Language and Gender Revisited: Exploring the Borderlands of Local and Global Praxis

Kathryn A. Davis

University of Hawai`i at Manoa, United States of America


Recent language and gender publications reflect changing philosophical, theoretical, and research approaches in the field (e.g. Cameron, 2004; Davis & Skilton-Sylvester, 2004; Norton & Pavlenko, 2004, Pavlenko & Pillar, 2001). Scholarship has generally shifted from viewing language and gender relationships as predictable and universal towards understanding gender as socially constructed within specific cultural, societal, and political contexts (e.g. Eckert & McConnell-Ginet, 1992). Subsequently, language and gender studies have increasingly involved situation–specific discourse analyses, narrative studies, and ethnographies (Goldstein, 2001; Lin et. al., 2004). Language and gender scholars also tend to situate micro studies within macro analyses of political discourses and public policies (Lin & Luk, 2005). These research trends provide invaluable insight into complex interrelationships of gender and sociolinguistic concerns. Yet, this current investigative era also calls for sociolinguistic action, reflecting earlier successful unveiling of language-associated gender inequities and advocacy for gender neutral terminology (Cameron, 1995; Nichols, 1999). This paper intends to explore next steps towards addressing gender inequities realized at the macro and micro intersection of dominant discourses, public silence, and discrimination.

The paper begins with examining the promise of critical discourse analyses and ethnographic approaches for addressing gender inequity by disrupting ideological common sense, everyday language use, and discourse power by dominant groups (Luke, 2002; Fairclough, 2003). I specifically discuss sociolinguistic calls for situated gender-related investigations of intersecting identity, power relations, and linguistic practices (Eckert and McConnell-Ginet, 1998). This discussion also acknowledges the need for cross-disciplinary collaborations among sociolinguists, psychology, anthropology, philosophy, law, sociology, and women’s studies to inform gender research (e.g. Davis & Skilton-Sylvester, 2004; Freed 1995). However, the primary focus of the paper is on Appadurai’s (2006) call for the right of local citizens to do research on issues of critical concern to them. He suggests that full citizenship in a global society requires local citizens to make strategic inquiries and gain strategic knowledge on a continuous basis across a range of areas such as labor market shifts, AIDS, migration paths, prisons, and law. Thus, Appadurai’s rights-perspective suggests alternative sociolinguistic roles in supporting women’s control over interdisciplinary investigations of personal experiences and local solutions for issues such as sexual harassment, domestic violence, sexual assault, AIDS, education, and human trafficking. I suggest here ways in which local girls, women, transgendered individuals, and others can utilize sociolinguistics tools, such as critical discourses analysis (Fairclough, 2003; Lakoff, 2004) and narrative studies (Vitanova, 2005), to counter Discourses of power and silence that promote psychological and physical harm to gendered and sexualized populations across social, cultural, geographic, institutional, and political settings.

Appadurai (2006) suggests that a rights-based perspective can “force us to take some distance from the normal, professionalized view of research, and derive some benefit from regarding research as a much more universal, elementary and improvable capacity” (p. 168). This paper argues for local ownership of research on gender issues that moves towards substantive and sustainable equity. It also suggests praxis, the interrelationship between theories and practice, that allows local research to inform sociolinguistic theories on language and gender.

Session: Paper session
Gender 1 (Discourse)
Thursday, April 3, 2008, 10:30-12:00
room: 16