Feminist Critique of Masculine Domination

To say that Masculine Domination met with a cool reception on the part of feminists and gender studies scholars would be a gross understatement. Initially, the essay was ignored altogether and subsequently a number of criticisms were levelled at Bourdieu, most of which could be subsumed under the general label of 'the collective androcentric unconscious' (Witz 2004: 212). I will now turn to these criticisms and then make a case for the particular usefulness of Masculine Domination for the study of religion and gender.

First, Bourdieu defines gender as a set of mutually exclusive characteristics rooted in sexual difference. This is problematic because it overlooks the fundamental distinction between sex and gender which is at the root of feminist understanding of gendered identities as socially constructed (Mottier 2002: 351). Focusing on difference obscures the role of power in the production of gendered individuals. Combining gender difference with a conceptualisation of power relations would provide a much more convincing basis for Bourdieu's theory of symbolic violence and misrecognition (Mottier 2002: 351). Second, mobilising a pre-modern, agrarian society, such as Kabylia, as a template to extrapolate from, is not helpful because it implies that modernisation is a uniform process that can only unfold in one way, and that this model of the gender order itself is internally stable and reproducible in other contexts (Mottier 2002). The gender order appears unrealistic because it is so neatly laid out (Krais 2006). Third, Bourdieu insists on the importance of public institutions as the key engines of enactment and reproduction of masculine domination, while the private sphere of the home acts only as a site of manifestation of gendered power relations. This flies in the face of the feminist claim that 'the personal is political' and thus shuts off a whole segment of social life where gender inequalities are played out and experienced in mundane lived realities of women and men' (Mottier 2002: 352). Fourth, Bourdieu's account of structure and agency 'lacks a strong concept of subjectivity' (Mottier 2002: 354). Subjectivity is central to feminist theory and research because it opens the door to the formation of critical agency which, in turn, leads to structural transformations in the gender order. Bourdieu places too much emphasis on the permanence and inflexibility of masculine domination and gives too little credit to the potential for change in the gender order. Although he does pay heed to developments, such as women's entry into the labour market, or alternative models of family and sexualities, he insists on the traditional structures' continuing influence over these changes (Mottier 2002: 353). Fifth, Bourdieu constructs the gender order as a binary of the dominant versus the dominated, which presents both domination and power as homogenous, internally uniform states. By extension, such a reading also sees political interests as undifferentiated (Mottier 2002: 355). Moreover, he sees femininity and masculinity as clear-cut and neatly defined categories, rather than internally contradictory and pluralistic social scripts on a continuum of genders (Paechter 2006). In other words, Bourdieu's conceptualisation of masculine domination and potential for generative agency is marred by the absence of nuance and complexity and he appears oblivious to the work of his feminist colleagues, which in itself may suggest to some that he is indeed the product of his own masculine habitus, and not as 'epistemologically vigilant' as he aspires to being (Fowler 2003; Lovell 2002; Witz 2004; Krais 2006: 124).

Probably the most consistent criticism of Bourdieu's work in general, and his theory of masculine domination in particular, is concerned with determinism (e.g. Jenkins 1982; Alexander 1995; Schatzki 1997). Habitus determines individual agency and thus precludes any challenge to the status quo. As a consequence, masculine domination is portrayed as rigid and implacable, despite the significant gains of the feminist movement and the subsequent shifts in the gender order. The remainder of this chapter examines Bourdieu's 'practical theory' as the antidote for this determinism and gives concrete examples from research on religion, gender and sexuality where the ontology of social relations rooted in collective practices (and not the idea of a lone individual facing her or his habitus) is the key tool for sociological analysis (King 2004).

Even those feminist critics who find some merit in and offer a sympathetic reading of Masculine Domination tend to focus on the concept of the habitus at the expense of Bourdieu's theory of action (see Dillabough 2010; Fowler 2003; Krais 2006; Mottier 2002), which creates an incomplete and somewhat misleading representation of his ideas. Obviously, Bourdieu's conceptualisation of agency is inseparable from habitus as the two are mutually susceptible but following King (2000, 2004) I will argue that instead of separating habitus and practice, one can see the former as simply a reification of 'particular moments in the social process which consists ... of individuals interacting meaningfully with other individuals' (King 2000: 431). Social action is intersubjective but not individualistic because it relies on shared understandings and, as such, it is never an isolated act performed by a lone Sartrean individual. This line of thought is developed in the next section.

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