Home > Research, Writing > Some thoughts on Duels and Duets (and why John Locke is wrong)… (part 3)

Some thoughts on Duels and Duets (and why John Locke is wrong)… (part 3)

This post is the last installment of my review of John Locke’s recent book Duels and Duets (if you want to catch up on part 1 and part 2)

Before the book even gets into its stride, Locke has already made his mind up about his subject matter: men and women do talk differently. It’s something which isn’t up for debate, and its intellectual veracity is established by the fact ‘we hear [men and women] conversing and may have witnessed failures to connect – or experienced these difficulties in our own relationships’ (Locke 2011: 1). Of course, observation is certainly part of any scientific endeavour, but the part which is (crucially) missing is analysis. Locke starts from the perspective that differences exist because he’s heard men and women talk, but this is purely circumstantial evidence and doesn’t fulfil the rigorous demands set up by sociolinguistic researchers who investigate male and female speech. Moreover, he is very selective of the work he chooses to support his case, ignoring research that, for example, argues that women can be competitive in conversation (Eckert 1993, Guendouzi 2001), or that men can be co-operative and ‘gossip’ (Cameron 1997). He also doesn’t provide much in the way of actual linguistic evidence, preferring instead to let work from other fields form much of his discussion.

For example, Locke draws much of his argument via research conducted in the field of primatology. The idea is that with primates being our closest evolutionary partner, analysis of how apes and chimpanzees behave should offer us more of an insight into how humans behave. With no ‘culture’ to speak of, then any differences between male and female primate behaviour can only arise from biology. This is taken as an evidence of undercutting the impact of culture within human societies: if primates don’t have culture and they behave in this way, then surely the same must apply to humans since they’re our closest neighbour on the evolutionary ladder? Of course, the fact is that humans do have culture and we have a history of culturally-mandated (not biologically-determined) systems of oppression and exclusion (for example, in 1878 the University of London was one of the first universities to allow women were allowed to attend, but the University of Cambridge did not award degrees to female students until 1948). To argue that these systems of exclusion are based on biology is folly at best and wilful ignorance at worst, but that’s exactly what Locke does when he argues that the reason there are more male debaters, politicians and public speakers is because men are genetically and biologically predisposed to duelling-type behaviour which characterises these arenas. Women, on the other hand, do not participate in these kinds of activities because they are more biologically predisposed towards co-operative and facilitative communicative behaviour (re: duetting). Locke argues that such realities have nothing to do with the historical processes of exclusion and marginalisation (cf. cultural issues) of women from these activities, but that it’s all to do with biology.

Lastly, Locke has a particularly homogenous view of men and women (and completely ignores individuals who might not fit into this neat categorisation). All men and women are (more or less) the same, so issues of race, sexuality, age, ethnicity, nationality and so on, don’t impact on linguistic behaviour (they do, but Locke ignores much of the research on such issues). Why should they when human society is derived from the same basic prehistoric blueprint? Ignoring these issues overlooks a whole host of factors which impact on speech behaviour, and as such is a major drawback of Locke’s work.

Duels and Duets has certainly stirred up a not insignificant amount of attention within the media, the general public and the academy, but I would argue that Locke’s conclusions are based on flawed logic and questionable data and is almost wholly ignorant of current theoretical advances in language and gender research. Because his arguments are couched within the science of evolutionary biology, however, many will assume his work to have the intellectual rigour and academic standards which typifies such ‘hard’ sciences. Locke’s work falls short when evaluated against the standards set by linguistics and gender studies and as such cannot be taken seriously as a proper description regarding the basis of male and female speech styles.

Now, this obviously isn’t a comprehensive treatment of Locke’s book, and it would take another book to offer a full critique of his work, but I hope that these last three posts at least offer some background information on how Duels and Duets fits into sociolinguistic research on language and gender, and why we need to be very cautious when a book like this appears on the market.

– The Social Linguist

  1. a.d.p-h
    November 12, 2011 at 7:29 pm

    I don’t want to constantly bring up the issue of the impact of language and gender research but, saying that, I’m going to – mainly because there isn’t really anything else to add to your comments regarding John Locke, his analysis and the associated problems.

    So, his book has got loads more media coverage than the average (socio-)linguistics book and I think that it’s precisely because it conforms to the view of the “average” person. The gulf between what (socio-?)academia and the “general public” think about gender is vast (and the same, to greater or lesser extents, could be said of other concepts related to identity). And John Locke’s arguments seem to be similar to the sort of things the “general public” would say about gender, the sort of things the media would say.

    Also, I’m wondering why you think the media has picked up on this (disproportionately so, in comparison with general “social science” research)?

    It seems to me that part of it is because Locke’s arguments are made categorically: men and women ARE different, this difference is due to different evolutionary processes. This is the same way the media cover science reporting: “X causes Y”. Compare that to what most scientific research actually looks like: “X may cause Y if Z”. Given that Locke’s claims are so categorical, and given that they conform to the view of the “general public”, it’s no surprise they’ve made such an impact. (and more the reason to question them)

  2. November 13, 2011 at 11:17 am

    I think it’s a shame that Locke’s book has received so much media coverage without much in the way of challenge from the other side of the fence, and I think that you’re right in that he’s been so well-received because it strikes a chord with people’s own views about sex/gender and behaviour. We all know women and men are different because, well, they look different, so surely that must extend to their behaviour as well, right??

    Why the media have picked up on this so much is probably for a number of reasons. First, they know that findings like this sell papers and make people read articles. Anything like ‘why women and men are different’ taps into societal predilection towards maximising difference and minimising similarities between men and women. Second, it’s also loads easier to say ‘X causes Y’ and not ‘X causes Y, but only in context X if conditions A, B, and C are met’. The way journalists report research is different to the way academics do it; tell the big point first and then the details. Research works the other way around; tell the details and work towards the big points. For researchers, details are important, and I think that’s less the case for journalists.

  1. November 24, 2011 at 12:28 pm

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