Canadian Journal of Sociology Online March - April 2000

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Dorothy E. Smith.
Writing the Social: Critique, Theory and Investigations.
Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1999, 307pp. $60.00 cloth (0802043070), $21.95 paper (0802081355).

Dorothy Smith’s latest book continues her pioneering work in the field of feminist sociology, but with a difference. Her concern with ‘intertextuality’ (p. 3) now seems to be focusing her attention in much the same way that ‘experience’ did in her earlier work. Nevertheless, readers who have been following her career for some time will see a number of familiar landmarks. Her methodological work on lay constructions of ‘mental illness’ and competing accounts of ‘police brutality’ are both utilised here, as well as her early theoretical reliance on Marx and the ethnomethodologists. Yet, Smith is also keen to show the progression in her work. On the one hand, figures like Bakhtin, Volosinov, Habermas and even Baudrillard, are brought in as theoretical resources, on the other, post-structuralist and postmodern thinkers are now openly confronted in her attempt to ‘tell the truth after postmodernism.’

Yet in many respects, her primary targets remain the ‘political’ and ‘theoretical’ ones which have always consumed her (cf. 29-31). What is crucially different, however, is the level of analysis which is brought to these issues. Whereas her earliest problematic concerned itself with finding a standpoint for women’s voices which could oppose the ruling relations, she now finds those voices are in danger of being captured (chapters 2, 4, 7, 8, 9, 10) through textual mechanisms constitutive of the contemporary ‘ruling relations’ (ch. 5). In other words, the major concerns of this book are not so much the embodied ‘experiences’ of a single mother and novice sociologist struggling with a ‘bifurcated consciousness’; rather they are ‘intertextual’ experiences of a major contemporary feminist theorist reflecting back on both the successes and the failures of the feminist social science she was so instrumental in creating.

Nevertheless, these reflections on that experience constitute major contributions. And although some of these papers have appeared in print before, this specific arrangement of chapters clearly illustrates the development in her thinking over the last decade or so. She begins by lamenting the professionalization of feminism and its distance from contemporary activism, but insists that this process requires analysis, not guilt, because there is a hidden ‘politics...of the academy’ (28) which needs to be made visible. And much of the rest of the book is concerned with exactly such a project. The other two chapters in this ‘Critique’ section are rather dated, but serve as necessary reminders of the limitations of both academic political economy and sociology for any feminist social science. Political economy is found wanting because of its implication in the ‘main business’ and its inability to erect a ‘standpoint’ outside the ruling relations. Academic sociology is also problematic, not because it is ‘ideological’ (cf. Smith 1974) but because of the subtle ways in which its ‘constitutive conventions’ (62) continue to subvert feminist attempts at writing up research data. By displaying how these tacit textual ‘frames’ undermine the more explicit attempts at articulating women’s experiences, this essay nicely demonstrates the everyday ‘intertextual’ difficulties of resisting the ‘ordinary sociological practices of objectification’ (59).

The middle section of the book serves to extend Smith’s own theoretical project in two directions. In the first essay, she updates and clarifies her understanding of the ‘ruling relations.’ Interestingly, she now weaves Baudrillard’s diagnosis of ‘hyper-realities’ into her work alongside historical studies of the emergence of the accounting practices which have ‘textualised’ much of industrial management over the last century. But for those readers worried that Smith may have been seduced by the attractions of Baudrillard’s simulations, she continues to insist on the ‘walk-in’ (85) nature of these hyper-realities, within which agentive subjects carry out routine activities.

In the second essay, she responds to those who would apparently deny not only the theoretical privilege she has given to ‘experience’ but also the possibility of an extra-discursive truth. Here the confrontation with both post-structuralism and post-modernism (or at least Smith’s understandings of them) is centre-stage. Furthermore, she is also confronting those fellow feminists who are currently articulating the benefits of a feminist post-modernism. Smith’s answer is an original, albeit controversial, attempt at developing a strategy for ‘telling the truth’ heavily dependent on Mead, Bakhtin and Volosinov. Beginning from her critique of post-structuralism’s/post-modernism’s tacit re-introduction of the ‘individuated subject’ instead of the enlightenment’s Cartesian subject, Smith proceeds to formulate, via Mead, the essential sociality of notions of both ‘self’ and ‘knowlege.’ From Bakhtin and Volosinov she takes their ‘dialogic’ understanding of discourse as a means for counterposing the somewhat static formulations found in post-structuralism and post-modernism. But it is in her formulation of how one can ‘refer’ to something outside of a discourse, that Smith’s originality comes through. Beginning with the everyday social act of a mother and child ‘referring’ to a cat, Smith extends the analysis to include ‘socially constituted objects’ like the concept of the cell within biology (121). Significantly, it is the local practice of science that plays the essential role of coordinating its concepts with the practical accomplishment of finding those cells under a microscope. Consequently, a sense of ‘referring’ is formulated which, Smith believes, can go beyond the limitations of both the ‘indviduated subject,’ and a purely discursive world.

Part 3 of the text is perhaps the most satisfying portion of Smith’s endeavours, as here she adroitly displays her unique methodological strengths. Smith begins by showing how contemporary sociological theory, through its literary stylistics, operates to tacitly reproduce the taken for granted concerns of a ‘white, male-dominant, European intelligentsia’ (153), such that excluded voices are defined as outside the shared subjectivity which the text creates. The following chapter illustrates the enormously powerful but largely invisible work carried out by the ‘Standard North American Family’ concept as an ideological code. Not only does this code generate and organise schools’, governments’, and mothers’ understandings of what a family should be, but, as Smith herself admits, it was powerful enough to have ‘invaded’ her (and Griffith’s) own earlier research. Another chapter builds on the foundations laid in her early classic “K is mentally ill,” to carefully and systematically uncover the mechanisms by which the ideological code of ‘political correctness’ can ‘seed’ and ‘reproduce’ itself in a radio programme; such that its organization can be quickly ‘picked up’ by listeners and ‘replicated’ through their own local discursive channels. The final chapter is a gem. Simple in its execution (it too relies heavily on earlier methodological work), yet far-reaching in its conclusions, her analysis of the recent ‘chilly climate’ controversy within Canadian academia demands repeated attention. In a straightforward and direct manner, Smith documents what might be called the textual ‘mechanisms’ of a backlash discourse. She shows how a challenge to the everyday institutional practices of power within a university setting were systematically ‘repressed’ through the introduction of a ‘juridical discourse’ which not only transformed the initial critique, but moved the issue out of a departmental frame and into the institutional. The beauty of Smith’s analysis is the precise way in which she demonstrates the sequential structuring of this move, and how the response to the initial report created the allegations about which it complains. Yet the equally important lesson that emerges from this analysis concerns the tacit power that this juridical discourse has to ‘capture’ later readers (including Smith herself; at least initially) such that they interpret the initial report through the prism of the juridical frame.

Despite the tremendous power of these insights, and Smith rightly retains her place as one of feminism’s foremost theorists on the basis of this collection, there remain a number of disquieting problems with the essays. In parts, they are relatively minor irritations: her lack of clarification concerning the exact status of an ‘ideological code’ (158-9), her too easy conjoining of political repression and social scientific thinking (23), her skimpy historical analyses (21-24, 82-84, 91-93), and her rather vague or idiosyncratic (105-6) interpretations of certain post-structuralists. Yet there are more worrying problems as well. Perhaps most disconcerting is the gap between her theory and her practice. Whereas, she herself admits to the great pleasure she obtained from the writing of her rebuttal to postmodernism (10), her own research practice is now almost fully within that ‘intertextual world.’ In fact, it could be argued that the first and greatest achievement that Smith and others made, a generation ago, was to break into that ‘intertextual world’ of the academy, through their ‘textually framed’ insistence on the veracity of ‘women’s experience.’ Relatedly, Smith’s repeated complaint about the ‘repressive’ power of institutional discourse (chs. 2, 10) fails to self-reflect on the empowerment that was felt among many women when their experience was given validation via its initial transformation into an ‘institutional discourse which called itself ‘feminism.’ Another example of this lack of self-reflection can be found in the middle of her book. Although she suggests, in chapter 6, that science can be used to coordinate discursive concepts and ‘reference’ to an extra-discursive world, via the local practice of ‘teaching,’ in chapter 7 she shows how Giddens’ work (which is probably most frequently used as a ‘teaching’ device) operates to ‘reference’ only certain ‘bodies’ as legitimate ‘subjects’ for its discursive realm. Finally, one might criticise this work for its inadequate attention to the problem of transformations in meaning; at both micro and macro levels. With regard to her proposals for following Mead’s understanding of the self, it is unclear how Smith herself could have followed those instructions. In a sense, her early career is a case study of how a (textual) self could be created, by ‘transforming’ the embodied self that others around her were ‘teaching’ her to become. With regard to her history of the ‘ruling relations’ and the associated growth of a gender-differentiated education system, she acknowledges the ‘radical break’ (93) which the women’s movement constituted a generation or so ago, but she cannot explain the historical development of this ‘epistemic break’; despite the fact that her own embodied subjectivity gets produced out of this profound transformation.

Despite these reservations, Smith’s work remains inspirational. Her project has remained true to its own internal logic for a generation now. This specific text, like her others, displays an integrity rarely rivaled today. Part of its attraction, no doubt, comes from its tacit autobiographical nature, inviting readers to not only share her discoveries, but also her mistakes along the way. Its power, however, comes from the increasing range of her textual analysis; such that concerns with ‘reading,’ ‘replicating,’ ‘coding,’‘seeding,’ and ‘capture’ are now getting fully incorporated into Smith’s understanding of ‘the social.’ And for such contributions, this book deserves to be widely read.

Chris ‘nob’ Doran
Social Science
March-April 2000
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