Masculinity and Academic Discourse: Issues and Themes


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The theme of this textweb, which grows out of a presentation at the ISCRAT Congress in Aarhus Denmark (1998), is that academic discourse is a gendered, and in particular a masculinized discourse form. The textweb however branches out into many related and in some sense more basic questions having to do with an adequate theorization of gender as a social meaning category, the role of discourse in the construction of personal and positional identity, and the politics of social solidarities based on notional categories such as gender or sexual orientation (or for that matter social class, ethnicity, race, or age).

The most fundamental theoretical proposal to be made is that gender, sexuality, class, age, and ethnicity or race are all aspects of a single unified social semiotic system for positional classification of persons and so none of these notions can be adequately theorized outside its relations to all the others. Beyond this, I will try to outline a view in which social systems construct ideologically functional categories of these kinds out of more general matters of quantitative variation by degree along very many dimensions of socially significant appearance and behavior. What is ideologically functional is not simply the stereotypes for each category, or their hierarchical value relations, but the reduction of the space of diversity from a very high dimensionality to a very low one. While the reduction itself is typical of linguistic and cultural categorization, for purposes of economy of reference in well-defined contexts, the reification of the simplified, low-dimensional categories naturalizes them and makes possible the gross oversimiplifications of stereotypes. The most significant characteristic of stereotypes in this model is not their positive content, but rather the obligatory associations they create among the concealed dimensions. Thus a stereotype says that there is such a thing as masculinity, and being masculine implies that one is, say, both sexually active and interpersonally aggressive, and that it is natural for these traits to be positively correlated to a high degree. In fact such correlations can be rather low in a population, and there can be many individuals high on one and low on the other, but the mystique is maintained that they ought to go together. In this way, for our particular example, aggressivity which may be valuable for military enterprises or coercive proxy control (goons, police) is promoted through sexual desire.There need however be no necessary link between male sexuality and aggressivity, as for example in those gay men whose sexuality favors passivity. The need to naturalize a stereotype of masculinity that serves the interests of dominant groups in a society correspondingly leads to a de-normalization of the many real cases that belie the generalization. This is equally true for stereotypes about femininity, about being middle class or working class, about racial and ethnic stereotypes and even stereotypes about age groups.

I will propose that we examine the social semiotics of social classification in light of (a) social functionality and dysfunctionality, (b) formal logical connections among categories along different dimensions, and (c) ideological reduction of a high-dimensional space of relatively independent variations by degree to a very low-dimensional system of stereotypically contrastive, and evaluatively ranked, social categories.

Regarding the specific matter of academic discourse, I will examine in what ways its semantic features are used to reinforce stereotypically masculine elements of the identities of the male academics who deploy the discourse. In a functional socio-linguistic model of discourse, it is plausible that the semantic features have evolved inter alia to make this possible, or at least not to interfere with the sense of masculinity. But to do this we will have to consider such matters as the difference between working-class and middle-class masculinities, and between heterosexual and other stereotypes of possible masculinities. It will remain largely implicit that we are speaking of eurocultural masculine stereotypes for males across the wide middle range of age grades.