Monopolies of Knowledge in Canadian Communication Studies: The Case of Feminist Approaches: The Dallas Smythe Memorial Lecture

Gertrude J. Robinson (McGill University)

Abstract: This paper analyzes the reasons for the marginalization of feminist thought in the interdiscipline of communication studies and elucidates the potential contributions of this approach to social communication theorizing.

Résumé: Cet article fait l'analyse des causes de la marginalisation de la pensée féministe dans la discipline des études en communication, puis il précise quelles pourraient être les contributions potentielles des analyses féministes aux théories en communication.

One of the most liberating things which feminism has done for us all, both women and men, is that it has given us permission to speak and write in a diversity of voices. As such it has drawn attention to two important matters: first, the fact that the academic discourse is only one among many conversational styles in which we are able to talk about the world. Second, the role of lived experience, which previously lacked credence as a source of knowledge, can now be accessed for theory building. Together these liberating practices enable us to include ourselves and our experiences in explaining why and how we do our intellectual work.

The ways in which Dallas Smythe did his work was discussed in a 1992 International Association of Mass Communication Research (IAMCR)-sponsored panel in Seoul, Korea. Here his students and colleagues described him as a "critical thinker"; a demanding teacher; a committed mentor; a person with humour and unbounded energy. But most striking about Dallas was the fact that he was an activist, a person committed to living his political convictions during the McCarthy era, when it was difficult to speak out against loyalty oaths and other forms of civil rights infringements. For me, Dallas stood for all of these things and more. I shall never forget attending his seminar on the Political Economy of the Telephone Industry early in my 1962 Ph.D. career. Here, weekly 8- to 10-page papers based on the assigned readings were obligatory. At one particular meeting he was clearly displeased with our essays about telephone regulation and market manipulation. "To do a good job," he finally said, "will require you to `think dirty.' " "Thinking dirty" -- what a powerful metaphor for describing the academic endeavour. At one and the same time it provides a strategy for inquiry and an attitude toward life: the knower who is not content with merely studying social processes but wants to change them through his actions. For Dallas, Marxist theory and personal regulatory experience at the FCC in post-World War II Washington provided the context for "thinking dirty." For me, "thinking dirty" is grounded in a set of personal experiences defining my insider/outsider experiences in at least four cultures and my activist inclinations. First, growing up in an American home in Hitler's Germany. Next, in the critical approaches I learned at the University of Illinois. After that, in Goffman's notion of the dramaturgical self and, later in my career, in the discovery of feminism and the idea of the "gendered subject" in social interaction. All of these ways of thinking about the world had an impact. They laid the groundwork for my becoming a feminist scholar.

What does this mean? Like many media scholars in the 1960s and 1970s, I incorporated the study of gender into my early research approaches, but defined it as a sociologically pre-given category. This category helped me to account for measurable differences in women's and men's speech, interaction, and mass communicative behaviour (Robinson, 1994, 1996). Only after negotiating the academy for about a decade did I encounter a series of incidents which alerted me to the fact that something was wrong. Somehow, I was expected to "act" differently from my colleagues. Luckily, at just about this time in the 1970s, I met a group of McGill women colleagues. We got together and began to raise each other's consciousness, while setting up the interdisciplinary Women's Studies program and later, against formidable opposition, the Centre for Research and Teaching on Women. It was this more consciously living the "gendered" experience which began to turn me into a feminist scholar. At the time I began to read and to find out that the subordinate communicative relationship of women cannot be explained as a simple layering of culture on top of biology. Feminist research elucidates how, through "naming" the world, gender is implicated in the construction and the accomplishment of a gender system. From this perspective, in Lana Rakow's elegant phrase, gender functions like a verb in social discourse (Rakow, 1986). Being female or male in our society immediately creates presences and absences, accesses and exclusions, spaces for voices to talk and spaces where as a wo/man one has to remain silent. Gender also creates ways of exchanging and not exchanging information, help, emotional sustenance, ethical enlightenment, and human closeness. Gender does not cause communication practice, it is communication practice. And this practice is structured by deep-seated assumptions about inequality.

The marginalization of feminist research

Though it is obvious that "gender" is a structuring category of everyday life and everyday interactions, the women scholars pursuing research on gender throughout the past quarter century are virtually unknown in our field. Few of our colleagues have read the work of people like Lana Rakow (1986, 1989), Jean Bethke Elshtain (1982), Suzanne Kessler & Wendy McKenna (1978), Linda Putnam (1982), Dale Spender (1980), Susan Hekman (1987), and others. Why is that so? Three reasons come to mind and all of them demonstrate the subordinate position of women thinkers and their theorizing about gender issues in the North American academy. The first is that the authorities in the field -- those who define our field's parameters -- rarely read this literature, and it therefore fails to become legitimated in important scholarly texts. As late as 1989, the two-volume collection entitled Rethinking Communication: Paradigm Issues did not include a single feminist voice among its five paradigm articles (Dervin, Grossberg, O'Keefe, & Wartella, 1989). The second volume's 25 commentary articles were also overwhelmingly written by male scholars. Of the three articles written by females, only one mentioned the centrality of gender as a social and a cultural construction, wondering whether "Gender paradigms must shift for themselves?" (Deming, 1989). Kathryn Cirksena (1996) confirms this continued imbalance in her 10-year survey of Communication Abstract entries, which indicates that gender research in our field constitutes only about 6.5% of total entries.

In addition, feminist readings are not part of the accepted teaching curriculum of communication studies, unless there is a feminist thinker on staff. Feminist approaches constituted only one style of thought in the competition for intellectual ascendancy in the 1970s when Anthony Giddens claims the "consensus in social theorizing" was lost (Giddens, 1983, p. 235). Since then, three new breeds of "young Turks" have competed for the academic legitimation of their own theoretical agendas. Among them are the empirical /critical debate warriors; those enthralled by the postmodernist agenda; and, finally, those who have exported and depoliticized the Birmingham school's cultural studies approach. Even though some of these theoretical agendas echo the standpoint epistemology of cultural feminism, they do not acknowledge it as such, nor reference contemporaries like Susan Harding (1986) and Diana Foss (1989). These writers began to draw attention to the restricted epistemological foundations of scientific thought constructed by Enlightenment philosophy and its use of gender to create its seemingly "natural" oppositional categories. Furthermore, Women's Studies is still struggling to legitimate itself as a separate field of study within the academy. This is quite understandable in a situation where women professors (not all of them feminists) are still a minority of only 18% of tenured staff in Canadian universities and are overwhelmingly found at the lower levels of the professoriate. At McGill University the percentage ratios for women staff are: 80% at the Lecturer level, 35% of Assistant Professors, 20% at the Associate level, and a minuscule 8% at the top of the status pyramid, that of Full Professors. Some communication studies and journalism programs in the United States and Canada were beginning to improve these ratios in the 1980s as a result of affirmative action programs and the speedier incorporation of Women's Studies in newer universities. Yet, since the mid-1980s, hiring freezes and university downsizing have increasingly kept younger feminist scholars out of North American communication studies and the academy, and as a result gender ratios are once again declining.

The contributions of feminism to communication studies

Feminist theory makes at least three important contributions to communication studies. First, it provides a more complete theoretical base for understanding how we "know" the world. In addition, it provides an overarching framework for understanding social organization and thus how communication "practices" are related to political and economic organization. Furthermore, it challenges and redefines the theory of the "other" which informs many of the traditional research approaches widely used in our field. Both cultural theory and feminist scholarship agree that humans are unable to apprehend an object, situation, or person without interpreting that object or situation. Such a constructivist position implies that neither sex nor gender are transparent variables which can be separately studied. Instead they are culturally constructed and unstable categories which affect every moment of our social lives. Lana Rakow (1986) points out that gender is both something we do and something we think with. Through it, information about which gender should be assigned to a person is conveyed to others in the communicative situation. At the level of what Goffmann would call "performative identity," Marilyn Frye (1983) and others note that gender operates in three different ways which are complexly interrelated: as a classificatory system, as a structuring structure, and as an ideology. Each of these will now be explored in greater detail in order to explain the centrality of gender and notions of subordination in social communication situations. In most Western societies gender classifies people into a "binary" system of women and men who are supposedly naturally counterpoised by their biological sex. Yet, this classification is neither fixed nor universal. There are cultures, such as the early Greek and some North American First Nation groups, where a third classification was possible. Hermaphrodites in the Greek polis and some Amero-Indian groups classify children up to one year of age as "genderless," indicating that gender characteristics are ranged along a continuum and are classified differently in different cultures.

Gender as a classificatory system operates and manifests itself in three domains of social life which help to maintain and reinforce the deviant /inferior evaluations of activities performed by women (Kessler & McKenna, 1978). Gender "assignment" classifies an individual at birth and is expressed in such symbolic forms as the colour of baby clothes or the hair styles permitted for girls and boys. We know from child development studies that these symbolic distinctions have behavioural consequences not only in the ways in which female and male babies are talked to and handled by their parents, but in school curricula and educational counseling. Gender "attribution," another classificatory activity, assigns an individual to a gender classification in social interaction situations and affects speech patterns and the ways in which women are supposed to enact social roles such as those of professor or politician. Armande Saint-Jean and I discovered, for instance, that the narrative "tropes" used by the press to describe three generations of Canadian women politicians between 1960 and 1990 constructed much stricter role performance criteria for female than for male incumbents (Robinson & Saint-Jean, 1992). Gender "identity" classifications, finally, prescribe how a person is supposed to "feel" in a social interaction situation. It is widely documented that female and male ways of signifying frustration permit women to cry and men to shout. Yet these responses are evaluated negatively for women incumbents and positively for males. Though all of these classificatory systems are socially constructed and therefore change over time, they consistently place females into a "subject" position, whereas the male gender is assigned the active "object" designation in North American naming practices and communicative encounters (Flick, 1989).

Gender as a structuring structure, feminist scholars argue, also tends to order women into a dominant /subordinate caste system within Western societies. In social communication situations, women's requirement to announce and act out this subordination tends to reinforce this caste system. Lévi-Strauss demonstrated how the culturally produced structure of gender relationships serves as a template for other symbolic structures, such as the binary juxtapositions achieved through metaphor ( justice = female) and metonymy (men = human). Karen Cirksena & Laura Cuklanz (1992) elaborate how gender relationships serve as templates for other binary structurations such as the juxtapositions nature /culture, sun/moon, art /science, and underdevelopment /development. Recently, a number of feminist communication scholars have begun to investigate how these kinds of gender templates inform women's popular culture images and leisure practices. They question the grounds on which the so-called "women's genres" and the pleasures women derive from them are denigrated. Janice Radway's Reading the Romance (1987) offers a multi-layered analysis of how the very fact of being a "female" functions as a structuring framework for interpreting romance books as less worthy literary forms and the practice of reading them as a "frivolous" pastime. Yet, the interpretive skills involved in deciphering westerns or other male-preferred genres are in no way theoretically more sophisticated (Radway, 1986).

Even less well understood is the use of gender as an overarching ideology. Feminist scholars Sandra Harding (1986) and Judith Butler (1988), among others, have revealed that it is impossible to look at identity as a singular category. Class, sexual orientation, race, and gender affect the ways in which an individual views the world and the ways in which sexism, racism, classism, and ageism are experienced. Standpoint theory challenges the dichotomies on which Enlightenment epistemology rests. Among these are dichotomies of subject /object, rational /irrational, and reason/emotion, which Susan Hekman (1987) considers fundamentally mistaken. Anti-foundationalists question the rational model's idea that knowledge must have an absolute foundation and that it is achieved through a process of abstraction from the social world. Carol Gilligan (1982) found that the female definitions of "equity" were based on differences in need, while the male ethic stressed "fairness" criteria legalistically defined. This finding provides tantalizing openings for challenging Enlightenment epistemology.

Feminism provides an overarching framework
for understanding social practice

Feminism recognizes gender as one of the primary social organizers which works in conjunction with economic and political relationships. For contemporary feminism that means understanding patriarchy as an all-pervasive and long-standing way of organizing economic relations, which historical research has demonstrated may be organized differently. From this point of view it is clear that capitalism interacts with gender in different ways at different historical points in time. This means, also, that it has varying effects in different types of welfare state settings. These matters are of vital interest to communication and development theorists who are trying to unravel the complex filiations of economics and gender in the Soviet successor states, in China, and in Third World countries (Howard, 1994; Spivak, 1988). Latin American theorists are doing some interesting work here, though the traditional political economy approach is as insensitive to gender dimensions of social organization as are most of the classical Marxist theorizations.

Feminism's insistence on "equity" challenges the theory of the "other" which is implicit in many of the conventional research approaches. It points out that the practice of defining women by their difference from what is assumed to be the norm is not an innocuous undertaking. "Difference" in these formulations always implies a negative notion of "less than" and thus reinforces the relationship of dominance /subordination which is already deeply ingrained in social theorizing. Feminist epistemologists such as Elshtain (1982) and Butler (1988) suggest that the problem is not lack of meaning in people's lives, but what meaning and whose meaning has access to media programming and discourses. Whether a news program labels a rally against government cuts in social services as being directed by "citizens" or "labour activists" will have an influence on how and about what the spokespersons will be permitted to speak before the cameras. Yet, in a democracy it is assumed that every citizen has the same right to participate in social-meaning creation. If this is taken seriously, public sphere theorists will have to rethink how different types of "speaking subjects" need to be socially enabled to dialogue with each other. Such a reconsideration demonstrates that racism, sexism, anti-Semitism, ageism, and heterosexism are nothing more than justifications which have been built up to justify relegating people to the category of the inferior other. The feminist call for substituting the notion of "diversity" for that of "difference" would move theorizing not only out of essentialism, but also out of the binary opposition categories which are implied in the notion of the other (Fraser, 1992). It would, furthermore, open up the possibility of re-conceptualizing naming practices and basing these complicated discursive practices in tri- or quatro-partite logics of "humanness." Such logics are more sensitive to the multiplicity of social realities which motivate people's social behaviour in different historical contexts. They also provide a process for making our social naming practices more equitable and thus extending our understanding of the world.


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