Reconfiguring the Centre and Margins : Gender, Women’s and Sexuality Studies
Paris, France, April 21-22, 2016
American University of Paris (AUP) and CADIS-Ecole des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales (EHESS)
Organizers : Elaine Coburn (AUP and CADIS-EHESS) and Lara Cox (AUP)
Supported by the Gender, Sexuality and Society Programme, American University of Paris
Director : Lissa Lincoln (AUP)
This conference invites scholars working on unjust inequalities related to gender, women and sexuality, especially those working from diverse, subaltern perspectives. The aim is to create space where scholars writing “from the margins” of gender, women’s and sexuality studies (GWSS) can meet and discuss the contradictions, tensions but also possibilities for reconfigured “gender, women’s and sexuality” studies. This requires gender, women’s and sexuality scholars to take seriously what are often marginalized theoretical, methodological and empirical contributions – from disability, Indigenous, trans, historical materialist, non-Western, intersectionalist and other perspectives. Such debates in academia are inevitably linked to struggles outside the academy ; contributions that consider these articulations are welcome.
The creation of gender, women’s and sexuality studies is motivated by the recognition of problems, at once political, theoretical and empirical, within mainstream scholarship. Whether concerned with political economy, literary and art studies, ecological or spiritual knowledges, mainstream scholarship across disciplines typically ignores the ways that these are profoundly shaped by unequal gender relationships and heteronormative standpoints. Here are just three suggestive instances, from economics, sociology and philosophy :
· From 1999 to 2015, the American Economic Review featured just 55 (5%) articles with “gender” as a keyword out of at least 1050 articles published during that period. There were no articles concerning sexuality.
· In a brief survey of sociology syllabi on “social inequality’, one typical syllabus from an (officially) distinguished professor at a major research institution featured gender exactly once, as a “topic”. Three of the four contributing authors to the two gender readings were male, broadly reflecting a course with 85% male contributors. The course did not have any required readings with respect to inequalities around sexuality.
· In a recent, well-received book, a major Western feminist philosopher cited 20 references on a single page. All but one was male and most were white and American or European — and writing from heteronormative perspectives. Arguably, demonstrating scholarly seriousness depends upon the re-centering of “canonical” scholarly figures, so reproducing the relative domination of Euro-American, male, straight standpoints.
These are just three examples of the routine ways that scholars in a range of disciplines, across academia, reproduce the theoretical and empirical marginalization of unjust, unequal relations around gender, women and sexuality. Of course, this reproduction is compounded by measures that “objectively” devalue scholarship that emphasizes the theoretical and empirical importance of gender, women and sexuality. Hence, peer-reviewed journals specifically emphasizing gender, women and sexuality are considered “specialized”, while those ignoring gender, women and sexual inequalities are of “general” interest. The objectively lower rank of such “specialized” journals compared to “mainstream” publications is, furthermore, given as a reason for devaluing the careers of scholars who write in and edit the former. In short, gender, women’s and sexuality studies represent a challenge to “normal” ways of doing scholarship, since it re-centres concerns that are typically excluded from respectable research ; but this challenge is subject to institutional processes that tend to reproduce the relative marginality of gender, women’s and sexuality scholars.
Notwithstanding this last point, it is important not to exaggerate the relatively dominated position of gender, women’s and sexuality scholarship. So doing undervalues the many contributions that have been made, sometimes reaching back centuries eg., to electrifying feminists like Sojourner Truth and Emma Goldman, to mention just two emblematic 19th century women concerned with gender, race and class. In particular, many GWSS scholars have participated in the development of new, reflexive epistemologies. Against the positivist claim to an objective view “from nowhere”- an objectivity supposedly guaranteed through rigorous methodologies enabling the empirical testing of theory-derived hypotheses — many gender and sexuality theorists argue that all research and all researchers are situated within unequal relations that shape their “standpoints” (to use Sandra Harding’s term). Supposedly objective mainstream research is, in fact, saturated with unstated value commitments ; often, the hidden “standpoint” is that of the white, Western straight able-bodied man, whose experiences are implicitly imagined as commensurate with an “abstract” universal human experience. (The point here is not that such men’s experiences do not matter – they do – only that they should not have an unstated, relative monopoly on “respectable” social scientific and literary scholarship). Hence, many subaltern researchers in gender, women’s and sexuality studies reflexively situate their own research, making explicit the assumptions underpinning research aims, epistemology and methodologies.
Emblematically, the work of Black American feminist Patricia Hill Collins has insisted, for instance, that lived experience, dialogue, caring and personal accountability are critical if any research is to be meaningful for Black American women. These affirmations contrast starkly with a paradigmatically masculine Habermasian rationality emphasizing rational-critical debate among persons whose emotions and person are ideally “bracketed” from the discussion. At the same time, Collins insists that Black women speak expertly from and about their own experiences, whether or not they have academic credentials, so radically opening up the range of persons whose insights may be used authoritatively in scholarly work on gender and sexuality. Collins herself, for example, critically mobilizes insights from Black school girls, her own family and friends, novelists, as well as more “conventional” scholarly sources in developing a distinctive, Black American feminist theory. Although not all work in gender and sexuality studies is epistemologically transformative in this way, arguably much of it is. Indeed, it often has to be, since dominant epistemological frameworks do not recognize many subaltern insights into gender, women and sexuality as knowledge.
Yet, gender, women’s and sexuality studies are not immune to reproducing social inequalities in the academy. Diverse perspectives, including those developed by and for Indigenous, disability and difference (eg., neurodiverse, Deaf), trans, historical materialist, socialist, Black and minoritized scholars are too often on the margins. When such perspectives are supported, it is often to contrast these marginalized approaches with mainstream theories, methods and findings. This may be necessary to explain the value of such alternatives approaches to a broader academic public unfamiliar with them ; in practice, however, it means that there is too little discussion among gender and sexuality scholars working from diverse subaltern perspectives. When there are deliberate efforts to create such conversations, these are inevitably complicated by the ways that social inequalities, including colonization, are institutionalized in the academy. Hence, for instance, Indigenous practices are sometimes decontextualized, romanticized and then co-opted into non-Indigenous knowledge frameworks eg., see Evan B. Towle and Lynn Marie Morgan’s work ‘Romancing the Transgender Native’ about the non-Indigenous LGBTQ politico-theoretical instrumentalization of Indigenous transgender practices. Another hazard is that such encounters may become sites for an unhelpful “race to innocence” among subaltern scholars, as Marie Louise Fellows and Sherene Razack argue, in an often mutually-destructive “competition” to establish a particular standpoint as the ground-zero of oppression. Such “races to innocence” may block efforts to understand the complexities of unequal social relationships in the contemporary world political economy and ultimately, hinder efforts to create solidarities across subaltern classes and groups. In short, there is no objective much less organic tendency towards solidarity across diverse subaltern women and men and dominated sexual minorities, including in the scholarly domain of gender and sexuality studies.
Yet, the premise of this conference is that there is the possibility for helpful conversations within gender and sexuality studies that do not only speak “to” the centre but “across” the margins. Alongside struggles outside the academy, such conversations may help reconfigure “centre” and “margins”, to use bell hooks famous formulation, bringing the full diversity of human experience into critical scholarship gender and sexuality scholarship. This arguably matters for the scholarly world but, first and foremost, it matters because it participates in broader struggles towards solidarity that encompass the university and society as a whole. To that end, the seminar invites contributions that imagine a reconfigured gender and sexuality studies, one that takes seriously usually marginalized and minoritized perspectives. These may include, but not be limited to contributions from the following, non-exclusive standpoints :
- disability and difference (eg., Deafness, neurodiversity)
- - Indigenous studies
- non-Western scholarship and theories developed by and for racialized Others
- transgender and transsexual communities
- working class dynamics and socialist perspectives
- intersectionalist theories
As well as contributions critically considering :
- the contradictions, tensions and possibilities for conversations in gender, women’s and sexuality studies across subaltern classes and groups ;
- the articulation of these conversations with struggles outside the academy.
There is no charge for participation in the event, but we regret that we cannot pay for travel or accommodation for participants. We have applied for funding to pay for a collective dinner on April 21 and will be able to provide information about this well before the seminar.
Abstracts of about 500 words and a short expression of interest that explains relevant, ongoing work are requested by November 30, 2015.
Decisions will be made by December 15, 2015.
Full papers are requested by April 7, 2016.