Posts Tagged ‘John Locke’

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

November 12, 2011 3 comments

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

Some thoughts on Duels and Duets (Part 2)

November 8, 2011 3 comments

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

Some comments on Duels and Duets (Part 1)

November 5, 2011 2 comments

A few weeks ago, I made a blog post about John Locke’s new book Duels and Duets, a book which apparently explains why men and women have such different conversational styles. I think that it’s fair to say that the book has provoked a reasonable amount of controversy within the sociolinguistics community, and now that I’ve read the book, I’m in a better position to offer a more nuanced critique of Locke’s work.

For those of you unfamiliar with Duels and Duets, the central premise of Professor Locke’s book is that men and women have contrasting communicative styles due to the ‘differing roles played by the sexes in evolutionary history, the effects of which were transmitted genetically to the modern human brain, which continue to influence our behaviour today’ (Locke 2011: 13, italics in original). From this perspective of biologism, Locke argues that men’s biological disposition towards competition for status and power manifests itself in speech behaviour he terms duelling, while women’s biological disposition towards co-operation and community manifests itself in speech behaviour he terms duetting. Drawing primarily on evidence from case studies in anthropology, sociology, evolutionary biology, and primatology, Locke attempts to deconstruct the differences between male and female speech behaviour down to its essence: biology.

There are, however, numerous shortcomings in Locke’s account which I will attempt to outline here. It is necessary, firstly, to illustrate how Locke’s argument differs from more widely accepted theories on gender and language differences.

The beginnings of language and gender research can be traced back to 1975 with the publication of Robin Lakoff’s Language and Woman’s Place (there are other, earlier, treatments of women’s language, most notably in Otto Jespersen’s chapter ‘The Woman’, in his 1922 volume Language: Its Nature and Development). The main theoretical view at this time was that women’s speech was deficient, although it was only ‘deficient’ insofar that it was being compared to the ‘standard’ of men’s speech. For example, Lakoff argued that women used more hedges (phrases like I think and sort of) because of their relatively powerless status in society at that time. Men, in contrast, did not have to hedge their statements in the same way because they were powerful. So men were viewed as the de facto standard against which women’s speech was evaluated and judged. Lakoff, however, did not base her analysis on any empirical data, but rather on her own intuition and introspection. This led to a raft of studies which adopted a more quantitative approach in order to test Lakoff’s claims that women’s speech and men’s speech was different.

The work which came out of this paradigm not only provided an account of men’s and women’s speech based on data, but it also challenged some of the dominant views of how men and women conversed. For example, Lakoff argued that women used more tag questions (in a sentence like, It’s really hot in here, isn’t it?), but in subsequent studies, such as Dubois and Crouch (1975) and Holmes (1985, also reported in Holmes 1995), researchers found that men used more tag questions. It is important to note, however, that tag questions are not all one and the same, and their functions range from being facilitative (“Nice run, wasn’t it?”), softening (“That’s a bit silly, isn’t it?”) or challenging (“You won’t do that again, will you?”). While the general perception of tag questions is that they’re a marker of doubt and uncertainty, the reality is much more complex.

The view of women’s speech as deficient came under fire from certain researchers who argued that rather than women being deficient, language was actively used by men to maintain their hegemonic position at the top of the social hierarchy (this characterises work by, for example, Dale Spender). This was known as the dominance approach where ‘women as well as men [colluded] in sustaining and perpetuating male dominance and female oppression’ (Coates 2004: 6), and more recently, two approaches have found purchase within language and gender research: the difference approach and the dynamic approach (these terms are from Coates 2004). The difference approach refers to the idea that men and women are socialised within different cultures which consequently leads to different patterns of speech behaviour. It is this approach which attempts to explain male and female ‘miscommunication’, as argued in work by Deborah Tannen and extensively challenged in Deborah Cameron’s book The Myth of Mars and Venus.

The last approach, the dynamic approach, is perhaps the most common approach within current sociolinguistic research (that is, the study of language in society). In this paradigm, gender (the sociocultural expression of biological sex) is something that people do rather than something that people have. In this way, gender is something dynamic, changing and malleable; it is something that we do every time we speak. In this sense, gender is cultural, and the differences between men and women’s speech is conditioned by cultural expectations about what it is to speak like a man and speak like a woman. One benefit of the dynamic approach is that it allows us to examine speakers in context, rather than as a homogenous group of ‘men’ or ‘women’ or ‘other’ (this is also helpful because there are people for whom the cultural designations of ‘man’ or ‘woman’ do not apply).

Locke, however, doesn’t adopt any of these positions, and instead adopts a ‘biologism’ approach to language and gender.

I wanted to take the time to outline the (partial) history of language and gender research because I think it’s important to outline the prevailing trends within current sociolinguistic research on male and female speech so we can better contexualise why Locke’s position is untenable. On Tuesday, I’ll discuss the failings of the book in more detail (so you’ll have a reason to come back!).

– The Social Linguist

John Locke (redux): Duels and Duets

September 24, 2011 3 comments

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