The Enduring Feminist Sociology of Joan Acker

Joan Acker recently passed away.  I read the news on Twitter—someone in my news feed shared, “The world lost a giant.”  It’s true.  Her scholarship was titanic.  Acker quite literally altered the way we understand gender and provided a framework for understanding the ways gender becomes embedded in social structures and institutions that we have all been relying on ever since.  Joan Acker is my favorite kind of sociologist—she questioned something the rest of us had been under the assumption was unquestionable.  As the sociologist Jurgen Habermas wrote, “It takes an earthquake to make us aware that we had regarded the ground on which we stand everyday as unshakable.”  Joan Acker shook the very ground upon which sociologists of gender stood in this sense.  She questioned the unquestionable in the best of all ways.  She lay bare a theory and method of understanding gender inequality that helped us better understand just how pernicious it is.

Acker’s theory never gained the same kind of popularity associated with West and Zimmerman’s interactional theory of gender.  But we all rely on Acker.  When we refer to formal and informal collections of jobs, people, and organizations as “gendered,” we’re relying on her work.  Society is organized in ways that cause some people to experience a more seamless “fit” in some positions than others.  Stay-at-home fathers have a unique set of struggles associated with lacking a clear “fit” in similar ways to women who occupy jobs in the upper echelons of organizations dominated by men.  Society is organized in ways that cause us to experience this.Screen Shot 2016-06-23 at 2.31.13 PM

Acker labeled this and theorized a language to study it and shine some much-needed light and attention on the ways that gender difference and inequality are part of the very structure of society at a fundamental level. Acker’s most cited and celebrated publication was published in Gender & Society in 1990: “Jobs, Hierarchies, Bodies: A Theory of Gendered Organizations.”  In it she begins:

“Most of us spend most of our days in work organizations that are almost always dominated by men.  The most powerful organizational positions are almost entirely occupied my men, with the exception of the occasional biological female who acts as a social man.  Power at the national and world level is located in all-male enclaves at the pinnacle of large state and economic organizations.  These facts are not news, although sociologists paid no attention to them until feminism came along to point out the problematic nature of the obvious.  Writers on organizations and organizational theory now include some consideration of women and gender, but their treatment is usually cursory, and male domination is, on the whole, not analyzed and not explained.”

Building on many other feminist scholars (including Heidi Hartmann, Rosabeth Moss Kanter, Dorothy Smith, and more), Acker helped to show how gender differences in organizational behavior and outcomes were best explained by structural and organizational characteristics.  Gender difference was/is embedded in organizational structure, and Acker designed a language and theory for examining just what it means to consider gender inequality as “institutionalized.”

Within the logic of organizations, jobs are technically open to anyone; and they are stratified by complexity and responsibility.  This is how we create workplace hierarchies.  And they feel gender neutral.  Acker questioned this assumption.  Abstract jobs have the appearance of gender neutrality until we try to take a concrete example which necessitates something else—an ideal worker.

“Such a hypothetical worker cannot have other imperatives of existence that impinge upon the job…  Too many obligations outside the boundaries of the job would make a worker unsuited for the position.  The closet the disembodied worker doing the abstract job comes to a real worker is the male worker whose life centers on his full-time, life-long job, while his wife or another woman takes care of his personal needs and his children…  The concept of ‘a job’ is thus implicitly a gendered concept, even though organizational logic presents it as gender neutral.”

These are, today, routine assumptions from which scholars of gender from a range of disciplines proceed to study gender and inequality.  But they weren’t when Joan Acker was studying.  Acker’s theorization of institutionalized forms of inequality is a dominant theoretical perspective in the sociology of gender today.  At the conclusion of her article, she theorizes what it would take to dissolve the institutionalized forms of inequality in organizations.

“Such a transformation would be radical in practice because it would probably require the end of organizations as they exist today, along with a redefinition of work and work relations.  The rhythm and timing of work would be adapted to the rhythms of life outside of work.  Caring work would be just as important and well rewarded as any other; having a baby or taking care of a sick mother would be as valued as making an automobile or designing computer software.  Hierarchy would be abolished, and workers would run things themselves.  Of course, women and men would share equally in different kinds of work.  Perhaps there would be some communal or collective form of organization where work and intimate relations are closely related, children learn in places close to working adults, and workmates, lovers, and friends are all part of the same group.”

Like much of the structural theory of gender—particularly that work being published in the late 80s and early 90s—Acker proceeds from an unapologetically Marxist orientation.  And while we continue to study gender inequality from Acker’s vantage point, less has been done toward her vision of social transformation than she might have imagined would be when she published this a quarter century ago.  It still sounds so radical listed out above.  But is it really so radical a notion?  She concluded that article with a simple point.  We can organize society differently, in ways that continue to ensure that what needs doing gets done without all of the dominance, control, and subordination currently connected with these tasks.  The battles will always be fought over what actually comprises the “what needs doing.”  But Acker’s proposal for what needs doing is beautiful in its simplicity: “producing goods, caring for people, disposing of the garbage.”  Why any of the three of those should be considered more important than the rest is something we should continue to question.

Material Feminists – Challenging the Shape of and Relations between Domestic Spaces

screen-shot-2012-10-22-at-10-19-47-am  Cross-posted at Femme-O-Nomics

Vernacular house forms are economic diagrams of the reproduction of the human race; they are also aesthetic essays on the meaning of life within a particular culture, its joys and rituals, its superstitions and stigmas.  House forms cannot be separated from their physical and social contexts. (Hayden 1984:  98)

The history of American home architectural design and the design of suburban space were never foregone conclusions.  From about 1870 through 1930, American home architecture was the topic of heated debate.  The homes that we live in today, their spatial arrangements, barriers, rituals, and traditions, and the shapes, uses, and meanings of our neighborhoods were fiercely debated topics.  And the debates that emerged out of the late 19th century still structure our lives today.

What kind (of kinds) of home(s) Americans needed has always been a question without a simple answer—with many competing perspectives.  The designs of our home not only allocates our belongings throughout the house, it structures the ways in which we interact with one another and the communities in which we live.

Dolores Hayden suggests that building programs competed to define American homes.  Overly simplified, a “building program” is a statement concerning the spatial and architectural requirements of some built space, typically defining the type of building along with a list of the sorts of activities that the building is intended to shelter (sleeping, eating, cooking, playing, lounging, entertaining, etc.).  At a general level, building programs communicate the requirements (economic, technical, social) of a building, including an explanation of how the built space accommodates the activities it is intended to house.  But buildings do more than accommodate social interactions.  They also structure our interactions, preclude or present the possibility of interactional flexibility, and make symbolic boundaries physical.

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The Gender of Life at and in the Family Home in the Twenty-first Century

During a five year period (2001-2005), a group of physical and cultural anthropologists along with an ethnographic photographer (Jeanne E. Arnold, Anthony P. Graesch, Enzo Ragazzini, and Elinor Ochs) undertook an in-depth study of contemporary family life as a part of the UCLA Center on Everyday Lives of Families.  Some of their findings are published in a short book—Life at Home in the Twenty-First Century: 32 Families Open their Doors.  The book itself is a dizzying array of information, beautifully depicted in ways that illustrate the rhythms of household life, transformations in social interactions between family members that may not have been anticipated by the architects who designed the homes they live in, the massive collections of stuff that American families collect and consume, and new data helping to understand both how members of the household understand their homes, how they use them, and how they feel inside of them.

The study itself is not generalizable for a number of reasons.  For one, the sample size is only 32 families.  All of the families self-identify as “middle class” (a problematic measure), representing a broad range of neighborhoods in southern California, including a range of ethnic and racial groups, with various occupations.  Most of the families were heterosexual, but two of the families were not.  As the authors put it:

Each family that joined the study consists of two parents who both work full time (or close to it), and two or three children, one of whom is 7-12 years old.  We sought families that were negotiating the many challenges associated with having both parents in the workforce while they were raising young children. (17)

The data collected is the really interesting part of this study.  In addition to interviews with family members, video documentation of their homes, photographs and counts of all of the objects and rooms in the homes, site visits at various points throughout the day, house history questionnaires, detailed architectural floor plans of the homes (included maps of when and how various rooms and spaces were used during the study), the team also had each family use a video camera alone and provide a self-guided tour through their home describing the various rooms as they deemed fit.

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A Brief History of the Gender of Home Gardens and Gardening

I like gardening, but I don’t have much of a green thumb.  The way I think of it, sometimes the things I plant “take,” and sometimes they don’t.  Gardens and gardening was never something that I gave much thought to as a topic of sociological analysis until a saw a presentation at the Eastern Sociological Society meetings in 2006 that changed my mind.*  I went to a session because Marjorie DeVault was presiding (and I LOVE her work).  It was an interesting panel full of people at all different stages of their careers.  One woman’s presentation dealt with front yard gardens and she convinced me the topic was worthwhile.

Gardens and gardening (particularly domestic gardens and gardening)—as you might imagine—are not topics of study that receive a great deal of attention.  When gardens are mentioned in sociology, it’s often a variable included somewhere in a list of “chores” people do around the house.  Quantitative studies of the division of household labor sometimes have oddly exhaustive lists of chores like this.  But gardens are also a space.  They are places we go to relax (sometimes even while we’re “working”).  Like our homes, they are part of a performance of domestic identity that we labor to keep up.  Gardens are also gendered spaces and gardening, a gendered activity.  Bhatti and Church put it this way,

meanings of gardens are highly gendered, and… the garden is a place within which gender relations are often played out or re-negotiated…  [I]t is necessary, as with studies of the home as a domestic sphere and consumption in the home, to view domestic gardens not simply as sites where man and women adopt different roles, but as places shaped by the continual restructuring of gender relations. (here)

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