Feelings and the Social Transformation of Gender

Feelings of gender at different times and places are a relatively neglected aspect of the social transformation of gender.1 Feelings represent a certain kind of personal and embodied meaning that belongs to the immediacy of the present, but which also integrates the past and the future (Chodorow 1999). Feelings integrate past experiences as they are shaped over time through a specific biography, and they make imprints of the future as they are part of a person’s capacity to act and infuse life choices with personal meaning. Feelings are personal, but they are also thoroughly social since they are created in social contexts and social institutions in a given historical period. In this way, feelings can be seen as a central psychosocial link.

Feelings as Social

Erik H. Erikson, one of the first psychoanalysts to take an interest in the intertwinement of subjectivity and culture, says that people who share a historical era, class or ethnicity are guided by common images of the world, [1]

but that these images also take a specific individualised form in every person: ‘Infinitely varied, these images reflect the elusive nature of historical change; yet in the form of contemporary social models, of compelling prototypes of good and evil, they assume a decisive concreteness in every individual’s ego development’ (Erikson 1959: 18). Individual experience is always unique, but shared or similar life conditions may produce social patterns in feelings across the individual singularity: we often understand the feelings of our contemporaries much better than the feelings of those who belong to our parents’ or our children’s generation, and we recognise more immediately the feelings of those who belong to our own social groups than of those who do not. Different patterns of feelings reflect relational experiences and opportunities characteristic of the time and place of living. Hence, feelings are no less social than cultural meanings or social structures, but they represent the social in another form. Stephen Frosh says that people ‘express in their feelings the dynamics of the social order itself’ (Frosh 2011: 9). This includes, I would add, the dynamics of change of this social order.

My concern in this book is that the social transformation of gender also involves the work of feelings. Gender attains emotional meaning through the life course and in the transmission between generations at a particular time. I want to explore the link between generational transition and the negotiations and calibrations between women and men belonging to the same generation. To understand this dimension of social change, we must look into subtle and gradual historical processes working on the level of gender identities and gendered subjectivities, including motivations/capac- ities for autonomy in women and emotional intimacy in men, which may have provided a psychological readiness for structural and cultural changes and political interventions. The empirical basis for the analysis is a longitudinal research project that explores the feelings of gender across three generations of a sample of white, heterosexual women and men of different class backgrounds as they moved from childhood and youth to adult life, and what impact these feelings had on changing gender practices. New life projects gradually came into being, not only as outcomes of externally imposed norms, but also as the work of subjective feelings of gender.

The personal and the social are often thought of as complementary, mirroring the academic disciplines of psychology and sociology, as if individuals could exist without a society or a society could emerge without individuals thinking, feeling and acting in certain ways. The mutual and dynamic character of the process in which both societies and individuals come into being makes it meaningless to use the word ‘social’ as a contrast to the ‘personal’ or the ‘cultural’. Conceiving of the social or the societal as a totality that may be differentiated and expressed in many different forms seems to be a more fruitful approach. Such forms should neither be radically separated nor levelled out and reduced to each other. As the American anthropologist Michelle Z. Rosaldo once wrote, even though culture and personality cannot be separated, culture is not ‘personality writ large’, nor is personality ‘culture in miniature’ (Rosaldo and Lamphere 1974: 141). Different concepts and theories may be needed to grasp the specific dynamics of personal meaning, cultural meaning and larger social structures, but they will always emerge analytically as ‘mutually constituted and fundamentally intertwined’ (Roseneil 2007: 86) because, in different ways, they all make their marks on concrete acts and practices that can be made objects of study. The British cultural critic Raymond Williams argues that one needs to start from ‘the whole way of life’, from the whole texture, and from there one may go on to study ‘particular activities, and their bearings on other kinds’ (Williams 2011: 59). In accordance with this, I understand feelings as a specific kind of social ‘activity’ that takes place in persons, but not in isolation from other kind of experiences, other persons, other kinds of social activities or the historical situation. By analysing the meanings and feelings that are generated through the gendered practices of three generations and trying to understand how each generation strives to find ways to do gender that feel right in terms of their experiences, desires and circumstances, I seek ways to think about the inner and the outer world, desire and reality, structure and agency, and the subject and the object in ways that do not start out by separating them.

  • [1] See, however, Layton (2004a), Aarseth (2007, 2009a, 2016), Roseneil (2007) and Walkerdine andJimenez (2012) for some recent examples. © The Author(s) 2017H.B. Nielsen, Feeling Gender, DOI 10.1057/978-1-349-95082-9_1
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