[OPE-L:7089] Re: women and Marxian political economy

From: gerald_a_levy (gerald_a_levy@msn.com)
Date: Mon Apr 29 2002 - 09:38:21 EDT

Re [7082]:

Hi Nicky.

As you might imagine, I've given a lot of thought over the years to the
dynamics of Internet communications.   Here are some general findings
as it relates to this issue:

A.  just about every Internet list tends to be dominated by one or a small
number of subscribers -- usually men.  On many mailing lists,  it is not
uncommon for  l  subscriber to post 20 or more messages every day.   In
general, I  think that Internet mailing lists are more likely to become an
*obsession*   -- and a substitute for other types of social activity -- for
men  than  women.   This is one reason, I think, for the "striking
sex-based  disparity in  participation"  that Herring and you referred to.
Some lists,  e.g. the  Progressive Sociologists Network (PSN), place limits
on the quantity of posts that can be sent by an individual subscriber for
this  reason  (the limit on PSN is 8 out of the last l00 for any individual

B. volume  (i.e. the quantity of posts) varies very considerably from list
to  list.  There are some *very* high volume radical lists (such as
LBO which typically has between 3,000 to 5,000 posts per month.)
A large  increase in volume can itself  limit participation.   In the
case of  PSN, the  change in format  noted above occurred after they had
conducted  surveys of  past subscribers which indicated  by a wide margin
that the biggest  single reason cited for leaving was the quantity of posts.
>From that  perspective, one has to recognize that where there is a big
increase in  volume people are chased away.  This is often the case for
those who  have a lot of other responsibilities including what Simon
described as  caring activities during noncapitaltime.

It should be noted in this regard  that even though the volume on
OPE-L is much lower than many lists  (we average, year in and year
out, about 200 posts per month), the  intellectual energy required to
read -- and respond to -- posts is considerably higher (we often, after
all, discuss complex theoretical questions which are hard to follow.)
This is something that has to be remembered when we consider who
is _not_ participating on OPE-L   However,  *if* there has been a
significant level of dissatisfaction  about the volume of posts on OPE-L
it hasn't resulted in many unsubscriptions (indeed, the percentage of
unsubscriptions / year has  remained incredibly low throughout OPE-L
history. Also,  the 'participation rate' [defined on OPE-L in the  past as
the percentage of subscribers posting per month] has remained  much
higher than  just about all other Net lists that I am aware of [even though
our participation rates are lower now than they were in many months
in our early years when we were between 70-85%].

C.  most mailing lists have a 'culture of lurking'. That is, most
subscribers  don't participate and indeed that is considered normal and
acceptable for  most mailing lists.  This seems to me to be a mirror-image
of what often happens in the classroom where there is typically an
authority-figure (the teacher), a few talkative, self-confident, and
assertive  students (who tend attentive -- are mostly quiet.  This is the
case even for  radical and  Marxist mailing lists.  On OPE-L we have
consistently  encouraged and  observed significantly higher rates of
participation ...  although we also  have always had some lurkers.
I think that what is needed  is to create an atmosphere where listmembers
know that their views are  welcomed but  not an atmosphere where they
feel guilty for not posting.  Taking the analogy a step further: I think
OPE-L is more like a seminar than a lecture. But,  as all of you know,
there are problems for any seminar if it gets too large.

D. over time,  who the most active posters are tends to change.  One
reason for this -- related to what I discussed above -- is that over time
the extent to which we are committed to other life activities, whether
they be job-related, political or caring activities,  changes. Thus, we see
listmembers enter and leave discussions -- often later to re-emerge in
subsequent discussions. Because listmembers rarely state on-list why
they are not engaged in discussion, we have little knowledge of the
real reasons for these cycles of activity and non-activity on-list.  Because
women, as Simon suggested, are more likely to be committed to other
time-demanding caring activities, this limits the time and energy that they
might have for Internet discussions.

E.  the use of  'masculine language' and modes of discourse seems to be
a prominent feature of just about all Internet mailing lists. Nowhere is
this more obvious than in the propensity for 'flames' on Net lists. But,
I think the problem is broader than that and largely agree with the findings
of Herring about this.   The *enjoyment* of intense and heated disagreements
on Internet lists seems to me to be something that men often seem to
disproptionately feel.  For some Net lists, communications are similar to a
"blood sport"  like prizefighting where there is an arena full of
subscribers who  relish every jab and punch -- but "lurking" (quite
literally)  in the  background  are a large number of others who find blood
sport -- sometimes mislabeled  "dialogue"  -- appalling.   I think this
attitude  is related  to a male  enjoyment of  struggle and competition --
these, of  course, are the result of  gender roles and  socialization.  I
*also*  think that  this masculine form of discourse has a  very long
history in Marxism,  going  back to Marx, and is reflected in the  fact
that most debates in the  history of  Marxism have taken  the form of
*polemics*.  This doesn't mean  that there  haven't been Marxist
women  who haven't mastered the polemical form of  debate (e.g.
Luxemburg  could  hold her own with anyone else), but I don't think
most women (particularly  scholars and academics) are much
attracted  to this form of  discussion.   Quite the reverse -- even when
they see it from  afar and are  not actively  engaged in it (and even when
it  doesn't  actually  rise to the level  of  'flames'),  it appears to many
of  them to be  distasteful and an  unpleasant  outburst  of male-type
aggressive behavior.  Of course,  on OPE-L we have  had  many *very*
intense discussions (even  though we have had very few  flames.)  But,
we also have members who are  committed  to continuing the  conversation
in a positive manner. Again and  again I  have  been surprised  (happily) by
this tendency to pull back from  aggression.  Thus,  when on other  lists
someone says something that will predictably turn into not  just a flame
but an out-of-control wildfire, I have noticed the tendency of  many
members  to step back and present  calm responses.  Part of the reason
for this may be  that we tend to be a  very serious lot and  in general
don't  have  the energy or  inclination to engage  in that form of abuse --
though, I  think it is also a  reflection of  some of the  personalities on
the list who have a  non-aggressive and 'nurturing'  conversational tone
which encourages discussion.  This, of  course, does  not mean that
 _all_   OPE-L members have behaved in non-aggressive ways.

F.   What is discussed at length on most lists -- and what is not -- is
largely a consequence of who is on the list and what their interests
are.  Yet, just having women on a list, even when they be Marxist,
does not mean that feminist issues will be discussed.  In the case of
OPE-L this result is somewhat predictable for two reasons: a) those
who have been recommended for membership -- more often than not
-- share similar interests in political economy with those who
recommend them: thus, if  those whose area of interest is not gender
studies are the ones making the recommendations, then this tends
to reproduce the result that members aren't specializing in those
studies, and b) the bulk of women who have joined OPE-L  have
been more interested in other research areas (such as Marxian
monetary theories.)   Nor should women members think that they
_have_ to discuss, or be knowledgeable about, Marxism-feminism
(any more than a subscriber from an oil-rich country should be
expected to be an authority on the international oil industry: in
other words, we should have no expectation about knowledge  or
interest based  _only_ on sex, race, nationality, etc.)  For us to
consistently  have more extended discussions by women and others about
feminist-related issues would require, I believe,  enough new admissions
of those for whom the intersection of Marxism and feminism is a strong
research concern for there to be a  'sub-community'  on-list committed to
nurturing such discussions.

G.  the 'culture' of a list is shaped to a great extent by the norms
of moderation -- and often by the personality of the moderator.
Some moderators chase subscribers away and exhibit the very
worst of masculine behavior.  Some moderators are very controlling
and some are very laissez-faire.   Some tend to act at the earliest
sign of problems on-list and others tend to sit back and watch the fur fly.
Some  hardly ever author posts, others deluge their lists with massive
quantities  of posts that they author.  From that perspective, moderation
can reinforce the practice of  'masculine language' and behavior or
undermine it.

In the spirit of self-criticism, I will say that I tend to:
a) write too many posts;
b) try too often to initiate a discussion rather than just wait and let
others eventually introduce  new topics for discussion;
c)  take part in many discussions perhaps too loudly and assertively -- I
think I should probably listen more and write less;
d)  perhaps micro-manage  too much off-list;
[all of the above could be viewed, I suppose, as "masculine behavior"]
e) practice 'laissez faire' too much on-list. I.e. where  there are
potential  problems on-list, e.g. something that could easily  turn into a
flame, I tend  to be more 'laissez-faire' and hope that   listmembers will
themselves act to ensure that the discussion gets back on the  right foot
(see E.).   This practice has emerged because I was encouraged
in the past  not to admonish listmembers on-list.  I  can easily think of
instances in which I  realize in retrospect that I should have acted
differently  -- more or less decisively and actively (now that there's an
Advisory Committee, I can get some input about what to do on-list before

On the plus side,  I think I've consistently tried to be nurturing and
encouraging for listmembers -- although it's true that I don't have the
time now to do this as much one-on-one as in the early years when
we were much smaller.  And I think I've consistently argued for the
concept of collective ownership and control  rather than desiring
individual control.  But, there is always room for improvement. Any

H.  the culture of any list is also, to a very great extent, determined by
the conduct of the most frequent posters. If they are aggressive, then
this tends to over time cut down on participation. If others on a list
enjoy reading what they write and they encourage and welcome
responses (even, or especially, when they are *critical* responses),
then participation tends to go up.  In general, I think that when
listmembers "feel good" about discussions and think that they benefit
from those discussions, then participation increases.  Attention to this
-- and the other issues of group dynamics discussed above -- by
*all* of those who participate would create an atmosphere where
more members are likely to participate.

Nicky wrote in [7082]:

>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
> 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.

But, what is that  'unique' something that OPE-L has to offer in this

In solidarity, Jerry

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