Constructing and Deconstructing Masculinities through Critical Literacy

Davies’s (1997a) focus on critical literacy highlights the importance of equipping learners not simply with knowledge but with the tools

through which they can become their own knowledge producers. Davies is working within a poststructuralist framework and the research discussed here is based on observational data. Davies gives us the case of Mr Good, a teacher, who is not resistant to the idea of disrupting gender identities. Indeed, as Davies’s pseudonym indicates, Mr Good appears to engage in the essential strategies of decon­struction that might lead to the acquisition of new identities. Never­theless, Davies argues that Mr Good’s pedagogic approach remains flawed.

Mr Good seeks to challenge stereotypes of macho masculinity by making it possible for boys to take themselves up as literate, oral beings. He does this in a number of ways. For example, Mr Good draws on his own personal interests and feelings to indicate that he is not a detached bystander to knowledge. He also challenges, in a supportive way, displays of macho masculinity when they are evidenced in the classroom. Indeed, through his various responses Mr Good suggests that there are many ways in which masculinity can be ‘done’. Much of this incorporates the notion of the ‘new man’ within traditional forms of masculinity. Thus, boys in Mr Good’s class were able to read poetry without feeling self-conscious. They were able to play football and to know about wars and planes. They were able to engage with philosophical and moral issues and speak about their feelings.

However, Davies argues that Mr Good does not go far enough. This is because Mr Good does not offer the children in his class ‘the kind of reflexive knowledge that would allow them to see what is happening and to critique the various discourses that are made available to them’ (ibid.: 25). Essentially, Mr Good does not hold in play the variety of meanings ascribed to masculinity. He does not explore the ways in which these meanings rely on each other. Nor does he explore the potential to create new meanings. In this, then, Mr Good does not give the children in his classroom the tools through which to become fully critically literate and thereby able to understand how their positioning could change through resisting dominant meanings or changing them. Here there are three pedagogic tasks that could be undertaken. First, there is a need to generate a level of critical literacy that enables learners to recognize multiple discourses. Second, there is a need to facilitate a critical awareness of the ways in which the self is contra­dictorily positioned as colonized and colonizer and as oppressed and oppressive within these discourses. Third, there is a need to embrace, as one’s own, the multiplicity of positions with which one wishes to identify.


I have indicated that central to conceptual contestation is a concern about the effects of meaning. Feminism’s relationship with becoming gives a particular weight to the political implications of the language and terms that we use to frame our theory and our research. Through the language of conceptual literacy this text has explored only one part of this. The effects of conceptual contestation are real as they produce what become acceptable ways of knowing, theorizing and doing. We are each caught up in, and actively take up, these webs of meaning. They are productive of our passions and commitments. As Moi (1999) wrestles to free herself from the intellectually learnt search for deep meaning, she demonstrates what is for me a central feminist ethic. This is the development of skills in:

catching language in the act of formation and in recognising and assessing the effects of that formation [through which] language is no longer a dead tool for the maintenance of old certainties, but a life-giving set of possibilities for shaping and reshaping a complex, rich, fluid social world.

A critically and socially [and conceptually] literate [personhood] would not be caught up, as some might fear, in a mindless, relativist spiral. Rather, in the very visibility and analysability of language, and its effects, lies the possibility of being open to a philosophical and moral critique of the many and multiple meanings and modes of being embedded in and created through different uses of language. (Davies, 1997a: 29)

I offer this text in that spirit.


Clearly, the work of Bronwyn Davies has been central to this chapter and I can only urge you to follow up the references here. More broadly, however, I would further suggest you consult first-hand all the texts cited in this book that are relevant to your own research. This way you will not be reliant on my own (mis)readings and (mis)interpretations!

. . . Recognize the Limits of Critique and Potential T ransformation

The fifth task that Davies notes is that we have to recognize the limits of any critique or potential transformation. Central to this is developing a reflexive awareness of ourselves as sentient beings and the place of language and meaning in the production of feeling. In this respect Lankshear et al. (1997: 83) describe how fast capitalist texts promote visions of ‘“enchanted workplaces” where hierarchy is dead and “part­ners” engage in meaningful work amidst a collaborative environment of mutual commitment and trust’. Central to this are discourses of empowerment and self-direction that work on the subject to produce similarly enchanted employees. While critical literacy is concerned to develop skills and knowledges that enable us to at least recognize enchantment when it occurs, Moi’s (1999) comments remind us about the difficulties of freeing ourselves from the pictures and mirages that hold us captive. Moi reflects on her earlier published work Sexual/ Textual Politics and comments that there are ‘many traces of the metaphysics I now want to escape’ (ibid.: xiv). She comments:

I appear to believe that there is something intrinsically wrong with being part of a binary opposition (on what evidence? I ask myself today), I am quite insufficiently nuanced about when essentialism is a bad thing and when it doesn’t matter, and I spend too much time using words like ‘signifier’ when ‘word’ would have been quite adequate. (ibid.: xiv-xv)

More contemporarily Moi is ‘concerned with the ordinary and the everyday. I now see poststructuralism as a form of thought that is too eager to lose itself in metaphysics. . . In short, the two new essays collected in Part I show why I would now challenge the mindset that produces the need to place scare quotes around words such as ‘‘reality’’ or ‘‘social beings’’’ (ibid.: xiv). However, she notes that these new essays ‘also show how hard the task of justifying this feeling intel­lectually actually is’ (ibid.). Nevertheless, this does not stop Moi from attempting such a task. Thus, impossible though it may be to forsake new metaphysical mirages for the ordinary unless we constantly strive to ‘move beyond the intellectual pictures that hold us captive’ (ibid.) we will neither understand the power of linguistic forms nor develop the capacity to use them well (Davies, 1994; 1996; 1997a; 2000).

. . . Engage in Moral and Philosophical Critique

Fourth, and relatedly, Davies indicates how we need to engage in moral and philosophical critique of discourse. This is not, however, to assert our moral superiority or ascendancy over others but it is to more fully understand how truth is constructed at different points in time and in different discourses. Gee (1996) points out how contestation over meaning always invokes moral argumentation. Thus with conceptually contested terms he comments that ‘it is pointless to ask what they ‘‘really’’ mean. What is to the point is to say what you choose to take them to mean, after careful, thoughtful, and ethical reflection’ (ibid.: 16). In this Gee offers two principles that he argues should form the basis of ethical human discourse. These are that we should ensure that any conceptualization that we choose should not harm someone else and that we have an ethical obligation to make explicit any tacit theory if we have reason to believe that this theory will give us an advantage over another. This means that we also need to make our concep­tualizations known to those with whom we work. As we have learnt we cannot assume that we share the same meanings of particular concepts. Indeed, as Lankshear et al. (1997) comment, we can usually safely assume that such meanings are not shared. It is, therefore, important when people, particularly from different backgrounds or discursive traditions, come together to work collectively. Lankshear et al. note:

This is especially important where words which have positive connota­tions and generate strong allegiances across discursive borders are being employed in discursive contexts where projects of willing visions into reality are being enacted. In such contexts there are real dangers of being co-opted into agendas we might subsequently wish we had resisted, but where we could/did not resist because we failed to appreciate the extent to which the meanings of others were not our own meanings; possibly we did not even realize exactly how others with the power to ensure that their meanings prevailed were, in fact, framing what appeared to be shared concepts. (ibid.: 92)

For example, many feminists have had an enormous commitment to equality and have worked with a variety of policy-makers and organ­izational leaders to realize their visions. However, they have commented on how the ‘business’ case, rather than the ‘moral’ case, has been far more persuasive as a reason for organizations to become involved in equal opportunities work. Thus, Shaw (1995: 224) comments: ‘A feature of the 1990s has been the attempt to show that a wider sense of social responsibility makes good business sense.’ The ‘business’ case argues that ‘the workforce consists of a diverse population of people [and] harnessing these differences will create a productive environment in which everybody feels valued, where their talents are being fully utilised and in which organisational goals are met’ (Kandola and Fullerton, 1994: 8). Here, therefore, feminist equality discourses come together with the needs of capitalism. As research in the equal opportunities, and diversity management, fields indicate the focus has been on ‘glass ceiling’ work that has been mainly beneficial to middle-class women working within professional and management fields. As Shaw remarks:

[M]uch equal opportunities work is irrelevant to the bulk of women who are nowhere near managerial grades. The individualistic strategies advo­cated for potential high-fliers may be effective, but they do not touch the working conditions of the majority. Indeed, if they did, there is a good chance that they would be abandoned, for equality of opportunity, in and of itself, implies no commitment to equality. (1995: 215)

The implication of this in terms of conceptual literacy and critical language awareness is that we must ask what constructions of equality are operating within each field and what are the consequences of these. To do this we need to tease out the various sets of meanings of socially contested terms. This will enable us to raise questions and issues for debate and dialogue and will deepen our understanding of the ‘values and ideological loadings that are at stake in any Discourse’ (Lankshear et al., 1997: 93). This will also help us to understand the grounds that exist for making, or indeed not making, common cause in the creation of a more socially just world (ibid.).

. . . Read, Speak and Write Oneself into the Possibilities of Different Discourses

Millard’s (1997) research illustrates the great variety of reading prac­tices that young people engage in both within and outside school. In this respect the third task that Davies urges is that we should read and speak ourselves into the possibilities of different discourses and contexts. We might, for example, ask what a cyborg conceptualization of experience means for our sense of identity. Or what conceptualizations of post­colonial difference mean for a becoming feminism. Or indeed what kinds of future feminist politics can be envisaged that are based on a conceptualization of care as an ethic or care as work. In addition, we might also write ourselves into different discourses and contexts.

A focus on authorship in postmodern enquiry has illustrated how researchers shape meanings in the presentation of their findings. Atkinson (1990) illustrates how the believability of the research report is not a given that just comes with the data. It is formed through the researcher’s use of a variety of literary devices and narrative strategies that depict rhetorical figures, use descriptive vocabulary to evoke the scenes within which these characters live their lives and which rely on the selection of appropriate illustrative material. Nevertheless, authorial authority is never guaranteed. Poststructuralism has challenged the idea that there exists ‘a single, literal reading of a textual object, the one intended by the author’ (Barone, 1995: 65). Although some readings are certainly more privileged than others, interpretation cannot be con­trolled. Readers bring their own knowledges, experiences, values and meanings to the text. This means that as author I cannot guarantee the authority of my words.

The focus in postmodern scholarship on these issues has brought a greater consciousness of narrative devices and strategies of persuasion in the dissemination of research. This heightened consciousness may of course lead to attempts to reinforce researcher authority through becoming more expert in the various techniques of writing. Yet this heightened consciousness has also led researchers to take more risks and to become more ‘playful’ in the styles that are used for written dis­semination. One of the purposes of this playfulness has been to open up and make more explicit how knowledge is constructed through research. For example, Perriton (1999) uses two, unequal, columns that separate first and third person pronouns. The authoritative voice of the third person mirrors the personal voice of the first person to convey that they are the voices of the same author. Yet the greater space given to the third person discussion replicates how ideas of the neutral researcher continue to predominate.

However, within the research methodology literature the issue of writing is either ignored or is considered primarily in technical terms of, say, style, format, writing drafts and thinking about potential audiences. Perry (2000) notes that educators have paid very little attention to the role of writing in the development of critical consciousness. A standard view of writing is that this is an act of transcription of one’s thinking where one needs to engage in the act of thinking prior to putting those thoughts onto paper. In contrast Perry’s central point is that writing is thinking. One not only becomes conscious of one’s thinking through writing but writing shapes and transforms our thinking. As with critical literacy more generally, Perry’s work is strongly influenced by Freirean pedagogies. Perry argues that it is necessary for learners ‘to become aware of what it means for them to write in order to establish a new relationship with writing’ (ibid.: 186). This means that learners need to engage in a variety of ‘risk-free’ writing tasks that include

focused and unfocused freewriting, sustained exploratory writing to discover what they know and think about topics and issues, loop writing to discover the depth of their thinking on topics/issues/events not apparent at the outset of the writing [and discussion of] the politics and the power of language use in and out of the academy. (ibid.)

With some similarity to Perry, Lillis’s (2001) research into critical literacy and student writing is focused on what she describes as the essayist literacy that is required of higher education students. Lillis notes that ‘social and personal identity are bound up with ways of meaning making in fundamental ways’ (ibid.: 169). She suggests that the following questions are central to understanding the effects of this.

These are: ‘What kinds of identities are privileged through existing practices? How can traditionally excluded identities be foregrounded and including in teaching, learning and meaning making? What kinds of identities do we want to encourage in higher education, and why?’ (ibid.). Of course, we might want to extend Lillis’s questions to other spheres and domains and to both writing and reading.

. . . Move Beyond Dominant Forms of Thought to Embrace Multiple Ways of Knowing

The second task that Davies suggests is to move beyond linear and rational thought and to embrace and celebrate multiple and contra­dictory ways of knowing. This is because this will help us to undermine the power of dominant discourses. It will also encourage movement through openness and openings and raise questions for us about the truth of different ways of knowing. This text has many examples of the multiple discourses of feminism and relatedly the many ways of conceptualizing. This raises the question of how research and theoriza­tion changes through different conceptual usage and the effects this has for developing feminist knowledge and feminist politics. It also raises questions for research design and analysis. In this respect Alvesson and Skoldberg (2000: 194-5) offer a set of ‘pragmatic postmodern prin­ciples’ that may be useful for thinking about the application of multiple meaning and pluralism in terms of the conduct of research. These are:

• Pluralism in the potential of different identities or voices associated with different groups, individuals, positions or special interests which inform, and can be seen in, research work and research texts.

• Receptiveness to pluralism and variation in what individual parti­cipants in the research process convey (the possibility of multiple representations by one and the same individual participant).

• Alternative presentations of phenomena (for instance, the use of different sorts of descriptive language).

• Command of different theoretical perspectives (root metaphors), as well as a strong familiarity with the critique of and problems with these. This enables openness and different sorts of readings to sur­face in the research.

Alvesson and Skoldberg comment that it would not be feasible to achieve a high degree of pluralism and a minimum degree of exclusion in any one text by covering all four of the above dimensions. It is possible, however, to maximize one or two of these. Overall what they suggest is that ‘What is crucial is the production of an open text, which stimulates active interpretation on the part of the reader; researchers should avoid “closing” their texts by placing themselves too firmly between the reader and the voices researched’ (ibid.: 195). Coffey (2001: 115) offers a summary of research in the postmodern and notes how Haw’s (1998) text on the education of Muslim girls is ‘an exemplary example of a feminist collaborative approach to the writing (and researching) task’.

Know Well Dominant Forms of Thought

Feminism has been extremely critical of the masculinity of Cartesian rationality and the concomitant separation of body and mind. In coming to learn this we might be encouraged to think that as feminists we therefore do not need to ‘know’ masculine forms of rationality as they have been ruled outside legitimate ways of feminist being and knowing. We might also believe that once we have learnt that a theory or prin­ciple is problematic then it will no longer have power over or within us. However, we need to recognize that although we might now critique how rationality has been constructed in this way we have been encour­aged, through, for example, our schooling, to master its discourses (Davies et al., 2001). When Walby (2001a: 494) comments in her critiques of experience that feminists ‘smuggle in modernist assump­tions’ she is alerting us to how we have both been taken up by and take up the reason of mainstream science. We cannot assume that even if we so desire we can free ourselves so easily, and certainly never totally, from such powerfully dominant discourses.

Brah (1999: 8) suggests that the Althusserian idea of interpellation is useful as it makes sense of ‘being situated and ‘‘hailed’’ socially, culturally, symbolically, and psychically, all at once [and thus] it takes seriously the relationship between the social and the psychic’. Indeed, while we should seek to thoroughly know rational thought and how it works on us to persuade, we should also apply these principles to dominant discourses within feminism. How have we been hailed or situated by this, and other, discourses? To answer this question it is not necessary to reject these discourses, although we might, but it is neces­sary to know how dominant discourses work on us and on others and why we are so powerfully committed to or rejecting of such discourses. This will help us come to understand why we might take up, or we might be persuaded by, particular forms of argumentation.

Critical Tasks in Conceptual Literacy

As Wittgenstein teaches us, the task of freeing ourselves from the intellectual pictures that hold us captive is not only immensely hard, it is never done, for we are always going to find ourselves held by new metaphysical mirages, fall for new temptations to forsake the ordinary.

(Moi, 1999: xiv)

I have described conceptual literacy as an act of sensitization to multiple meaning. I have urged that central to this sensitization is an awareness of the political implications of debate and argument over meaning. In this respect the key question that I have asked in this chapter is ‘What effects does contestation have for feminist knowledge?’ As I hope I have made clear in response to this question, I have drawn on particular theorists and positions. Yet there is a question that has preceded each of these. This is: ‘What theoretical frameworks can enable me to under­stand the politics of how text and stories work on me to produce my intellectual responses of agreement, rejection, joy, passion, depression, disbelief, loss and transformation?’ For me this question is central and it is here that I turn to critical literacy. Through critical literacy ‘we come to know how enchanting language is, we learn to revel in the enchant­ment of knowing ourselves in the world through language. At the same time as we learn to be transgressive, we develop the skills of critical imagination through which we open up new possibilities, think the as yet unthinkable, beyond and outside dead language’ (Davies, 1997a: 29). Davies (1994; 1996; 1997a; 2000) has illustrated how critical literacy is a set of practices that draws on poststructural theories of selfhood and language. It encourages the development of skills and habits but does not seek to separate theory from practice. Rather, as Davies remarks, critical literacy is concerned with developing a reflexive awareness of how speaking-as-usual constructs our understandings of ourselves and of others. It is, in this regard, concerned with the rela­tionship between the construction of selves and regimes of truth. To do critical literacy we need to develop the capacities through which we can read against the grain of dominant discourses and the privileged positions that are constructed within them. In this we must learn to look beyond the content of the text and to see, and critique, how this content works upon us to shape meaning and desire. Davies (1997a) has set out five inter-related tasks that we need to undertake to develop critical literacy. I have adapted these for the development of conceptual literacy.

Towards a Synthentic Account of the Development of Conceptual Meanings

[A]rguing about what words (ought to) mean is not a trivial business – it is not ‘mere words’, ‘hair-splitting’, or ‘just semantics’ – when these arguments are over what I have called socially contested terms. Such arguments are what lead to the adoption of social beliefs and the theories behind them, and these theories and beliefs lead to social action and the maintenance and creation of social worlds.

(Gee, 1996: 15-16)

I began this text by noting how much concern there is in social science discourse that we are not talking about the same thing at all in our use

of key concepts. Multiple meaning and divergent conceptualization are seen as particular problems for ensuring the comparability and validity of research findings. They can also be highly debilitating for learners who lose their way in a morass of contestation and interpretation. In addition, such is the postmodern emphasis on truths, rather than Truth, that it would be all too easy to say that debate over meaning is mere semantics and ‘hair-splitting’ (ibid.). It would be all too easy indeed. This text takes a contrary view. This is that arguments over meaning should be appraised as political acts that are designed to shape how we should know our social worlds. They are enacted from implicit or explicit theoretical positions based upon implicit or explicit beliefs. The outcome of these debates affects how we might proceed from here. These procedures will be both theoretical and political and they will impact on policies and practices. There are five points that have been central to understanding this view of conceptual contestation. These are:

1 Indicators ascribed to concepts are not purely descriptive but are also appraisive. Accordingly, indicators are value-laden.

2 Meaning needs to be considered in relation to the contextual and theoretical field in which it is placed. Contestation over meaning will therefore vary because the same term can have different meanings due to underlying theorization or context of use.

3 Contestation over meaning affects the validity and truth claims that can be made for underlying theorization.

4 Contestation arises because of the internal complexity of some con­cepts. Some concepts form webs of connection, chains of meaning or clusters with other concepts.

5 The outcome of debate directs how a field of enquiry will develop in the future.

These five points provide the framework for the synthesis that I offer here. In this I shall begin with what I would identify as the mistress concept of feminism. This is difference. Felski (1997) has described difference as a doxa. Difference has become so pervasive within feminist thought that it has become an orthodoxy that must always be taken into account. Certainly I can place difference centre stage and state that if we examine the varied conceptualizations of each of the six concepts we will see that different theories of difference offer a linearity of develop­ment. In this respect I noted in Chapter 3 that a major narrative in feminism is that of a movement through different forms of difference. This begins with the first difference, that between women and men, and moves to the second difference, that of identity groups divided by ‘race’, class, disability and so forth and finally moves towards a third differ­ence, that of postmodernism and poststructuralism. To a large extent each of the concepts in Figure 8.1 could be plotted along an axis of this kind.

Why should difference be so significant? What are the features of this concept that make it so powerful. Certainly difference is a cluster con­cept. It is placed in a web of meaning so that when we read or hear the term difference we are making conscious and unconscious connections with other significant terms. Scott (1988) has taken a deconstructive approach to difference to illustrate how its meanings rely on meanings of equality. Evans (1995) has indicated how we need to understand difference as part of a conceptual triangle with equality and sameness. Felski (1997) has urged us to remember that the antithesis of difference is not equality but sameness. Yet the difference-equality meaning rela­tionship appears intransigent to such reminders. In the becoming of feminism conceptualizations of difference appear intrinsically related to political outcomes for feminist egalitarianism or, as Felski puts it equality and difference ‘exist in a condition of necessary philosophical and political interdependence, such that the very pursuit of difference returns one, inexorably, to the seemingly obsolete issue of equality’ (ibid.: 2-3).

In addition, in the analyses that I have offered, difference would appear to have been one of the most contentious terms within feminism if not the most contentious. Indeed, to follow this line of thought further we might also be tempted to say that some terms are more highly developed than others. The centring of difference to all the other con­cepts, and the varied meanings of difference itself, could be read as a narrative of progress as we move ever forwards towards even more sophisticated understandings. However, I do not believe that this is a story of straightforward linear progression as we move from one stage to another. Rather, the debates about difference are evidence of the co­existence, rather than replacement, of disparate ideas. For example, although postcolonial conceptualizations of difference recognize the instability of identity, they do not do so unreservedly (Felski, 1997; Beasley, 1999). Rather, issues of hierarchy and difference are constantly reaffirmed in respect of ‘race’ and ethnicity.

In turning to care I am drawn to Thomas’s (1993) comments that it may be more useful to consider care as an empirical category that requires analysis in terms of other theoretical categories. Such a point is of course pertinent to all concepts in that they have an empirical basis that will then draw on a variety of theoretical positions (Karen Phillips, personal communication). Yet the analysis I have presented about care would suggest that there is some kind of division between the empirics of doing care, as task or activity, that has primarily been the domain of sociology and care as a way of being or as an ethic that has primarily been in the domain of psychology and philosophy. The debates about the former have certainly added to the number of indicators that could/ should be included in operationalizing care. The debates about the latter have been far more voracious as they have touched upon the meanings of womanhood.

We can understand developments in sociological conceptualizations of care as illustrative of Tanesini’s (1994) point that one of the purposes of meaning-claims is to prescribe changes that ‘correct’ previous conceptual errors. Here one of the key debates about sociological concepts of care has been to argue that these should move beyond their initial focus of ‘home-based-kin-care’ (Graham, 1991). In this respect issues of identity difference in particular have been significant and thus confirm Connolly’s and Tanesini’s points that the choice of indicators is appraisive rather than objective. Mason (1996: 17) notes that ‘as feminists more generally debated questions of difference and argued more energetically about whether or not women’s existence was determined in the last instance by their position in the ‘‘family’’, so debates about care took on these questions too’. The effect of these has expanded the notion of ‘who cares’ to include issues of ‘race’, class, sexuality and disability and the idea of women as primary carers has been challenged by empirical data that illustrates that men also undertake caring tasks. In addition, the domains of caring activity now include community and social care and workplaces more broadly. While identity difference has had the main impact on conceptualizing care, this is not to say that poststructural and decon­structive theorization have been neglected. For example, analyses of family care have been concerned to overcome the dichotomy of labour or love set out in earlier feminist theorizations (see, for example, Finch and Groves, 1983). Thus, Mason (1996: 32) argues for inclusion of the realm of the relational and feeling in order that we ‘reconceptualise these aspects of care as sentient activity and active sensibility’. In addition, the collection in Silva and Smart (1999) illustrates how the linkage between discourse and identity is shaping analyses of care. Indeed, these examples are illustrative of how successful meaning-claims can shift the focus on research. Moreover they can create new fields of research. For example, ‘Disability Studies’ is a vibrant area of research that has explored care in respect of identity and poststructural theorization (see, for example, Morris, 1993; Thomas, 1999).

Mason’s concern about relationality brings me to care as an ethics because here I believe a slightly different picture emerges in respect of the intensity of debate around conceptual meanings. The founding theorization of the sociology of care was based on connecting care to work and labour. Whilst feminists such as Mason (1996) have critiqued the binaried nature of this the foundational idea that care is also work has been broadly accepted. However, the ethics of care field has been attacked because its founding theorization was so fully focused in woman’s psychology and the maternalist politics that were developed from this. Despite her claims to contrary meanings, Gilligan’s (1982) classic text has normally be read as suggesting that woman’s psychology is based in relationality and care for others. The work of Ruddick (1980) and Noddings (1984) developed this into a maternalist politics that argued that motherhood provided the highest example of exem­plary personhood. Within such a view the primary aim of feminism is to achieve a society based on caring relationships. The problem for many feminists was that this assumed that women were innately caring. The political implications of this line of thought are that women would be held captive by their caring ‘natures’. Here, more sociological definitions of care as work and care as dependency are extremely significant. Within the politics of feminism care has primarily been seen as, and indeed remains, a key part of the problem for achieving equality. For example, one of the reasons why the ‘Wages for Housework’ debate failed was because payment for care work would contribute to keeping women fixed in caring tasks. The perceived outcomes of an ethics of care were, therefore, in direct contradiction to what have been perceived as the more liberatory politics of gendered divisions of labour. These issues have been part of a broader concern around essentialist theor­ization in feminism. Essentialism is, of course, one of the ‘dirty’ words of feminism and we should perhaps not be surprised to note that it forms part of the dualistic meanings of difference. The outcome of this contestation has not put an end to feminist interest in an ethics of care as it did with Wages for Housework campaigns. It has for some, how­ever, shifted the theoretical field away from maternalist politics and towards poststructural and deconstructive positions where the argument can proceed away from woman-as-caring-as-her-innate-nature to woman-as-process-of-which-caring-is-an-effect-of-discursive-relations. This literature has also sought to include men, as well as women, within caring relations (see, for example, Sevenhuijsen, 1998).

The importance attached to women’s responsibilities for care is also relevant to understanding developments in the conceptualization of time. There is no doubt that time has been extensively theorized in the natural sciences yet Adam (1990; 1995) notes that theories of time are yet to impact on the development of social theory. Nowotny (1992) suggests that time is transdisciplinary and thus cannot be put under the intellectual monopoly of any discipline. However, this suggests that time may be extremely productive for feminist thought because of the con­cerns within feminist thought for interdisciplinary and indeed trans­disciplinary perspectives. To date, however, theorization over time primarily remains within feminine and masculine dualistic framings. This is within the first difference of feminism. This is because the majority of research in this field is primarily concerned with the prob­lems for women of fitting in with masculine conceptualizations and models of linear time. There is, of course, a very good reason for this as married women’s participation rates in the paid labour force have been increasing since the Second World War (National Statistics Office, 2001) and yet their responsibilities for care have not diminished in the same way. The linear model of time is central to the organization of paid work yet caring work takes on different temporal patterns.

Seeking to more fully understand, or indeed challenge, postmodern frameworks of identity, feminists have drawn on time to understand issues of the continuity of selfhood. These have focused on the simul­taneous nature of past, present and future (see for example Griffiths, 1995; McNay, 2000). More broadly in terms of feminist politics Grosz (2000) also argues for an analysis that takes account of past, present and future. Grosz comments that while there is much work being conducted on questions of time, memory and history, very little theor­ization is taking place in respect of time and futurity. Here Grosz argues that the common perspective in historical analysis is to learn from the lessons of the past. However, the problem of this is that the future is overwhelmingly visualized in terms of the repeatability of the past and present and, in consequence, futurity is contained by past images and issues. This means that feminism ‘risks being stuck in political strategies and conceptual dilemmas that are more appropriate to the past than the future’ (ibid.: 230). Finally, while issues of spatiality are an important concern and an alternative field of conceptualization time-space rela­tionships appear to be a considerably under-developed area of feminist research.

When considering choice I think it would be fair to say that a major impetus to conceptualization is to add a necessary structural caution to accounts that give too much to agency. As a heuristic case study my focus here was on rational choice theory and feminist economists’ responses to this. However, I would suggest that more broadly feminist conceptual­izations of choice have also been concerned with balancing structure – agency issues. Thus research that is concerned to illustrate the complexity of choice is problematizing the predominance of rational choice models of career theory. In terms of psychological explanations, Anderson (1998) comments in this respect that models of occupational behaviour are based on economic rationality models. In this respect Evetts confirms that there is a ‘continuing division of feminist researchers into opposing factions: of those who emphasize determinants and those who emphasize choice; of those who stress reproduction and continuity and those who stress change; of the perception of women as victims or women as agents’ (2000: 65).

My own reading of the literature on women’s careers would very much accord with that of Evetts. There is a replication of the agency – structure dualism that many feminists would both challenge and seek to go beyond. As we saw in Chapter 4, in her review of the structuring of inequalities and the complex interaction of a host of variables, Anderson (1998) suggests that we need a new language given that the term ‘choice’ does not convey opportunity and constraint. There is very little contestation that this is an appropriate way forward. Thus the problem is more usually posed in terms of finding a balance within the binary of agency-structure rather than an alternative framework for exploration.

One of the reasons for this is because the major conceptualizations of choice have drawn on liberal theory wherein lie the roots of feminist thought (Eisenstein, 1984). For example, liberalism and feminism both share ‘some conception of individuals as free and equal beings, emanci­pated from the ascribed, hierarchical bonds of traditional society’ (Pateman, 1987: 103). In liberal theory choice sits in a conceptual chain with individualism, rights and freedom. Thus, women’s right to choice also invokes a sense of autonomy, freedom and individual rights. The important assertions of structure and the adding in of issues of class, sexuality, ‘race’, disability, age and gender mainly speak to the problems for women in achieving these rights and freedoms and in becoming women with choices. Indeed, although there are now extensive feminist critiques of dualistic language and growing attention to poststructural conceptions of the ‘choosing subject’, as Plumwood (1993: 32) com­ments in relation to deconstruction ‘Only liberal feminism, which accepts the dominant culture, has not had much use for the concept.’ This would perhaps offer some explanation for the relatively little development of conceptualizations of choice given that much work in this area has been undertaken within liberal feminist frameworks.

In placing difference as the central place for understanding how and why the other concepts have developed their meanings in the ways that they have, I am aware that experience is considered the basis of feminism. I do not dispute this but I believe experience has constituted a different function to that of difference. Specifically experience has been linked to new feminist methodologies and epistemologies. In Colebrook’s (2000) terms experience has been about a becoming feminism in respect of the development of feminist frameworks for knowing the social world. Experience, therefore, has constituted much more of a tool for more adequate theories of knowing. As a tool for more warrantable knowledge experience has, with great similarity to the other concepts, expanded its terms of reference. It has progressed through the narratives of difference to include women’s standpoint, Black feminists’ standpoint and postmodern cyborg standpoints with concomitant changes to its underlying theorization.

What is perhaps surprising about the tenor of debate around experi­ence is that so little of it has been concerned with methodological paradigms. The critique of positivism and a preference for qualitative approaches are standard across feminism. This is not to say that femin­ists do not do quantitative work (see, for example, Jayaratne, 1993) but Walby’s (2001a) intervention to argue the case for quantitative and evidence-based approaches is relatively rare. However, when it comes to issues of relativism then widespread voices of alarm are raised. This is because as a politics, feminism cannot avoid making truth claims. Con­temporary debates about the conceptualization of experience illustrate a concern for issues of truth and a critical assessment of the individual­izing propensities of location and the personal. Here debates are raised about the danger of sinking within the morass of paraphernalia con­cerned with the anecdotal and the less than ordinary and that feminism has more to offer than mere stories. Again we could consider these interventions not as linear progression through one theoretical frame­work to another but as the co-existence of many frames of meaning. Thus Hekman’s (1999) call for feminist science as truth invokes a rejection of relativism that is far more modern than postmodern in its tenor.

Finally, we must turn to equality. Equality has certainly been a highly contested concept. The liberal conceptualization of equality as ‘the same as’ has brought severe critique from feminists concerned that success is being defined for women as the achievement of certain forms of mas­culine lifestyle and ways of being. The cultural conceptualization of equality as ‘different but equal’ has evoked similarly strong reactions in respect of fears about essentialism that I have noted above. The prob­lems of achieving equality in terms of group politics are manifest. Indeed, we might say that equality has run its course as a viable term for twenty-first-century feminism. What is interesting about equality there­fore is that it is an excellent example of the politics of changing lan­guage and the limits to ever expanding meaning. For example, Griffiths (1998) illustrates that a term such as equality can become so strongly associated with a devalued position that its use is no longer tenable. She comments in this respect: ‘One reason for choosing the term “social justice” is precisely because it has been less used. As a result, it has not (yet) suffered the kind of attack as a term that the more well known terms have’ (ibid.: 85). Although there is variety of meaning there are consensual limits to a word’s meaning. We might be able to stretch meaning, explore multiple meanings and make new meaning but we cannot apply absolutely any meaning to a given term. The meanings of a term are rooted in negotiation between different interest groups or communities. At the heart of this negotiation are common values through which meaning is drawn. Gee (1996) comments thus:

Meanings, and the cultural models that compose them, are ultimately rooted in negotiation between different social practices with different interests. Power plays an important role in these negotiations. The negotiations can be settled for the time, in which case meaning becomes conventional and routine. But the settlement can be reopened. . . The negotiations which constitute meaning are limited by values emanating from communities. Meanings, then, are ultimately rooted in communities.

(ibid.: 81)

There are two aspects that are central to understanding the limitations of any meaning of equality. The first is that the mathematical meaning of equal as ‘the same as’ is predominant. Second, and the more signi­ficant issue, is that this ‘same as’ draws in the normative subject of masculinity into equality’s frames of meaning. Within feminism the struggle for some has been to move beyond the normative male. How­ever, the term equality always appears to pull us back to this. Within feminism equality is so strongly associated with a liberal feminist position of equality as masculine achievement and as opportunity for middle-class women that there is also strong ambivalence to the term. If we were to say that difference is a synonym for woman in this reading, equality is a synonym for White middle-class man.

What is also useful to remember, however, is that outside feminist communities these two aspects of meaning operate slightly differently. This is because the meanings are drawing in alternative discourses. Myers (2000b: 4) uses the term ‘equiphobia’ to denote ‘an irrational hatred and fear of anything to do with equal opportunities’. She outlines media responses of ‘equiphobia’ to equal opportunities initiatives in schools as examples of this. However, she notes ironically that when the term equal opportunity is used in an alternative discursive domain of the perceived under-achievement of boys it does not attract the same kind of response. For example, we might say that equiphobia arises because of the linkage of equality to the term feminism. Here we do not find that ‘the same as men’ is heard as a foolhardy outcome for feminist politics but rather as the avowed cause. Equality is therefore taken up as a competitive slogan that will challenge male power and reduce men’s spheres of influence.

What differentiates the meanings that are drawn from equality dis­courses between some feminist and some equiphobic communities are the implications for the future of gender relations. For some feminists the future arising from equal opportunities is, problematically, the retention of a class-based hierarchically ordered society and the further reinforcement of male-as-norm outcomes. For equiphobists the future arising from equal opportunities is a different problem. This is a diminishing male power base. Certainly these alternative communities are drawing on the same underlying meanings of equality as ‘the same as men’. But this not only differentiates their responses. It also places limits on how far we can stretch equality’s meanings.

Change of terminology, then, can be a highly important political act. Indeed, Griffiths commentary on equality and her choice of social justice is also significant for another reason. This is that it demonstrates so clearly that changing terminology is not merely semantic but represents an alternative theoretical or value position. Indeed, Brooks (1997: 4) notes that the shift from paying attention to equality to a much greater focus on difference is central to the politics of postfeminism and marks a conceptual change in ‘feminism’s conceptual and theoretical agenda’. Thus, as Griffiths further comments, social justice is not only a broader term it can actually eschew the meanings of equality in terms of the same as:

Another reason for choosing the term is that ‘social justice’ is a broader term than ‘equality’. There are plenty of times when strict equality would be waived for reasons of social justice. In education, the diversion of resources to children who have special needs is widely agreed to be just, whether or not it can be described in terms of formal equality. Few classroom teachers would advocate that resources or time should be distributed between children on the basis of strict equality. The converse does not hold. The claims of social justice are not waived for reasons of equality. Social justice is more fundamental than equality as a guide to how we should act in relation to society and its educational institutions. (Griffiths, 1998: 85-6)

The commentary that I have provided here on conceptual usage in feminist theory and research is clearly a product of my own developing conceptual literacy. Here I have sought to indicate how contestation over meaning can be understood in terms of attachment to particular theoretical positions and their implications for a becoming feminism. I have drawn attention to the appraisive qualities of conceptual indi­cators and the clearest examples of this are the addition of issues of ‘race’, class, sexuality, disability and age to conceptual understandings. I have also commented on how successful contestation shifts the field of enquiry and indeed can require new language to convey its distinctive­ness. Finally, I have illustrated how essentially contested concepts form part of cluster concepts and webs of meaning and so widen their ambit of intentionality. However the commentary I have provided is presented fait accompli. Certainly I have endeavoured to make my theoretical framework explicit but much of the stimuli and feeling states that give rise to my advocacy of this framework are absent. And so I must now move to explication.


The standard idea of a philosophical quibble concerns how thinkers answer or respond to a problem whose answer is seen as there to be found, as though the question or the problem were subordinate to some good reason that philosophy would simply recognise (rather than create) . . . But feminist questions have rarely taken this form. On the contrary, feminist questions and concepts ask what a philosophy might do, how it might activate life and thought, and how certain problems create (rather than describe) effects. . . When confronted with a theory or body of thought feminism has tended to ask an intensely active question, not ‘What does it mean?’ but ‘How does it work?’ What can this concept or theory do? How can such a theory exist or be lived? What are its forces?

(Colebrook, 2000: 7)


ocial scientific training encourages us to look for systematization, linkage, unification, and synthesis. It encourages us to ask if there is a founding principle that will provide an explanatory framework for understanding. This is the case even perhaps where none exists. This has certainly been an issue for me in charting the different meanings in this text as I have asked what kind of inter-relationships, similarities and distinctive features might be found. My concerns began in Chapter 1 where I outlined some of the ways in which we could explain debate over meaning and its implications for feminist research and theory. These explanatory frameworks included the Derridean notion of non­fixity and deferral of meaning, the dualistic framings of language and the role of deconstruction, Wittgenstein’s focus on ordinary language use and the importance of context and Connolly’s (1993) and Tanesini’s (1994) analyses of essentially contested concepts.

Something more, however, remains to be said. I need to add one further point to these analyses that I believe is particularly relevant to understanding the often times passionate, and many times divisive, nature of debate over meaning within feminism. This is that concerns over meaning within feminism have never simply been about adding to

or adopting a previous body of knowledge. Feminist concerns over meaning have arisen because of the implications for what might become or what might be created if particular meanings are taken up. Colebrook (2000: 5) comments in this respect: ‘Never a stable body of thought with a grounding axiom or system, feminism has addressed theory not merely in terms of what a philosopher might offer but also in terms of what feminism might become.’ Understanding feminism as a politics of becoming illustrates how much is at stake when debates over meaning arise. This is the future. When we ask, as we did in Chapter 1, ‘What is ‘‘woman’’?’, we are of course posing both an historical and a contemporary question. Our answer, though, must also be evaluated in terms of what woman might become and who she will be.

And so it is that in this final chapter I have one primary aim. This is to apply and extend these explanatory frameworks to the development of conceptual literacy. In this my first task is to offer a synthesis of the six concepts that have been explored in this text. This draws on the key points raised in Chapter 1 and to which I am now adding Colebrook (2000). Colebrook’s primary concerns are to illustrate the value of Deleuze’s thought for feminism. Here Colebrook argues that Deleuze offers an active and affirmative conceptualization of thought that recognizes the creative nature of conceptual formation. Central to this is that ‘In its confrontation with chaos thought creates concepts – so that concepts are the effect of active thought, and not laws by which thought ought to proceed. . . thought must reactivate its concepts: see concepts in terms of effects’ (2000: 8). What are the effects of the concepts in this text? Figure 8.1 lists the varied conceptualizations discussed in this text. I have provided a final column entitled Implications for a Becoming Feminism. My own response, below, should not be thought of as definitive and for this reason I have inserted question marks for you to consider as you think appropriate.

I conclude my response to what I consider are the effects of the concepts in this text by turning to a set of tasks for the development of conceptual literacy. I use this form of words carefully because I find myself in a somewhat countervalent position. It is here that I have to remind myself that in the Introduction to this text I argued for a view of learning that is linked to naivete and openness. On the one hand, therefore, I am conscious that to offer a set of tasks can be read as supplying a closed technological system that may discourage further thought. Once we believe we have ‘learnt’ something, we may see no reason to continue to explore or challenge that learning. Among its other meanings, the term technology, and its associated phrase tool-kit, can convey a form of knowing that Kendall and Wickham (1999: 118)

Conceptualizations Discussed Equality

Equal and the same Equal but different Material (in)equality Group (in)equality Politics of recognition

Difference No difference Equal but different Identity/group differences Poststructural differance Sexual difference Postcolonial difference


Structuring of choice by age, class, ‘race’, disability, sexuality The poststructural ‘choosing’ subject


Woman as carer Care as work – paid and unpaid Care work as divided by ‘race’ and class

Care and disability rights Ethics of care and deconstruction of rights discourses


Linear male time Cyclical feminine time Time and subjectivity Time, space and body


Unity of gendered experiences Experiences of ‘race’, class, sexuality, disability, age

Politicized, reflexive experiences Cyborg experiences (Im)personal experiences


Implications for a Becoming Feminism


Figure 8.1 Conceptual summary


describe as similar to ‘those do-it-yourself wall-filler products that promise certain results if you just ‘‘aim and squirt”, at whatever surface you care to pick’. Kendall and Wickham are rightly concerned that such short-cuts will lead to disappointing and even disastrous results. Their message, which I would echo, is that, just as in home decorating, proper prior preparation is vitally important.

On the other hand, I am mindful of, and very sympathetic to, Alvesson and Skoldberg’s comments:

Postmodernist discussion of – or attempts at – empirical research are rather limited in character. There are a number of general arguments about how not to conduct, for instance, ethnographic research, but more concrete guidelines or example of how it should be pursued are as yet few and far between. Most authors calling themselves postmodernists main­tain a negative approach in this context: like the critical theorists, they are much more articulate and specific about what they are against than about what they are for. (2000: 171, emphasis in original)

It appears to me that an ethically informed pedagogy will be as explicit as possible about the technologies and skills that can be applied to analysis and may be useful to others. Here I therefore outline some key tasks for developing conceptual literacy. These are related to the broader field of critical literacy where the primary objective is to remain open, rather than closed, to the political implications of multiple meaning.