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.
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.