Canadian Journal of Sociology Online March - April 2000

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Myra Marx Ferree, Judith Lorber, and Beth Hess, editors
Revisioning Gender
Sage Publications, 1999, 500 pp., $ US $34.95 paper, $US $85.00 cloth (0761906169)

This collection is the latest offering from the Gender Lens Series, published by Sage. It is a fitting tribute to Jesse Bernard (to whom the volume is dedicated) – comprehensive, thoughtful and adventurous. Like its predecessor from the late 1980s, Analyzing Gender: A Handbook of Social Science Research, it is likely to become a benchmark in gender scholarship for some time to come.

The collection addresses the recent past, and potential future, of gender analysis across a range of social issues and across traditions of social analysis. The 16 mainly original chapters are authored primarily by American sociologists, and many of them are well known for their expertise in the study of gender. In addition, and in keeping with the boundary-stretching ethos set out in the editors’ introduction, authors include prominent voices from other countries and other disciplines, as well as more recent generations of gender scholarship. The broader reach of this collection, in terms of generational, international and cross-disciplinary scholarship, does much to enhance its usefulness and appeal.

As the editors emphasize in their introduction, the study of gender has reached a point where the meaning and validity of gender itself is a critical issue for interrogation. The reader is encouraged to adopt a reflexive stance toward all scholarship in which gender issues are salient, including feminist as well as mainstream modes of analysis. The editors argue that by eschewing an isolated, static and over-dichotomized conceptualization of gender, we will create an analytical space where we can begin to reformulate the meaning of gender.

Two important hallmarks of this emerging reformulation feature prominently in the book. The first is the growing tendency to think about gender as a verb rather than a noun. The gendering of personal identity and social life, as many chapters emphasize, is an active accomplishment that requires analysis of both process and structure. The second hallmark is a focus on intersectionality – connecting gender to other social processes that organize social life. The editors stress that while one of the purposes of the book is to review the past decade of gender scholarship, they also wish to highlight those arguments and conceptual inclinations that give us clues as to where scholarship about gender is headed. These glimpses of new analytical approaches give the book an exciting edge, and make it useful for research as well as teaching purposes.

For a book that wishes to challenge conventions, it is somewhat disappointing to find the chapters organized into sections identified as macro-level (Parts 2 and 3) institutional (Part 4) and micro-level (Part 5). Part 1 is titled Revisioning Gender, although the revisioning of race and class are the major preoccupations for two of the three chapters. But, these are small quibbles. For this reader, the chapters of the book divide into two types: those that pursue the analytical challenges posed by the reformulation of our understanding of gender, and those whose purpose is to review how gender analysis has transformed and developed particular substantive areas of research.

There are 6 chapters in the book devoted to examining different dimensions involved in the reconceptualization of gender. Chapters by Joan Wallace Scott and Judith Lorber begin with an investigation of two common conceptual pairings. Scott starts with an interrogation of the sex/gender opposition, and Lorber opens with gender/sexuality. Both authors make strong claims about the conceptual innovations that could flow from a critical re-assessment of how we think about gender. As Christine Delphy encouraged us to do in the early 1990s, Scott sees ‘sex’ as a social and psychic construction shaped by our understandings of gender. For her, the issue is the link between gender and politics, and the significance of psychic processes in our thoughts about what is politically possible. Lorber maintains that differences across feminist understandings of particular sexualities are traceable to differences in theories of gender. Her chapter sets out the possibilities for a theoretical convergence toward conceptualizations of gender as multiple and fluid.

Evelyn Nakano Glenn and Patricia Hill Collins focus on how the theorization of race could benefit from the kind of conceptual re-examination that has been happening with gender. Both argue that this would in turn push the re-conceptualization of gender by enhancing the analysis of its racialization. Glenn reviews a vast amount of material, intending to convince the reader that social constructionism can provide an integrated framework for theorizing the mutual constitution of race and gender. Collins also explores the possibility of a more complex understanding of gender and race, by placing both within a logic of intersectionality. A focus on the mutual construction of race and gender within specific and concrete histories would, she argues, not only offer a better analysis of race and gender, but also would be an experientially-informed vantage point from which to examine the power relations of scientific knowledge and practices.

Pushing the analysis in another direction, Joan Acker maintains that moves toward a more adequate understanding of gender, and the inter-relationships of gender, race and class, are hampered by an unreconstructed view of class. While her review of feminist attempts to revise class leaves out some of the more iconoclastic contributions (such as Gibson-Graham’s 1996 The End of Capitalism (As We Knew It)) Acker does suggest that the re-thinking of class must go beyond the recognition that the economic is raced and gendered. She raises the fruitful point that we need to re-think the identification of class as an ‘economic’ category, and ask about the forms of inclusion and exclusion that stem from particular discursive constructions of the ‘economic’. Suzanna Danuta Walters writes about the current state of feminist literary criticism where contestation over the analytical status of gender is well developed. With the current emphasis on destabilizing gender, Walters calls for a reunification of text and context. She argues for the importance of grounding insights into the performative character of gender in the social and material contexts of its production.

I used most of the above articles in a graduate class on ‘Gender Transformations’ and found them to be extremely useful. They posed provocative questions, and provided enough of a sketch of new directions of thought to be effective starting points for explorations of possible answers.

There are 10 chapters of the second type. They do not completely bracket questions about the analytical status of ‘gender’, but this sort of interrogation is not their primary purpose. What they do with consistently high quality is review the impact and development of gender analysis in specific areas over the past decade. The contributions cover a good range of issues and authors: the welfare state, the global economy, de-industrialization, organizations, religion, the social psychology of sex/gender identification, the genetic manipulation of sex and sexuality, the ‘body reflexive’ practices of gender projects, sport, and the poverty of racial ethnic families. I found all of these chapters informative and interesting. The areas familiar to me were well done, and the less familiar ones conveyed a strong sense of direction and enthusiasm.

The editors deserve congratulations for bringing together this useful collection, and for finding authors who, without exception, write informatively and with passion about their matters of interest.

Janet Siltanen
Carleton University
March-April 2000
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