists in other disciplines can continue to talk about language in ways that are not accountable to the specialized knowledge linguistics makes available" (ibd). In her critical review of language and gender research, Cameron, like Bing and Bergvall, focuses on the vulnerability to co-optation: "Gender has been taken as a given, an attribute that exists prior to the behaviour we are interested in. Thus our work gets used to validate a worldview that treats gender difference as a ‘natural’ phenomenon, where feminism wants to deconstruct it." (p. 42) What is new and especially interesting about this article is Cameron’s analysis of the sources of this vulnerability because in addition to a deconstructive analysis of gender being taken as a given she undertakes a linguistic analysis of the tradition of linguistic and cultural relativism - the view that difference itself is neutral and that only the suppression of linguistic diversity (as e. g. different dialects) leads to inequality.

What I find slightly problematic in her argumentation is the fact that she sometimes seems to take the existence of gender differing speech styles as a given, as e. g. when she contends that "[feminism] must also ask why women find some communicative practices more accessible and more relevant than others" (p. 44). I know of no studies that have conclusively shown that differing speech styles can actually be generalized on the basis of gender, and anyhow the question would be ‘on the basis of what concept of gender?’ (see Frank (1995) for a model analysis of the effect of a perception bias in empirical research on gendered speech styles).

In her conclusion she once more asserts the importance of taking an interdisciplinary approach to language and gender research and argues that "it can only enrich feminist scholarship if we find ways to combine the sophisticated theories of gender developed outside linguistics with the detailed and sophisticated descriptions of language in which linguists specialize" (p. 48). As a central strategy she identifies "the need to treat gender as rigorously and as critically as we treat linguistic phenomena" (ibd).

With respect to the first two chapters’ aim of setting an agenda for future language and gender research, I find the applied perspectives too narrow: in their analyses as well as in their conclusions they focus on the one hand on gender as a female-male dichotomy and on the other hand on research concerning speech styles. Missing are approaches to challenging not only stereotypical assumptions about gender but also the tendency to analyse it as an isolated category as if it were seperable from other concepts of social identity which often leads to chauvinistic generalizations of various kinds (see Bergvall, this volume, for a more differentiated analysis and Meyerhoff and Bucholtz, both in the book reviewed, for integrative approaches). Missing is also any discussion of language and gender research in fields like Critical Discourse Analysis and the analysis of language structures.

From the articles centering on methods and theories of language and gender research, I find "Black feminist theory and African American women’s linguistic practice" by Mary Bucholtz the most striking. Like Cameron, Bucholtz argues for a closer connection of linguistic and sociological research. For this purpose, she investigates the linguistic practices of two African-American women on a radio panel discussion about race relations within the framework of Black feminist theory. In a combination of quantitive analysis of the data as a whole and qualitative analysis of individual passages, she demonstrates how these two speakers succeed in restructuring the discourse and subverting the institutionalized relationship to the moderator by adapting the norms of panel-discussion discourse through their use of questions and assessments, deixis, vernacular features, and backchannelling. She then shows how "Collins’s model of Black feminist epistemology is supported by the particular form that the reconstructed discourse genre takes in the data, and Collins’s theory can illuminate interactional phenomena that are otherwise difficult to explain" (p. 283 f.). She concludes that "[w]hile there is no inevitable isomorphism between Black women’s lives and Black feminist epistemology, the interface between Black feminist theory and African American women’s speech practices in specific local sites provides insights into how theory is reproduced outside the confines of the academy" (p. 284).

In this article, Bucholtz succeeds in analysing some important implications of the data without making generalizing claims which might implicitly confirm existing stereotypes or contribute to the construction of new ones. She achieves this to a great extent through the use of open terms like linguistic practice/s, speech practices or language use among African American women rather than generalizing concepts like womens’ speech style or African American womens’ speech style. Furthermore, she not only explicitly mentions her awareness that "[a] tight theoretical space [...] exists between the political expediency of invoking social categories and the wholesale distortions that may be wrought by their use" (p. 270) but also "negotiate[s] this space by focusing on a speech event in which racial categories are explicitly made salient, a discussion of race relations in the USA" (ibd.). Consequently, she analyses exemplarily the linguistic practices of the African American women on the panel and relates these to Black feminist theories without making general inferences about their difference from the linguistic practices of the Black men or the white man on the panel or white women in general.

The methodological approach Bucholtz takes to the analysis of the data I also find very useful. The combination of quantitative presentation of the features she analyses with the close analysis of exemplary passages gives the reader an insight into the qualitative nature of the phenomena she observes as well as a clear picture of their statistic significance. This makes it easy to follow her analysis and to form a personal opinion of its validity. Her demonstration that the backchannels given by the two women cannot be interpreted within an additive frame of gender plus racial background but have to be attributed to active decisions about linguistic practices exemplifies a way of understanding what is happening in a certain situation without resorting to stereotypes.

In "Language and gender research in an experimental setting", Alice F. Freed presents a study on the use of you know and of questions in dyadic same-sex conversations of friends which indicates that the discourse requirements of the three different talk situations created rather than the gender of the speakers controlled the frequency and the function of the linguistic phenomena surveyed. This is interesting because it suggests that the women and men taking part in the study did have equal access to the linguistic strategies required by certain communicative goals and thus tentatively supports criticism of the cultural approach to gender differences. Additionally, Freed draws the conclusion that certain conversational styles might become "symbolically gendered" (p. 67) because they are required by certain social activities which are conventionally associated with either women or men. I find this conclusion problematic for two reasons: On the one hand this would mean that general linguistic features like questions or backchannels could only be required by very specific types of social activity. This is contradicted by Freed’s own analysis of the different types of questions that were required - and used - in the three different settings. On the other hand in assuming that there is one convention by which the same social activities are associated with all women regardless of race, class, religion or ability Freed assumes exactly that impossible universal standpoint she herself criticizes. In contrast to the article by Bucholtz, Freed in this article displays a tendency of drawing quite general conclusions on the basis of a fairly small study of fairly homogeneous subjects (cf. the demographic profile on pp. 71/72).

In "Floor management and power stategies in adolescent conversation", Alice Greenwood does a qualitative analysis of three conversations of a group of adolescents. She uses a combination of speech accomodation theory and a perspective from social psychology to account for differences in discourse styles as well as their variation in individual speakers from setting to setting and comes to the conclusion that "(w)e need to give more respect to speakers’ capacity to choose from among alternative forms, and need to understand the motives behind such choices" (p. 94). In my opinion this approach contributes interesting new perspectives to the analysis of conversations and discourse styles because it provides a framework for a more complex understanding of conversational interaction. What I do not find quite conclusive is Greenwood’s total omission of gender as a salient category. For though it may well be the case that "in this instance family style is more salient than gender group style" (p. 88) this does not mean that gender may not in some way also be a salient factor in the conversations.

In "Dealing with gender as a sociolinguistic variable", Miriam Meyerhoff draws on a similar theoretical background. She stresses the importance of realizing that gender is just one out of a multiplicity of identities every person has and that their interaction is far more complex than the additive relationships that have often been proposed and used as a basis for research. She brings together theories from sociology, intercultural communication research and social psychology to outline a framework for communication and speaker identity that allows for shifts in identifications. And though she concedes that this framework does not explain how the changes in the salience of different personal and social identities can be made operational in empirical research, she demonstrates how it "might inform research into gender identity and gender salience" (p. 223). Like Greenwood’s approach, Meyerhoff’s contributes to a more complex understanding of conversational interaction and thus provides one more step towards overcoming stereotypical and dichotomous notions of gender identity.

In "Shifting gender-positions among Hindi-speaking hijras", Kira Hall and Veronica O’Donovan analyse the hijras’ varying use of gendered nouns, adjectives and verbs. They conclude that the hijras, who are socially defined through their ambiguous gender identities, tend to use masculine forms to signal social distance from the referent and feminine forms to express solidarity. Interpreting these findings, Hall and O’Donovan argue that this is not a feature unique to alternative gender identities but that "rather, women and men of many communities manipulate linguistic expectations of feminity and masculinity in order to establish various positions of solidarity and power" (p. 258). To me, this interpretation is unclear and too general because Hall and O’Donovan do not make explicit what kind of relationship they assume between gendered person reference forms and cultural constructions of gendered speech styles. Also, they leave open the question whether they expect that parallel to their findings, "women’s speech" is more widely used for signalling solidarity and "men’s speech" for signalling distance. Against the background of wide-spread stereotypes about women and men I do think such a self-positioning of the authors is necessary.

"Women, men and prestige speech forms: a critical review" by Deborah James I do not find very insightful. While explaining in the introduction that no consistent findings exist concerning gender differences in the use of prestige speech forms, in her review she concentrates on explanations for "sex differences in the use of prestige speech" (p. 99). Thus, she overlooks the fact that the search for explanations implies the existence of differences (cf. Bing and Bergvall, p. 5).

From the articles which apply methods of language and gender research to expose institutional injustices and stereotypes, I find "Storytellers and gate-keepers in economics" by Livia Polanyi and Diana Strassmann the most impressive. They combine a linguistic and an economic perspective to examine "the relationship among stories which are told in economics, the language in which they are told, the communities of practice [...] they reflect and the communities of practicioners [...] they shape" (p. 126). In a close textual analysis of two stories from a standard textbook in economics, which function as models to explain an economic theory, they demonstrate the stereotypical assumptions about people and the distortions and omissions in the description of these people’s situations presented in the stories. Thus, they argue that though this is generally denied "race, gender and class are already in the curriculum" (p. 149). The article is conclusive and well argued and does important work in the exposure of institutionally sanctioned reproductions of stereotypical assumptions about people.

In "Constructing and enacting gender through discourse: negotiating multiple roles as female engineering students", Victoria L. Bergvall uses methods from conversation analysis to analyse conflicting gender role expectations at a US-American technological university. She takes a qualitative approach and uses as her material exerpts from a class discussion and from the exchanges of a small project group. Her conclusions are on the one hand that for the women at this technological university many problems arise from the fact that the academic setting is still usually believed to be neutral ground when in fact academic discourse is not at all gender-neutral and on the other hand that a more situated and flexible theory of language and gender is needed to understand the variable behaviour of these women. To me, this article is interesting in its question and approach but is not conclusively argued. For one thing, I am not convinced that the small number of exerpts accurately describes the complex interactional processes of the two very different situations. Also, I could not detect that in the exerpts from the classroom situation the most talkative woman was indeed resisted more strongly than the most talkative man, and in the exerpts from the project group the only woman was in fact given appropriate attention by her colleagues when she was assertive. In general, I find that though arguing for a more situated and flexible theory of gender, the article itself works with general and undifferentiated concepts, assuming gender to be the only salient category in the exchanges and omitting differentiated demographic profiles of the participants of the study.

In "Consensual sex or sexual harrassment: negotiating meaning", Susan Ehrlich and Ruth King analyse exerpts from a date rape trial in a university disciplinary tribunal in Canada. In a qualitative analysis using elements of conversation analysis and sociological discourse analysis, they demonstrate how the questions asked by the tribunal members "constitute a two-part discursive strategy by which the events in question are reconstructed as consensual sex" (p. 168). The article is interesting in its methodological approach and well argued. It reveals institutionalized strategies of the reconstruction of meaning and shows how linguistic analysis can be used to expose them.

Overall, "Rethinking Language and Gender Research" presents a range of articles which introduce interesting new perspectives and approaches to the analysis of gender as a variable in linguistic research. Also, it demonstrates some of the possibilities that interdisciplinary approaches have to offer on this behalf. Even if some of the articles are problematic in their approaches or conclusions, they still offer valuable insights into the specific difficulties encountered in language and gender research and the extreme care that has to be taken in order to avoid research designs or conclusions that are based on simplistic or stereotypical assumptions of gender. Thus in my opinion "Rethinking Language and Gender Research" is an interesting and important book for anyone concerned with language and gender research.


Karsta Frank (1995): "F-R-A-U buchstabieren. Die Kategorie ‘Geschlecht’ in der feministischen Linguistik". In: Ursula Pasero, Friederike Braun (eds): Konstruktion von Geschlecht. Pfaffenweiler. 153-181.