Home > Research > John Locke (redux): Duels and Duets

John Locke (redux): Duels and Duets


Male conversation?

A few days ago, the furor on the interweb surrounding John Locke’s new book Duels and Duets became too much for me to (professionally) ignore, so I dutifully trundled over to Amazon and put my order in. For those of you unfamiliar with the book, the premise of it is that men and women “talk differently”. Now although this is something which has been trundled out in language and gender research for a while now (in various guises, but usually concerning conversational strategies), it’s generally accepted that we’re more similar in our speech behaviour than we are different.

To give you a flavour of the book, here’s an excerpt from the dust cover:

When men talk to men, they frequently engage in a type of “dueling”, locking verbal horns with their rivals in a way that enables them to compete for the things they need, mainly status and sex. By contrast, much of women’s talk sounds more like a verbal “duet”, a harmonious way of achieving their goals by sharing intimate thoughts and feelings in private. And because a third, “uni-sex” way of talking never evolved, men and women have to rely on the strategies at their disposal.

Well now, I’m really not sure what to make of all of this… Although Locke is a Professor of Linguistics at Lehman College, CUNY, it seems as though he’s far more of a evolutionary behaviourist-linguist rather than a straight up anthropological linguist or sociolinguist (especially going by his publication record in places like Evolution and Human Behaviour and Behavioural and Brain Sciences), which probably explains his predilection towards a essentialist view of gendered behaviour. What’s really concerning, though, is that he seems almost entirely ignorant of every single development in the field of language and gender research within sociolinguistics. For example, in the bibliography, there is no mention (and I mean no mention) of people like Penny Eckert, Scott Kiesling, Mary Bucholtz, or Kira Hall (edit: there are a few mentions of Jenny Coates, Deborah Cameron and Deborah Tannen’s work, but nothing substantial). There are honourable mentions for both Robin Lakoff (1975) and Labov (1972, 1973), but these are not exactly cutting edge developments any more…

It arrived yesterday, and I’ve had a quick flip through it to get a general idea of the content, but I’m genuinely worried that it’s too far encamped in the ‘evolutionary perspective’ for me to get much out of it, and the fact it doesn’t appear to engage with prevailing theoretical developments in the field of language and gender is just incredible to me. I’ll post a more comprehensive review once I finished it, but in the meantime, you can read the Times Higher Education review if you’re so inclined.

If you’ve already read it, what were your impressions?

P.S. And today is the three-month anniversary of the blog. Huzzah! And I’ve only missed a couple of days posting…

The Social Linguist

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  1. October 2, 2011 at 12:10 pm

    I suggest we might have a discussion session on this book in our Gender and Language Research Group… but the consensus was it wasn’t worth bothering.

  1. October 13, 2011 at 8:44 pm
  2. November 5, 2011 at 11:04 am

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