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What gender makes

Ce que fabrique le genre

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Published on Wednesday, September 23, 2020 by Anastasia Giardinelli

Summary

Il y a 90 ans, Marcel Mauss parlait de la division par sexes comme « une division fondamentale qui a grevé de son poids toutes les sociétés. Notre sociologie, sur ce point, est très inférieure à ce qu’elle devrait être. On peut dire à nos étudiants, surtout à ceux et à celles qui pourraient un jour faire des observations sur le terrain, que nous n’avons fait que la sociologie des hommes et non pas la sociologie des femmes, ou des deux sexes » (1969 [1931] : 15). Mauss évoque déjà l’androcentrisme qui marque les sciences sociales ; il présente le genre – même si son vocabulaire n’est pas celui d’aujourd’hui – comme une dimension qui traverse la vie sociale, un opérateur de portée générale ; il alerte enfin sur le fait que la division des techniques du corps entre les sexes va au-delà des formes sexuées du travail. Ce numéro de Techniques & Culture aimerait s’appuyer sur ce programme – qui reste encore largement à bâtir – à partir d’études de cas provenant de différentes époques et aires géographiques.

Announcement

Coordination

Coordinated by Pascale Bonnemère, Franck Cochoy and Chloé Clovis Maillet

Argument

Ninety years ago, Marcel Mauss described the “division according to sex” as « a fundamental division of great importance in all societies to a degree that we may not suspect. Our sociology, in this sense, is much weaker than it should be when addressing this point. All that we can say to our students, particularly to those who might do fieldwork, is that we have only been doing the sociology of men and not that of women or of both sexes.” (Mauss, 1969: 15).[1]

A few years later, Mauss pointed out that “two things were immediately apparent given the notion of techniques of the body: they are divided and vary by sex and by age” (1973 [1936]: 76).[2] He added that this division of the techniques of the body between sexes could not simply be equated to the gendered division of labor.

Mauss thus opened the way for a still ongoing conversation around the issue of the relation between gender and technology. This author had already mentioned the male bias (or androcentrism) in social sciences, presenting “sex” (although his vocabulary differs from the terms in use today) as a dimension that runs through social life and as an operator of general significance; he also warned that the division of techniques of the body between the sexes goes beyond gendered forms of work.

This issue of Techniques & Culture aims to elaborate on this program—which still remains to be fully explored—through case studies covering different periods and geographic areas.

An androcentric history of technologies

The history of technological modernity is determined by a specific “gender regime” (Bray 2007: 45; Lett 2012) characterized by the naturalization of women and the “culturalization” of men, who are regarded as the heroes of technicality. This perception has become so internalized and regarded as obvious by researchers that the issue remains mostly invisible in the field of science and technology. Until recently, most French-language journals focusing on technology do not appear to have shown any particular interest in gender; as for social science work on the relationship between gender and technology published in English, it includes some remarkable syntheses (Faulkner 2001, Bray 2007, Wajcman, 2010), that bring to light the fact that technology is an instrument of male domination serving the reproduction of patriarchy (Cockburn 1983, Bray 2007). This Western view of gender relations, of technological phenomenon and of the relation between the two (Knittel & Raggi 2013) is found in writings that seek to produce explanations over the long term for what is considered to be the universal fact of male domination (Tabet 1979).

Craft technologies have been widely studied through the prism of the specialization of trades—which were often mixed-gender until the 16th century—with more specifically feminine activities where women were employers as well as craftswomen. The separation between flexible and rigid materials highlighted by Alain Testart (2014) seems effective in explaining the division of labor globally, but not in detail. Studies on the history of crafts and material culture were among the first to open up to gender studies, focusing on specific textile-related trades from the Middle Ages to the present day (Coffin 1996, Bard, 2010), and these themes still account for a large share of current research (Rivière 2016), as does the question of the exclusion of women from corporations in the 16th century (Federici 2014 [2004]).

Relational gender

Conceptually speaking, social sciences have constructed a polarity between on the one hand essentialism, which is sometimes linked to political activism, and on the other cultural relativism, both of which are at work in feminist critiques of technology (Bray 2007: 39). Some female researchers considered male domination to be a product of industrialization, and that earlier and pre-colonial societies did not experience this form of gender inequality.

In social anthropology, the understanding of gender underwent a major development when the New Guinea Highlands, discovered in the 1930s, were opened up to anthropologists. First, male researchers went out on the field and revealed representations that stigmatized female physiology as polluting, requiring for boys to be masculinized through initiation rituals. The space of daily life, in the village and inside the houses, was organized in such a way that the men were not in contact with the women and their bodily substances. These observations highlighted an opposition between feminine and masculine activities and the values associated with each gender. Without underestimating the ambivalence of these representations and practices, these accounts exposed an implacable domination of men over women.

Since the ethnography of rituals revealed the potential male bias of earlier studies, female ethnologists then went out on the field with the idea of providing a more balanced outlook. The introduction of gender in history also dates from the late 1980s, pursuing the same goal of revisiting historical analyses through the inclusion of women. In French-language scholarship, this evolution was associated with a number of significant publications by feminist authors such as Geneviève Fraisse and Michelle Perrot (1991) and Pauline Schmitt-Pantel (1990). Joan Scott made the link between studies published in English and in French and defended the idea that gender was a useful category of analysis for history in general (Scott & Varikas, 1988). More recent interdisciplinary work has shown that if there is one thing that pervades social life and cannot be treated as a separate issue, it is gender, considered as a « modality of instituted relations » (Théry & Bonnemère 2008: 11). Marilyn Strathern opened the way for this relational understanding of gender, which she does not consider as a dimension to be treated independently from representations of the person or from the ideas and practices that inform kinship (Strathern 1988, Théry 2007).

Strathern’s ethnography of a Highlands society whose members organize large ceremonial exchanges rather than male initiations (Strathern 1972) allowed her to shift her approach and to question representations and practices that are regarded as universal (Strathern 1978). Her work, along with Donna Haraway’s (2007 [1985]), brought an essential contribution to the conceptual edifice of gender research. These researchers challenged the dichotomies on which Western science was based, deconstructing binaries such as nature/culture, subject/object and even woman/man.

Strathern also developed an innovative theory of gender by showing that, for some Melanesian societies, what distinguishes men from women is not objective attributes but rather their agency. Women produce the most valued goods—pigs—and men trade them. In anthropology and history, although the gender of objects is hardly questioned, so much so that it seems—often wrongly—self-evident. The sexual division of labor remains a classic theme; technologies themselves are rarely approached from a gender perspective: this shortcoming was noted by Francesca Bray in her 2007 study “Gender and Technology”, even though the author admits that “the anthropology of technology, (…) offers useful conceptual frameworks and methods for exploring gender regimes” (Bray 2007: 39, Knittel & Raggi 2019). One notable exception would be precisely Bray’s book on the historical dynamics of “gynotecs” in the era of Imperial China (1997).

The gender of technologies

In medical history, certain issues such as access to contraception and abortion were studied as early as the 1980s, in association with the assignation of certain tasks and techniques to women, particularly domestic work, and that of specialized medical techniques on the female body (gynecology and obstetrics) to men. It was not until the end of the 1990s that several books and journal issues evoked what modern medicine had done to the “naturalization of women”, or rather, looked at how modern medicine had constructed women (Edelman & Rochefort 2013). These publications were in fact circumscribed to the modern period and marked by Michel Foucault’s studies on sexuality (1976). Lively debates took place in the field of medical history, such as for instance discussions around Thomas Laqueur’s book and his hypothesis of the unisex body in pre-modern medicine (1992), later discussed by Sylvie Steinberg (2001). Once again, the same observation emerged: although technologies were presumed to be “gender-neutral”, they were in fact androcentric and had been modified in the medical field under the pressure of activists such as the self-help movement of the 1970s (Nissim 1984). The notion of a less technicized and less “armed” society in prehistoric times inspired eco-feminists, and gave rise to an alternative conception of science referred to as “the Gaïa hypothesis”, which postulates that living organisms are part of a self-regulating whole (Latour 2015). However, this approach was associated not so much with the history of technology than with that of feminism.

Feminist technological studies (FTS) have for their part developed in a dialogue with the history and sociology of technology. These approaches articulate a discourse that is welcome from a political point of view, but often quite asymmetrical from a theoretical and empirical perspective: while paying sustained attention to the human dimension of their objects, they take a more approximate look at the techniques themselves. A large share of feminist critique adopts a thinking style that has long prevailed in the field of “cultural studies” and in feminist studies, and which Latour calls “the sociology of the social” (2007): a sociology that tends to reduce the situations that are denounced to pure relations of power, structure, meaning, language and identity. This critical grammar of the social is based on binary oppositions between nature and culture, reason and emotion, dominant and dominated, conscious and unconscious, objective and constructed…

Donna Haraway’s article “A Manifesto for Cyborgs” (1985) revisits the project of critical emancipation through the figure of the cyborg, showing that the experience of every woman, or rather every person, articulates and hybridizes a multitude of heterogeneous elements such as their subjectivity, body, biomedical technologies or computer resources, and as such cannot be understood through pre-established dualisms such as “mind and body, animal and machine, idealism and materialism” (Haraway 1985: 72). By dissolving these binary categories, Haraway introduces another kind of “gender trouble”, in line with Judith Butler’s linguistic “gender trouble” (Butler 2006 [1990]) and with Strathern’s (1988) dismantling of Western categories in anthropological analyses.

Haraway’s text can be likened to philosopher Annemarie Mol’s theoretical reflections on the multiple definitions of femaleness according to the way it is grasped by different sciences. Mol invites us to adopt both a material and a pluralist vision of gender and its relation with the technological universe (Mol 2015). The Cyborg Manifesto has also led to a considerable renewal of analyses on the relation between gender and technology, with writings on “cyberfeminism” (Plant 1998), “techno-feminism” (Wajcman 2004) and male domination as a set of « gender technologies » in queer theory (De Lauretis 1987), which Paul Preciado has revisited through the notion of “techno-gender” (2008). These studies highlight the emancipatory potential of the internet and of information and communication technologies, as well as the potential of endocrinology or genetic engineering to overturn the naturalistic understanding of gender (Oudshoorn 1994 and Haraway 1997 respectively).

Considering that few cross-disciplinary approaches have jointly tackled the questions of techniques, gestures and objects from the perspective of gender, this issue of Techniques&Culture, coordinated by researchers with an expertise in anthropology, history and sociology, aims to bring together contributions that deliver a critical and gender-sensitive reflection on the history and epistemology of technologies—looking, in short, at what gender does to what is referred to in this journal as technology.

This issue welcomes specific case studies addressing, among other possible approaches, the following questions, placing them in dialog with the conceptual debates mentioned above:

  • Auctoriality and gender of objects: who makes, owns and uses them?  (Anstett and Gélard 2012, Montjaret 2014)
  • The hand-to-hand between gender and technologies: what do subjects and objects do together?
  • How do women construct a potential new relation to their bodies in the context of recent technological experiments around physiological questions (menstrual cups, ovulation tracking apps, etc.)

More general questions can also arise when questioning the gender of technologies and the technologies of gender:

  • Is it relevant to focus on the gender of technologies rather than on the sole relations between gender and technologies?
  • How can we understand gender norms when technological devices are the only way some bodies have of confirming these norms (in particular in the case of intersex and transgender people)?
  • Is it possible to build connections between anthropological theories of gender supporting the idea that the very first observation material for human thought was sexual difference (Héritier 1996) and theories presenting technological action as a model for social relation (Sigaut 2012)?
  • Are the hopes placed in the emancipatory potential of the technological universe (Faulkner 2001) too high, or even naïve?

Conditons of submission

An abstract of a maximum of 3,000 characters, with about ten illustrations. Three forms of articles may be submitted:

  • an article for the online version available for immediate access, with a maximum length of 50,000 characters (including spaces) and in which all kinds of illustrations (photos, video, audio) are possible. It will also be presented in the frame of 4 pages in the paper version (with the announcement of the http link; 5,000 to 6,000 characters + 2 HD images).
  • an article for the paper version of the journal, ranging from 25,000 to 30,000 characters (including spaces) in its length along with a maximum of 10 HD images (300 dpi) in which the author will endeavor to reach out to readers outside their own field, an exercise involving a dual requirement of scientificity and readability (the journal being of interest for interdisciplinary readers in the human sciences and being published as a « journal book » to an extended audience).
  • an article which, on the contrary, relies on fieldwork and documents, in which the author, based on precise corpuses, will analyze 15 to 20 images, in a format of 15,000 characters (max.).

Pratical details

Authors will need to contact the coordinators of the issue, Pascale Bonnemère, Franck Cochoy and Chloé Clovis Maillet,  through the journal’s editorial secretariat (techniques-et-culture@ehess.fr) to submit their project (title and abstract, iconography project) with their name, contact details, institutional affiliation

before 21 November 2020.

A meeting of the selected contributors is scheduled to take place in Marseille in January 20210. The proposal and the full text can be sent in French or English; the paper volume will be published in French, but online articles can be published in English.

For journal standards, please visit: https://journals.openedition.org/tc/1556 or contact the journal’s editorial team at techniques-et-culture@ehess.fr

Technique & culture

The journal Techniques & culture is devoted to the pragmatic, social and symbolic dimensions of techniques, from the most ‘traditional’ to the most modern. Material culture and materiality as we approach them allow for revealing and giving concrete meanings to the relationships between human beings, as well as between them and their environment. The journal publishes thematic issues, the ambition of which is to be syntheses of the most recent and important anthropological questions. These are aimed at both a scholarly audience (as a high-ranking academic journal) and the broader public (by making it available in High Street bookstores and over the internet).

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    Steinberg, S. 2001 La confusion des sexes. Le travestissement de la Renaissance à la Révolution. Paris : Fayard.

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    Wajcman, J. 2010 « Feminist theories of technology », Cambridge Journal of Economics 34 (1) : 143-152.

Date(s)

  • Saturday, November 21, 2020

Keywords

  • genre, techniques, technologie

Contact(s)

  • Marie-Luce Rauzy
    courriel : techniques-et-culture [at] ehess [dot] fr

Information source

  • Marie-Luce Rauzy
    courriel : techniques-et-culture [at] ehess [dot] fr

To cite this announcement

« What gender makes », Call for papers, Calenda, Published on Wednesday, September 23, 2020, https://calenda.org/803148

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