[OPE-L:7082] Re: women and Marxian political economy

From: nicola taylor (n.taylor@student.murdoch.edu.au)
Date: Sun Apr 28 2002 - 10:17:18 EDT

Simon, thanks very much for taking a stab at this issue [7071]: I wondered
how many takers there would be!

Thanks also to Jerry [7069], whose comments I'll take up briefly (now that
I'm recovered from a very long 3 days in the bush, hiking with my kids :)

>I'd like to jump-in and say a few comments about this question. I
>think that while these questions are related, they are not the 
>same. Specifically, I will note that Internet mailing lists tend to be
male-dominated.  Here, I'm not thinking only of membership, but 
>of who the frequent posters are. This seems to me to be a question 
>which would be probably better addressed by those who study communication,
social psychology, and gender studies than by economists (or Marxists who
critique political economy, if you prefer.)  

I'm not sure about this divide.  Although it is in keeping with
contemporary psychological/education studies (where typically there is a
chasm between individual cognitive mechanisms, the use of psychological
tools such as language and the social context of learning and knowledge
construction).  Nevertheless, political economy *is* concerned with the
construction of knowledge (of capitalism), so I do see some point in
studying 'dominant' discursive practices and trying to achieve some insight
into how these practices affect both the ways in which we construct our
knowledge of capitalism (i.e. how we do political economy) and the extent
to which our way of doing things escapes - or falls into - masculine modes
of discourse.  Does OPE-L have anything unique to offer in this regard?
You bet it does.  

Consider a series of studies in the 1990s by Herring et al (1993-95) who
monitored two academic discussion lists (LINGUIST and MBU) over a period of
3yrs 6mths and 6mths respectively.  LINGUIST was devoted to formal
discussion (much like OPE-L) of linguistic analysis, and MBU was a
feminist-influenced list devoted to informal discussion of computers,
language and writing.  Participants on these lists were academics and
postgraduate students, and both lists were considered 'models of
appropriate behaviour' by invited members.  Like us, Herring was interested
in the 'democratic' aspects of internet discussion - i.e. does the new tool
have any unique potential for changing the way we do things?

On the negative side, Herring found ON BOTH LISTS:
1. A striking sex-based disparity in participation: irrespective of ratio's
of women to men, men actively participated far more than women did.  
2. Competition for the conversational floor favoured men: a) topics
initiated by men were more likely to be taken up by the rest of the group
for discussion, b) both men and women responded more to men's postings, and
c) women were least likely to respond to, or acknowledge, other women.
3. Masculine language predominated over women's language.  Masculine
language defined as: strong assertion, self-promotion, presuppositions,
rhetorical questions, authoritative orientation, challenges to others to
support their views, humour and sarcasm.  Women's language defined as:
attenuated assertion, apologies, explicit justifications, questions,
personal orientation, and non-competitive support for others.
4. Men predominantly used masculine language, and women a mix of both forms
of language.  [Herring, 1993, explained this by reference to socialisation:
'Women must employ some features of mens' language in order to be taken
seriously as academics, and some features of women's language in order not
to be considered unpleasant or aggressive']

Herring concluded that the 'norms' of academic discourse transfer over to
the internet with little modification, and that both men and women
recognise the authority of the norms and for the most part uncritically
accept their legitimacy (as, in fact, Jerry notes in his afterword to this

Most interesting in this regard are Herrings case by case analyses of
particular debates during which women's posts increased to the same level
as men's posts for periods of one or two days (never longer).  Men on both
lists responded in the same way to the loss of conversational floor.
Multiple discursive strategies to 'silence' women's concerns were employed,
such as: ignoring concerns raised by women, posting patronising
intellectualisations of subjects raised by women, displays of anger, and
(frequently) reinterpretation of 'key terms and definitions in the
discussion' (Herring, 1995).  In one case, when women insisted upon their
right to say what they wanted to say *in the way that they wanted to say
it*, some men in the debate threatened to unsubscribe from the list.
Immediately women's participation in the discussion dropped from about half
of all posts to 15% of posts; the result was that the men's interpretation
prevailed.  Herring commented: 'Internalised censorship of this sort
reflects deeper social ills, and it is naive to expect that technology
alone will heal them'.  

On the plus side, some differences between the two lists were also noted by
Herring and these do suggest that strategies for changing the ways that we
construct our knowledge might exist in internet forums.  First was a
correlation between the formality of the discourse and the prevalence of
masculine language (as defined above).  On LINGUIST where the discussion
was of the formal academic sort, masculine language consistently prevailed,
along with what appears (from online discussion) to be a general acceptance
of agonistic debate.  The post-research interviews with participants
revealed a different story however, with male and female respondents
polarised about the legitimacy of certain forms of debate.  For example:

Male: 'Actually, the barbs and arrows were entertaining, because of course
they weren't aimed at me'

Female: 'I was disgusted.  It's the same old arguments, the same old
intentions of defending theoretical territory, the same old inabilities of
open and creative thinking, all of which makes me ambivalent about
academics in general'

So, while women on both lists tended to be silent (not participate) in
agonistic debates, the interviews showed that they nevertheless had
opinions about the style of discussion, could accurately indentify it as a
dominant discourse (one that they wanted no part of) and, moreover, source
this type of discource to academic norms and practices.  Some women on the
feminist-dominated MBU did better than this; they developed effective
'online' strategies and practices of their own.  Unfortunately, success in
doing this seems to depend very much on individual ability to engage in
metadiscursive discussion and 'name' what is wrong with any attempt (by
adversarial types) to hijack the content of women's conversations.  The
time lag in internet discussion favours this kind of considered multi-level
response; it is easier to name both the content and form of a discussion if
a respondent has a few moments to think.  In this sense, e-discussion does
facilitate efforts to represent women's experience as a challenge to the
'formal' representations of others.          

>This seems to me to be somewhat different from the larger
>question of the appeal of Marxism to women and the sub-question of
>why most radical economists who are women aren't all that interested
>at present in Marxian debates on value, etc.  These are important
questions -- and not just for OPE-L.  To have a more meaningful dialogue on
these issues, I think we'd need to hear more from radical feminists who
aren't Marxists about what their concerns are and what their critique of
Marxists is.

On the larger question of the appeal of Marxism to women, it is in fact
very difficult to discuss women's concerns from within Marxism. As Simon
[7071] very appropriately points out, the language of Marxism "just doesn't
speak to a rather large part of their experience and their lives".  On the
sub-question of why radical economists are not all that interested in value
debates, I suspect it might have something to do with the assertive
language, self-promotion and lack of creative thinking that 'value debates'
tend to engender.  It does not have to be like that of course...  OPE-L is
a forum where different ways of doing things are at least possible; i.e.
where different approaches to political economy are accepted, where
knowledge(s) can be constructed in collaboration (rather than in
competition) with others, and where the validity of other forms of language
and experience are recognised (as they are in Simon's post).  

love to all 

>In solidarity, Jerry
>PS: While it is true that Nicky is the only woman on OPE-L who has
>been posting lately, there are 9 women who are listmembers (out of 75).
>> Hi Simon,
>> To take a different example: what might the bridge be between theoretical
>> questions of Marxism (discussed on OPE-L) and the political question
>> (maleness of Marxism, OPE-L)?  And what do you think might be the special
>> skills of economists in finding an answer to the question.  I do seem to be
>> the only active female participant!
Nicola Taylor
Faculty of Economics
Murdoch University
South Street
W.A. 6150

Tel. 61 8 9385 1130 
email: n.taylor@stu.murdoch.edu.au

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