Advantages of the post-structuralist position for thinking about gender are that it allows some consideration of to what extent we have freedom to choose, rather than implying that our lives are determined by our social surroundings. This might be especially beneficial for women, because they have historically been denied agency but have found ways to resist domination. Structuralism can make it difficult to get away from seeing women as victims and that can be disempowering for women hoping and acting for change. However, post-structuralism can reinforce ideas about individualism which are prominent in Western societies. These ideas imply that individuals are responsible for their own lives and if they do not succeed, it is their own fault. Such a view assumes that there is a level playing field on which all people engage, yet as we have seen there are many inequalities which can make it more difficult for some people to succeed than others. Nevertheless, post-structuralism can allow exploration of the contradictions and complexities of living gen­der because it is not so focused on economic structures. Also, because it focuses on the fluidity and fragmentation of the self it allows us to con­sider diversity in ways that are critical of a self versus other hierarchy. These are all issues that I will return to frequently in later chapters, but there are other faults to post-structuralism.

The principal disadvantage of the post-structuralist position is its relativism, which potentially means seeing different ways of doing gender as equally valid if understood relative to their own cultural context. Relativism tends to describe differences and see things as open to different interpretations, rather than to evaluate social practices against some underlying truth. This may have advantages in some situations, but can be politically naive and critically lacking. If there is no ‘Truth’ does anything go? Or do we follow Foucault (e. g. 1963/1973) when he sug­gested that there are dominant discourses? If there are dominant discourses then I would argue that the responsibility of critical scholarship is to think about who these dominant discourses privilege and how? This can be done using post-structuralist ideas as long as the ‘who’ and the ‘how’ are not talked about as though they are fixed and unchanging. For example, dominant discourses are — among other things — arguably patriarchal. Those discourses operate within particular socio-historical conditions to

Table 4.7 The Linguistic turn

The linguistic turn

Critique of theoretical

Move away from the idea that theories can explain


everything everywhere

Critique of rationality & the

Criticism of ideas about the self as conscious,


rational and in control. Challenges the idea that conscious self-awareness can form the basis for understanding human existence

The gendering of modernity

Elaborating how the idea of modernity was associ­ated with masculinity: rational progress, science, control etc

The critique of materialism

A questioning of ways of thinking that focus on things rather than on representation. Rejection of notion of social structure as determining all else (e. g. culture, beliefs)

create gender relationships that are unequal. The challenge is to analyze those shifting relationships without always seeing men as having power and women not.

The linguistic turn has its limitations in meeting the challenge of re-examining gendered power relations. Roseneil (1995) argues that within that turn, ideas already existing within feminism are reinvented and mystified. For example, the idea of ‘woman’ as a historical and shifting construction is not just Denise Riley’s (1988), but was present within feminist thought formerly. Roseneil also proposes that those who have taken the cultural turn overemphasize fragmentation and ignore structural power. In addition she suggests that feminist thought has suffered from this intellectual shift because many scholars have lost touch with the materiality of gendered experience.


This chapter has endeavoured to map some of the key feminist theories in relation to their historical and intellectual context, in order to provide some guidance in reading the rest of this book. Those feminist theories are here located in relation to broad developments in social theory. Initially these developments are discussed in terms of the emergence of post-structuralism out of structuralism. A structuralist search for truth within the social or linguistic framework allowed attention to gender inequalities and their possible redress. Too much insistence on unitary

gender identity was however exclusionary. This was replaced by a poststructuralist denial of any clear ‘reality’ and a focus on representation, which can perhaps provide the basis for a more radical undermining of the exclusionary nature of gender and other binaries. Yet this requires other shifts within feminism itself.

Feminist thought contained political goals of working towards equality, but also intellectual goals of better understanding gender differences. Commonly used categories describing feminism as liberal, socialist or radical, highlight that radical feminism was a challenge to existing political traditions in which equality was central. Liberals emphasized reform as the way to extend existing privileges to women, whilst socialists saw more revolutionary redistributions of those privileges as necessary. Radical feminists thought the meanings attached to women as different sexual beings needed attention and more positive recognition of their difference was thought crucial to achieving social change. However, such a story might imply that equality and difference were separately pursued by separate groups, rather than being strategies employed by all feminists as they thought appropriate. It was, however, perhaps partly the complexity of trying to establish to what extent women were different from men and from each other that prompted the cultural/linguistic turn towards an exploration of identity and meanings.

The linguistic turn in social theory was about a new focus on language and representation, the merits of which were hotly disputed by feminists and sociologists of gender. Whether it offers an escape from materialist determinism or merely an apolitical relativizing of gender as simply another kind of difference are questions that will be returned to elsewhere in the book. What this chapter has done is provide a large-scale view of the theoretical landscape in which sociological and feminist ideas about gender are located. This is intended to assist in evaluating — here and throughout the book — how gender might be best understood. Chapter 6 makes use of what has been learnt from the cultural turn to revisit the topic of bodies and the part they play in gendering.