3 words: I love you. [part 1]

Wendy Hollway’s piece Gender Difference and the production of subjectivity (1984) seemed to be somewhat dated when I started reading it. She aims to theorise gender subjectivity (i.e. gender identity from a psychologist’s perspective) by looking at practices and meaning making within heterosexual relationships.
Reference: Hollway, W. (1982) Identity and Gender Difference in Adult Social Relations, unpublished PhD thesis, University of London

Hollway takes an approach based on critical discursive psychology; she distinguishes this from a Foucauldian genealogical approach that would look at the operation of power as a more neutral force that may be creative and productive. Its main limitation, she argues, is the lack of acknowledgement of potentially contradictory discourses. From her point of view, the focus on a single patriarchal ideology is a weakness.

I perceive this assessment as flawed, mainly because ideologies are not single coherent units but mosaics that include dominant views and knowledge constructed by those who hold authority and power to shape them as well as the many opposing and undermining views and perspectives which all evolve in relation to more dominant discourses within a broader ideology. However, it is important to acknowledge that this early work of Hollway was based on Foucault’s earlier studies which were criticised for their lack of recognition of agency in the context of operation of power. Hollway did not manage to ‘repair’ this very aspect in her theory as she argues that alternative discourses are often not accessible to women, which implies indeed their lack of agency and a co-dependency (or even co-ownership) in what she perceived as dominant male power. I will discuss her approach from a methodological perspective and I will question her assumptions from a view informed by contemporary use of old and new media.

For an interesting reading (different methodology, different discipline) of my critique in a contemporary context, I suggest the research findings by Angel Brantley, David Knox and Marty E. Zusman . They conducted a study, published in 2002, which investigated how 147 undergraduate students in the US handle the first stages expressing feelings in a love relationship. The survey looked at how students use and establish meaning when telling their new partner ‘I love you’. The authors suggest a socio-biological explanation for finding that

  • males were more likely to say ‘I love you’ first
  • males were more likely to say ‘I love you’ when they thought this could increase their chance to have sex with their partner.

Brantley et al. reference earlier studies by Sharp & Ganong (2000) which “found that men fall in love more quickly and have higher levels of romantic beliefs than women.” And they took into account the research undertaken by Knox, Sturdivant and Zusman (2001) which found that “men are more likely to seek sex early in the relationship (indeed, within hours) than women”.

They also found, not very romantic, though, that students might be actually aware of these patterns and that they had a good sense of what ‘I love you’ may mean in certain contexts. The study is not representative due its small sample. Moreover, the number of female participants was more than twice as large as the male students.

Whether qualitative or quantitative research, it often strikes me how little exchange there seems between or among disciplines. Discourse analysis, the way Hollway conducted it, seemed to overly support Feminist claims valid at that time. Her research then made neither use of a triangulation (for instance by adding survey research and looking at broader patterns) nor did she provide a reflexive account that would have helped readers to understand a possible bias towards certain socio-political beliefs informing her project.

Exactly 20 years later, Brantley et al. equally provide a highly biased and limited account by relying on a group of students who are by definition widely homogenous in terms of social markers such as age and social class (as well as cultural capital). As interesting as the research findings may sound, they lack depth and the richness that comes with qualitative research based on in-depth interviewing.

I will discuss love and sex further in a post that focuses on interview excerpts used in Hollway’s research and my own observations: in Part 2

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About Britta Bohlinger, CFE

Founder and Director of RisikoKlár in Iceland. Native German, global perspective - previously in London and Berlin.

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