Joan Acker and the Shift from Patriarchy to Gender

by: Tristan Bridges and James W. Messerschmidt

We’ve read some of the tributes to the feminist sociological genius of Joan Acker.  And much of that work has celebrated one specific application of her work.  For instance, Tristan posted last week on Acker’s most cited article—“Hierarchies, Jobs, Bodies: A Theory of Gendered Organizations” (1990)—which examined the ways that gender is so embedded in the structure of organizations that we often fail to appreciate just how much it shapes our lives, experiences, and opportunities.  But, this specific piece of her scholarship was actually her applied work. It was an application of a theoretical turn she was suggesting all sociologists of gender follow.  And we did.  Acker was involved in an incredibly important theoretical debate that helped shape the feminist sociology we practice today.

“Patriarchy” is a concept that is less used today in feminist social science than it was in the late-1970s and 1980s.  The term has a slippery and imprecise feel, but this wasn’t always the case. There were incredibly nuanced debates about patriarchy as a social structure or as one part of “dual systems” (capitalism + patriarchy) and exactly what this meant and involved theoretically. Today, we examine “gender.”  Indeed, the chief sociological publication is entitled Gender & Society, not Patriarchy & SocietyAcker - The Problem with PatriarchyBut in the 1970s and 1980s, patriarchy was employed theoretically much more often.  Feminist scholars identified patriarchy to focus the critique of existing theoretical work that offered problematic explanations of the subordination of women.  As Acker put it in “The Problem with Patriarchy,” a short article published in Sociology in 1989: “Existing theory attributed women’s domination by men either to nature or social necessity rather than to social structural processes, unequal power, or exploitation” (1989a: 235). The concept of patriarchy offered a focus for this critique.

Joan Acker was among a group of scholars concerned about the limitations of this focus; in particular, patriarchy was criticized for being a universal, trans-historical, and trans-cultural phenomenon—“women were everywhere oppressed by men in more or less the same ways” (1989a: 235).  Concluding that patriarchy could not be turned into a generally useful analytical concept, Acker proposed that feminist social science move in a different direction—a route that was eventually largely accepted and taken up.  It’s no exaggeration to suggest that Acker was among a small group of feminist scholars who shifted the conversation in an entire field.  We’ve been relying on their suggestion ever since.

Acker’s short 6-page article was published in the same journal that had published Raewyn Connell’s article, “Theorizing Gender” (1985), which spelled out her initial delineation of the problems with sex role theory and what she labeled “categoricalism.” Connell was also concerned with how feminist theories of patriarchy failed to differentiate among the categories of “women” and “men”—that is, femininities and masculinities. Judith Stacey and Barrie Thorne’s “The Missing Feminist Revolution in Sociology” (in Social Problems) was published that year as well (1985), specifically criticizing sociology for solely including gender as a variable but not as a theoretical construct. Acker (1989a) explained why feminist social scientists ought to follow this trend and shift their focus from patriarchy to gender relations and the construction of gender in social life.  As Acker wrote, “From asking about how the subordination of women is produced, maintained, and changed we move to questions about how gender is involved in processes and structures that previously have been conceived as having nothing to do with gender” (1989a: 238).  And in another piece published in the same year—“Making Gender Visible” (1989b) in the anthology, Feminism and Sociological Theory—Acker argued for a paradigm shift that would place gender more centrally in understanding social relations as a whole. Acker suggested a feminist theoretical framework that was able to conceptualize how all social relations are gendered—how “gender shapes and is implicated in all kinds of social phenomena” (1989b: 77). Today, this might read as a subtle shift.  But it was monumental when Acker proposed it and it helped open the door too much of what we recognize as feminist sociology today.

Acker published what became her most well-known article—“Hierarchies, Jobs, Bodies”—in Gender & Society (1990) as an illustration of what the type of work she was proposing would look like.  She was concerned with attempts that simply tacked patriarchy onto existing theories which had been casually treated as though they were gender-neutral.  She explained in detail how this assumption is problematic and limits our ability to understand “how deeply patriarchal modes are embedded in our theorizing” (1989: 239).  And Acker illustrated this potential in her theorizing about gender in organizations.  But her suggestion went far beyond organizational life.

And by all measures, we took up Acker’s suggestion:  “Gender,” “gender relations,” and “gender inequality” are now the central foci of sociological theory and research on gender.  But Acker also concluded her short 1989 article with a warning.  She wrote,

[T]here is a danger in abandoning the project of patriarchy.  In the move to gender, the connections between urgent political issues and theoretical analysis, which made the development of feminist thought possible, may be weakened.  Gender lacks the critical-political sharpness of patriarchy and may be more easily assimilated and coopted than patriarchy. (1989a: 239-240)

Certainly, Acker’s concern leads us to honestly ask: Will shifting the theoretical conversation from patriarchy to gender eventually result in simply a cursory consideration of gendered structured inequality? Will the shift to gender actually loosen our connections with conceptualizations of gendered power? We don’t think so but one way to commemorate the legacy of Joan Acker is to both celebrate gender diversity while simultaneously visualizing and practicing gender equality.  This means continuing to recognize that inequality is perpetuated by the very organization of society, the structure of social institutions, and the historical contexts which give rise to each.

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References
Acker, Joan. 1989a. “The Problem with Patriarchy.” Sociology 23(2): 235-240.
Acker, Joan. 1989b. “Making Gender Visible.” Pp. 65-81 in Wallace, P.A., Ed., Sociological Theory and Feminism. Newbury Park, CA: Sage.
Acker, Joan. 1990. “Hierarchies, Jobs, Bodies: A Theory of Gendered Organizations.” Gender & Society 4(2): 139-158.
Connell, Raewyn. 1985. “Theorising Gender.” Sociology 19(2): 260-272.
Stacey, Judith and Barrie Thorne. 1985. “The Missing Feminist Revolution in Sociology.” Social Problems 32(4): 301-316.

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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.

Violence and Masculinity Threat

By: Tristan Bridges and C.J. Pascoe

gwptwittericon2Originally posted at Girl W/ Pen

Just under two weeks ago, in Milford, Connecticut, Chris Plaskon asked Maren Sanchez to attend prom with him at the end of the year at Jonathan Law High School.  They’d known each other since 6th grade.  Maren said no.  Witnesses told authorities she declined and told Chris she would be attending the dance with her boyfriend (here). Chris knew Maren had a boyfriend and, likely, that she’d be attending with him. After being turned down, Chris threw his hands around Maren’s throat, pushed her down a set of stairs, and cut and stabbed her with a kitchen knife he’d brought to school that day.  It was April 25, 2014.  Maren got to school just a bit after 7:00 that day and before 8:00, she was dead.

This tragic, almost unfathomable violence reminds us of so many stories of adolescent male violence over the past couple decades. Jackson Katz discusses a seeming epidemic of violence among young, white men in his new film, Tough Guise 2.  In analyzing the tragedies of school shootings, Katz tells us that we need to think about these tragedies as contemporary forms of masculinity. When young men have their masculinity sullied, threatened or denied, they respond by reclaiming masculinity through a highly recognizable masculine practice: violence. When events like this happen, it’s easy to paint the young men who perpetuate these crimes as psychologically disturbed, as—importantly—unlike the rest of us.  But, stories like Chris Plaskon follow what has become a predictable pattern.

Sociologists investigating similar phenomena address this as a form of “social identity threat.”  The general idea is that when you threaten someone’s social identity, and they care, they respond by over-demonstrating qualities that illustrate membership in that identity.  Michael Kimmel writes about a classic example:

I have a standing bet with a friend that I can walk onto any playground in America where 6 year-old boys are happily playing and by asking one question, I can provoke a fight.  That question is simple: “Who’s a sissy around here?” (here: 131)

While you might think Kimmel’s offering easy money here, he’s making a larger point.  By asking the question, Kimmel is inviting someone’s masculinity to be threatened and assuming that this will require someone to demonstrate their masculinity in dramatic fashion.  Sociologists have a name for this phenomenon: masculinity threat. New research relying on experimental designs suggests there’s a lot more to these claims than we might have thought.

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Gendering Your Household by Smell

There’s a small body of work on the sociology of smell that deals with gender.  Scents, their cultural meaning, and our experiences of them are culturally mediated processes (here, here, and here).  What women and men ought to smell like is, in some ways, just another of the various ways in which we are all held accountable to recognizable performances of gender.  Controlling one’s own scent is a small part of this process.  And controlling the scent of your home–perhaps in different ways for different spaces within the home–is a piece of gendering our social environments as well.

Yankee Candle stores are always fun.  I generally find myself in one some time in winter or fall when I want my house to smell like I just baked something with apples in it or like a fir tree had an accident in my living room.  Like a great deal of stores dedicated to selling niche home décor, Yankee primarily caters to women.  Desiring your home to smell like “Fluffy Towels,” “Autumn Leaves,” a “Bahama Breeze,” or “Home Sweet Home” is something that many people likely classify as a “feminine” desire (regardless of the gender of the desirer in question).

Like a number of products catering primarily to women, Yankee has developed a “men’s line.”  I’ve always thought that gendering scents has been somewhat ridiculous–that the line between perfume and cologne was less clear than it’s often depicted.  Smells don’t have a gender, do they?

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Toward a Spatial and Structural Analysis of Bullying

The Gay, Lesbian & Straight Education Network (GLSEN) is the only organizations I know of that sponsors a national study examining the experiences of LGBT youth in American schools.  The findings from the 2011 survey revealed–for the first time since the survey has been in existence–that homophobia, heterosexism, sexual prejudice, and discrimination in America’s schools appear to be declining.  Part of this has to do with an increase in LGBT student resources and support.  This is encouraging as it illustrates that an impact can be made.  The availability of resources and support have a direct relationship with the experiences of students.  So, things like Gay-Straight Alliances, anti-bullying policies, a school staff sensitive to the identities and challenges of LGBT students, and a more inclusive curriculum are changing gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender student experiences.

The real challenge, however, is to transform the very cultures within which students interact with each other.  Each of these interventions is associated with school culture, but school cultures are something more as well.  While teachers can monitor a great deal of student interaction, and safe spaces now exist in many schools, more toxic school cultures will continue to support violence and intimidation in spaces we are less capable of monitoring.  Survey results indicated, for instance, that LGBT students feel most threatened in locker rooms (39%), bathrooms (38.8%), and in gym class (32.5%).

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“The Man Aisle” – On the Masculinization of Grocery Shopping

 — Cross-posted at Femme-O-Nomics

Spatial segregation does a lot of things simultaneously. It physically separates groups while its very existence provides structural (spatial and even architectural) justification for continued separation. Bathrooms are the example that we often use in classrooms to talk about this issue. In Erving Goffman’s work on gender, he found it fascinating that we have designed toilets that make no sense for women to use–urinals. Now, there are plenty of other reasons for bathroom segregation that get brought up when you address that issue in particular, but it’s a great example of how we literally create the infrastructure that perpetuates our belief that men and women must be separated.

A grocery store on the Upper West Side of New York City recently opened a new aisle. It’s just for men, dubbed “the man aisle”–or, as the store prefers “The Man Isle.” The New York Post announced, “Get ready to stock up your man cave!” as the aisle challenges men to consume the right things. I’ve written before about how men were sold the historically feminized activity of consumption by challenging the masculinity of those who failed to consume (here).

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Gendering Women’s Athletic Performances

Women’s participation in athletics has been one of the victories of the feminist movement.  Policies like Title IX demanded equal access and funding (even if that hasn’t yet been realized) in federally subsidized programs.  Though the amendment had to do with much more than women’s participation in sports, this is what discussions of Title IX are often all about.   Title IX stated,

No person in the United States shall, on the basis of sex, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any education program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance… (Title IX)

The bill says nothing about which sports women would be allowed to play, or how they would be allowed to play them.  There are lots of small differences between men’s and women’s sports.  But, while women’s basketballs are slightly smaller, softballs are much larger than baseballs–a feature that necessitates differences in pitching, hitting, and throwing the balls.  Men’s and women’s athletic outfits also differ.  Consider men’s vs. women’s professional tennis clothing.  But, gendered performance expectations are also lying behind many of the rituals and traditions we hold most dear in many sports.

In watching 2012 Olympic trials for gymnastics, there was one moment during Anna Li’s routine on the uneven bars that caught my attention in the sportscaster conversation following the judging.  We often don’t think about gender performance expectations; we simply don’t have to.  They don’t even typically feel like expectations because many of us are eager to take part in them.  But when gender expectations are disrupted, we know something significant happened, and there is typically a great deal of collective work done to repair the breach.  Anna Li did just such a thing.  I’m not incredibly knowledgeable about gymnastics, so I missed it when it happened, but the significance of the event was not lost on more seasoned fans and commentators.

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