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.

Notes on Gender and Work-Related Death

Occupational sex segregation is really nothing new. As more and more women entered the workforce, they were often headed into different spaces from the men (sometimes entirely different physical locations, and sometimes only subtly differentiated spaces). This might mean different buildings, but even within buildings, occupations can be sex segregated. So, women and men are both working. But this simple statement disguises the fact that they’re not necessarily doing the same work–not precisely. In fact, it’s a smaller proportion of people than you might think who work alongside someone doing the same work, with the same occupational title, on the same shift. Approximately 1 in 10 workers in the U.S. labor force fit this description of a gender-integrated occupation. So, if you’re one of them, take a moment to count yourself lucky and consider just how truly odd you are.

Roughly one third of the 66,000,000 women in the workforce in the early 2000’s could be accounted for by only 10 (of the 503) occupations listed on the U.S. Census. That’s occupational segregation! The “occupational ghettos” that have been feminized are often “rewarded” with more care work, less pay, and lower levels of cultural status and prestige. These are the jobs we sometimes refer to as “pink-collar work.” Some of men’s occupational preserves are rewarded with higher status, more money, and a great deal of power. But this is not true of all of men’s jobs.

Blue-collar work has been in sharp decline in the U.S. for some time. We may “put things together,” but by and large, we don’t build things from the ground up like we used to in the U.S. That said, blue-collar work has not completely disappeared. And blue-collar work is sometimes “rewarded” by ranking among the most life-threatening occupations.

NPR story picNPR’s “Planet Money” blog just ran a story on the jobs with the highest rates of work-related deaths–the “deadliest jobs”. Collecting data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics for 2011, they produced the graph here (right) to illustrate those jobs with some of the highest (and lowest) rates of on-the-job deaths compared with the national average of 3.5 deaths per 100,000 full-time (or equivalent) employed persons.

It’s an interesting image. But in the short post, I was struck that gender was not mentioned once. Looking down the list of jobs with the highest work-related deaths listed, gender seemed to jump out of the figure at me (fishermen, loggers, pilots, farmers and ranchers, police officers, construction workers). These are all jobs that most Americans probably picture a man “doing.”

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A Brief History of the Masculinization of the Garage

In the U.S., garages did not really become a part of the “typical” American home (if we can say such a thing) until the start of the 20th century.  Certainly garages existed; but they weren’t seen as a necessity.  Two things you’d probably guess drove garage production initially: the increasing presence of cars owned by individual families and suburbanization.  But,garage-mtneerman-2006 suburbanization was also accompanied by a renewed interest in a sort of “do-it-yourself” lifestyle, and garages played a role in this history.  There’s some disagreement concerning whether a “do-it-yourself” zeitgeist prompted suburban retreat or the other way around.  But, the important bit is that they are related.

Industrialization and suburbanization brought about fantastic transformations in family life and gender relations.  Men and women began to rely upon one another in new and unprecedented ways.  Divisions between work and leisure became more pronounced for men and this same boundary was probably blurred more than ever before for women.  The same forces that led Lasch to call the family “a haven in a heartless world” were inequitably distributed between family members.  This fact is reverberated in our design and use of home architecture.

If you have a home built in the early 20th century that hasn’t been remodeled, it’s likely that you have a fairly closed-off, small kitchen and probably only one centrally-located bathroom.  These are just two examples but they’re a powerful illustration of an important issue to do with gender and space.  Small kitchens, structurally isolated in homes are a remnant of a particular set of gender relations in families.  When architects were designing homes for my grandparent’s generation, kitchens were small and segregated because few people were thought to have reason to inhabit them.  Multiple bathrooms seemed a waste of space until the hustle and bustle of dual-earning couples’ morning routines became a national norm.

Garages, basements, and more, have historically served as spaces to which men retreat to work on projects around the house, hobbies, to read, watch television, or “to tinker” as my grandmother-in-law says of her husband.   Continue reading

Smoking Rooms – Unintentionally Providing Space for Gender Inequality

In Victorian houses, there are simply too many rooms by modern standards.  The idea was to have a separate room for separate activities, replacing the old idea of simply moving furniture around the room to suit various purposes throughout the day.*  One of the rooms I find fascinating is the “smoking room” in Victorian homes.  Tobacco was sort of a fad in England in the 1800’s, but not everyone was a fan.  Smoking rooms emerged for a few reasons.  Initially, the smell of tobacco was thought odious and people smoked outside.  But gradually, people became accustomed and the practice moved indoors.  Inside the house, smoking rooms became assigned, so I’ve read, because women did not want men smoking throughout the house.  It was a room designed to segregate a very specific activity to one room in the home–a room that was not accidentally situated far away from bedrooms, the kitchen, and dining areas.

Smoking rooms were also outfitted with their own specific interior design.  Perhaps most characteristic of the room was the rampant and excessive use of velvet.  Home owners had velvet curtains made, some of the furniture was upholstered with velvet and smoking jackets were routinely made of velvet as well.  The velvet was thought to absorb smoke to rid its odor from the rest of the house.  It’s also true that smoking really ruined rooms, drapes, upholstery, and more.  So, having it relegated to a single room was probably a good idea practically as well.  Dining rooms were actually initially used for similar reasons (we began to use dining rooms right around the same time that we began upholstering furniture en masse).

Smoking rooms were intended to be used after dinner.  The women might gather in the drawing room** and the men would retreat to the smoking room.  As such, it was common practice to decorate the room in a “masculine” style.  Many men displayed gun collections there, decorated the room with Turkish themes (as Turkish tobacco was what they were likely smoking, popularized after the Crimean War), “worldly” books and objects, and more.

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Barrie Thorne, “Borderwork,” and the Social Space of Schools

If someone had told me that the way to pick a research project was to scan my bookshelf, find my absolute favorite studies, and figure out what they have in common, I’d have done a school ethnography. It was Barrie Thorne’s Gender Play (1993) that made me want to go to graduate school. I just learned that she retired and thought it might be a fitting time to talk about how much her work inspires me.

When sex role theory was the way to talk about gender, scholars and activists interested in discussing gender inequality focused on key socializing institutions (where “sex roles” and their associated expectations were thought to be primarily produced) like the family, education, religion, etc. I have always thought that school ethnographies emerged out of this period – though Parsonsstructural functionalism seems a distant memory to much of this research. Incidentally, Barrie Thorne was among the group of feminist scholars who collectively explained why sex role theory was and is inadequate as a theory.

[SIDE NOTE: Terms like “class roles” and “race roles” were never as popular as “sex roles.” Yet scholars dealing with race and class were certainly navigating similar concerns. Paul WillisLeaning to Labor (1977) is a prime example, illustrating how working-class youth are making a choice to enter working-class jobs. But it’s a choice that is structured by much more than their individual desires.]

Lately, I’ve gone back through a number of my favorite school ethnographies to read more about how scholars discuss the role of space in the structuring of children’s experiences of school, the perpetuation of inequality within schools, and the fostering of performances of self at school.

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Mike Messner, “Soft Essentialism,” and Ideologies that Gender Social Spaces

Mike Messner has written a few pieces that I do not teach courses on gender without.  One of them is an article about the opening ceremonies of a American Youth Soccer League in which his son participated–“Barbie Girls Versus Sea Monsters: Children Constructing Gender” (2000).*  What I love about the article is Messner’s simultaneous attention to structure, culture, and agency.  He does this in a way that is beautiful in its simplicity.

The following is the scenario Messner witnessed and wrote about.  The opening ceremony for this league asks players to come dressed in uniform and with banners (if they have them), and beyond attempting to create a community, the event seems designed to help the young boys and girls feel like athletes.  Each team walks around the track at the local high school football field behind their banner as they are announced.  The boys’ team that Messner discusses (the “Sea Monsters”) is sitting together, proudly looking at their large banner of a sea snake appearing to eat a soccer ball.  A girls’ team (the “Barbie Girls”) enters pulling a wagon with a large Barbie doll standing on a rotating platform and dancing and singing along to Barbie-themed music coming out of a boom box.   While at first the boys seem entranced, smiling (and perhaps even wanting to take part), eventually, enough of the boys notice each other noticing the Barbie parade going on and they take action.  One of the boys yells out, “NO BARBIE!” and they are on the move, jumping around, and bumping one another.  The girls do a good job of not noticing, but “NO BARBIE!” ends up serving as a chant that unites the Sea Monsters in solidarity.

One of the most interesting parts of this analysis to me is that Messner also pays careful attention to the adults in this interaction and examines how they make sense of this behavior.  It’s a great example of Thorne’s concept of “borderwork.”  The adults take this moment as an opportunity to reflect on just how different boys and girls are.  Messner illustrates how much work it is to actually think of boys and girls as completely different sorts of creatures. Continue reading

On Goffman the Gender Scholar

When sociologists discuss performance theories of gender, we usually go back to Candace West and Don Zimmerman’s (1987) famous article “Doing Gender.”  Some of us date this trend to Judith Butler, but few people bother to discuss some of the scholarship that predates this.  West and Zimmerman relied almost exclusively on Harold Garfinkel’s* analysis of Agnes (a transgendered women who he met with as a part of a UCLA study dealing with “deviant” gender identities) to support their conceptualization.

Beyond the use of data, West and Zimmerman’s article was written in conversation with Erving Goffman’s theory of gender, or of “gender display” as Goffman wrote about it.  Goffman wrote two pieces exclusively about gender.  The first was originally published in Studies in the Anthropology of Visual Communication (1976) and later published as a book–Gender Advertisements (1979)–which included the essay along with a host of advertisements that Goffman codes for different elements of gender display (for a great exploration of this, see Greg Smith’s work here).  The second is his better known and cited article in Theory and Society: “The Arrangement between the Sexes” (1977).  He wrote elsewhere about gender as well, but these were his two pieces of writing that were really dedicated to theorizing about gender.  For instance, the Goffman quote that Michael Kimmel (1994) used to discuss Connell’s conceptualization of “hegemonic masculinity” actually comes from Stigma (1963).**

While we have come to celebrate “Doing Gender” as one of the first pieces to actually break with the biological determinism of sex role theory, along with some notable others (see here and here for two of my favorites), Goffman’s lack of status as a “feminist” makes him an unlikely person to be remembered among this list.   Continue reading