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Reference: Hollway, W. (1982) Identity and Gender Difference in Adult Social Relations, unpublished PhD thesis, University of London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
SINGLE-SEX SCHOOLS and SEX EDUCATION:
Hollway argues, see first part of 3 words: I love you , that gender-differentiated subjectivities are built upon subject positions which are made available for the category ‘man’ or ‘woman’ – but they remain unequally available. This strikes me as quite ‘mid-1980s’, and as a particularly ‘British Feminist’ perspective. I want to find out how much things have changed, and how a less UK-centric view and experiences look like in 2010.
In the late 1960s England had about 2,000 single-sex schools, at the end of the 20th century there were still 400 of them. The first single-sex school was founded in 1440, that was famous Eaton. In stark contrast, in today’s Finland there is not one single single-sex school in the entire country. Iceland introduced (!) single-sex kindergarten in the late 1980s, France and Germany think co-education the most successful way towards socialisation based on equality between sexes.
No doubt, understanding differences in sex and gender requires a thorough look into cultural differences. Living in a place, London, where every second person is foreign-born has made me even more of that. Language itself tells us a lot about a population’s notions of sex and gender. In Finnish, for instance, only one first person singular pronoun exists: han [hän, hAn]. It is sex-neutral, gender does not play that large a role in this linguistic sense. Nevertheless, Finland is a pioneer in gender equality – in 1906 its National Assembly was the first in the world that adopted full gender equality. Finnish women were the first who gained the right to vote.
The German language does not have a direct translation for the English term ‘gender’. The concept that denotes the socially constructed and learned traits of what it means to be male or female in contrast to the biologically determined characteristics (i.e. the English term ‘sex’)was only introduced by help of European policies (gender mainstreaming). On an everyday basis, however, the German language is obsessed with gender: every noun requires categorisation: neutral, female and male grammatical genders specify things: a tomato is female, a chair is male, your breakfast remains neutral. Problematic are [new] terms such as ‘Email’ which have been adopted from the English. Some people obsess over the question whether ‘Email’ (all nouns are capitalised in German) is female or neutral.
HOW WE TALK ABOUT LOVE AND SEX:
In 1984, when Hollway constructed her argument, sex education in mixed classes was standard in German secondary schools which even then included lessons on contraception (N.B. home schooling is illegal in Germany, so there was and is no opt-out). This makes me wonder to what extent a discursive analysis that does not take into account any cultural or national differences can be convincing.
CULTURE and LOVE:
I recall a Californian friend of mine, about twice my age, stating a few years back in Berlin that ‘Americans do love their family but they like their friends’. I argued the opposite to be holding true for Germans. I remembered my experience as a holiday language student in the late 1990s in Malta where we had English conversation classes and were asked to debate controversial topics to ensure we would practice our language skills. Hot buttons were abortion, HIV/AIDS and love. One male student in his early 20s from catholic Munich, Bavaria, vehemently refused to state he would ‘love’ his sister – but he confirmed he’d like her, very much so. Love in this cultural context has a distinct sexual undertone, which is why ‘like’ is the preferred and socially accepted norm.
A purely linguistic focus seems to miss the subtleties that are embedded in language: social practices, taboos, age-related awkwardness etc. They cannot be captured in the concept of power – which certainly holds true for some cases (parent-child for instance) but not necessarily in all peer-to-peer cases. Hollway did not seem to perceive women and men as genuine peers or agents who hold potential to negotiate the terms of being or becoming peers.
One of the interview excerpts she quotes is quite thought-provoking. Sam is a man who was in hope of living with Jane. He tried to live with three other women before and he does not want to live on his own.
He says that “[t]here’s too many things all wrapped up in coupling […] too many needs it potentially meets, and there are too many things it frustrates. I do want to have a close, a central-person relationship, but in the past, the negative aspect outweighed the positive dramatically. Or my inability to work through them has led me to run.”
“I’m frightened of getting in deep […] a lot of these things aren’t really to do with sexuality. They’re to do with responsibility.”
“When I say to somebody, who I’m making love to – I’m close to, when I say, ‘I love you, I love you’ it’s a word that symbolises letting go. […] What frightens me is that word, it’s an act of commitment. Somebody suddenly, expects something of me. They’ve said something, that’s the first word in a long rotten line towards marriage. That’s when you fall in love, you’re caught up in the institution.”
“And it’s been an act of principle for me, that I can love somebody, and feel loved, without feeling any responsibility. That I can be free to say that I love somebody if I love them. Be free to feel.”
I have no idea how old Sam was when he gave this interview and talked about the power of the meaning of ‘I love you’. Would a man beyond retirement age who had all his life spent with one woman hold a similar view? Is the utterance ‘I love you’ itself related to social markers such as age, gender – or social class? Has ‘I love you’ become so value-laden or invested with connotations that fear is a near ‘natural’ response?
Hollway argues that ‘I love you’ (as the signifier ‘letting go’) is “suppressed by its capture in the discourse which positions women as requiring commitment. Which means men need less commitment? The implication strikes me as simplified. Hollway quotes from an anti-sexist men’s magazine (Achilles Heel, 1979):
“For men (heterosexual) sex works out as a trap because it’s the only place where men can really get tenderness and warmth.”
“But they have no skills to evoke these things because there is nothing in the rest of our lives that trains us to do this.”
This would suggest men have been brought up and continue to live lives as islands. Does that ring true? Of course, as I mentioned above, single-sex education may have contributed significantly to some of these notions but on the other hand, men who were brought up by women must have had some exposure to their ‘skills’ in terms of tenderness and warmth (i.e. outside sexual encounter). Supposed, all women are tender and warm, all the time – a stereotype we need to question.
What Hollway seems to ignore altogether is the probability that men (and women) may be able to learn (by reflexivity, be encounter, by formal education) what it means to be tender, committed and warm – without ‘paying the price’ of a sexual relationship when what is desired is actually ‘only’ tenderness and warmth. What she seems to suggest is a biological reductionism somewhere embedded in the discourses that construct gender subjectivities. These subjectivities (or gender identities) seem to be static and fix over the life course – and, they seem to be focused on the heterosexual other. Trapped in the web of power and ‘unspeakable deeper needs’, that is also what Martin suggests:
“People’s needs for others are systematically denied in ordinary relationships. And in a love relationship you make the most fundamental admission about yourself – that you want somebody else. It seems to me that that is the greatest need, and the need which, in relationship to its power, is most strongly hidden and suppressed.”
VULNERABILITY, TRUST, REJECTION:
This is about vulnerability, trust and feeling accepted – or rejected. The strong sense of insecurity Martin conveys makes we think about fear of rejection as a learned response. After all, most people share these feeling and a sense of insecurity when they open up to others and when they commit themselves to others.
Part of this is rooted in a sense of risk – but risk considerations become more dominant when we commit to people who make us feel insecure about being accepted. If we express our love (in an utterances or otherwise) and override the sense that the person may feel under pressure to commit too or that our partner holds high expectations as to what has to follow upon that 3-word utterance, we actually do not trust our own instincts. On the other hand, challenging the idea that there is a universal notion as to what ‘I love you’ implies and entails, is a healthy way to free oneself from the burden of literature, films and lyrics we grew up with, internalise and forget to review.
PUBLIC and PRIVATE:
We may live in relationships that have never heard the ‘I love you’ and still, they are marked by deep commitment and love. On the other hand, there are numerous relationships that have established rituals, that resulted in obligatory phrases for both partners. For instance ending every phone call with ‘luv you, hon’. A routine that may make many Germans cringe, it’s not exactly a socially accepted practice outside the couple’s private space. There are also the film moments which make us cringe: Bette Midler’s CC Bloom in ‘Beaches’ (1988) offers her lover an ‘opt-in’ version similar to Stevie Wonder’s “Did I Hear You Say You Love Me”. Although, Midler’s character adds an interesting question: “or was that part of your routine”? Finally, there is also Patrick Swayze’s ‘ditto’ (German: ‘dito’) in Ghost. Does it make you cringe or smile with pleasure – or does it appear to be so remote and constructed to you, it does not trigger any emotion?
REAL LIFE and LOVE:
There are our friends who offer us a deeply felt ‘I love you’ (German: ‘ich liebe dich’) which we can take, without a hint of doubt, in all its beauty and commitment. There are sexual partners who commit and still don’t have to panic over marriage and the ‘institution marriage’, they offer us the equally deep and committed ‘I like you’. Whatever we say as expression of our love, a lot depends on how we feel about ourselves. How we feel about ourselves is not static and fixed, rather, it is fluid dependent on a range of factors. One of these factors is the degree of exposure to different cultures, ideas different to those taken for granted in our environment as well as our ability and willingness to review them. But then, there are also factors such as illness or a plain hangover, which may undermine our sense of self and increase our vulnerability.
NEGOTIATION and COMMUNICATION:
The extent, to which we buy into certain discourses, valid at a certain point in time and in a certain spatial context, is vital to the sense of rejection or acceptance we may experience. What it means to be a woman or a man (I do not discuss queer, gay and lesbian at this point because the paper that triggered my post was based on heterosexual relationships, but of course, I don’t mean to exclude these identities and perspectives) is not only determined by dominant discourses around us – say, men and women’s magazines such as Playboy or Cosmopolitan: it’s all about looks, sex and reinforcing stereotypes – but it is also about how we establish trust and communication with the other person. The way we negotiate meaning within a relationship is what creates the meaning of ‘I love you’ in our relationships. If we forget (or fear) to talk about our genuine needs, we may never get beyond mediated clichés.
FEAR, PAIN and MEDIA:
What actually prevents us from expressing our ideas about tenderness, warmth, commitment and all the fears and pain that seem to come along with it, is a whole different story. I wonder to what extent our activities on Twitter and Facebook, Flickr or Youtube help us to develop those skills. Do they offer us space to think about love and relationships?
Prior to these sites it used to be books, films and music that made us think or that shaped our wants and being wanted. Also, they shaped our silence and the way we found things to be ‘unspeakable’ – think about watching a steamy scene on TV – with your parents. In those decades between Hollway’s research and today’s social networking sites, what does not seem to have changed, though, is the many subtle shades those 3 words ‘I love you’ can acquire. I would love to your views on that.
One of the blogs I follow on a regular basis is Jeffrey Keefer’s Silence and Voice which is currently concerned with some issues related to research design and formulating of research questions in the wider context of auto-ethnography as methodology and identity construction as the subject of interest. Recent posts I found very interesting and commented on are the one on broader research design questions and the one on auto-ethnography and reflexivity which are worthwhile having a think over – they provide very good ground for some reflection on dilemmas and politics entailed in the underlying epistemological questions of research-related decision-making.
I am fascinated by the way crowd-sourcing can work in academic blogging, it’s a great way of engaging broader audiences and gaining some insights from outside immediate areas. I like and do value the fact that academic bloggers, busy with studies and work, research and other things, take the time and effort to reflect publicly online, open up to questions and critiques – and respond to comments and ideas. Personally, I enjoy the challenge to think about issues and see whether I can contribute some ideas and to what extent I need to improve on gaps and communication of insights.
Jeffrey’s research made me recall some podcasts featuring Stuart Hall et al. debating questions related to identity construction. They form part of the Open University’s post-graduate course D853 Identity in Question which I studied in 2008 – the interviews cover Lacanian Theory, Language Approach, subjectivity and legal definitions of personhood as well as some comments on Michel Foucault’s genealogical perspective. They last 2 to 9 minutes and deliver some great food for thought. I also came across James Schirmer’s paper on Scribd which I recommend as thought-provoking read in this context The Personal as Public: Identity Construction/Fragmentation Online
Today’s preconference at the University of Westminster, London, brought together a range of highly inspiring scholars who had re-evaluated Erving Goffman’s work in the setting of the everyday in digital life.
Heather Pleasants, University of Alabama, presented findings related to her digital storytelling project. Her illustrations of digital forms of communication were powerful stories posted on Stories for change and the paper was based on ethnographic observations framed by the works of Michael Wesch(2008), Erving Goffman (1963), Georg Simmel (1950), G.H. Mead (1934) et al. Particular audiences, for instance in education and health care, harness the possibilities provided by digital media, in authentically co-/presenting self and other. Trust, patience and respect in these spaces depend on self-representations and are constituted by the degree of authenticity. Here is another powerful example Life N Rhyme by Relixstylz linked by the Berkeley Language Center in California.
Mark E. Nelson’s (University of Oslo, Norway) presentation focused on the Space2cre8.com project and raised interesting questions. The data analysis had been based on semiotics and appeared to be reductionist in so far as user profiles produced in South Africa had been presented to users in Singapore which were interpreted from within the a certain cultural context. In more or less global networks, though, the idea to refer to one and the same system of symbols and meanings appeared to produce results limited in validity. The social, psychological and cultural embeddedness would need to be acknowledged. Also, representations and narratives may need to be accepted as ambiguously understood. In this sense, understanding would also require the dialogue between producer and audience who, in order to ensure predictive devices such as expressive gestures are understood as intended, will need to negotiate the clues given off in a non-intentional manner.
Sonia Livingstone, LSE, applied Goffman’s concept of the participation framework, production format and participant status to new social media. Goffman’s notion of modes of participations such as co-presence, bystanding, eavesdropping etc. appear to be applicable to f2f social situations as well as to online encounters. Whether participation has to be ratified as suggested by Goffman is less clear. In spaces such as Twitter or Facebook it seems to be perfectly fine to hold endless monologues which may be picked up by automated systems in order to be re-distributed. This may count as machine ratification, an entity not exactly covered in the model of the production format (principal, emitter, animator, figure – united in one agent at times). Reception roles and production roles are not clearly defined in the complexity of online social interaction (c.f. the concept of produsage, A. Bruns – blogpost and presentation
from prosumer to produser ). Impression management in mediated communication may require to address the fact that some communication online is meant to be self-reflection and monologue ‘only’, which, in contrast to offline space, does not require any ratification at all.
An aspect also discussed in Larry Friedlander’s (Stanford University) presentation – the representation as strategic action: never spontaneous, never pragmatic. In social networks the self-presentation is accompanied by anxiety to demonstrate and create status in a careful mix of showing and disguising by applying methods of evasion.
So, is it all staged, choreographed and scripted? Only if we assume people are not able to learn and grow while engaging in online social relations (even if ‘only’ with their self in reflective encounters). Narrating the self involves the negotiation of boundaries which entails self-defence as well as the growing self-confidence resulting from practising, exploring and observing what happens at the knots of connections or interfaces. However, the construction of self involves the negotiation of other, and even if only in observing monologues, non-ratified by the observed other. This complex layer of self-representation may only surface once the process has come to the point where an author determines to express a facet of their complex self.
In Coming of Age in Second Life, Tom Boellstorff argues that virtuality is actually an ‘ancient human practice and that many media have given us leave of the here and now: cave paintings, Jane Austen novels, Howard Nemerov poems’ (2008). His words in mind I went to see Inkheart in Berlin and could not have found a better illustration of the notion that virtuality is indeed ‘older than sin’ as Boellstorff quotes Plato. Assuming, we imagine our deeds first, then act – although, there is an element of awareness implied that might make all the difference.
Boellstorff’s extensive ethnographic research in Second Life provides us with a richness that won’t allow to dismiss virtual communities as less real as it would mean to miss the key point: what makes them real is our imagination. Equality of imagined and non-imagined places, communities and actions is probably what we can argue for now, having access to so much information and proof of what people imagine and how they imagine.
New social media are the places where a considerable amount of our daily interaction and non-verbal communication take place. Where happiness and depression have a lot in common and reproduce themselves. Without imagination there is little beyond routine: the future is a child of your creative imagination, imagination can destroy, combat crime or start wars. Imagine fear and the cold hand taking hold of you is not far. In this sense new social media is actually not new at all. Interacting with others, forming sustainable and healthy social relationships as well as learning from conflicts are subjects to our imaginative powers and just as Inkheart illustrates so colourfully: escaping from inside the written words into the world declared as real or being pulled inside a book – remember The Neverending Story, Peter Pan’s Neverland, Pippi Longstocking? – it all does seem to be very real. We used to be skilled in imagining whole worlds and futures before we internalised what we were told then: to be realistic, to not get lost in imagined and fantasized worlds. Imagination has become highly status-related: certain literature, music, opera and theatre are encouraged and socially rewarding whereas some popular culture, certain video-gaming and virtual interaction do not enhance our social and cultural capital, so far at least a still dominant argument brought up by many who don’t think much of virtual communities.
Whose reality is it anyway? Imagined readers and writers are closely tied together in Inkheart, escaping from outside into the other world becomes possible by reading the words to an audience, a listener. Do we imagine the other and their world when addressing someone in a letter, an electronic message, on the phone or in Second Life? Perhaps we need to ask when we do not imagine an audience and when we are not imagined as part of the visible or invisible audience…in online and offline worlds full of CCTV, cookies and user statistics leaving traces just as bold as tinkerbell’s fairy dust.
We would benefit from a more holistic approach, I believe, when it comes to understanding the real impact of our imaginations upon our manufactured ‘real worlds’. Imagine, all the people, sharing one virtual world – with many virtual sub-worlds, of course – in awareness of their imaginative powers….imagine all the people understanding the responsibility that comes with such powers…