Home > Research, Writing > Some thoughts on Duels and Duets (Part 2)

Some thoughts on Duels and Duets (Part 2)


Having outlined the theoretical background to language and gender research within sociolinguistics, we can now bring the discussion back to Locke. As I mentioned earlier, Locke’s position is that our communicative behaviour can be irreducibly brought back to biology. This means that we are slaves to biological influences and have little say in the outward expressions of such deep-rooted evolutionary imperatives. Biologism is an approach which argues that the reason men and women talk differently isn’t because of cultural differences (as argued in the dynamic approach above), but rather because of biological differences. The different evolutionary paths taken by our prehistoric ancestors means that the differences are hard-wired and find eventual expression in our modern communicative behaviour. These hard-wired cognitive frameworks are why men argue, debate, compete, show-off and duel, while women co-operate, gossip, chatter, and duet.

Part of the appeal of biologism is that it appears to be based in ‘science’, and science (especially of the evolutionary kind) is often viewed as something more objective and real than the ‘soft’ sciences of the humanities. In particular, modern western society (promulgated in part by the media) is more inclined towards accepting as truth work based on the fields like evolutionary biology than work from (the relatively unknown) fields of linguistics and gender studies. Locke’s research also appeals to the societal tendency to accept findings which appear to support that differences between men and women exist, whether language-based practices or other kinds of behaviour (for example, that men are supposedly better at map reading or women are better at multi-tasking). We have a peculiar affinity with work which supports what we already take as self-evident: that men and women are different. And we’re much more likely to accept this kind of work than work which says there are more similarities between men and women than differences, and work in sociolinguistics has shown that the linguistic behaviour of men and women is far more similar than it is different.

But the problem with the biologism perspective is that it implicitly (and in older accounts, explicitly) attempts to naturalise the superiority of men and the subordination of women. If behaviour can be explained by evolution, then the fact that males are socially dominant in modern day society is something that can’t be challenged: it is the way it is. This account means that the status quo of male/female relations in contemporary society (partly mediated through speech) is natural and accepted, and for people working within language and gender studies, this is a significant issue which can’t be overlooked. Power is a significant part of modern gender relations, and any attempt to naturalise male dominance and female subordination, even under the guise of scientific biologism, needs to be challenged. We get into very dangerous territory when we go down the path of accepting that inequality between the genders as a scientific finding (as Locke does). If we replaced ‘sex’ with ‘race’ and were reading a book about how the communicative (or other behavioural) differences between whites and blacks were based on their different evolutionary paths, there would be an uproar (and quite rightly so). Quite why discussions of sex do not engender the same kind of response is a mystery.

Stay tuned for Part 3 on Saturday!

The Social Linguist

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  1. adph
    November 8, 2011 at 3:09 pm

    In terms of the naturalisation of Locke’s arguments, it certainly doesn’t help that they’ve been picked up by the media:

    http://www.dailymail.co.uk/femail/article-2050138/Why-women-gossip-men-tell-face.html

    I can’t remember seeing an article in the Mail that discusses a new book by a sociolinguist in this fashion. But it isn’t just the Mail.

    Stephen Fry’s Planet Word did much the same thing. Stephen Pinker was their chosen linguist when it came to matters of “language and the mind”. When discussing dialects, however, the “expert” wasn’t Trudgill or Kerswill (and so on) but the poet Ian McMillan. Which just goes to show the ways in which the media maintains this split between the “hard” and “soft” sciences that you mention.

  1. November 12, 2011 at 1:58 pm
  2. November 24, 2011 at 12:28 pm

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