Copyright Sociological Research Online, 1999


Stevi Jackson (1999) 'Feminist Sociology and Sociological Feminism: Recovering the Social in Feminist Thought'
Sociological Research Online, vol. 4, no. 3, <>

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Received: 3/9/1999      Accepted: 28/9/1999      Published: 30/9/1999


Whereas others have considered the interrelationship between feminism and sociology in terms of the impact of the former on the latter, this paper focuses on the influence of sociological thought on feminist theory. Sociological perspectives were much in evidence within feminist thought in the 1970s, but the shifting disciplinary hierarchies associated with the 'cultural turn' of the 1980s have since undermined sociology's influence within feminism - and especially in feminist theory. One consequence of this, I suggest, has been the erasure of some important sociological insights and perspectives from the map of feminist theory. In particular the origins of social constructionism have been forgotten, along with much that was distinctly social in this approach. In charting the course and assessing the effects of the 'cultural turn', I make it clear than not all feminists have followed that route. I argue for the recovery of the social from its eclipsing by the cultural and for the continued importance of a sociologically informed feminism into the 21st century. In making the case for a distinctly sociological approach to central feminist concerns, I will take sexuality as a case study. Here I seek to demonstrate that sociology has more to offer feminism than the cultural focus of queer theory.

Cultural Turn; Feminism; Feminist Sociology; Queer Theory; Sexuality; Social Constructionism.


The interrelationship between feminism and sociology has usually been discussed in terms of the impact of the former on the latter, with a number of writers arguing for a feminist transformation of sociology, assessing the extent to which sociology has taken feminist ideas on board and identifying areas left largely untouched by feminism (e.g. Stacey and Thorne 1985; Maynard 1990; Abbott 1991; Allen and Leonard 1996; Laslett and Thorne 1997). Here I consider the interrelationship from the other end, focusing on the influence of sociology on feminist thought. While endorsing others' arguments for a feminist sociology, my aim is to state the case for a sociological feminism. I wish to draw attention to the contributions sociology has made to feminist scholarship and to argue that it still has much to offer, specifically as a corrective to the over-emphasis on the representational and symbolic deriving from the so-called 'cultural turn'.

A sociology journal might seem an odd context in which to make this case. I am presumably addressing an audience which does not need to be convinced of the utility of sociology. Yet even while identifying themselves as sociologists, many newer scholars seem unaware of their disciplinary heritage and assume that long-established sociological insights are recent innovations deriving largely from non-sociological sources. I have lost track of the number of times I have heard it confidently asserted, during recent BSA conferences, that social constructionism began with either post-structuralism or post-modernism. That the origins of so basic a sociological idea have been forgotten, even by sociologists, should give us pause for thought. The effect is to obliterate sociology's past contributions from the collective scholarly memory and therefore from the genealogies of ideas passed on to new generations of students. It is not only in Women's Studies that this is happening, but also in related interdisciplinary fields such as the study of sexuality. Gayle Rubin, for example, has commented on the common misapprehension that social constructionism originated with Foucault, with the result that the work of earlier theorists is 'completely erased' (Rubin and Butler 1994: 82), while a number of writers have lamented the eclipsing of specifically sociological perspectives on sexuality (Epstein 1996; Seidman 1996; 1997; Stein and Plummer 1996; Jackson 1999).

For the record, I would suggest that the idea of social constructionism, even if it was not named as such, can be dated back to the first half of the twentieth century to, for example, G. H. Mead's idea of the social self and C. Wright Mills's arguments for a sociology of motives (Mead 1934; Mills 1940). The term came into wide usage in the 1960s with the publication of Berger and Luckman's The Social Construction of Reality (1967) and it was during this decade that sociologists began to argue for the social construction of sexuality (McIntosh 1968; Gagnon 1965; Simon and Gagnon 1969). A little later it was feminist sociologists, such as Ann Oakley (1972), who adopted the concept of gender (which originated elsewhere) and used it to argue that masculinity and femininity were socially constructed and distinct from biological sex differences. That this entailed only a partial social constructionism, leaving 'sex' outside the social was subsequently noted and challenged by other feminist sociologists such as Liz Stanley (1984) and Christine Delphy (1981; 1984), thus presenting arguments for a radically anti-essentialist understanding of gender which pre-date the more widely celebrated deconstructive efforts of Denise Riley (1987) and Judith Butler (1986; 1987; 1990).[1]

If we succumb to the collective amnesia through which sociological insights are erased from the record we risk continually re-inventing the wheel and depriving feminism of vital critical, analytical tools. We need to recover some of the core insights of our discipline, as well as more confidence in its continuing relevance for feminism, and become more assertive in our advocacy of sociological perspectives within feminist academic arenas. Hence although I am committed to interdisciplinarity in Women's Studies, I am concerned about the submerging of sociological perspectives within its interdisciplinary mix , and particularly in what counts as feminist theory. This state of affairs is, I believe, detrimental to feminism.

How is it that sociological perspectives, once central to feminist thinking, have been displaced and rendered marginal? One of the purposes of this paper is to account for this change. While it may, in part, simply reflect the rapid growth and diversification of feminist scholarship, it is more specifically attributable to the shifting disciplinary hierarchies and changing intellectual fashions associated with the 'cultural turn' (Barrett 1992). In charting the origins of this 'turn' I will argue that it was neither total nor irrevocable. I will identify signs of recent reversals in these trends within feminist theory, in particular a revitalisation of materialist perspectives within which distinctively sociological perspectives have a role to play. Given that most of these debates have taken place around 'macro' theories of social structure, I will then say something about other forms of social theory which are worth recovering for feminism and from which many of the basic insights of social constructionism derived. This will lead me on to a discussion of the 'social' and, more particularly, of the concept of social construction. Here I will take the field of sexuality as my main case study, an area in which the shifts I am discussing have been clearly manifested, and will consider what sociology can contribute to current feminist and queer theorising on sexuality.

Shifting Disciplinary Hierarchies

Feminist theory has become too vast an enterprise for anyone to have a complete overview of it, let alone in-depth knowledge of all its diverse forms. The pressures to keep up with the latest trends, many of which originate outside sociology, can easily lead us to over-look what is going on within the discipline, or to place sociological thinking outside the boundaries of Theory (with a capital 'T'). Hence even feminist sociologists frequently genuflect towards Theory deriving from other disciplines while forgetting, or remaining ignorant of, equally important insights which have been yielded by sociologically informed feminism. For less established scholars, the need to publish and to appear 'up to date' leaves little time to read more widely than is strictly necessary (Allen and Leonard 1996); they certainly not have the space to explore the history of the concepts and theories they draw upon in their work.

Scholars inducted into feminist thought over the last decade or so have often acquired their theoretical maps from textbooks or key articles written by non-sociologists. One such is Chris Weedon's best-selling Feminist Practice and Poststructuralist Theory (1987) which has undergone several reprints, remained in the book shops for over a decade and is widely read for its admirably accessible account of poststructuralism. Weedon's representation of other forms of feminism is, to say the least, partial and most of the insights she identifies with post-structuralism are hardly news to those with sociological memories reaching back to the 1960s and 1970s. Sociologists have long been aware, for example, that there is no essential pre-social self, that language is not a transparent medium of communication, that meanings shift as they are contested and re-negotiated, that knowledge is a social construct rather than a revelation of absolute truth. Newer scholars, however, may never have been exposed to sociological variants of these arguments and hence believe the accounts they have read in their student texts.

Moreover, the period of feminism in which sociology made a more visible contribution, particularly the 1970s, is frequently associated with theories which sought explain the totality of women's oppression. This stage of feminist theorising has been dismissed, especially by postmodernists, as inevitably tainted by univeralism, foundationalism, essentialism, racism and heterosexism (see for example, Flax 1990). Although it is often not specifically sociological perspectives which are the target of such attacks, the overwhelming impression created is that most 'pre-postmodern' feminist theory can be safely ignored since it is riddled with erroneous assumptions which have since been transcended. Much valuable sociological thinking is thereby lost. Hence, while sociology is still very much there in Women's Studies as it is taught, it often does not count when it comes to teaching theory - except in over-views of the past.

That non-sociological accounts of feminist theory are now so pervasive is a result of shifting disciplinary hierarchies and changing intellectual fashions. It has been argued that the 'cultural turn' of the 1980s led feminists to shift their focus from 'things' - such as housework, inequalities in the labour market or male violence - to 'words', to an emphasis on language, representations and subjectivity (Barrett 1992). The consequent eclipsing of sociological perspectives in favour of those deriving from literature, cultural studies and philosophy has been accompanied by the rise of postmodern theorising. While there have been theoretical gains as a result of these shifts, much has been lost, in particular the older emphasis on the material underpinnings of gender inequality. neither sociologists nor feminists can afford to lose sight of the materiality of social relations, but this does not mean ignoring issues of language, culture and representation.

One of the strengths of sociology as a discipline is its ability to draw upon and synthesise perspectives which have arisen elsewhere. Sociology as I understand it is more a way of thinking than a finite body of theories and data; it entails questioning existing social arrangements, an awareness that they are a product of history, an understanding of the social shaping of personal life and experience. Any new ideas or concepts which further sociological thinking are therefore welcome additions to our analytical tools. The practice of sociology, then, entails the exercise of a sociological imagination (Mills 1970), not the constraining of that imagination by any fixed dogma. Hence I am not claiming that the existence of postmodern theorising constitutes a threat to sociology or that we should refuse to acknowledge its contribution. Sociological engagements with postmodernism, whether feminist or not, have often been productive - as has the interplay between sociology and other disciplines such as cultural studies, history and geography - and I would not wish to restrict such engagements. Of course the permeability of sociology's boundaries does make it relatively easier for newer, imported, ideas to submerge older ones, but this is no reason to seal ourselves off from external influences for fear of contaminating our disciplinary purity.[2] I am suggesting, however, that feminist sociologists should not forget older traditions of thought in the rush to embrace the new and fashionable.

There are two further caveats I would like to add before going on to chart the course of the 'cultural turn' and its consequences. First, the 'cultural turn' should not be understood as a total transformation of feminist scholarship. Feminists have engaged with cultural and postmodern theorising to varying degrees. Not everyone has taken the turn, and some have turned more than others. The 'things' which feminists focused on in the 1970s have remained objects of sociological enquiry. Feminist sociologists have continued to produce research and empirically grounded theory around such issues as gender segregated labour markets (Witz 1992; Siltanen 1994) issues of power and exploitation within families (Delphy and Leonard 1992; Folbre 1994; Fraad 1994; Van Every 1995) and sexual violence (Hester et al. 1996; Lees 1997). They have also brought distinctly sociological perspectives to bear on newer issues such as the body (DeNora 1997; Lindemann 1997). In the process feminists have continued the process of transforming sociology (Maynard 1990), although the major contribution they have made is not often recognised by feminists outside the discipline.

Second, the 'cultural turn' as Barrett (1992) describes it and as I am discussing it here is primarily a British phenomenon. True, it rests on imported theory from the USA - and importantly from France, but perceived via the largely American and certainly Anglophone construction or invention of 'French Feminism (Delphy 1995). What is particular to the British situation is that it developed from a strong current of Marxist analysis in both feminist and sociological scholarship. US sociology, for example, was traditionally less theoretical and less influenced by Marxism has been less susceptible to cultural theories, although their influence has been felt among at least some feminist and other sociologists (see Laslett and Thorne 1997; Seidman 1997). The re-orientation produced by the cultural turn, then, has not had the same effects everywhere in the world.

The Origins and Effects of the Cultural Turn

During the 1970s and into the early 1980s social science in general and sociology in particular was at the forefront of feminist analysis. The 'things' which feminists then investigated were framed within the theoretical concerns of the time, and most feminist theory addressed a single, basic question: how can we account for women's subordination? The dominant perspective was, of course, Marxism, and many of the major debates within feminism concerned the utility and limits of Marxist concepts. The appeal of Marxism was that it offered an analysis of oppression as systematic, built into the structure of society. Hence women's subordination could be seen as social in origin, as neither given by nature nor an accidental feature of relations between men and women. The limitations were that existing Marxist theory did not sit well with many of feminism's preoccupations. Issues such as sexuality and male violence were beyond Marxism's remit; subjectivity could be addressed only through concepts of consciousness and ideology which were found wanting; women's unpaid labour in the home proved, despite heroic efforts to integrate it into Marxism, to be difficult to analyse within a theory whose object was waged labour.

In Britain it was Marxist feminists who were the first to embrace the new perspectives associated with the 'cultural turn'. While this shift is associated with the 1980s, its origins can be discerned in the late 1970s, presaged by Marxist feminist interest in ideology and psychoanalysis, in Althusser's Marxism, Lacan's psychoanalysis and Lévi Strauss's anthropology (Mitchell 1976). These bodies of theory were also central to the project of the Marxist feminist journal m/f, launched in 1978, which was instrumental in bringing 'French Theory' to an English speaking audience. At the same time, in the USA, certain influential theorists were also beginning to look in similar directions (see, for example Rubin 1975).

This interest in structuralism paved the way for post-structuralism and post-modernism. Althusser's view of ideology as relatively autonomous from economic relations was potentially attractive to feminists in that it created a space to theorise women's subordination without having to relate it to the capitalist mode of production. Althusser drew on Lacan in providing a way of linking ideology with subjectivity, and psychoanalysis provided a ready means of explaining the ways in which femininity and masculinity were reproduced within our psyches. Lévi Strauss provided a view of kinship which had some resonance with earlier Marxist feminist theorisations of relations of reproduction, but which related women's status as objects of exchange to the incest taboo which so preoccupied Freud and to the symbolic realm of culture: women functioned both as objects of exchange and as 'signs'. Once Derrida and Foucault were added to this mixture, the emphasis shifted from linguistic and semiotic structures to deconstructive analytic strategies and a more fluid notion of discourse. Foucault's reconceptualisation of power as diffuse and dispersed and his rejection of the truth claims inherent in the concept of ideology meant that ideology could no longer be seen as a tool of the powerful miring the powerless in a false understanding of their situation. With ideology thus dealt with, the theoretical link between the symbolic and the material was severed. Gradually these new forms of feminist theory evolved into poststructuralist and then postmodern feminisms, with the latter's suspicion of the totalising claims of 'grand narratives'.

One reason for the appeal of these perspectives to Marxist feminists was that they facilitated a radical challenge to the idea that 'men' and 'women' were given, natural, essential categories. Where Marxism could not explain why it should be women who occupied particular niches in the capitalist order (as reproducers of labour power or a reserve army of labour, for example), now it became possible to explore how women were produced as a category (see Adams, Brown and Cowie 1978). Yet within the logic of the cultural turn the ways in which 'women' were brought into being could only be conceptualised in limited ways, as an effect of culture or the symbolic and often at the level of the psyche; 'women' and 'men' could not be thought of as products of a structural hierarchy. If hierarchy appeared at all it was as a phallogocentric cultural order which produced a 'distorted' feminine as the 'other' of the masculine, as opposed to some radical alterity, a truer 'femininity' which that cultural order could not permit to exist.[3]

Rita Felski (1997) explicitly attributes difference theory's turning away from gender to a rejection of sociological conceptualisations of it which, she claims, reduce it to externally imposed roles to be overcome through some notion of androgyny. This is a fundamental misunderstanding of a sociological accounts of gender, at least in their feminist variants. By the early 1980s feminist sociologists were already modifying and critiquing the older tradition of sex or gender 'roles' from two quite separate directions. Some pointed out that the idea that we 'internalised' external roles denied the complexity and variability of gender as it is lived and our active engagement in the social practices which sustain it (Stanley and Wise 1983). Others suggested that, rather than being a role, gender was a social division in which women and men were located and defined by the hierarchical relation between them, so that neither could exist without the other (Delphy 1984). In this latter view doing away with hierarchy does not produce androgyny - and it certainly does not make women like men, since neither masculinity nor femininity can have any meaning outside the social relations which create them (see Delphy 1993). These more sophisticated understandings of gender were by-passed by the cultural turn. In fact it is difference theory and, as we shall see, other more deconstructive approaches to gender which perpetuate the fallacy on which the idea of androgyny is based: that the only human possibility is some combination of femininity and masculinity (a view which did indeed underpin older 'sex roles' perspectives [see Delphy 1993]).

In addition to arguing that the category 'women' was a construct rather than an essential given, 1980s feminists had another pressing reason for calling it into question: that it often served to conceal differences among women. The analyses of women's oppression which shaped feminist debate in the 1970s were framed almost entirely from a white Western perspective. As this ethnocentrism came under attack, it became clear that 'women' was not, and could not be, a unitary category (Brah 1991). Moreover, attention was increasingly being drawn to the complexities of women's lives in a post-colonial era with its global economy, its history of colonial diasporas and its current labour migrations and displacements of refugees. It seemed that any theory attempting to distil women's subordination into a single explanation was doomed to exclude the experiences of the majority of the world's female population (Flax 1990).

All of this was taken by some feminists as a further mandate for post-modern theorising, seen as a means of avoiding the exclusions of an assumed universal womanhood and the simplifications of causal models of oppression. Yet this often served to mystify rather than clarify differences among women and often denied women the possibility of constructing political identities from which to name their oppression (see Modleski 1991; Stanley 1990). Moreover, the claims of postmodernists to have a monopoly on theorising diversity and complexity are contestable (Walby 1992). There is no reason why a sociological, or even social structural, analysis should be unable to deal with the diverse locations occupied by women within local and global contexts. Ignoring the structural contexts of these differences is dangerous, since many of them are founded upon real, material inequalities. Taken to its logical conclusion the focus on culturally and discursively constituted 'difference' implied the abandonment of analyses of the material conditions of women's lives and the denial of any systematic inequalities - patriarchal, capitalist or racist

Such inequalities, which have long been of central concern to sociology, are as prevalent now as they ever were. We inhabit a global context characterised by extremely stark and worsening material inequalities. Even within the wealthy Western nations the material oppression suffered by women has not gone away, even if the lot of more privileged women as improved (see Walby 1997). The 'things' which oppressed women back in the 1970s, such as the inequitable distribution of household labour and male violence, are still with us - although there is now greater awareness of their varying meaning and consequences for women of different classes, ethnicities and sexualities.

Back from the 'Cultural Turn'?

One curious effect of the cultural turn was that it left materialist analysis in the hands of those who had not identified as Marxist feminists - many of whom are sociologists. In the 1990s these materialist analyses were not particularly fashionable in academic feminist circles, yet there were and are signs of a retreat from the extreme anti-materialist, anti-realist implications of postmodernism. Indeed the term 'materialist feminism' has been reinvented by American theorists such as Rosemary Hennessy (1993) and Donna Landry and Gerald Maclean (1993). Hennessy, for example, argues that feminism needs to retain a 'critique of social totalities like patriarchy and capitalism' (1993: xii). There has also been a renewed interest in political economy, in particular women's household production (Folbre 1994; Fraad 1994; Gibson-Graham 1996), and also the application of materialist methods to the study of sexuality (Hennessy 1993; Ingraham 1996). These new analyses, while Marxist in orientation, are less concerned with macro-level analysis of economic and social structures than with contextualised and localised processes and practices. From other materialist perspectives, too, the emphasis on understanding the local, situated contexts of women's lives has enabled feminists to make connections between aspects of gendered social relations which were previously seen as discrete and separate, such as sexuality and work. Hence, for example, Lisa Adkins (1995) has drawn our attention to the sexualisation of women's labour in the service sector and Gillian Dunne (1996) has explored the ways in which lesbians have a specific relation to the labour market which differs from that of heterosexual women.

There has, then, been a move away from 'grand theory' purporting to explain all aspects of women's subordination towards forms of theorising that are more sensitive to local contexts and to differences among women. This is in keeping with Mary Maynard's (1995) call for feminists to develop what some sociologists have called 'middle order' theories. Such theories emphasise the specifics of given social contexts, institutions and relationships, offering grounded generalisations rather than universalistic, totalising models of entire societies and are more easily integrated with empirical research. They enable us to use materialist and structural methods of analysis without constructing huge, theoretical edifices which are remote from everyday life and insufficiently flexible to account for the varying life patterns of differing groups of women. Feminist sociology today, backed by the growing body of empirical research its practitioners have produced, is well placed to analyse the localised contexts of women's everyday existence and the meanings women give to their lives without losing sight of structural patterns of dominance and subordination.

How Social is Social Constructionism?

This far the sociological has been dealt with primarily in terms of the structural. But this is not the only form of analysis which sociology has to offer feminism. Indeed, once we focus on the everyday, localised contexts of women's lives it becomes clear that the material and the social cannot be understood only in terms of social structure. We need to account for agency as well as structure; for patterns of interaction in everyday life as well as the institutional hierarchies within which they take place; the micro levels at which power is manifested/deployed as well as the macro level of systematic domination; the ways in which human, social interaction is endowed with, and shaped by, the meanings it has for participants.

There are, of course, well known bodies of sociological theory which address issues of agency, meaning and interaction: the traditions of interactionism, phenomenology and ethnomethodology. These had, even in the 1970s and early 1980s, been drawn upon in arguing for the social construction of gender and sexuality (Gagnon and Simon 1974; Jackson 1978; Plummer 1975; Stanley 1984) and to critique concepts such as 'gender roles' and 'socialisation' which were current in mainstream sociology at the time (Stanley and Wise 1983). Such perspectives could, in theory at least, have been utilised to address some of lacunae in Marxist theory which inspired the cultural turn. In practice, however, they were not. In part this was simply because they were not fashionable. Having been briefly in vogue among young radical sociologists in the late 1960s, as an antidote to functionalism, they lost ground to Marxism and other forms of structural critique in the 1970s. These approaches also lacked any ready-made mode of articulation with Marxism, unlike psychoanalysis which could be linked to the Marxist project via Althusser's notion that ideology constitutes us as subjects.

It seems to me that the time is ripe for the re-evaluation and of these micro-sociological perspectives and a revitalisation of them. Now that most of us have abandoned attempts at totalising theory in which all aspects of the social are welded together into a seamless whole, there is no longer such a problem in the lack of precise fit between these theories and more structural approaches. We ought to be able to admit that social life is multi-layered, multi-faceted and that contradictory processes are often at work within it. Some feminists continue to work productively within interactionist and phenomenological traditions (e.g. DeNora 1997; Lindemann 1997), but this has been a minority endeavour, little known outside sociology - despite the ease with which these perspectives can be integrated with more recent conceptualisations, such as the Foucauldian notion of discourse or the idea of narratives of self (Jackson 1993; Plummer 1995). Indeed, it may be this ease of assimilation which contributes towards their continued invisibility. For those who know nothing of sociological thought, work such as this can been all too readily interpreted as poststructuralist - as in Deborah Lupton's (1998) reading of some of my work.

It is the eclipsing of these perspectives which has served to conceal the origins of social constructionism, particularly in the field of sexuality. New forms of social constructionism are often not very social at all, indeed they are often emptied of the social and are better characterised as cultural constructionism. Of course the social world includes the cultural, it includes the realms of discourse and symbolic representation. There is nothing antithetical to sociology in a concern with culture - but the cultural is not all there is to the social.

The ways in which the cultural is addressed within much recent theorising are often limited to issues of the symbolic and representational, thus implying a narrower definition of culture than that traditionally employed by sociologists and anthropologists, who are more inclined to think of culture as a shared way of life of a given society or community. Here the cultural shades into the social, or at least into everyday social practices. Even taking a narrower definition of culture, however, cultural practices are also social practices. Language itself, so central to the analyses associated with the 'cultural turn',[4] has long been recognised by sociologists as fundamental to social interaction, the social construction of self and the constitution and negotiation of social reality. Sociological interest in culture, narrowly or broadly defined, been not been limited to those concerned with meaning and interaction, but has also been associated with social structural perspectives through, for example, investigations of class differences in culture.

Hence a sociological conception of the social extends to the cultural, but it also shades into the economic. One of the central insights of Marxism is that the 'economy' is not an abstract entity governed by its own internal laws, but a sphere of social relations (see Delphy and Leonard 1992). Sociologists, whether Marxist or not, have long concerned themselves with the intersections between social and economic relations, as have many feminists. It is this facet of the social which was almost altogether lost as a result of the cultural turn, along with any conception of social structure. Where whole societies are the object of analysis - as they implictly are in much current theorising on gender and sexuality - these are societies without any structure. Here a Foucauldian analysis of power as diffuse and decentred precludes analysis of systematic, structural power. While I have no quarrel with Foucault's notion of power as constitutive rather than repressive, there is still a need for an undetrstanding of power in the sense of domination. Without this we leave ourselves with no means of analysing the power relations entailed by sytematic, structural inequalities. That such power operates not only structurally but in everyday social relations is clear as soon as we turn from abstract theorisations of sexuality to empirical research on sexual relations (see, for example, Holland et. al. 1998; Langford 1999).

The social as I understand it, then, intersects with the cultural on the one hand and the economic on the other and encompasses all aspects of social life, from structural inequalities to everyday interaction. It is concerned with meaning, both at the level of our wider culture and as meanings emerge from or are deployed in our everyday social life. It includes subjectivity since our sense of who we are in relation to others constantly guides our actions and interactions and, conversely, who we are is in part a consequence of our location within gendered, class, racial and other divisions. In keeping with this picture of the social, the process of social construction can be seen as multi-layered, occurring at the level of social structure, meaning, interaction or practice and subjectivity. This can be spelt out more clearly by drawing on my analyisis of sexuality (Jackson 1999), but this formulation could equally be applied to any other aspect of social life.

The most neglected aspect of the social construction of sexuality is the structural, where sexuality is both constituted and regulated through the institutionalisation of heterosexuality bolstered by law, the state and social convention. The institution of heterosexuality is inherently gendered, it rests upon the assumed normality of specific forms of social and sexual relations between women and men and hence intersects with gender hierarchy and gendered divisions of domestic and waged labour. At the level of meaning sexuality is constituted as an object of discourse and through the specific discourses on the sexual in circulation at any historical moment. However, meaning is also deployed within and emergent from social interaction and hence finds its expression at yet another level - that of our everyday social practices, through which each of us negotiates and makes sense of our own sexual lives. Here, too, sexuality is constantly in the process of being constructed and reconstructed by what embodied individuals actually do. Finally, sexuality is socially constructed at the level of subjectivity, through complex social and cultural processes by which we acquire sexual and gendered desires and identities (Jackson 1999: 5-6).

What cultural, as opposed to social, constructionism does is to exclude the first level, that of structure, altogether. It then deals with meaning primarily only at the level of culture and discourse. Sometimes practices are included (in Butler's discussion of performativity, for example) but rarely are these practices located in their interactional or wider social setting. Subjectivity is usually theorised through psychoanalysis which completely abstracts it from its social context. Here I would put in a plea for the further development of the idea of a reflexive self, which is beginning to make a come-back in recent social theory.

The idea of a reflexive, social self is sometimes resisted on the grounds that it presupposes a pre-social, or pre-discursive 'I' which does the work of reflexivity. However, if we take this idea back to its origins in the work of George Herbert Mead (1934), it does not assume an essential, inner, pre-social 'I', but an 'I' which is only ever the fleeting mobilisation of a socially constituted self. Moreover this self is not a fixed structure but is always 'in process' by virtue of its constant reflexivity. One way in which this reflexive self-construction has been analysed recently is through the concept of narratives of self, an idea which has roots in both the sociological tradition of interactionism and in more recent discourse analysis (Jackson, 1998; Plummer, 1985; Whisman, 1996). Such a perspective allows us to think of subjectivity as a product of individual, socially located, biographies - but not in the same sense as the old idea of socialisation. Here, rather than the past (or childhood) determining the present (or adulthood) the present significantly shapes the past in the sense that we are constantly reconstructing our memories, our sense of who and what we are through the stories we tell to ourselves and others. Experience is conceptualised not as given in raw form, but as constantly worked over, interpreted, theorised through the narrative forms and devices available to us. These cultural resources are of course historically specific, enabling us to understand the ways in which particular modes of self-construction become available at different historical moments. Moreover the self is never a finished product, but is constantly being re-made.

In order to elucidate further the ways is which social constructionism as I have outlined it differs from more cultural perspectives, I will briefly consider how a specifically feminist and sociological approach might be brought to bear on current debates on sexuality, and more specifically heterosexuality.

The Example of Sexuality

One of the reasons why feminists embraced the 'cultural turn' that the perspectives associated with it allowed for a consideration of aspects of femininity and women's subordination which had been neglected by the major theoretical debates of the 1970s. Among these were subjectivity and sexuality, which gained theoretical prominence with the appropriation of Lacan and then Foucault. The latter in particular was felt to allow for an anti-essentialist understanding of sexuality - yet there was already a sociological perspective which was anti-essentialist and which anticipated some of what was held to be revolutionary in Foucault's thinking.

In Sexual Conduct (1974) Gagnon and Simon, building on their earlier work, challenged the premise that sexuality was a natural drive held in check the forces of repression. They also questioned the centrality and 'specialness' accorded to sexuality in modern society, suggesting that its importance is an historical invention (1974: 16). Gagnon and Simon argued what is sexual is a matter of social definition and becoming sexual is a process of learning sexual meanings or 'scripts' and locating oneself within them. They thus provided a sociological alternative to psychoanalysis as a means of understanding the construction of sexuality at the level of our individual desires. From a specifically feminist point of view, Gagnon and Simon's work also has the advantage that it foregrounds gender as central to the scripting of sexuality, the complex 'co-ordination of bodies and meanings' which sexual relations entail (1974: 9).

This is not to say that Gagnon and Simon's work was without flaws. Although they place a great deal of emphasis on gender, they tend to focus primarily on socially constructed differences between women and men, without sufficient emphasis on the power relations between them. Since the concept of scripts was developed within a broadly symbolic interactionist framework, it was not conducive to thinking about issues of power and inequality, about the privileging of male dominated heterosexuality except at the level of meaning and interpersonal conduct. Yet this work was radical for its time and still provides a framework for thinking about sexuality which is worth building on. It was not, however, a perspective which attracted legions of disciples and only a few feminist and gay theorists took it up (Plummer, 1975; Jackson 1978). This in part explains why it was disappeared by later forms of social, or cultural, constructionism. I still find it highly ironic that when sociologists generated a critique of repression, most feminist and other radical thinkers took no notice, yet as soon as Foucault (1981) did so many adopted this position as a virtual dogma.

Reaffirming the importance of sociological theorising is not merely a case of setting the record straight. I also wish to argue that a sociologically informed feminism has a great deal to contribute to current debates on sexuality. Much of the recent theoretical agenda has been set by queer theory, informed by Foucauldian, deconstructive and psychoanalytic perspectives and concentrating its analytical gaze on texts, discourses and cultural practices. These same perspectives have also, of course, had an influence on feminist thinking on sexuality, which now frequently intersects with Queer. Sociology can clearly provide an important counterbalance here, paying attention to the socially situated contexts of everyday sexual practice and experience and to the material conditions under which our sexualities are lived. Moreover, sociological perspectives are crucial if feminism is to retain its distinctive contribution to critical scholarship on sexuality: the focus on heterosexuality as a hierarchical relation between men and women.

Queer and feminist perspectives, despite the theoretical differences within and between them, do have some common concerns. Both question the ways in which male dominated heterosexuality is routinely normalised and both assume that neither gender divisions nor the heterosexual/homosexual divide are fixed by nature. Beyond this, however, their emphases diverge. Whereas feminists have historically focused on male dominance within heterosexual relations, queer theorists have directed their attention the ways in which 'heteronormativity' renders alternatives to heterosexuality 'other' and marginal. I would suggest that an effective critique of heterosexuality - at the levels of social structure, meaning, social practice and subjectivity - must address both heteronormativity and male dominance. Such a critique necessarily entails a sociological understanding of gender as a hierarchical social division, since heterosexuality is by definition ordered by gender polarity. Moreover, 'same sex' desire also requires the social, cultural and subjective recognition of gender categories. Without the distinction of gender, heterosexuality, lesbianism and homosexuality would have no meaning, no social existence (Jackson 1976;1999).

I am suggesting that sociology can potentially offer more to feminism than the primarily cultural perspectives associated with queer theory and will try to demonstrate this by engaging briefly with the work of Judith Butler, a theorist whose work is usually read as both feminist and queer. Like most queer theorists, Butler seeks to destabalise heterosexual normativity; as a feminist, she takes gender seriously, although gender figures in her work more as a cultural difference than a social hierarchy. She does, however, reveal the artificiality of gender, its status as a construction with no necessary relationship to particular bodies or sexualities (Butler 1990). She has also contested those readings of her work in which gender appears to be ephemeral, a voluntaristic performance, something to be taken on or discarded at will and has thus emphasised the constraining effects of gender, its imposition upon us (Butler 1993). Yet she discusses this enforced 'materialisation' of 'sexed' bodies almost entirely in terms of norms - but with no sense of where these norms come from and how they are constituted (Ramazanoglu 1995), and with no discussion of how they intersect with everyday social relations and practices. The social is thus reduced to the normative and what is normative goes unexplained.

More recently Butler (1997) has questioned whether issues of gender and sexuality are 'merely cultural', invoking a form of Marxism in order to explain heterosexual hegemony. In so doing she returns to Lévi Strauss's notion of the exchange of women which, she claims, breaks down distinctions between the cultural, economic and the social, demonstrating their interrelationship (see p. 275). Butler distances herself from Lévi Strauss's universalism, suggesting that Queer studies might be a means of returning to critiques of the family 'based on 'mobilizing an insight into a socially contingent and socially transformable account of kinship' (p.276, Butler's emphasis). And what is the current structuring of gender and sexuality contingent on? Apparently, the functions which the heterosexual family performs for capitalism! Butler has traced the history of the cultural turn in reverse, back through structuralism to Marxism and the functionalism and reductionism of earlier Marxist feminist accounts of 'relations of reproduction'.

Nowhere does Butler consider the possibility that gender and heterosexuality might be structurally related to male dominance, despite her reliance on the work of Monique Wittig for whom the heterosexual contract is fundamental to the maintenance of the patriarchal order. Whereas Wittig sees heterosexuality as founded upon the appropriation of women's bodies and labour, Butler reads her account largely in terms of the narrowly sexual and thus misses much of its materialist import. In so doing she fails to address heterosexuality itself and the gender hierarchy internal to it; instead she seems to find heterosexuality and gender interesting only as norms against which the destabalising possibilities of gender and sexual transgression can be asserted (Jackson 1995; 1999). There seems to be an enormous gulf in her theorising between heterosexuality's functions (for capitalism), the norms which enforce it (asserted but never fully explicated) and the performativity through which gender is produced in everyday life.

Here Butler's inability to conceptualise the social limits her perspective. She is aware of the need to bridge the gap between the coercive imposition of gender and the surface appearance of it effected through performance and the necessity, therefore, of accounting for subjectivity. She does so by turning to psychoanalysis 'guided by the question of how regulatory norms form a "sexed" subject in terms which establish the indistinguishability of psychic and bodily formation' (1993: 22). What can be exteriorised and thus performed, she tells us, is limited by the opacity of the unconscious 'by what is barred from the signifier and the domain of corporeal legibility'. Here we have the familiar idea that the unconscious shapes conscious thought and action in mysterious, unknowable ways. What forces Butler back on psychoanalysis is her refusal to countenance any conception of a reflexive social self in interaction with others. Even for those less sceptical of psychoanalysis than I am, there must surely be space for conscious, reflexive thought and action between unconscious depths and the surface appearance of gender - a space Butler conveniently fills through the Derridean notion of the 'undecidability' of the relation between inner psyche and exterior performance. What is lacking here, aside from any sense of the historically and culturally specific ways in which gender and heterosexuality are routinely institutionalised, is an account of the ways in which embodied, social individuals interact with each other and reflexively with themselves, in producing, sustaining and sometimes subverting everyday understandings of gender and sexuality.

Heterosexuality is sustained not only through norms, nor through the institutions which regulate it, but through our everyday sexual and social practices, which indicates that, in some sense, it requires our continual reaffirmation for its continuance. Most of the population 'do' heterosexuality every day without reflecting critically on that doing. Moreover, 'doing heterosexuality' is also about 'doing gender'. This is accomplished through talk and action, through the embodied practices of dress and demeanour, through active participation in formal institutional settings, through the mundane activities through which our everyday lives are ordered. My language here is deliberately sociological, borrowing from Goffman (1959) and Garfinkel (1967) rather than Butler, although the resonances with her work should be clear. Butler, however, is less concerned with the everyday settings in which we do gender than in simply demonstrating that it is performative.

Butler is particularly preoccpied with the possibility of undoing or at least unsettling normative gender and heterosexuality. Yet Butler's examples of performative subversions are not so much about undoing gender as doing it in new ways (see, for example, her reflections on a lesbian femme's claim that she likes her 'boys to be girls' [1990: 122]) The destabalising effects she envisages for such transgressive performances is thus limited. Those, like Butler, who seek to undo binary divisions of gender and sexuality by rendering their boundaries more permeable and adding more categories to them are effectively reworking the old assumption that the whole of human potential equals the sum of its gendered parts. Where androgynists aimed to weld the two incomplete 'halves' of masculinity and femininity into a complete whole, queer theorists seek to destabalise both and create more 'genders' by jumping between them or recombining their elements in innovative or parodic forms. Some combination of femininity and masculinity, and same gender or other gender desire, is still taken to be the only human possibility. But it is not: if men and women are products of a social, hierarchical relation, in the absence of that relation very different subjectivities, desires and identities might emerge - and these would have nothing to do with gender since gender would no longer exist.

Conclusion: Feminism and the Sociological Imagination

Such utopian speculation may seem naive, but to me it is central to thinking sociologically. Social construction theories originated among sociologists precisely because we have habitually questioned the naturalness and inevitability of our current social arrangements. It is this questioning which is appealing for feminists; if gender and sexuality are not fixed by nature, then male dominance and institutionalised heterosexuality are open to challenge. I have suggested elsewhere (Jackson 1998) that there is a convergence between the feminist conviction that the personal is political and C. Wright Mills's famous claim that the sociological imagination transforms 'personal troubles' into 'public issues' (Mills 1970: 14-17). A feminist sociological imagination enables us to see that the personal troubles associated with gender divisions are social in origin and hence potentially changeable. The personal can only become political if it is also understood as social; without that understanding our critical vision becomes blurred. This is precisely what has happened as a result of the eclipsing of the social by the cultural. It is the lack of a sociological imagination which accounts for the inability of theorists such as Butler to envisage a world without gender, without heterosexuality (and without other systematic inequalities deriving from a social order which remains capitalist and racist as well as patriarchal).

Of the many facets of the social which have been obscured by over-emphasis on the cultural, there are two in particular which need to be brought back within feminism's visual field: the constraints of material inequalities and the idea of the reflexive social self. These are fundamental to an adequate understanding of structure and agency respectively. The lack of such understanding characterises much current theorising on gender and sexuality, which overemphasises individual acts of gender and sexual transgression without fully addressing gender inequality. On the structural side, there is a failure to recognise gender as a structural hierarchy which underpins the institutionalisation of heterosexuality. However transgressive our sexual and gender performances might be, they will have little social effect without an erosion of material inequalities associated with gendered divisions of labour and resources and a dismantling of the institutions through which heterosexuality's privileged place in society is sustained. Moreover as Butler herself partially recognises, 'deviant' gender performances can sometimes affirm rather than undermine the gender divide (see Butler 1993); they may mix and match existing conventions of femininity and masculinity, but leave the binary divide itself intact. While an awareness of social structure may seem to over-estimate the constraints on human agency, it also enables us to see what has to change to make a tangible difference to our gendered and sexual lives. It is precisely because Butler does not 'see' social structure that she cannot imagine it being any different. All that is left is the possibility of individual subversive acts which cannot, on their own, undo gender.

On the side of agency, the reliance on psychoanalytic accounts of subjectivity limits agency to those unruly aspects of the unconscious which have escaped the forces of repression. This is why agency is so often equated with transgression whereas, from a sociological perspective, agency is as evident in conformity as in deviance. Human subjectivity may be constrained by patterned social relations and structural inequalities which pre-exist us, shaped by our specific locations within social structures and cultural milieux, but it is nonetheless constructed through reflexive processes in which we are active participants. Hence the constitution of the self is not directly determined by social structure any more than by some universal psychic law, but is the product of meaningful interaction in situated social contexts. Everyday gender performances (often far less spectacular than those discussed by Butler) could not occur without the engagement of a reflexive social self which enables us to enact gender and to making sense of others' actions as gendered. Often, it is true, these performances are not fully conscious and reflexively monitored, but that doesn't mean they are unconscious in a psychoanalytic sense. Rather they are 'realized in absent-minded fashion' (Lindemann 1997: 79), but this very absent-mindedness is social, the product of habitual dispositions acquired through a history of interactions within gendered social contexts. Potentially, at least, the reflexive, social self comes into play in all those mundane everyday situations in which we 'do' gender and sexuality, in which the existing gender and sexual order is sometimes affirmed, sometimes re-negotiated, sometimes contested. In these contexts challenges to inequitable divisions of domestic labour, discriminatory employment practices or routine sexual harassment are at least as potentially unsettling to the existing gender order as any of Butler's innovative or parodic gender performances. While the idea of the social self arose from theoretical perspectives opposed to structural analysis, it does provide a means of conceptualising the ways in which human beings can act collectively - and thus potentially take political action in pursuit of social change.

Of course, current political omens are far from auspicious for those in pursuit of radical social change. This may be one reason why so many Left intellectuals have given up on the hope of a better future (along with the metanarratives which sustained such hope) in favour of a Foucauldian view of power as inescapable. We can resist, subvert and destabilise, but the only change we can expect will be new deployments of power to be resisted, subverted or destabilised. Even if we share this pessimism and have lost faith in the possibility of transforming the world, we lose something vital to our discipline if we forget that society as we know it is a historical product not a pre-ordained natural order. The exercise of a sociological imagination implies the ability to at least imagine that the social world could be radically other than it is. If we cannot do so we lose the cutting edge of sociology, its ability to make us think critically about the society in which we live.


1 Indeed, many of Butler's ideas have sociological antecedents. Her ideas on gender as contituted through performance have a long history in sociology dating back to the work of Goffman (1959) and Garfinkel (1967) - authors whose work she either does not know or chooses to ignore. Morevoer, she could not have arrived as her radical deconstruction of sex and gender without her heavy reliance on the work of Monique Wittig. And has Wittig herself freely admits, she owes considerable intellectual debts to feminist sociologists such as Delphy and Guillaumin and feminist anthropologists such as Nicole-Claude Mathieu and Paola Tabet (See the introduction to Wittig 1992). Thus many of Butler's ideas are, from a sociologists's vantage point, not as original as they might seem.

2 The permeability of sociology's frontiers, of course, works two ways - and many adjacent disciplines such as geography, social psychology and cultural studies have adopted sociological concepts and theories. This is all the more reason to ensure that we preserve what is distinctive to our discipline, lest this diffusion of sociological ideas make us appear to have nothing different to offer.

3 This 'difference'perspective derives, of course, from so called 'French Feminism" and in particular the work of the philosopher and psychoanalyst Luce Irigaray (see, for example, Irigaray 1985; 1993).

4 The 'cultural turn' is, indeed, sometimes referred to as the 'linguistic turn'.


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