Edited by Konstanze Jungbluth, Cornelia Müller, Nicole Richter, Hartmut Schröder
Focal or subsidiary? Managing gender categories in analysis
Susan Speer, Elizabeth Stokoe (eds.). 2011. Conversation and Gender. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
For readers who are interested in a conversation analysis (CA) approach to gender, this edited volume is something of a must-read, as it brings together a group of scholars from across disciplinary backgrounds who work at the intersection of gender and interaction, and whose contributions to the volume encapsulate the latest development in the understanding of gender as a situated, ongoing, and routine accomplishment. While the topics and the data sources of the chapters vary, all contributors share a broadly social constructionist perspective that treats gender as members’ local practices ascribed, negotiated, constructed, resisted, and enacted in interaction (see Speer 2005 for an argument on how ethnomethodology and CA are compatible with a social constructionist agenda). Both editors are noted for their prolific, cutting-edge research on gender and conversation. Their introduction to the volume offers a useful critical overview of the field and raises issues and concerns for future research. Thirteen empirically grounded chapters that follow exemplify the deployment of CA to illustrate how gender is invoked by participants as a resource to perform various actions in conversation.
Within a CA approach to gender, an important locus of investigation in recent years has been person reference and gender category. Such a trend is well reflected in the collection. Jackson, for example, examines in her chapter the pronoun I, which, due to the paucity of categorical information it can convey about the referent, is referred to by Schegloff (1996: 440) as “reference simpliciter” – that is, I does not reveal any information about the race, gender, age, and occupation of the speaker; it is simply a term of self-reference. Jackson’s analysis, however, shows just the contrary: she demonstrates that in interactional contexts where gender has already constituted the backdrop of talk, the pronoun I can be read as gendered.
Other contributors also give analytic attention to person reference or gender category or both, albeit from different angles and with a varying degree of emphasis: Klein on non-recognitional person reference; Land and Kitzinger on first person selfcategorization; Stokoe on the repairs of gender categories; Cromdal on gender categorization as a site of stereotype (re)production; Goodwin on children’s mobilization of person reference and gender categories in conflict; and Garcia and Fisher on the construction of gender inequality in divorce mediation sessions. Space constraint does not permit a thorough overview of each
study. What I would like to highlight here is the chapter by Garcia and Fisher because of the methodological stance that it adopts.
When discussing their analytic approach, Garcia and Fisher state that their analysis is “a combination of a conversation analytic perspective with an interpretive analysis of the interaction based on shared cultural knowledge” (275), thus acknowledging that it is legitimate for CA analysts to bring their interpretive resources to bear on the analytic process. Their explicit methodological statement turns on the longstanding question of what counts as an orientation to gender, a question that has been at the center of the debates between sequential CA and membership categorization analysis (MCA) (see, for example, Stokoe and Smithson 2001, for a discussion of what counts as an orientation to gender from a feminist CA and MCA perspective).
For MCA researchers, an important analytic task is to unpack the “inference-rich” (Sacks 1992: 40) properties of categories in interaction. To do so, analysts would have to mobilize the known-in-common cultural knowledge, or knowledge that they share with participants by virtue of being co-members of a culture, to make sense of the meanings and actions of categories in interaction. In other words, to render a meaningful and subtle analysis of categories in action, analysts would have to draw on a stock of cultural knowledge that is unspoken and unspecified by participants but is nevertheless stored in categories (Stokoe 2012). In one way or another, most of the aforementioned chapters on person reference and gender category rely on the analytic procedures of both sequential CA and MCA. However, if researchers bring cultural knowledge that is unspoken and unspecified by participants to bear on the analysis, they will run the risk of not grounding the analysis on participants’ orientation (see Schegloff 2009: 362-73 for a critique on an etic or data-external perspective on data analysis).
It is exactly on this ground that Schegloff (2007) criticizes MCA for being “promiscuous” in its analytic orientation. The debates are likely to continue. While it is important to heed the criticisms and injunctions of sequential CA and to strive for grounded analysis, it is unproductive to get mired in the debates and let the terms of the debates define MCA’s research methodology and agenda. To forge ahead, MCA researchers need to systematically formulate and continually refine their own research program (for an important move in this direction, see Stokoe 2012).
As all contributors to the volume adopt CA as their analytic framework, they share a common ground in treating gender as a social action. For analysts, therefore, an important question to ask is “if gender is relevant here, then what does it do in relation to what the participants wish to accomplish in the interaction?” This means that analysts should not be driven by an unwarranted priority on gender at the expense of the interaction as a whole. Analysis of gender, or any other category for that matter, should take into consideration the overall interactional goals of participants (Schegloff 2007). When such an analytic stance is taken, analysts may find that even when gender is made relevant, it may not be always pushed to the forefront, but may remain a peripheral concern, subservient to certain focal interactional goals (see Kitzinger 2007 for how the category “woman” is not always gender relevant and can be used to achieve gender or non-gender relevant social actions within a single episode of interaction). Indeed, a few chapters in the volume illustrate just this point. In Speer’s chapter, for example, participants embed their (gendered) reported third party compliments within some other more focal actions; in Wilkinson, although gender is evident in the helpline call taker’s turn designs, the designs are first and foremost motivated to provide relevant information to callers;
ask is “if gender is relevant here, then what does it do in relation to what the participants wish to accomplish in the interaction?” This means that analysts should not be driven by an unwarranted priority on gender at the expense of the interaction as a whole. Analysis of gender, or any other category for that matter, should take into consideration the overall interactional goals of participants (Schegloff 2007). When such an analytic stance is taken, analysts may find that even when gender is made relevant, it may not be always pushed to the forefront, but may remain a peripheral concern, subservient to certain focal interactional goals (see Kitzinger 2007 for how the category “woman” is not always gender relevant and can be used to achieve gender or non-gender relevant social actions within a single episode of interaction). Indeed, a few chapters in the volume illustrate just this point. In Speer’s chapter, for example, participants embed their (gendered) reported third party compliments within some other more focal actions; in Wilkinson, although gender is evident in the helpline call taker’s turn designs, the designs are first and foremost motivated to provide relevant information to callers; and in Beach and Glenn, sexualized and gendered talk is deployed to pursue intimacy and affiliation. The challenge for future researchers, as the editors note in their introduction, is to demonstrate “that and how gender is a focal or subsidiary aspect of these broader social actions” (26).
Another important theme that emerges from the collection is an empirical reengagement with, and a respecification of, some gender and language models from a CA perspective. Sidnell, for example, revisits the model of gender difference proposed by Maltz and Borker (1982). He focuses his analysis on a single turn-at-talk – D’you understand that honey? – directed to a wife by her husband in the course of dirty joke sharing among a group of adults at a backyard barbecue. Based on a meticulous and insightful analysis of the embodied conduct of the participants and their participation framework, Sidnell argues that gender is made relevant by the utterance, and that the participants are divided into two membership groups along the gender lines on the grounds of whether or not they display an understanding of the joke. He suggests that gender difference is something invoked by the participants and is of their local concern. In this sense, what Sidnell does is not so much endorse the model of gender difference, but respecify it from a CA perspective. While gender difference researchers typically assume the a priori existence of “men” and “women” and use separate gender subcultures to explain the differences in their speech styles, Sidnell uses CA to demonstrate that participants constitute themselves as men and women, and as different subcultural species in talk.
To some extent, the data from Cromdal’s chapter also speak to the theme of gender difference. Cromdal shows that boys and girls participating in play attribute gender
stereotypes to members of the opposite sex. In so doing, they draw a gender line and submit themselves to a view of gender bifurcation. Like Sidnell, Cromdal illustrates with CA’s bottom-up approach that gender difference is members’ local management and accomplishment, and therefore it is a research topic rather than an explanatory resource.
In a similar vein, Hepburn and Potter rectify the “deficit” model of language and gender through an investigation of the function of tag questions used by women in interaction. Their analytic focus is on “the operation of one practice through which tag questions are systematically exploited to press subtly and rather indirectly for a course of action that has already been resisted” (135). In contradistinction to the “deficit” model’s claim that the use of tag questions is an indication of women’s being powerless and ineffective, Hepburn and Potter show that tag questions can be used to do “coercive” and “invasive” interactional work.
If the chapters by Sidnell and Hepburn and Potter put a new theoretical and empirical spin on the “difference” and “deficit” views of language and gender, then the contribution by Butler and Weatherall adds an interactional dimension to Garfinkel’s (1967) ethnomethodological account of gender as a mundane, collaborative accomplishment. Their study examines how a six-year-old boy, William, is ascribed a fictional female identity called Charlotte in the course of school group work, and how this cross-gender identity becomes a site of negotiation and contestation.
It has been more than a decade since the well-known debate between the adherents of CA and those of what can be broadly termed as discourse analysis (e.g., Billig 1998; Schegloff 1997; Wetherell 1998). Although the debate was not about gender per se, it is partially responsible for initiating a flurry of CA research studies on language and gender. What this body of research has in common is to heed Schegloff’s criticisms and injunctions by engaging seriously with data and by privileging “technical” analysis over “ideological” bias. This volume represents an important continuation of the undertaking. However, Schegloff (1997) also points out that a technical analysis does not preclude political considerations, and that there is nothing inherent in CA that prevents researchers’ political engagements. CA researchers can explore what their technical analysis allows them to say about politics. Readers will find that with perhaps only one or two exceptions, contributors to the volume seem to choose to stay within the “safety zone” of technical analysis. Even Land and Kitzinger, two contributors who have published politically informed CA work elsewhere (e.g., Land and Kitzinger 2005), acknowledge that their chapter is not “inherently ‘political’” (63). For CA researchers who are politically engaged, the challenge then is how to combine CA analysis with warranted political considerations.
Overall, the volume greatly enriches our understanding of gender and conversation at both theoretical and methodological levels. Most importantly, it illustrates how CA can be fruitfully exploited to address gender in and for interaction. The editors should be commended for assembling a remarkable collection that represents a comprehensive and up-to-date treatment of the subject.
Billig, Michael. 1999. Whose terms? Whose ordinariness? Rhetoric and ideology in conversation analysis. Discourse and Society 10: 543–58.
Garfinkel, Harold. 1967. Studies in Ethnomethodology. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall.
Kitzinger, Celia. 2007. Is ‘woman’ always relevantly gendered? Gender and Language 1: 39–49.
Land, Victoria and Celia Kitzinger. 2005. Speaking as a lesbian: Correcting the heterosexist presumption. Research on Language and Social Interaction 38: 371–416.
Maltz, Daniel N. and Ruth A. Borker. 1982. A cultural approach to male–female miscommunication. In: John Gumperz (ed., Language and Social Identity. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 196–216.
Sacks, Harvey. 1992. Lectures on Conversation (Vols. I and II, ed. Gail Jefferson). Oxford: Blackwell.
Schegloff, Emanuel A. 1996. Some practices for referring to persons in talk-ininteraction: A partial sketch of a systematics. In: Barbara A. Fox (ed.), Studies in Anaphora. Amsterdam: John Benjamins, 437–485.
Schegloff, Emanuel A. 1997. Whose text? Whose context? Discourse and Society 8: 165–187.
Schegloff, Emanuel A. 2007. A tutorial on membership categorization. Journal of Pragmatics 39: 462–482.
Schegloff, Emanuel A. 2009. One perspective on conversation analysis: Comparative perspectives. In: Jack Sidnell (ed.), Conversation Analysis: Comparative Perspectives. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 357–406.
Speer, Susan. 2005. Gender Talk: Feminism, Discourse and Conversation Analysis. New York: Routledge.
Stokoe, Elizabeth H. 2012. Moving forward with membership categorization analysis: Methods for systematic analysis. Discourse Studies 14: 277–303.
Stokoe, Elizabeth H. and Janet Smithson. 2001. Making gender relevant: Conversation analysis and gender categories in interaction. Discourse and Society 12: 243–269.
Wetherell, Margaret. 1998. Positioning and interpretative repertoires: Conversation analysis and post-structuralism in dialogue. Discourse and Society 9: 431–456.