All 10 entries tagged Sociology

View all 31 entries tagged Sociology on Warwick Blogs | View entries tagged Sociology at Technorati | There are no images tagged Sociology on this blog

August 20, 2005

Fifty and a figure of fun?

Follow-up to Domestic provision and disempowerment from L'Etrangère

Part 3 and conclusion to 'masculinities and unemployment' chapter

Simon: I’ve noticed that there’s less respect for the older, for the older person. We used to have retirement dos when a guy got his retirement cheque from a company at sixty five. They don’t make it any more. They either die, or get made redundant at fifty. To be fifty is to be a figure of fun, to be considered old, out of touch.
Thomas: I’m not sure I agree with that… I don’t think it’s so much that in olden days, or early days, when we were younger, there was any extra respect really. But we’ve now got a situation, if you are to believe the media, if, big if, that life ends at thirty five or forty, and the rest is just garbage.

It can be argued that youth is considered another dimension of hegemonic masculinity in the workplace, with older male workers being forced away from ‘centre stage’ to make room for upcoming ‘Young Turks’ (Arber, Davidson and Ginn 2003: 5). This is implied by Simon’s construction of the older worker as an obsolete ‘figure of fun’, associating the ageing process with loss of power, social status and respect. In doing so he expresses nostalgia for a bygone age, suggesting that in the past there was an intimate connection between men and their work throughout the life course. This discourse constructs the employer-employee relationship as one characterised by loyalty, respect and mutual dependence, retirement providing a source of celebration of a man’s working life rather than cause for concern. Although Thomas challenges this idealised representation, at the same time he acknowledges the persuasiveness of media and public discourses in formulating negative conceptions about older workers, a theme echoed by other participants:

Ben: Employers don’t want older workers. It’s as straightforward and simple as that…
Simon: There’s an inbuilt prejudice in the interview system that you start to lose skills when you’re about forty or your brain slows.

Although the men actively resist such discourses that position them as obsolete or unnecessary, they seem acutely aware of their pervasiveness and influence in formulating conceptions about the older worker and prejudicing ‘the interview system’:

Thomas: There’s this great super-duper advanced technology that we have now that’s directed towards a cult of the young… There’s a belief that younger people are more flexible and adaptable and can cope with change.
Joe: It’s a completely different environment to what it was forty years ago. I mean, there’s no more manufacturing now. Now I find myself in a world I don’t understand. I feel like a dinosaur. To be honest, if I had any skills I wouldn’t be sitting here.
Ben: Technology has taken over quite a lot more. In any type of industry, you’ve got the computers… I can get by and I’m quick enough to learn, but you never get a chance… you never get the opportunity.

The men position themselves as marginalized in an age of increasing technology that favours a 'cult of the young' rather than 'dinosaurs' like themselves. Thomas refers to a powerful contemporary discourse that represents ‘younger people’ as more adaptable and able to cope with change and the complexities of a system of ‘great super-duper advanced technology’. Joe’s assessment of his gendered value is couched in the rhetoric of disuse and obsoleteness, situating him as anachronistic in the context of technological advances that leave him bewildered. Ben argues that he’s ‘quick enough to learn’ new skills, but locates himself and other male manual workers as fighting a losing battle in which they are denied the opportunity to accrue cultural capital through retraining and re-skilling, resulting in an inability to re-negotiate alternative identities and escape ‘the situation’.

The men also take up an alternative discourse relating to older workers, which paints a picture of wisdom, experience and maturity. In adopting this discourse they position themselves as superior to ‘young upstarts’ who may understand computers and new technology, but are often found wanting in terms of interpersonal skills and knowledge accrued over time:

Sam: A lot of the time we don’t realise how au fait we are with so many things until we encounter a younger person who’s got that gap in their knowledge. And it comes as a surprise.
Simon: Younger people waste time, we don’t photocopy our buttocks.
Ben: The young ones that used to come to us’d lack the practical knowledge.
Simon: When you were sixteen, you think you know everything. I mean it was ridiculous.

This alternative discourse implies that they have invested heavily in their identities as working men, accruing cultural capital in the form of experience and practical knowledge and enabling them to recognise themselves as respectable, responsible workers. However, these investments can only work if others invest in them, and constant rebuffals in the recruitment process serve to devalue the cultural capital accrued through experience:

Alex: I’ve got more valuable skills than knowing how to use a computer.
Ben: The main skill we’ve got is experience and practical knowledge… You don’t get a nineteen-year-old mentor.
Simon: Amongst the people here we have more skills and qualifications than we know what do with. The question is how to utilise these.
Alex: Age is a skill in a way. The question is how do we make people in the personnel department, who are often half our age, recognise that experience?
Ben: It’s very difficult, unless you do a PhD or something, or you’re a lecturer, that to me is something irrespective of age. Age is no barrier there.

Maturity is thus a form of cultural capital, but it is only activated and valued within particular social fields such as academia. The value of maturity is tied to the context in which it is found, and may not afford the corresponding power and privilege outside that field. Ultimately, participants tend to see themselves as ensnared by a system characterised by ageist attitudes and structural inequalities, in which age is considered a negative quality rather than a form of capital that is valued by employers:

Ben: As soon as you put your age down on the application you can guarantee that you are not going to get anywhere, unless you’re already part of the place, or they specifically want someone with a bit of experience.
Joe: They always ask for it. You’re honour-bound to put it down. Even if you take it out and they interview you, you still won’t get anywhere once they see how old you are.


As we have discussed, traditional discourses that link masculinity with public life and domestic provision are challenged by unemployment, changes in employment patterns and age, and it could therefore be argued that it is potentially in men’s interests to deconstruct them. As we have seen, the men actively resist discourses that position them as obsolete or marginalised, employing tactics such as humour to undermine dominant discourses and deny the representations of their positioning, employing alternative discourses and adopting an active role in constructing alternative subjectivities. However, questioning previous assumptions does not necessarily determine the nature of the transformation. As Willott and Griffin point out, ‘merely because normative assumptions about masculinity are under some degree of challenge, it does not necessarily follow that any consequent change will be politically progressive’ (1997: 121). Furthermore, subjectivity is linked tightly with the social conditions in which it is forged, which thus makes it difficult to conceptualise, let alone implement, a politics of transformation.

We will now begin to explore how the men respond to the challenges posed by long-term unemployment and attempt to reconstruct their masculine identities. In doing so we will examine the importance of a Bourdieuian notion of capital as a resource for renegotiating masculinities and consider the structural constraints that impede change.

August 17, 2005

Domestic provision and disempowerment

Follow-up to Public life and scrutiny from L'Etrangère

Part 2 of 'Masculinities and Unemployment chapter

Simon: Nature – and this is what people don’t take into account sometimes – nature of a man is to defend a woman… There’s something inbuilt, there’s a gene there… in general it’s the man who looks after her…
Ben: There’s something inside men that makes them want to provide for his wife. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying women are soft, because they’ve got things to do, things like having a baby – but the thing is it’s nature that the man protects her and the children.
Simon: It goes back to the caveman days – a woman would stay at home while the guy goes out with his spear to fight the sabre-toothed tiger and the vagabonds or whatever.

Traditionally, employment means that a man will earn a wage and bring this back to the home. Simon and Ben employ a traditional discourse in relation to the sexual division of labour: that men belong in the public arena and women in the private, domestic sphere, and that men should provide for and protect their wives and children. In presenting this traditional version of masculinity, they draw on arguments about a ‘natural’ sexual division of labour – it is “something inside men” that “makes them want to provide”, “something inbuilt”, a “gene”. Ben evades criticism and accusations of sexism by asserting “I’m not saying women are soft”, but simultaneously constructs both the categories of ‘man’ and ‘woman’ as inflexible and essentialist. Through his reference to “the caveman days”, Simon uses ‘history’ as a further rhetorical device to establish the authority of the ‘provider’ discourse, implying not only that this gender order is natural, but also immutable throughout time.

In adhering to an essentialist construction of gender relations, unemployment may be interpreted as an assault on masculine pride, for this discourse not only links the position of (male) breadwinner to economic independence, but also to social status and ‘respect’. A sense of disempowerment and emasculation manifests itself in patterns of discourses around domestic provision, with the men voicing feelings of anxiety, guilt and resentment as a direct response to their inability to provide. Furthermore, the connection between failing to provide and feeling less of a man coincides with talk of losing ‘your’ woman:

Ben: Relationships are more insecure nowadays… the missing word’s trust. When you’re unemployed, don’t forget that you are then at a low, a low point in your life, so anything that your wife does – when she’s out at a job, you wonder who’s she seeing, who’s she talking about, somebody talks to her. And then you get paranoid.
Sam: Yeah, for men, there is a guilt associated with unemployment.

In voicing these feelings, however, they consciously position themselves outside discourses that equate unemployed masculinity with vulnerability and insecurity, speaking about the situation in abstract rather than personal terms:

Sam: It’d stick in my throat. If I was unemployed and couldn’t get work, to rely on a woman earning on my behalf.
Simon: An awful lot of husbands don’t want their wives to have a career because they still want to be the biggest wage packet in the house.
Ben: This doesn’t apply to everyone but my wife goes out to work because she wants to go out to work… no man likes a woman going out to earn for him. And if they’re honest enough he’ll tell you. They might tell you otherwise…

Sam utilises the conditional tense when talking about unemployment – it would stick in his throat if he had to rely on a woman to provide for him. Ben consciously constructs his situation as ‘different’ from the experiences of other unemployed men whose wives may be forced to work to support the family by employing the language of freewill and choice – his wife “goes out to work because she wants to go out to work” (my emphasis), not because it is necessitated through circumstances beyond his control.

They discuss the issue in abstract, generalised terms and refer to their situations in the third person. This partially serves a rhetorical function, suggesting that ‘other men’ who are perhaps less honest or self-aware “might tell you otherwise”, but it also forms one means of coping with the social objectification that occurs through the process of being categorised as unemployed. This is an attempt to reconstruct themselves as legitimate ‘knowers’ and subjects rather than objects lacking agency and volition, a means of resisting and refusing the potentially emasculating effects of unemployment. However, this represents only an individualised coping strategy, rather than collective and co-operative action, and therefore poses little challenge to the prevalent discourse of masculine provision and the sense of disempowerment this may entail for men who are unemployed.

Unemployment is not the only way in which hegemonic discourses of masculinity may be challenged, and indeed the challenges posed by material changes in the labour market – an increase of women in particular labour markets and subsequent transformation in meanings surrounding men’s and women’s work – intersect with male unemployment to produce changes in subjectivities. Ben and Simon employ the language of pragmatism and necessity when talking about the entry of women into the workplace, constructing it as an economic necessity and suggesting that men and women alike are ensnared by social structures that pervade and influence daily existence:

Ben: Necessity. A lot of it’s to do with necessity. A woman has children, she’s got to work and get employment and she’ll take the job that men won’t take.
Simon: Yeah. Now women have got to work.
Ben: Yes. The thing is now what’s changed that is, is the house market. Because they now need two wages, they don’t need one. It’s a reality… They both need to work – both man and wife need to work to live.

Ben positions women in an inferior section of the labour market to that inhabited by men (“she’ll take the job that men won’t take”), which diminishes the threat that such changes in employment patterns pose to hegemonic versions of masculinity. Thomas takes up this point in a pro-feminist discourse, arguing that feminisation of the labour market does not necessarily represent true gender equality, but rather that sections of the job market where women are mostly concentrated tend to be those where people are underemployed and undervalued:
Thomas: That might be exploitation of a group i.e. women who are fifty one percent of the population. And they desperately need to earn money, and therefore they’ll take a job that we as males would not take…I think there is an awful lot of pressure on women from their husbands to take a non-career job, such as a checkout, rather than be a professional manager. I suggest that that happens, and is widespread.

Whereas attributing changes in gendered employment participation to the ‘reality’ of economic necessity does not unduly upset the traditional gender order, a greater threat is posed by women moving into sections of the labour market traditionally viewed as male, especially given that men do not feel that they can afford to move into traditionally female areas:

Ben: The nurses were resenting because the men – if you look at the nursing professions, most of the managers on the nursing side of it were women. They resented men coming into their profession – women don’t like men infiltrating their area. Likewise, I’ll never agree with a woman coming into a more physical job. What’s a woman want to be a welder for?

Here Ben represents the shift as an invasion of one sex into the other’s domain, adhering to traditional symbolic values that construct ‘men’s work’ as physical and ‘women’s work’ as caring and nurturing. Some of the other men expressed resentment at changes in the nature and content of men’s employment, reflected by accusations such as “women bring the salaries down”. It is thus not only unemployment but also changes in the labour market that threaten hegemonic discourses of masculinity, blurring a gender order hitherto perceived by many as clearly demarcated and irrevocably separated.

August 11, 2005

Public life and scrutiny

Part 1 of masculinities and unemployment chapter

Ben: You can’t meet other people, and if you do then you feel as though everyone’s looking at you, like you’re reliant on other people’s charity.
Sam: You can’t go to the pub because of lack of money, and that restricts a lot of what you do when you’re unemployed.
Philip: It’s lack of money, the hardest part.
Sam: Money. Yeah it is.

These men claim that their lack of wage restricts their participation in the public sphere, particularly in the social arena of leisure. As Willott and Griffin (1997) argue, there is an association between traditional masculine identities and belonging in the public rather than the domestic sphere both in terms of waged work and leisure activities such as the pub. Traditionally, the pub has been understood as a crucial site for both the expression and reinforcement of traditional masculinities and gendered consumption (Morgan 1992). Yet employment not only provides the financial means of ‘paying your way’ in public places such as the pub, but is also viewed as an important site within the public sphere in itself, providing freedom from the private sphere and a potential source of social interaction:

Thomas: The hardest part of being unemployed for me is the reduced social group. The fact that basically, through work, I think our social groups often come out of work.
Philip: I agree. I tend to think that a lot of our social contacts do come out of work. When I worked at [name of company] we’d have one or two social events a month. I didn’t go to them all the time.
Simon: If you’re unemployed you tend to be in a little box on your own. You’re not related to somebody, you’re not part of a company, you’re not part of a corporation, you’re very isolated. It’s difficult to find jobs to do when you’re unemployed.

Unemployment can thus result in reduced social capital and isolation from life in the public sphere, leading to a reduced sense of purpose and lethargy. While some of the men constructed work as an unpleasant necessity or duty ‘forced’ upon them, a ‘nine-to-five grind’ that was necessary to ensure their continued existence, others contested this interpretation by suggesting that work can in fact form an integral part of their identities and provide a source of personal fulfilment or stimulation. The implication here is that there is a direct connection between the type of work that the men do with the types of men that they are, that work provides a means of sustaining and enacting particular values and subjectivities within the domain of public life:

Thomas: I would say work has to be something we passionately care about, and not just a meal ticket. Sure we live in the real world, yes we have our bills to pay, etcetera etcetera… But we’re not working just for that, because we’ve got to be working for something. It’s got to be for ourselves.
Sam: We have a set of needs to fulfil, everybody does, and work plays a part in fulfilling those needs, and creates needs of its own. Whether we view work as a means in itself or as a means to an end.
Ben: That sounds like a nice idea, a utopia. I don’t have a problem with that idea. But the reality is sometimes you’ve got to do a job you don’t want to do.

Although this representation of work may only embody an unrealistic ‘utopia’ in some ways, the trappings of full-time employment are still understood to be infinitely preferable to full-time entrapment within the domestic sphere. This realm is construed as stagnant and dull, offering little in the way of mental stimulation or structure. The lethargy, boredom and reduced motivation understood to result from unrelenting positioning within the domestic sphere contrasts strongly with traditional discourses of working masculinities characterised by vigour, strength, competitiveness and activity. Furthermore, the prospect of recovering these former identities appears bleak while stuck in a domestic ‘rut’ that offers meagre access to economic and social resources:

Simon: The biggest problem I’ve got at home is that my brain has always been active… The trouble with all that time is boredom, and when I don’t have anything to push myself with my mind spends all its time spinning.
Sam: Yeah, you whiz.
Simon: That’s very very tiring. It also drives people up the bloody wall… I don’t think I’m a stronger person, I think I’ve gone backwards… my brain doesn’t work as quickly cos I’ve had nothing to pit it against.
Ben: I agree with you that your motivation diminishes… With your motivation, once that drops, you just can’t get up – you just go to yourself ‘I can’t be bothered’. And that reflects on everything.
Simon: Yeah. Everything drops.

Not only is employment understood to be an important anchor for hegemonic masculine identities in terms of making money and escaping the domestic sphere, but it also plays an integral role in the construction and enactment of public masculine identities. The men showed acute awareness of the ‘policing’ of a judgemental external other who ‘assesses’ them (“you feel as though everyone’s looking at you”), positioning them according to the kind of work in which they engage and enabling them to be recognised as respectable, responsible men. Paid employment is not only a means of accruing cultural capital such as a home or car, but it is a form of cultural capital in itself that may be called upon to reinforce public enactments of masculinities:

Ben: People ask questions about what you do and you can’t always answer those questions. It’s like you don’t exist.
Joe: First thing people ask, to assess you, like where you live, what car you drive.
Thomas: In society’s mind your own identity is linked to the professional work you’re doing or not doing. People ask ‘who are you?’ If you’re at a party or at a function people will ask you what you do, and so forth.

Unemployment has the dual effect of making them feel invisible “like you don’t exist” and under scrutiny. Although keenly conscious and resentful of this external surveillance and judgement, as they do not necessarily passively accept it, but rather make strenuous efforts to negotiate alternative masculine identities and resist the interpretation that they have been somehow sidelined. Thomas, for example, insists upon a post-modern concept of subjectivity, in which individual identities are slippery, fragmented and multiple, never absolute but rather context-dependent, resisting an essentialist conceptualisation of masculinity:

Thomas: I say, well, it depends which day it is or which head I’ve got on, and then I list a whole bunch of, various stuff that I’m involved in. You can shut that line of enquiry right off.

Ben and Joe, on the other hand, employ humour to manoeuvre their own social positioning and throw their imagined interrogators off balance, a small act of defiance that provides the means of fighting back against perceived injustice and regaining some self-respect as men in a world that has rendered them and their industrial skills redundant:

Ben: I say I’m a pole-dancer.
Joe: I say I live in a bail hostel.
Ben: You should see the faces on them when they ask me what I do and I say ‘pole-dancer’ and you can see them picturing it, a real vivid picture.

Ben’s proposed method for contending with external scrutiny contains a strong performative element reminiscent of the exploration of the relationship of men to looking and being looked at in the 1997 film The Full Monty (Cattaneo 1997). Rather than passively accepting the gaze of a society that constructs unemployed masculinities as fragile and uncertain, suspended in a state of subjective uncertainty, he toys with the idea of reasserting his own masculinity as an embodied performative construct, a means of recovering some self-esteem in a world where the nature of work and gender roles have been forever transformed.

July 19, 2005

Unemployment and Masculinities

(a.k.a. Second half of a literature review – draft)

Beynon (2002: 86) argues that the changing nature of employment and the labour market over the past thirty years has influenced masculinities at a variety of levels, leading to an alleged ‘crisis in masculinity’. Changes such as deindustrialisation and corresponding job loss, the transition from an industrial to a post-industrial economy, de-layering and downsizing, the effects of an increasingly global economy and the advent of equal opportunities have all impacted on the way in which men perceive and respond to ideas concerning employment and the workplace (ibid: 87). Economic restructuring, for example, triggered the decline of employment closely linked with masculine notions of strength and hard physical labour, while the entry of women into and alleged 'feminisation' of the labour force represented a challenge to the close connection that had been forged between employment and masculine identity (Morgan 1992: 99).

Masculinities, work and the hegemonic ideal

In recent years, researchers have adopted a more critical approach towards masculinities and unemployment, refuting the notion of a single masculine identity seen to exist ‘as the property, character trait or aspect of identity of individuals’ (MacInnes 1988: 2), and questioning commonly held assumptions such as the centrality of the breadwinner role for men. Far from viewing masculine identity as a homogeneous and unitary entity, Connell (1987, 1993, 1996) contends that definitions of masculinity are in fact multiple and shifting within any socio-historical context, dependent on the social structures that bind and confine individual experience and actions:

Definitions of masculinity are deeply enmeshed in the history of institutions and of economic structures. Masculinity is not just an idea in the head, or a personal identity. It is also extended in the world, merged in organized social relations. To understand masculinity historically we must study changes in those social relations (Connell 1996: 29).

Despite this discursive plurality, certain versions of masculinity are represented as hegemonic ideals, whilst opposing versions are marginalised or subordinated. According to Connell (1987: 184), ‘hegemony’ refers to ‘a social ascendancy achieved in a play of social forces that extends beyond contests of brute power into the organisation of private life and cultural processes’, with hegemonic definitions constructed in a complex and ever changing relationship to that which the definition excludes. For example, in the present socio-historical context, white, middle-class, heterosexual, employed males are considered to be the culturally ascendant ‘norm’ (Willott and Griffin 1996: 80). Although the social construction of this particular masculine identity is arbitrary in one sense, it nevertheless forms a pervasive discourse that shapes how men respond to and deal with unemployment, the ‘available’ discourses and structures constraining both issues deemed important to men and defining the way in which they position themselves in relation to those specific issues.

Morgan (1992) employs a notion of gender symbolism to make sense of masculinities and work, examining the gendered nature of work and its symbolic value. Employment and unemployment have been frequently constructed as oppositional and hierarchically situated in western societies, a construction concurrent with other polarities such as skilled-unskilled, heavy-light, dangerous-less dangerous, dirty-clean, interesting-boring, and mobile-immobile. Although in recent years feminist projects have challenged some of these binaries by showing how women have been excluded from analyses of work and critiquing studies of work as a public exchange of labour power for payment (??), employment, both as a means of making money and getting out of the house, remains an important anchor for hegemonic masculine identities (Morgan 1992: 99).

The symbolic opposition to employment, unemployment, exemplifies a situation where masculinity is ‘put on the line’, providing a ‘paradigmatic example of masculinity under challenge’ (Morgan 1992: 100). Beynon (2002: 87) maintains that ‘nothing has proved more damaging to [working men] and their sense of the masculine than unemployment, which took away independence and control over family finances’. Unemployment decreases a man’s ability to provide for himself and his family (if he has one), and often influences where and how he spends his time, disrupting spatial divisions between the domestic and the public sphere and problematising assumptions about the gender order.

Challenge to the ‘breadwinner’ role

As Morgan (1992: 101–2) puts it, the role of ‘male breadwinner’ assumes an underlying gender order, that of the bourgeois nuclear family and the notion of working for dependents located in the domestic sphere. In this way paid employment assumes a central role in the maintenance of the wider social order, and the presumption arises that ‘long-term unemployment deprives a man of his sense of social worth largely through the removal of this role’. In an early study McKee and Bell (1986: 141) investigated the gender-specific consequences of unemployment and its impact on the family, and found that ‘the loss of the male economic provider role struck deep chords among both wives and husbands and a passionate defence of men’s right to provide was invariably raised’, with both men and women voicing issues concerning self-esteem, self-image, pride, views of masculinity, respectability and authority.

Willott and Griffin (1996: 85) found that discourses such as that of domestic provision were salient to working-class men experiencing long-term unemployment, with the men in their study adhering to expectations that a ‘good’ family man should provide both necessities and luxuries for ‘the missus and the kids’. As such, the men of their study found it difficult to relinquish the breadwinner persona, and their inability to provide resulted in feelings of disempowerment, emasculation, shame, feelings of inadequacy in relation to cultural expectations, loss of respectability and fear of losing female partners. Unemployment thus has the potential to disrupt hegemonic masculine ideals as well as discourses of domestic provision and public masculinity (Haywood and Mac an Ghaill 2003: 38).

Convergence of public and private spheres

Masculine identities have traditionally been associated with the public rather than the domestic sphere both in terms of waged work and leisure activities such as the pub (Willott and Griffin 1997). This ideological separation between men and women in terms of spatial location has a long cultural history fundamental to the definition of hegemonic masculinities in the west, with the public sphere traditionally associated with men and masculinity, and the private sphere with women and children (Willott and Griffin 1996: 82). Not only are unemployed men officially denied access to the workplace, but their participation in the social arena of leisure activities is often restricted because of financial restraints. Willott and Griffin (1996: 82) depict the home as a female-dominated place that is not welcoming to or appropriate for men, with participants speaking about ‘needing’ the freedom to escape to the public sphere and feeling ‘out of place’ at home. Unemployment thus entails ‘spatial convergence’ between men and the domestic sphere, consequently producing conflict between public and private enactments of masculinity.

McKee and Bell (1986: 139) posited that this convergence of male and female social worlds might occur in a more positive way, with men taking on more domestic work and responsibility in the home. However, their hypothesis was found to be an unrealistic ideal, with notions of active agency and choice rejected as ‘inappropriate and stultifying’ when confronted by the reality of unemployment. Rather than increasing men’s participation in the private domain, paradoxically male unemployment in fact reinforced the polarisation of ‘gendered’ marital activities, with both male and female participants adhering to traditional gender scripts (ibid: 144). Both male and female participants described women as more efficient at domestic tasks, while men were seen to have a public purpose and profile to maintain, failing to contribute in the home because of their engagement in the public realm of job search, interviews or informal labour market activities (ibid: 144).

Public surveillance

The ways in which unemployed men’s private lives are opened up to public scrutiny and observation offer a further critical challenge to the division between public and private spheres: ‘Unemployed men are squeezed out of the public realm – but their retreat into the private realm becomes public business' (McKee and Bell 1986: 147). As benefit-recipients, their private lives are subjected to public scrutiny and surveillance both actual and perceived, resulting in anxiety, fear of investigation and self-policing, with respondents feeling that ‘their private actions are always liable to be held to public account’ (ibid: 148). In this way a discursive gulf opens up amongst the unemployed as a group, with many unemployed respondents making distinctions between the ‘respectable’ unemployed and the ‘scroungers’, between the ‘genuine’ unemployed and the ‘idlers’ (ibid: 148). Similarly, Willott and Griffin (1996: 80) found that the unemployed men of their study spoke of unemployment as equivalent to ‘scrounging off the state’, locating themselves negatively in relation to this discourse and resisting the accusation that they too might be scroungers.

In this way unemployment appears to exemplify a process Foucault (1982: 208) labels ‘dividing practices’, in which ‘the subject is objectified by a process of division either within himself or from others’. Through a process of social objectification and categorisation that imposes preconceptions about the identity of the unemployed man on a more fluid situation, unemployment defines, excludes and stigmatises a distinctive type of unemployed man, that of the scrounger. Both state and self surveillance separates and pathologises the ‘scrounger’ as a category separate from the undifferentiated mass of the unemployed. As Foucault (1977: 188) observes, ‘Discipline “makes” individuals; it is the specific technique of a power that regards individuals both as objects and as instruments of its exercise’. In this way, 'the unemployed have no universality of experience… but they are further divided against and amongst themselves' (McKee and Bell 1986: 149).

Renegotiating masculine identities

Given that unemployment provides both economic and cultural challenges to traditional (hegemonic) masculine identities, we might question whether unemployed men are forced to renegotiate their gender identities, and if so what form this renegotiation might take. A key organising principle for the construction of many unemployed men’s identity is that of ‘respectability’, with the male breadwinner role interpreted not only as a source of economic independence, but also as a means of achieving social status and respect (Willott and Griffin 1996: 85). Morgan (1992: 108) also argues that unemployment may entail a loss of respectability, one that is linked to the stigma of lacking finances, loss of privacy through public scrutiny of finances, and inability to support a family. Respectability may not be an issue solely for unemployed men, and rather its loss may injure unemployed men and women alike, involving ‘a complex set of attitudes and orientations that links and gives meaning to a variety of important everyday situations and serves as an important basis for social status’ (ibid). Nevertheless, the concept of respectability may be dependent on key discourses that are highly gendered such as that of domestic provision or public masculinities (Haywood and Mac an Ghaill 2003: 38).

Alternatively, men may reassert their masculinity through domestic refusal, dissociation from the private sphere, or performance of a public masculinity (Segal 1990). Such performative masculinity might entail occupation of public space such as the urban street area, as in the case of Jahoda’s Marienthal study (1933) which depicts women hurrying through the streets, a public space rendered unfamiliar by the presence of unemployed men (cited in Morgan 1992: 110). Alternatively, it might involve class-based spectacular performances as a form of ‘protest masculinity’. Campbell’s account (1993) of the young unemployed men during the English urban riots of the early 1990s depicts the assertion of a different mode of masculinity – that of civil unrest, irresponsibility and violence – as a means of re-presenting their perceived powerlessness and asserting a different mode of masculinity. In a similar manner, Connell (1995: 116) describes unemployed working-class men’s exaggerated claims to masculinity, resulting in a ‘spectacular display’ of masculinities focussed around sexuality, violence and bohemianism.

Although unemployment may result in discursive repositioning or reconstruction of masculine identities at both a micro- and a macro- structural level, such responses tend to pose little significant threat to hegemonic forms of masculinity (Willott and Griffin 1996: 88). Willott and Griffin found that the most common strategy used by their participants in response to the debilitating effects of long-term unemployment was to re-establish traditional forms of masculine identity and make recourse to familiar and traditional ‘powerful’ patterns of discourse, an exercise in damage-limitation that restricted the harm that assailed individual masculine pride without posing any great challenge to traditional gender or power relations (ibid).

Constraints on identity change

In recent years researchers have claimed that social and cultural capital may aid our understanding of the ways in which unemployed men respond (or fail to respond) to the challenge that unemployment represents to their masculinities (Russell 1999, Willott and Griffin 2004). In a quantitative study linking sociabilility, gender and unemployment, Russell (1999) found that unemployed women, particularly those who had worked part-time in the past, were better able to capitalise on and maintain strong social linkages that provided emotional, instrumental and informational support during periods of unemployment than men.

Willott and Griffin (2004) claim that a Bourdieuian concept of capital may aid our understanding of structural and ideological constraints that impede renegotiation of men’s gender identities. Bourdieu (1986) proposes an understanding of society based on the movement of ‘capital’ through social spaces as it is accumulated or lost by individuals (Skeggs 1997: 8). The most obvious example of this is the Marxist concept of economic capital, a highly rationalised form of capital reified as material exchanges and financial assets. Bourdieu moves beyond this model, however, by proposing other metaphorical forms of capital (Bourdieu 1986: 243). ‘Cultural capital’, for example, exists in three different states: in an embodied state in the form of durable dispositions in the mind and body; in an objectified state existing in the form of cultural goods such as books or paintings; in an institutionalised state such as academic credentials (Bourdieu 1986: 243). ‘Social capital’ refers to ‘the connections and networks an agent may call upon in their effort to achieve a specified goal’ (Crossley 2001: 97), while ‘symbolic capital’ signifies ‘the form the different types of capital take once they are perceived and recognised as legitimate’ (Skeggs 1997: 8). Bourdieu develops these other capitals analogously with the structure of the economic variety, demonstrating how capitals may be accumulated, lost, invested, distributed and traded within a particular social field. The value of different capitals is tied to the context in which it is found; for example something that is greatly valued in an academic field may not be so highly revered in the world of theatre, or art, and may not afford the corresponding power and privilege.

The working class unemployed men of Willott and Griffin’s study were trapped in ‘a domestic place with meagre access to capital resources’, a positioning that challenged their masculinity by defining them as inferior men (Willott and Griffin 2004: 59). These men had limited resources available to construct masculine identities that reflect the changing structural and ideological demands of the current socio-historical period. Rejecting proactive discourses about change or revolution, they instead depicted themselves as defeated, passive victims, constituted as ‘older’ and ‘less of a man’ (ibid: 58). Although the men paid lip service to a ‘slightly tongue-in-cheek picture’ of a ‘collective and violent uprising against the state’, ultimately they understood themselves to be ensnared by unjust social structures and believed that they lacked the power and agency to instigate change and escape restricted social roles, discursively positioning themselves as ‘stuck in a rut’ (ibid).

Like Skeggs’ study of working-class women (1997), who were born into structures of inequality with access to limited amounts of capital, working-class unemployed men may attempt to ‘put a floor’ under their economic and cultural circumstances by using and trading the scanty amounts of capital to which they have access to stop things getting worse (Skeggs 1997: 161). For Willott and Griffin’s participants, this entailed adherence to a traditional construction of themselves as family breadwinners, resorting to (illegal) work that offered limited capital in restoring their self-images as ‘proper’ men capable of earning money in the public sphere (Willott and Griffin 2004: 63). Education was also constructed as one possible escape route out of this apparently hopeless situation, simultaneously increasing cultural capital (through formal qualifications) and social capital (through social networks) and providing the necessary resources to renegotiate gender-class identities and possibly increase economic capital in the long-term. Ultimately, however, social structure impedes the ability to trade and capitalise upon already meagre forms of capital, and the breadwinner persona was seen to offer greater symbolic capital to this group of men than it would to other, more socially privileged groups.


July 13, 2005

Why have feminists found Bourdieu’s concepts of cultural capital and habitus useful?

The place of gender within Bourdieu’s theoretical framework remains understated, yet despite Bourdieu’s relative neglect of gender in much of his work, feminist writers have taken up his theories and adapted them for their own purposes. Moi’s definition of ‘appropriation’ as ‘a critical assessment of a given theory formation with a view to taking it over and using it for feminist purposes’ (Moi 1990: 265) seems an apt description of the work undertaken by feminists who integrate Bourdieu’s concepts of cultural capital and habitus to underpin their own theories and advise empirical research, not merely accepting all aspects of Bourdieu’s theory blindly, but critically examining his concepts and questioning if they can be directly utilised for an exploration of gender issues.

I will critically examine the relevance of habitus and cultural capital for feminism, firstly looking at the ways in which these key concepts have been adopted within a theoretical analysis of gender. I will also consider the ways in which feminist researchers have used Bourdieuian concepts to direct and inform empirical research, and the way in which his emphasis on reflexivity may be relevant for feminist epistemology in constructing a ‘feminist habitus’ (McCall 1992: 852) to direct research.

Bourdieu (1986a) proposes an understanding of society based on the movement of ‘capital’ through social spaces as it is accumulated or lost by individuals (Skeggs 1996: 8). The most obvious example of this is the Marxist concept of economic capital, a highly rationalised form of capital reified as material exchanges and financial assets. Bourdieu moves beyond this model, however, by proposing other metaphorical forms of capital (Bourdieu 1986a: 243). ‘Cultural capital’, for example, exists in three different states: in an embodied state in the form of durable dispositions in the mind and body; in an objectified state existing in the form of cultural goods such as books or paintings; in an institutionalised state such as academic credentials (Bourdieu 1986a: 243). ‘Social capital’ refers to ‘the connections and networks an agent may call upon in their effort to achieve a specified goal’ (Crossley 2001: 97), while ‘symbolic capital’ signifies ‘the form the different types of capital take once they are perceived and recognised as legitimate’ (Skeggs 1997: 8).

Bourdieu develops these other capitals analogously with the structure of the economic variety, demonstrating how capitals may be accumulated, lost, invested, distributed and traded within a particular social field, defined as ‘a competitive system of social relations which functions according to its own specific logic or rules’ (Moi 1990: 269). The value of different capitals is tied to the context in which it is found; for example something that is greatly valued in an academic field may not be so highly revered in the world of theatre, or art, and may not afford the corresponding power and privilege.

Most crucially, perhaps, Bourdieu’s concept of capital offers one way in which the feminist gaze may be refocused on the material, everyday aspects of our lives, such as the ways in which we dress, walk, or decorate our houses (Moi 1990: 253). This return to materiality forms a refreshing contrast to recent feminist theorising which has tended to focus on symbolisation, representation, discourse and text, at the expense of disregarding material issues that impact upon our daily lives (Maynard 1995). It is important to remember that:

Not everything is sign or text, as any rape survivor, homeless person or starving child will testify. Such people experience ‘real’ phenomena with ‘real’ effects, many of which are done to them by individual or institutional ‘others’ and are outside of their control (Maynard 1995: 272–3).

By restoring materiality to feminism, it is possible to understand how inequalities are produced and thus to reclaim social class within feminist theory. In recent years class has been ousted from a whole range of academic disciplines, and depicted as unfashionable and irrelevant (Reay 1997, Skeggs 1997), a ‘cultural dinosaur’ (Skeggs 1997: 7) in the context of what has been deemed a ‘classless society’ by scores of sociologists. In a system supposedly characterised by social mobility, meritocracy, even classlessness, social class has been marginalised as an outmoded structural concept, an irrelevant remnant of modernism which denies the possibility of traversing differences unimpeded by structure or inequality (Skeggs 1997). Yet Reay and Skeggs deplore the disappearance of class from feminist theory, claiming that disguising the privilege afforded to the middle classes draws attention away from exploitation, reinforcing old hierarchies by silently perpetuating them:

Making class invisible represents a historical stage in which the identity of the middle classes is assured. Its recent invisibility suggests that these differences [in power] are now institutionalized, legitimated and well established (Skeggs 1997: 7).

Feminism cannot simply forsake notions of class without ‘fail[ing] to engage adequately with the intricate web of inequalities that constitutes society in the 1990s and into the millennium’ (Reay 1997: 226). We therefore need a new feminist way of writing and understanding class that is more suited to exposing the covert structures and processes that characterise today’s class system, in order to unpick and expose ‘the unacknowledged normality of the middle class’ (Savage 2003: 536–7).

Bourdieu’s identification of multiple forms of capital may provide a more satisfactory model to explain the complexities of the present class system, offering ‘a powerfully elaborate conceptual framework for understanding the role of gender in the social relations of modern capitalist society’ (McCall 1992: 837), one which incorporates the multiplicity of power relations associated with the word ‘class’. Unlike traditional class paradigms, which are founded on linear representations of class mostly defined using quantitative signifiers such as occupation, salary or housing, Bourdieu’s model incorporates metaphors of cultural capital dependent on a variety of both quantitative and qualitative variables such as lifestyle choices, art preferences, clothes, education and tastes (Reay 1998: 24). In this way Bourdieu eliminates the idea that class is founded upon one variable and broadens the scope of traditional class schemas.

Bourdieu perceives class as constructed within a spatial model of society comprising many intersecting dimensions such as class, gender, sexuality, age and race, and accordingly proposes a more complex multidimensional distribution of power that breaks down the stratified vertical continuum of traditional class theories. Within this model, one’s position in a social space is mapped out and defined using multiple variables, not capitals in themselves, but rather ‘provid[ing] the relations in which capitals come to be organised and valued’ in terms of who is able to attain access to resources and achieve legitimation through social positioning (Skeggs 1996: 9). Far from being a homogeneous, singular identity, the category ‘woman’ is lived and intimately experienced ‘as a form of subjectivity inhabited through other categories’, categories which overlap to constitute a ‘nexus of power relations’ (ibid: 166). Adopting Bourdieu’s model of cultural capital thus opens up the possibility of a space for women within class analysis (Reay 1998: 25), by theorising social class as an integral component of gendered identity.

Like most feminists, Bourdieu’s position is determinedly anti-essentialist, understanding essentialism to be a major contributory factor to the persistence and reproduction of gender power inequalities by rendering them seemingly natural. Bourdieu contends that hierarchies of status and power within a social system appear to be a natural result of, and are therefore justified by, arbitrary differences that do not in themselves intrinsically signify privilege or disadvantage, so that ‘every established order tends to produce (to very different degrees and with very different means) the naturalisation of its own arbitrariness’ (Bourdieu 1977: 164). Bourdieu undermines the essentialist argument by revealing its ludicrous, circular nature:

Our perceptions of the biology of reproduction are the effects of the thoroughly arbitrary social construction of gender divisions which they are supposed to legitimate and explain (Bourdieu 2001 paraphrased in Moi 1990: 282)

However, he does not underestimate the danger or pervasiveness of such a position, emphasising that it is those in a position of domination that control the process of naturalisation, ‘apply[ing] categories constructed from the point of view of the dominant to the relations of domination’ (Bourdieu 2001: 35). Sexism, for example, is an essentialism adopted within patriarchy to legitimise gender domination, ‘politically nefarious insofar as it is invoked to predict and thus to control the behaviour of every member of a given social group’ (Moi 1990: 281). Bourdieu reacts against this inflexible, essentialist construction of the category of ‘woman’, and consequently opens up the possibility of social change and transformation by representing gender relations as socially constructed, an analysis concurrent with that of numerous socialist and materialist feminists (Moi 1990: 281). Yet if gender is socially constructed, it remains to be seen what form this social construction takes and what its organising principle is, not to mention the specific consequences that such a claim may have (Moi 1990: 268) for understanding how ‘the established order, with its relations of domination, its rights and prerogatives, privileges and injustices, ultimately perpetuates itself so easily’ (Bourdieu 2001: 1).

Bourdieu depicts a struggle for power taking place within a field, where each social agent seeks to accrue symbolic capital, instrumental for achieving dominance of the field (Moi 1990: 270). Those in a position of dominance control legitimacy, which is ‘the power to be heard, believed and obeyed, along with the ability to silence others or allow them to speak’ (Bourdieu 1991). Through acquisition of cultural capital, dominant agents maintain the ability to reproduce their dominance. The dominant group defends the integrity of what Bourdieu labels ‘doxa’, unquestioned beliefs that are embodied in actions and feeling but seldom formulated in words, accepted as beyond the possibility of contestation and resistant to modification (Crossley 2001: 99), as in the case of social-gender relations within a patriarchal system:

While the invocation of biology allows the social construction of sexual difference to appear motivated or ‘natural’, its real function is to mask the true, socially produced power relations between the sexes, to present social gender divisions as doxic, that is to say, as that which cannot be questioned (Moi 1990: 282)

The social field operates as a form of ‘censorship’ (Moi 1990: 270), but the structure of domination is also perpetuated through a process Bourdieu terms ‘symbolic violence’, a violence that is ‘censored, euphemized, that is, misrecognizable, recognized violence’ (Bourdieu 1990: 126). Symbolic violence is ‘recognized’ because everyone within a particular social field tacitly understands the rules and ‘stakes’ of the ‘game’, and the illusion is maintained that these are worth fighting for (Moi 1990: 270). Yet paradoxically symbolic violence is also ‘misrecognizable’ because dominated agents partake in a ‘form of forgetting’ whereby they fail to recognise their own domination and understand their situation to be ‘the natural order of things’ (Bourdieu 1979: 198), unwittingly accepting the illusion that there are in fact no ‘stakes’ and no ‘game’. In other words symbolic violence is ‘the violence exercised upon a social agent with his or her complicity’ (Bourdieu & Wacquant 1992: 167).

The notion that dominated groups in fact collude with their own oppression is, of course, problematic for feminism, which appeals to women to be the agents of their own emancipation. However, Bourdieu’s concept of habitus plays a key role in explaining how this might occur. It is habitus that mediates between the binaries of structure and agency, the structures of society that bind us and our own experience and actions within the confines of these structures, acting both as a structured structure and a structuring structure (Bourdieu 1979: 191). Habitus is acquired unconsciously through lived experience of a position within the social world, taking on the properties of the ‘conditions of existence’ in which it is formed and formed in a ‘durable’ way so that:

the body is literally moulded into certain forms, so that the habitus is reflected in the whole way that one carries oneself in the world, the way that one walks, speaks, acts, eats (Thompson 1984: 102)

This residual ‘sediment’ of past experience also actively functions within the agent’s present, moulding perceptions, thoughts and actions, and shaping social practice in a regular and highly pervasive way. Individuals are predisposed to act in particular ways as a result of the habitus acquired through past experience, and this acts as an ‘internalized set of tacit rules governing strategies and practices in the field’ (Moi 1990: 271).

Although it may thus be the case that ‘les dominés contribuent toujours à leur propre domination’ (the dominated always contributeto their own domination), the choices and actions available to dominated groups (in the form of habitus) are in turn shaped by the limiting framework of power structures in which they are formed, so that ‘les dispositions qui les inclinent à cette complicité sont aussi un effet incorporé de la domination’ (the dispositions that predispose them to comply are also an embodied effect of domination) (Wacquant 1992: 28). Habitus mirrors the inequalities and injustices present in the social world in which it is shaped, but acting as an unconscious influence embedded deep within the social agent, it succeeds in achieving compliance with social norms with little need for heavy-handed tactics.

Habitus functions as a hinge between past and present, agency and structure, not only unconsciously influencing an agent's likelihood of success through interaction in the field, but simultaneously ensuring the field’s survival by conforming to its hidden, unspoken criteria (Crossley 2001: 94). Deeply embodied, it is the organising principle that explains the ways in which gender and class inequalities are constructed and established within society at every level, showing the interconnectedness of an agent’s ‘everyday negotiations of the mundane’ (Skeggs 1997: 167) and large-scale power relations within a social system.

Bourdieu’s originality lies in the importance that he accords to this minutiae of daily life, showing that gender and class inequalities can be analysed and understood by considering the ‘silent curriculum’ of the everyday (Moi 1990: 271). Bourdieu’s flagrant disregard for conventional boundaries dictating what is valuable for cultural research means that anything and everything is potentially worthy of analysis:

Bourdieu makes sociological theory out of everything. Refusing to accept the distinction between ‘high’ or ‘significant’ and ‘low’ or ‘insignificant’ matters, Bourdieu will analyse various ways of chewing one’s food, different forms of dressing, musical tastes ranging from a predilection for ‘Home on the Range’ to a liking for John Cage, home decoration, the kind of friends one has and the films one likes to see, and the way a student may feel when talking to her professor (Moi 1990: 268)

Whereas patriarchy dismisses these ‘most mundane details of everyday life’ as banal, insignificant ‘women’s gossip’, they in fact offer a specific form of social analysis leading to an understanding of the ‘micro-politics of power’ which allows complex and specific linkages to be made across age-old dualisms such as individual and social, and private and public spheres (Skeggs 1997: 167). It is through interpretation of seemingly banal actions and positioning in the everyday that it is possible to discern the overarching framework of structural organisation including the systematic inequalities it incorporates on a larger scale.

In developing the concept of habitus Bourdieu allows feminists to ‘reconceptualise gender as a social category in a way that undercuts the traditional essentialist / non-essentialist divide’ (Moi 1990: 267). As we have seen, Bourdieu certainly eschews an essentialist position, refusing to accept a biologically determinist account of sexual differences as ‘essences’ and insisting upon real, lived experience where social construction of sexual identity has real implications that cannot merely be ‘deconstructed away’ in metaphysical terms (Moi 1990: 287).

We cannot always reduce practical knowledge to theoretical knowledge (Reay 1998: 31), but at the same time we do need ‘concepts that can encapsulate experiences otherwise unnamed’ (Skeggs 1997: 166). Bourdieu’s concepts of cultural capital and habitus provide this connection between theory and practice, and his focus on lived practice means they are easily applied to the feminist research process and epistemologies (McCall 1992, Lovell 2000).

Like ‘academic feminism’, Bourdieu’s ‘sociology of sociology’ (Bourdieu & Wacquant 1992) is intent on revealing the gender, class and racial bias (symbolic violence) perceived as inherent within the academic intellectual field, whilst simultaneously positioning itself as a serious player within that very field (Lovell 2000: 26). Bourdieu’s emphasis on reflexivity in the research process mirrors that of feminist epistemology, reacting against the positivist research tradition instituted within the social sciences that fails to recognise ‘the fact that it is the product of a theoretical gaze, a “contemplative eye” (Bourdieu & Wacquant 1992: 34). Bourdieu argues that his task entails:

not simply telling the truth of this world, as can be uncovered by objectivist methods of observation, but also showing that this world is the site of an ongoing struggle to tell the truth of this world (Bourdieu & Wacquant 1992: 35)

McCall takes the concerns shared by Bourdieu and feminism further by suggesting that it might even be possible to organise key ideas from feminist politics, methodologies and epistemologies into a ‘feminist habitus’ (McCall 1992: 852), by which she implies a ‘certain type of disposition’ that guides feminist research, a ‘character of feminist research’ acquired through a process of training and development that seeks ‘a new form of critical social science’ whose practice is not based upon symbolic violence and exclusionary practices. Yet Lovell echoes the concerns of feminist sceptics outside the academy, in questioning if it is indeed possible in reality to establish such a strategy or if, in doing so, we in fact ‘establish our own forms of symbolic violence, to reproduce class and ‘race’ hierarchies’ (Lovell 2000: 26).

Bourdieu’s concepts of cultural capital and habitus have indeed been used within the academy as an analytical framework to direct and inform feminist empirical research. Reay (1998), for example, utilises cultural capital and habitus as ‘conceptual tools’ to direct empirical research into working and middle class mothers’ involvement in their children’s primary schooling, suggesting that cultural capital plays a key role in understanding the ways in which access to resources affects the support women are able to provide for their children’s schooling, whilst habitus is used ‘as a way of looking at what women are doing; a way that conceptualises the present in terms of the influences of the past’ (Reay 1998: 32).

Emphasising the role of ‘habitus as history’, Reay shows that the women’s experiences of education in the past have a profound effect upon maternal actions in the present, the influence of habitus shaping, restricting or enhancing the women’s trajectory through social space from past to present (Reay 1998: 47). Reay found that there was indeed strong continuity between past and present in the accounts of both working and middle class women, and that personal history and experiences, whether positive or negative, ‘impact on their involvement in their children’s schooling in a powerful process which infuses all aspects of their mothering work’ (Reay 1998: 55), from choice of school to communication with the teacher.

For example, many middle class mothers believed that it was important to teach one’s child outside the school environment. Their current belief system displayed continuity with past experiences, resulting in a process Reay terms ‘replication of the habitus’ (ibid: 56). Although this link between past and present was sometimes undermined by changing social values (for example demands of the labour market resulting in reduced time available for teaching in the home), the fact they were able to access superior forms of capital often meant that they were able to override such constraints by employing specialists such as a personal tutor to take on this responsibility within the home.

Some of the working class women were also involved in this ‘replication of habitus’, which often manifested itself in a more negative way, such as fear of the school environment, feeling silenced within an educational context, or failing to comprehend the educational system just as they had in their own schooldays. However, some of them also attempted a ‘transformation of the habitus’ (Bourdieu 1993 quoted in Reay 1998: 56) by trying to do things differently from their own parents. For example, mothers who had described their own school experiences as a ‘horror movie’ tended to give priority to their own children’s happiness, whilst many mothers who had experienced a lack of parental involvement in their own education attempted to adopt an active role in their children’s education (Reay 1998: 57).

Working class mothers were seen to experience ‘powerful barriers’ that restricted their involvement, and so attempts to overcome the habitus and generate profits of cultural capital in a situation of little prior investment involved a greater degree of exertion than that required of their middle class counterparts (Reay 1998: 58). In this way the micro details of mothering practices mirror the large-scale macro relations between education and inequality, showing how positioning within structures of inequality circumscribes movement through social space at a multitude of levels.

Likewise, for Skeggs (1997), adopting the cultural capital model as a theoretical framework shows how social structure impedes the ability to trade and capitalise upon already meagre forms of capital, but at the same time does not deny the way in which power and agency may play a role in attempts to escape restricted social roles. Although the working class women of her study were born into structures of inequality with access to limited amounts of capital, they nevertheless attempted to ‘put a floor’ under their economic and cultural circumstances by using and trading the scanty amounts of capital to which they had access to stop things getting worse (Skeggs 1997: 161).

Although the women had little educational capital to trade, they did possess what Skeggs identifies as ‘feminine cultural capital’ in the form of existing ‘caring’ dispositions accrued through lived experience. Caring offered these women ‘the means to value, trade and invest in themselves, an opportunity to ‘make something of themselves’ (Skeggs 1996: 57). Feminine cultural capital was only convertible on a ‘diminishing labour market’ or as unpaid labour through caring within the family, and even conversion on the marriage market did not help these women to gain access to wider institutional power, since ‘the ability to capitalize on femininity is restricted. It provides only restricted access to potential forms of power’ (ibid: 10).

The women in the study revealed an awareness of the body as a ‘carrier of class signals’ in their discourses of improving their class position and attempting to ‘pass’ as middle class (Skeggs 1997: 83), showing that their very bodies provide important clues about social position, the ‘indisputable imprint of an individual’s social class’ as it develops over time (Shilling 1992: 127 – 129). Bodies and their dispositions form the ‘physical sites where the relations of class, gender, race, sexuality and age come together and are em-bodied and practised’ (Skeggs 1997: 82).

Skeggs suggests that class inequalities and privilege are embodied in the everyday, permeating every aspect of the women’s lived experiences from the clothes they wear to the way they decorate their houses, and combined with limited forms of capital, contribute to the structuring of inequality which results in limited movement through social space (Skeggs 1997: 7). Although the women tried to escape class identifications through discourses of improving or passing, this attempt ultimately failed because they lacked the power to convert cultural capital into symbolic capital (ibid: 87). Thus while the women retained an illusion of coherence and agency, ultimately social positioning delimited their ability to convert or trade different forms of capital effectively, as negative representations of the working class condemned the meagre cultural capital they accumulated as illegitimate or worthless (ibid: 11).

Although useful for feminism both theoretically, analytically and empirically, Bourdieu’s concepts of cultural capital and habitus have also been criticised, not least for the suggestion that dominated groups exhibit implicit complicity in their own domination. As I have suggested, the collusion is unconscious, a result of habitus shaped by the structures of a patriarchal society, apparent at every level of social interaction, and difficult if not impossible to transform or eradicate through willpower alone. This leads us to the second problematic aspect of Bourdieu’s theory, closely linked with the first, which is that it offers an over-determined view of subjectivity with limited potential for social change (McCall 1992, Lovell 2000).

Although Skeggs, for example, makes extensive use of the Bourdieuian framework of capital, suggesting this concept ‘shifts power and agency back into the hands of those who have restricted access to it’ (Skeggs 1997: 166), she never mentions habitus by name, possibly understanding it to be ‘an over-restrictive concept’ (Lovell 2000: 23). Bourdieu’s concept of habitus is criticised for denying the possibility of innovation or agency, linking subjectivity too tightly with the social conditions in which it is forged:

Bourdieu reads at times like a structuralist with an ‘oversocialized’ concept of the individual. A mere bearer of social positions, one who comes to love and want his/her fate: amor fati (Lovell 2000: 15).

Bourdieu vehemently denies this reading of his theory, arguing that far from reducing social agents to ‘cultural dopes’ or limiting their tactical capabilities (Bourdieu & Wacquant 1992: 132), the habitus schema in fact acts ‘like an underlying grammar, which allows for a multitude of innovative forms of expression, facilitating action as much as shaping it’ (Crossley 2001: 94). Yet Bourdieu’s account of the way in which symbolic violence pervades our daily existence and understanding of the world means it is difficult to understand how habitus leaves room for conceptualising, let alone implementing, a politics of transformation (Chambers 2004).

Feminists therefore need to find a way to critique the apparent determinism inherent in Bourdieu’s theory, not denying the possibility of the usefulness of his concepts, but seeking a way to appropriate them in order to achieve a transformatory politics in the form of emancipation. One solution to this seemingly no-win situation is to combine a Bourdieuian approach with other feminist theories.

In a recent draft paper Chambers, for example, suggests the possibility of a fruitful marriage between the theories of MacKinnon (1989) and Bourdieu. Mackinnon’s notion of consciousness-raising complements the notion of habitus, providing ‘the means by which women come to understand both their oppression and the possible remedies for it’ as a crucial first step towards prompting wider institutional change with women as agents of that change (Chambers 2004: 30).

Lovell (2000) also suggests a successful combinatory approach could be achieved by uniting Bourdieu’s concept of habitus with Butler’s account of performativity. Lovell suggests that Skeggs’ analysis of the women in her study interprets Bourdieu in this way (Lovell 2000: 23–25), that rather than viewing the women as passively accepting a predetermined fate, she understands them to take an active role by ‘construct[ing] their subjectivities through class-informed performances’ (Skeggs 1997: 74) in their attempt to dissociate from their class position. As well as helping us to move beyond the ‘sense of political paralysis’ Bourdieu’s theory may induce (Lovell 2000: 17), a Bourdieuian approach may also have positive implications for moderating Butler’s understanding of gender as a performance, providing ‘a powerful conceptual antidote to post-modern voluntaristic politics, insofar as it permits us to focus on the social conditions of existence of resistance’ (Lovell 2000: 18).

Although we may question the limitations of Bourdieu’s concepts, they are still potentially valuable to feminism, not least because habitus and cultural capital offer a way of refocusing the feminist gaze on material inequalities, integrating aspects of everyday lived experience to explain the ways in which disadvantage and privilege are structured within a larger social system. Rather than understanding class inequalities and privilege ‘in the male, Marxist mode’, Bourdieu’s model suggests that these are embodied in the everyday ‘as intricate daily practices which, interwined with race and gender, are inscribed on women’s bodies and played out in their social interactions’ (Reay 1997: 231), changing the conception of social identity so that it incorporates various dimensions, raced, classed and gendered, embodied and enacted in the seeming banality of everyday lived practice.

Bourdieu’s concepts recall the structures that pervade and influence daily existence, providing the means by which unquestioned concepts and habits may be restored to the conscious mind so they can be queried and, it is to be hoped, negated:

We need concepts that do have explanatory value for those to whom they are meant to apply so that experiences cannot be dismissed as illegitimate just because they are not known by those who have the power to effect judgements on others (Skeggs 1997: 166).

Although it could be argued that this account leaves little room for individual agency, this does not necessarily imply that women should embrace their fate willingly. Rather than ‘amor fati’, recognising the pervasive nature of the structures that capture women at least enables them to attempt resistance, despite the fact that instigating and achieving change may be difficult. One of the crucial advantages of habitus may well be that it does not ‘underestimate the difficulties of breaking loose of patriarchal shackles’ (Moi 1990: 285), but this does not in itself deny the possibility of change altogether, and adopting Bourdieu’s concepts in conjunction with feminists who theorise change may well provide a powerful challenge to the injustices and inequalities inherent in the world today.

July 05, 2005

Focus group Friday

Okay time to panic. Am running my focus group on Friday. That's in 3 days time. Eeeek. Eeeeeeeek. Eeeeeeeeeeek. Am going back to my room to panic and bury head in a pot of basil.

Anyway, this is my discussion guide, my attempt to write something meaningful and coherent to justify this entry's 'academic related' classification…

Comments and suggestions very welcome! I have already run this by my dissertation supervisor, my parents and my colleagues at Leeds uni, and all the feedback has been helpful in some way or another, not least because I am fairly inexperienced and unsure of myself when it comes to conducting empirical social research.

Discussion guide

This focus group will be conducted in two 45-minute sessions with a 10–15 minute break in between. There should be 8 participants – men aged 45–60 who are mostly long-term unemployed, who recently participated in a week-long training scheme at Leeds University. Through the scheme the participants know each other and me (because of my role as administrative assistant within the department and presence at the training sessions). The focus group will take place in a seminar room at the university and I will record the discussion as well as take notes. I haven't worked out the exact timing yet, but I will allocate a certain amount of time to each section of the discussion to ensure that we cover all areas in sufficient detail.


Barriers to employment

  • Have you noticed any particular changes in the job market since you first entered it?

  • What kinds of changes? (possible prompts: feminisation of job market, new skills, new technologies, shift from manufacturing to service industries etc.)

  • How do you feel about these changes? Have they made it more or less difficult for you to find employment?

  • Tell me about particular problems or barriers that you’ve had in seeking employment.

Experiences of ageism

  • What skills and knowledge do you think older people can offer employers that younger people might lack?

  • How do you think employers perceive older workers?

  • Do you think that employers discriminate against older workers?

  • If so, why? If not, why not?

  • What do you understand by the term ‘ageism’?

  • What changes do you think could be made to improve the employment situation of older workers by employers? and by the government?

Men and unemployment

  • What does the word ‘work’ mean to you?

  • Is work important to you? Why? Do you think that your reasons have anything to do with being a man?

  • Do you think that men and women see work / employment differently?

  • Do you think that society/employers view unemployed men differently from unemployed women? If so, how?

  • What do you think is the main role of a man?

  • How do you think unemployment affects the role of men?

  • Do you see your role as the main breadwinner? Do you think this should be a man’s main role?

  • If you have a wife or partner, has (s)he had to go out to work or increase his/her working hours as a result of your unemployment?

  • Has this changed the division of labour in your home, for instance, do you do more housework or child-care?

  • How do you feel about these changes e.g. about your wife / partner having to work?

Coping with unemployment

  • Has unemployment affected your relationships with other people (partners, family, friends etc.) and your social life? If so, how?

  • What part of being unemployed has been hardest for you?

  • Why has it been so difficult?

  • How do you cope with these particular problems?

  • What kind of support do you have to help you deal with these problems?

Alternatives to employment

  • How important do you think it is to have a job?

  • What are the alternatives to re-entering the job market?

  • How do you feel about these alternatives?

  • Do you think there are any benefits to unemployment? If so, what? (possible prompts: more time for self, family, friends, more time to learn new skills or travel?)

May 11, 2005

feminist ethnographies

More notes for the blog, since I panic and freeze when confronted by a blank page in Microsoft Word, and this at least makes me feel like I'm being semi-productive. I think I will just hand in some webpage addresses next week instead of an essay – either that or find a PA who can make sense of my disparate ramblings and quotations and write them up in something ressembling a meaningful and coherent essay form…

Notes on two articles
Stacey, Judith. 1988. Can there be a feminist ethnography? Women's Studies International Forum, Vol. 11, No. 1, pp. 21–27.

and Skeggs, Beverley. 1994. Situating the Production of Feminist Ethnography. In Maynard, Mary and Purvis, June (eds), 1994. Researching Women's Lives from a Feminist Perspective. Taylor & Francis: London.

Stacey begins by making the point that many feminist scholars have found ethnograpy to be especially apt for feminist research because it approaches knowledge as experiential and contextual, rejects positivism's false dualisms, and establishes an egalitarian relationship between knower-known

Aims of feminist research:

Most [feminist scholars] view feminist research as primarily research on, by and especially for women and draw sharp distinctions between the goals and methods of mainsteam and feminist scholarship. [They] evnice widespread disenchantment with the dualisms, abstractions, and detachment of positivism, rejecting the separations between subject and object, thought and feeling, knower and known, and political and personal as well as their reflections in the arbitrary boundaries of traditional academic disciplines. Instead most feminist scholars advoce an integrative, trans-disciplinary approach to knowledge which grounds theory contextually in the concrete realm of women's everyday lives. (Stacey 1988: 21)

Ethnography as specifically feminist:

Like a good deal of feminism, ethnography emphasizes the experiential. Its approach to knowledge is contextual and interpersonal, attentive like most women, therefore, to the concrete realm of everyday reality and human agency… this method draws on those resources of empathy, connection, and concern that many feminists consider to be women's special strengths and which they argue should be germinal in feminist research. (ibid: 22)

However, Stacey argues that ethnographic methods ironcially subject research subjects to greater risk of exploitation, betrayal and abandonment by the researcher than positivist research.

The lives, loves, and tragedies that fieldwork informants share with a researcher are ultimately data, grist for the ethnographic mill… (ibid: 23)
…an ethnography is a written document structured primarily by a researcher's purposes, offering a researcher's interpretations, registered in a researcher's voice (ibid).
The greater the intimacy, the apparent mutuality of the researcher / researched relationship, the greater is the danger (ibid: 24)

Postmodern ethnography

Stacey highlights a need for fertile dialogue between feminist scholarship and poststructural ethnography (one which has since been realised?)

[Critical ethnographers] attempt to bring to their research an awareness that ethnographic writing is not cultural reportage but cultural construction, and always a construction of self as well as of the other (ibid).

May 08, 2005

Doing ethnography – quotes


‘[Ethnography is] a particular method or set of methods which in its most characteristic form… involves the ethnographer participating overtly or covertly in people’s daily lives for an extended period of time, watching what happens, listening to what is said, asking questions – in fact, collecting whatever data are available to throw light on the issues that are the focus of research’ (Hammersley and Atkinson, 1995: 1 cited in Walsh 2000: 226).

‘Ethnography is not a particular method of data collection but a style of research that is distinguished by its objectives, which are to understand the social meanings and activities of people in a given ‘field’ or setting, and an approach, which involves close association with, and often participation in, this setting’ (Brewer 2000: 59).

Participant observation:
This ‘involves data gathering by means of participation in the daily life of informants in their natural setting: watching, observing and talking to them in order to discover their interpretations, social meanings and activities’ (Brewer 2000: 59)

Researchers who become participant observers must attempt to ‘maintain the balance between ‘insider’ and ‘outsider’ status; to identify with the people under study and get close to them, but maintaining a professional distance which permits adequate observation and data collection. It is a fine balance…’ (ibid: 59-60)

‘A proper balance in the participant observer’s dual role as part insider and part outsider gives them the opportunity to be inside and outside the setting, to be simultaneously member and non-member, and to participate while also reflecting critically on what is observed and gathered while doing so’ (ibid: 60).

Brewer differentiates beteen ‘participant observation’ (acquisition of a new role) and ‘observant participation’ (utilisation of an existing role to observe aspects of a familiar or unfamiliar setting’). It is this latter form of observation that Skeggs undertakes in her research.

‘With observant participation there are no problems of resocialization, acceptance or misunderstanding, since it is a familiar role and often in a familiar setting, but the observer must have a suitable role in which to observe where probing questions can be asked without appearing unusual or untypical. The role must be permanent enough to allow intensive observation of a period of time and be sufficiently broad and encompassing to permit access to a cross-section of events, activites and people in the field…’ (ibid: 61-2)
Although the researcher is able to get overt ‘insider’ status, observant participation nevertheless ‘reduces the capactiy of the researcher to achieve distance from the friendships, group ties and years of association built around the role that is being used for observation purposes’ (ibid: 62).

This method requires simultaneous ‘involvement and detachment’.

Selectivity: a problem of personal perspective, partiality, influenced by various conditions:

‘Postmodern ethnographers recognize that the participant observer’s view is a view, and a view is sometimes better than no view, and there are occasions when there is no alternative to a period of participant observation, but it should never stand alone as a research method for these sorts of reasons’ (ibid: 62-3).

‘Since interviewers are human beings acting in a face-to-face encounter that forms a piece of social interaction, they [postmodern ethnographers] query the role played by the interviewer, whom they see as ‘creating’ or ‘producing’ the data… Interview data are thus ‘situated’ and context bound to the interviewer (much like the participant observer). They are also bound to the situation in which they were collected’ (ibid: 67).

Feminist interviews redraw the power relationship between respondent and researcher to better access the subject’s voice. Conventional interviewing is critiqued as masculine; instead, ‘stress is laid on capturing women’s narratives, stories and biographical experiences by means of natural conversations in a personalized manner where interviewer and subject are partners’ (ibid: 68)

Feminist interviews involve: ‘openness, emotional engagement and the development of potentially long-term relationships based on trust and emotional reciprocity’ (ibid: 69). c.f. Ann Oakley – this contrasts markedly with the positivistic ethic of detachment / role distance and attempts to redress the patriarchal power struggle through the empowerment of subjects.

Furthermore, the purpose of a feminist interview is to offer benefits to participants such as empowerment, ‘enabling them to deal better with the problems they experience as women’ (ibid: 69).

Focus on particular topics e.g. women’s lives / experiences, which are ‘revealed and disclosed in their own words and in their own way in an interview situation in which they are empowered and not made to feel subordinate’ (ibid: 69).

‘Ethnographers are perhaps unique among social researchers in sharing the lives of the people they study. This means that they cannot… work as if in a vacuum – they pry into people’s innermost secrets, witness their failures and participate in their lives- which means they must operate a code of ethics that respects their informants’ (ibid: 89).

Even though overt research remains the best choice, entailing a great amount of openness, it can also be ‘invasive’ and ‘intrude on privacy’, involving ‘varying degrees of truth’ (ibid: 99).

‘The myth that ethnographers are people without personal identity, historical location and personality, and would all produce the same findings in the same setting, is the mistake of naive realism’ (ibid: 99).

‘Complete participation in the situation is impossible; such immersion would risk going native, and so a degree of marginality in the situation is needed to do research… a poise between a strangeness that avoids over-rapport and a familiarity that grasps the perspective of people in the situation’ (Walsh: 233, emphasis in original).

‘This position creates considerable strain on the researcher as it engenders insecurity, produced by living in two worlds simultaneously, that of participation and that of research’ (ibid).

Rather than viewing research as a series of hermetic stages, modern methodology conceives research as process: ‘It does not follow a neat pattern but is a messy interaction between the research problem, the design of the research and data collection and analysis’ (Brewer: 102-3).

Validation / verification
1. Member validation – ‘consists of the ethnographer showing findings to the people studied and seeking verification in which the actors recognize a correspondence between the findings and what they, the actors, say and do. Thus verification is largely reduced to a matter of authenticity’ (ibid: 236). Problems = actors not being privileged observers of own actions, lack of conscious awareness about their actions, desire to rationalise beliefs/behaviours, or no interest in the ethnographic account

2. Triangulation
Often entails the employment of multiple methods, ‘triangulation’ as Denzin (1970) first termed a combination of methods of data collection e.g. participant observation, in-depth interviewing, personal documents, discourse analysis. Although traditionally associated with humanist, positivist and post postmodern notions of ethnography as a means of improving the ‘fit’ between analysis and the ‘reality’ it aimed to represent, even within postmodern ethnography it has relevance as an alternative to validation:

‘Practitioners recognize that all methods impose perspectives on reality by the type of data that they collect, and each tends to reveal something sightly different about the same symbolic ‘reality’ (Brewer: 76) – even if researchers can hardly claim that a final ‘truth’ has been unveiled and represented.

Ethnography presents problems – both analytical and ethical e.g. dependent on building up rapport / trust with people in feild, whilst using this to generate / collect data from them. Even in overt research this is problematic because researcher must withhold disclosure about activities to maintain sociability and gain access. Ethical issues also affect research publication – e.g. political implications damaging the people whose lives have been investigated.

‘Yet ethnography, through participant observation of the social and cultural worlds, opens out the possibility of an understanding of reality which no other method can realize’ (Walsh: 237).


Brewer, John. 2000. Ethnography. In Bryman, Alan (ed.). 2000. Understanding Social Research. (Place: publisher?)

Skeggs, B. 1994. ‘Situating the production of feminist ethnography’ in M. Maynard and J. Purvis (eds), Researching Women’s Lives from a Feminist Perspective. London: Taylor and Francis.

Walsh, David. 2000. Doing ethnography. In Seale, Clive (ed.). 2004. Researching Society and Culture (2nd ed). London: Sage.

May 07, 2005

Notes on Skeggs chapter

Follow-up to Thoughts on an essay from L'Etrangère

Q. How has the author addressed questions of epistemology, power/ethics and research design in the research process?

Beverley Skeggs - Formations of Class and Gender Becoming Respectable (Sage: 1997)
Notes on Chapter 2. Respectable Knowledge: Experience and Interpretation (pp. 17–40)

Methodology / Design
feminist ethnography in the form of a longitudinal study (over 11 years) – 'ethnography by default':

It is a feminist account of doing feminist research which engages with debates in feminist methodology and epistemology (Skeggs 1995: 17)


  • intensive participant observation
  • using information relating to national/local economy, housing, poverty, education stats to 'map' details of 'the general economic and cultural framework in which the women were located, producing a geography of their positionings and possibilities' (ibid: 21)
  • life history – tracing the trajectories of women through the education system – and use of biography to construct a case-file for each of them
  • formal / informal interviews and meetings with family members, friends, partners, college teachers (btw what IS Skeggs 1994b – find out)

Methodology = historical materialism

Participants: initially women Skeggs was teaching on a Community Care course in an FE college… expanded to 83 women on 3 different caring courses

Research question 1: 'Why do women, who are clearly not just passive victims of some ideological conspiracy, consent to a system of class and gender oppression which appears to offer few rewards and little benefit?'
As the research progressed it entered into different theoretical debates, posed various questions and met with problems which were products of the time, problems that were 'historically contingent and located' (ibid: 22).

For Skeggs, issues centred on 'power relations and how to avoid constructing the research as object or other' (ibid: 23). The ethnography was politically-motivated 'to provide a space for the articulations and experiences of the marginalized' (ibid: 23). Marcus (1986) offers a critique of this notion of 'ethnographer as midwife' – delivering and articulating that which is expressed as vernacular in working-class lives – yet Skeggs argues that 'this provision of representational space' for those marginalised, pathologised and othered is important (Skeggs 1995: 23).

The theoretical framework was determined by its explanatory power but was continually modified through a dialectical relationship with participants:

I was mostly attracted to Marxist feminism for its explanatory power and its vocabulary of anger and injustice: it addressed concerns in my life and the women's and as the research progressed I found other theories such as post-structuralism, Bourdieu and Black feminism enabled sense to be made of the micropolitics of power I was experiencing and documenting' (ibid: 23).
knowledge becomes more than just a matter of power, normalization and legitimation because only some theories work (ibid: 24).
Theories are not relative: some have practical adequacy in relation to their subjects / objects of study (ibid: 24).

Representation and interpretation
Skeggs recognises the partiality of her account of feminist ethnography and the processes it involves, arguing that knowledge is not formed in a void but rather is dependent upon one's positioning within structures of class and privilege, and points to the dangers of disregarding researcher location (and correspondingly his/her access to different forms of capital) in the research process:

To ignore questions of methodology is to assume that knowledge comes from nowhere allowing knowledge makers to abdicate responsibility for their productions and representations. To side-step methodology means that the mechanisms we utilize in producing knowledge are hidden, relations of privilege are masked and knowers are not seen to be located (ibid: 17).

Skeggs argues that feminist researchers are often guilty of ignoring the process through which 'experience' is interpreted and represented, in their bid to prioritise experience:

Representations are interpretations. Experience is at once always already an interpretation and is in need of interpretation (ibid: 28).

Yet Skeggs shows awareness of her own role within the research process in terms of selection and interpretation: 'it was me who made decisions about what I thought was worth knowing about' (ibid: 28, my italics). She acknowledges the unavoidable loss of information – of expressions, nuances, feelings and embodiment in the research – things she claims to be 'unrepresentable' when transcribing experience into written utterances.

This partiality of representation has both epistemological and ethical implications. In considering what it means to validate someone else's experiences, Skeggs adopts a poststructuralist approach which deems that knowledge is always mediated through the discourses available to us to interpret and understand our experiences. This means that the interpretations of the participants are sometimes at odds with Skeggs' own analysis, a result of differing contextual positions in relation to discourses of knowing and experiences of speaking (ibid: 29). This is a question of ethics and epistemic responsibility since as writer, Skeggs has the ultimate power of production, simultaneously seeking to produce interpretations that are 'vigilant, responsible and critical', consulting the women rather than claiming to be 'the absolute knower of others' (ibid: 30). In this way she creates a space both for her own voice as researcher and the voices of her participants, striving for an open dialogic relationship, but nevertheless retains ultimate responsibility for interpretation:

Rather than change my analysis to fit the analysis of the women of the research, which has been suggested by some feminist researchers, I want to make a claim for using the interpretations produced through dialogue, but over which I have ultimate responsibility and which are generated in relation to the research questions I investigated. I discussed my ideas and interpretations with them and they would challenge, contradict, confirm, etc. This would enable me to reassess my speculations and frameworks, sometimes leading to modification, abandonment, but also to reassertion (ibid: 30).

For example, although the women reject a class-based analysis of their positioning, Skeggs maintains this as an explanatory framework for her findings. Even though she sometimes refuses the interpretations offered to her by her participants (rather constructing new theories to explain their responses e.g. chapter 5), simultaneously she strives to be both accountable and responsible. She cites Code (1987, 1988) who argues that 'responsible knowers look for the fullest possible explanations to understand the situation at hand; they recognize their implicatedness in the production of knowledge and claim responsibility for it (rather than claiming it magically produced' (ibid: 30). She therefore produces her own interpretations, but does so in a highly self-reflexive way through which she is acutely aware of the various types of interpretations with which she is engaged – revealing rather than concealing their places, values, functions, appropriateness and purposes (ibid: 31).

At times, however, she acknowledges a 'lapse in reflexivity' in which she maps her own frameworks on to the experiences of the women without listening to their explanations, a failing she attributes to a desire to impose order on an otherwise messy research process. She points out that traditional approaches to handling large amounts of research information – transcripts, notes and tapes – impose 'a greater homogeneity than I was experiencing' in its search for thematic coherence (ibid: 32). Instead she emphasises contradictions and differences in her findings, not only noting the disparity between words and deeds, but also by stressing the way in which contradictions may be held together on an everyday, lived basis.

Searching for coherence is an impossibility, an ideal and a fantasy (ibid: 32).

Self-reflexivity / positioning of researcher
Recognising that knowledge products are deeply embedded within disciplinary practices linked closely to other theoretical and political debates, Skeggs attempts to unpack the processes involved in reaching methodological decisions. This involves a great deal of self-reflexivity (c.f. Bourdieu?) in analysing what it means to be a feminist researcher and examining how her own positioning impacts upon the research she undertakes. She does not accept a straightforward relationship between ontology and epistemology, however, but rather claims that although we are positioned within a particular location, this does not determine our thoughts in an uncomplicated linear cause-effect way.

I continually recognize how my locatedness informed methodological decisions and ultimately the final product (ibid: 17).
Researchers are located and positioned in many different ways: history, nation, gender, sexuality, class, race, age, and so on. We are located in the economic, social and cultural relations which we study. These positions inform our access to institutional organizations such as education and employment. They also inform access to discourses and positions of conceivability, what we can envisage and what we perceive to be possible (ibid: 18).
In drawing attention to classifications and positionings I am not arguing for a direct correspondence between being and knowing, rather, that to ignore the location within structures of privilege and power relations as a condition of knowledge production, which includes the designation of objects and the conversion of cultural into symbolic capital of certain groups, means that what we receive as knowledge is always partial and always in the interests of particular groups (ibid: 20).
Epistemic responsibility involves recognizing our desires, power and implicatedness in the different practices we occupy (ibid: 38).

Skeggs appears acutely aware of her own positioning in relation to the women throughout the study – 'a process of connection and disconnection: of partial, full and non-connections' (ibid: 34) – a positioning that changed and was constantly changing. Because of her similarity in class background, she claims to feel 'less like a class tourist who voyeuristically explores the differences of the other' (ibid: 35). Skeggs had to deal with feelings of guilt, fraudulence and a sense that she did not belong as a result of her newly acquired privileges, writing of 'a sense of physical and metaphorical escape' each time she left an interview in the later research stages. In this way she is never able to achieve Kuhn's (1982) 'passionate detachment', though through time is able to establish more distance.

I experienced my position as privileged researcher, itself a visible acknowledgement of class transition, as deeply disturbing, generating an uncertainty…[missing words on my copy]... which in turn influenced the research production by injecting tension, a result of my projected anxiety, into our relationships (ibid: 35–6).

Nevertheless, this dual positioning offers dual benefits for the purposes of the research, as Skeggs is able to break down the traditional distinction between knower-known and the process of class normalisation. She depicts herself as Deleuze's (1986) 'nomadic subject', both engaging with the women from a position of shared identity but simultaneously subjecting herself to potential changes from that encounter.

Power and privilege - legitimating knowledge
Skeggs outlines the way in which knowledge has traditionally placed a role in the (re)production of power and legitimacy. She criticises the conventional positivistic notion that epistemology is free of values, location and context, an abstract form of theorising detached from those who produce knowledge output (who therefore view themselves as exempt from responsibility). She also discusses the normalising processes through which subjects become knowers, objectifying 'others' (objects to be 'known') through their deviation from the 'norm' (NB Skeggs does not explicitly refer to Foucault here, but his ideas re: normalisation and objectification appear to be relevant):

Certain knowledges are normalized, authorized and legitimated; only certain groups are seen to be respectable, to be worthy objects or subjects of knowledge (ibid: 18)

This of course raises ethical issues for Skeggs in her own research, who claims to be have been made 'continually aware of the ease with which those researched can be constructed as objects of knowledge without agency and volition' (ibid: 19). Paradoxically, her initial interest in the group of white, working-class women arose from her own class background and feeling herself to be 'a misrepresented object of sociological and feminist knowledge' (p. 19), but at the same time she acknowledges 'the pressures, seductions and ease by which rational knowledge can be applied' and the need to continually resist this temptation.

Skeggs also warns against interpreting the working-class women's practices from a position of privilege, arguing that even feminist theory is not exempt from 'the tacit and normalizing effect in knowledge [that] operates by taking one group's experiences and assuming these to be paradigmatic of all' (p.19). In other words, feminist methodologists tend to occupy a position of privilege – to be white, western and middle-class – and it is these positions that specify the agenda for what is to be 'known' in the name of feminist theory:

We always need to know in whose interests [knowledge] has been produced and whose interests are represented by it (ibid: 20).

Skeggs criticises her own research for the absence of a developed critique on race, a result of her normalisation in the production of knowledge during the early stages of the research (ibid: 36). Although race informs her theoretical analysis to a certain extent, the language of black feminist writers providing the inspiration and legitimation for her sense of class-based alienation and sense of outrage, she stresses that it is not studied in itself as a production category. She asks the question:

If, as researchers, we are in a position to contribute to knowledge normalization does this mean we also have the power to legitimate? (ibid: 37)

In other words, how do feminist researchers validate the experiences of women? And in turn, which institutional positions and relations of power limit or enable us to do so? Skeggs argues that firstly feminism itself is not sufficiently established amongst the legitimators of knowledge to be an authorising discourse. Secondly, even if she does have the power to legitimate the experiences of the women, does this have a transformative impact in any concrete or materialist sense?

What role experience?
Skeggs argues that many concepts in feminist theory develop from 'partial experiential descriptions' e.g. motherhood. Again, however, these experiences evolve within power relations in the interests of specific groups and are invested in by other groups, which in turn gives experiential value to specific representations that cannot be applied to all women as a homogenous group (c.f. chapter 6 for a illustration of this point). The representational challenges through which knowledge becomes situated therefore develop from:

…interrogating the production of categories, their applicability, the experiences of them and from assessing their explanatory adequacy for different groups of women in different relations of power at historically specific times and places (ibid: 21)

While feminism, in its earliest forms, attempted to 'reclaim, validate and provide space for women's experiences', in doing so it prompted a battle over whose experiences count as knowledge (Skeggs 1995: 24). De Lauretis (1988) argues that experience is the foundation of feminism, in that feminism developed as women began talking to each other about their experiences, feminist theory providing a means of understanding and interpreting these articulations, which in turn prompted the formulation of a 'new way of seeing' that could be used to 'reinterpret prior experiences' (ibid: 25). Thus the development of feminist theory was informted through a dialectical process, an attempt to challenge descriptions / classifications / universalist assumptions made from the descriptors of male experience and 'objective' knowledge. This gave rise to a specific institutional space in the academy which contained its own legitimation and enabled a whole body of feminist theorising that was not dependent on approval from male stream knowledge sources.

Feminist standpoint epistemology – this hinges on the claim that 'all knowledge springs from experience and that women's experience carries with it special knowledge and that this knowledge is necessary to challenge oppression' (ibid: 25) c.f. Hartsock, Rose, Harding, Jagger. In other words, the experience of oppression is said to give rise to particular knowledges, and for theorists adopting a strong standpoint position (e.g. Harding 1991), these knowledges are seen as epistemologically privileged.

Women's subordinate status means that, unlike men, women do not have a clear interest in mystifying reality and so are likely to develop a clearer and more trustworthy understanding of the world. A representation of reality from the standpoint of women is more objective and unbiased than the prevailing representations that reflect the standpoint of men (Jagger, 1983: 384)

However, Skeggs points out that the use and concept of experience has been problematic to feminist theorising, as it contains different meanings and takes a variety of forms, being put to different uses. Furthermore, she argues, not all experiences are relative in terms of explanatory power. She does not reject experience outright, but rather argues that experience may be formative but it does not play a role in constituting 'true' or 'rational' knowledge, adopting the premise that 'it is not individuals who have experience but subjects who are constituted through experience', and that rather than writing off experience as inconsequential it is necessary to see it 'as central to the construction of subjectivity and theory' (ibid: 27):

So I want to hold on to experience as a way of understanding how women occupy the category 'women', a category which is classed and raced and produced through power relations and through struggle across different sites in space and time. I do not, however, want to argue for experience as a foundation for knowledge, a way of revealing or locating true and authentic 'woman'. Nor do I want to suggest that we have to have experiences before we can take up a standpoint. Experience informs our take-up and production of positions but it does not fix us either in time or place' (Skeggs 1995: 27).

i.e. experience —> productive of subjectivity —> we are known / knowers
rather than experience —> knowledge (since mapping is dependent on context)

Stress is thus laid on the access to instances of take-up, movement, recognition and occupation of the positions available and it is assumed that these are neither fixed nor fixing… knowledge is situated, is produced from social subjects with varying amounts of cultural capital, located in a nexus of power relations (ibid: 28).
Experience as a concept cannot be abandoned but must be analysed in its specificity. Experience is central to the production of subjectivity, to the production of raced, classed, sexed and gendered 'woman'. It is also the means by which links can be generated between the epistemological and the ontological (ibid: 38).

Research - what value?

Skeggs realises that the extent to which her research can 'make a difference' may be limited, stressing that for most of the women, the impact of her research was negligible to their lives. But through providing a 'safe space' to discuss issues of concern, and by offering 'feminist understandings and interpretations for the things that were troubling, intriguing or exasperating', she argues that she is able to offer explanations of the way in which individuals are bound to structures beyond their control (c.f. Bourdieu), thus reducing feelings of personal inadequacy:

The ability to put this [self-blame about unemployment and educational disillusionment] into a wider perspective blocked their tendency to victim-blame and take on responsibility for social structural problems (ibid: 37).

In political terms, she hopes that her research impacts upon social policy or popular culture 'in a way that blocks the continual representation of working-class women as a disturbing site of social order' (ibid: 37).

feminist theorists have a limited, but necessary, role to play in the legitimation of rhetorical spaces produced by those who do not have access to circuits of knowledge distribution (ibid: 39).

She stresses that although she does not have the power to convert their capital in order for social or economic change to occur, she does have a voice capable of challenging hegemonic representations and epistemic privilege, and access to speak directly to those in a position of power:

What I can do is challenge those who have the power to legitimate partial accounts as if representative of the whole of knowledge and to challenge the classificatory systems which position 'others' as fixed (ibid: 37).

May 06, 2005

Thoughts on an essay

I've become increasingly disillusioned with, not to mention irritated by, the monograph I was planning to analyse for Feminist Epistemologies. I know that I should probably be in the process of considering methodological and epistemological issues related to researching masculinities, if nothing else for the purposes of my dissertation, but with precisely 12 days to go (including a week's extension), 0 words written, 2 days part-time work to do next week and panic setting in, I'm reverting to an analysis of Beverley Skeggs' methodology chapter for my epistos essay for the simple reasons that I understand it, am familiar with it, and am interested in her research (well as interested as I am in anything these days…)

Most of the general brainstorming of ideas / review of module relating to the three strands of the essay (epistemologies, power/ethics and design) still applies in any case, so that wasn't a waste of time. I reread the Skeggs methodology chapter last night and I could already see how I could draw out ideas and relate them to each stage of the essay. Unfortunately I don't have access to the full book (that's in Warwick, I'm at home right now), but hopefully I can 'fill in the gaps' once I get back to Warwick next week, though I suppose I could drive to Leeds and use the university library there if I get desperate. In any case, I remember the book quite well from my Bourdieu essay – though I have to be careful that there isn't too much overlap there (don't see why there would be though – the focus of the two essays is entirely different).

So anyway… before I start to plan / write I need to get some detailed notes together on the chapter, not in a particularly critical or analytical sense, but just so my sieve-like brain doesn't forget what it's read (oh so easily done). So here goes…

January 2023

Mo Tu We Th Fr Sa Su
Dec |  Today  |
2 3 4 5 6 7 8
9 10 11 12 13 14 15
16 17 18 19 20 21 22
23 24 25 26 27 28 29
30 31               

Search this blog

Blog archive


Most recent comments

  • Very nice, people must visit Bosnia more and more, espacially the part Hercegovina and and North Bos… by Me on this entry
  • That's not AT ALL like the Shepherdess I know. Mine is rather dark and has a foul mouth on her. Your… by Byron Getonefree on this entry
  • please send me if you have the panther picture but with a beater pixel for example 1024×786 or 1280×… by blondu on this entry
  • Well…? I take it all went ok considering your status on Facebook? (Not that I thought anything wou… by on this entry
  • If you liked Blood Meriden then you might also like this No Country for Old Men – I wrote a review a… by Neil Davis on this entry


Not signed in
Sign in

Powered by BlogBuilder