Changing the Norm from Within

What may a generational and psychosocial study of the social patterns feelings of gender add to the understanding of the social transformation of gender? I will end this chapter with a short discussion of this in relation to three perspectives on change in contemporary feminist theory taken from political theory, poststructuralist/queer theory and practice theory. In contrast to feminist work in the 1970s and 1980s, which put emphasis on structural change, contemporary feminist theories are more oriented towards agency, practices, processes, symbolic power and meaning. With regard to this, my view is that including the feelings of gender would contribute to improving the understanding of how gender norms and practices are both connected with larger social forces and, at the same time, may be transformed ‘from within’. Feelings find their ways into people’s agencies during their life course and at specific historical times.

Political theory works with the assumption that in order to be political, identities must be explicit and articulated, and that political action is characterised by having a collective and public form. Politics is about participation and about making claims to be included and recognised, to have a voice, to participate and be able to pursue one’s social and economic interests in the public sphere. It is about strategic choices made by social actors representing social groups and movements (Hobson 2003: 2). However, changes in gender relations can and often do take place outside the sphere of articulated political claims and collective political identities. They may be consequences of changing historical, structural and cultural conditions and the way people feel, reflect and respond to these by making other choices in their own lives—for instance, a woman deciding to take up paid work or a father wanting to spend more time with his children. What I see in our sample is that such choices and negotiations can be based on more or less conscious reflection, but they need not be articulated as political projects or take the form of individual struggles in order to happen. It may be sufficient that they appear necessary or possible, meaningful or desirable for people. Among our informants, we also find several who distance themselves from feminist politics, and even some who distance themselves from gender equality politics, but who nevertheless have made choices in their own lives that increased gender equality in their families. This may partly be explained by the contributions of feminist politics and discourses to new senses of normality without making gender an explicit concern for people. Kate Nash, for instance, argues that women who say ‘I’m not a feminist, but...’ and then articulate norms that would have been unthinkable without feminist politics still embody a social resistance against women’s subordination (Nash 2002: 323). However, the connection between new practices and new political claims could also go the other way: the emergence of new feelings and practices in everyday life may work as silent conditions for the cognitive framing chosen by the actors in a movement or in a political process. As argued above, when many do the same thing, it is also in effect a collective force as it changes the horizon of what is perceived as normal and justifiable. An exploration of how feelings change in the course of generations may thus help to illuminate this ‘inverse’ mode of processes of change.

The approach to change in poststructuralist and queer theory works on the level of cultural categories and representations: normative categories of gender and sexuality need to be deconstructed and destabilised so that it becomes clear that they are not natural or innocent entities. Since categories are seen as constituted by processes of exclusion, they will always be products of power struggles (Butler 1990; Corbett 2009). As categories in this way are internally dependent on what is externalised, they will also be internally unstable and targets of continual resignification. In Judith Butler’s version, the poststructuralist point of the constitutional instability of norms is combined with a theory of performativity, which is defined as ‘the reiterative and citational practice by which discourse produces the effect that it names’ (Butler 1993: 2). The constitutional instability of gender, in combination with its performative character, is what provides the possibility of change for Butler (Stormhoj 2003). This opens up for the possibility of changing the norm from within, but as such resignifications are merely coincidental consequences of the indeterminacy of language, triggered by unconscious processes in the speaker, their effects are also undetermined.[1] Raewyn Connell (2009) has questioned the value of Butler’s idea of generalised instability because it cannot take into account that in some historical periods, gender identities and relations change fast, while in others they change slowly. Nor does the concept explain why some people would want to change gender arrangements, while others would resist (Connell 2009: 90).[2] Without a concept of change connected to their broader social uses, norms are in practice often only analysed as becoming more and more restrictive every time they are repeated (see, for instance, Corbett 2009: 13).

Queer theory is understood as transformative in itself by intervening in the politics of knowledge. The idea is that theoretical and practical critique are intertwined. The inquiries begin from the margins, with people who are engaged in non-conforming gender and sexual practices and who do not feel like they fit into whatever ‘we’ is being articulated as a norm (Stormhoj 2013: 65). However important this approach is, it also has a tendency to conceptualise the dominant norm as monolithic and undynamic (McNay 2004; Stormhoj 2013). The dominant norm emerges as a static background to non-normative gender performances and the question of what motivates some people to adhere to this norm moves out of focus (Hollway 1984; Layton 1998). But gender norms are neither deterministic nor monolithic or static. They vary between men and women and between classes and generations, and this creates internal incoherencies and contradictions within prevailing gender norms. The norms also change historically, and often also within the life course of individual people, without necessarily being dependent on destabilising discursive interventions from non-normative groups. Thus, the ‘dominant norm’ is a moving target, and some of the movement may be explored by looking into the feelings of gender in those groups that adhere to these norms or through their behaviour modify them or create new ones.

Feminist approaches departing from Bourdieu’s practice theory have a structurally and historically based understanding of change, combined with an emphasis on the ways in which such change also takes place as ‘lived relations’. Practice is motivated by people’s perceptions, feelings and representations, not just abstract social structures and economic forces (McNay 2004: 184). It is necessary to enter the ‘phenomenology of social space’, a space that is relational in its structure and tied to experience in specific contexts, in order to understand how reflexivity and agency work as elements in both societal reproduction and change. Such reflexivity could be understood as an ongoing transformative practice ‘simultaneous with the normal course of daily life, but also constitutive of how life is lived in history, across generations and in personal interactions’ (Silva 2005: 96). By producing gender in ever-new ways, new ‘normalities’ also come into being. Thus, change does not necessarily imply normative constraints, individual resistance or collective mobilisation, but can be located ‘in regard to a shift in the conditions of social reproduction itself’ (Adkins 2004a: 9). Gender does not dissolve through this reflexivity, but is constantly in a process of reconfiguration. It is reflexivity itself that becomes ‘a habit of gender in late modernity’ (Adkins 2004b:

192). Whereas Bourdieu mainly sees changes in the habitus as a nonreflexive bodily practice, scholars like McNay, Adkins and Silva emphasise the interaction of reflexive and prereflexive dimensions of meaning, especially in relation to modern rearticulations of gender.

These perspectives are close to my approach, as I also focus on the gradual reconfiguration of gender over generations that draw on practices, reflections and feelings. However, the emotional or prereflexive dimensions of agency, reflections and motivation are not particularly elaborated in practice theories (see Aarseth et al. 2016). Feelings are seen as direct effects in the individual body and mind of a restricted social context, and social and psychological explanations of behaviour tend to be seen as alternatives (Skeggs 1997; McNay 2004). Emotional responses are primarily connected with experienced social inequalities, in particular class differences: feelings of shame, fear or anxiety in working-class people and feelings of resentment, pity or guilt in middle-class people emerge when they become aware of ‘the others’, feel devalued by them or feel they must defend themselves psychologically against them. Psychological tensions are here understood as a direct response to perceived injustice, and it is not taken into account that different people will experience this conflict in different ways depending on their previous relational experience (see, for instance, Reay 2005, 2015; Skeggs 2005).[3] Since the psychological concepts are primarily used to describe pain and psychological defence, the emotional aspects of agency also become tied up with these negative sides of experience, whereas the positive and formative potentials of feelings are insufficiently explored. Furthermore, the prereflexive or emotional dimension is used to understand how the past becomes part of the present, biographically and generationally, but not how it may also anticipate the future as social change is seen as connected only with the reflexive dimension. The Norwegian sociologist Helene Aarseth has argued that this division between prereflexive belonging and reflexive distance makes it difficult to understand what actually motivates change. She suggests instead trying to capture the resonance between prereflexive and reflexive appropriations of new meanings (Aarseth 2009a: 7). The analysis of how women and men in generational chains rework gender lends support to Aarseth’s more general claim. What they both tell and live, practically and emotionally, not only connects with the past, but also provides them with agency to change the future. Thus, what I want to add to the feminist theories of practice is a more historicised conception of psychological structure, a more psychologically informed understanding of the mutual creation of the social context and feelings, and an understanding of how biographically anchored emotional meanings may sometimes be drivers for change, not merely resisting or delaying it.

New norms are not necessarily more inclusive or pluralistic than old ones, since it is not only individual variation presses towards change but also changing patterns of similarities between individuals that may contribute to emptying an earlier norm of its meaning by disconnecting gender from what used to be gendered practices. This raises a question about the relation between destabilising a category and weakening its significance in different areas of life. Does a destabilisation of the binary structure of gender and of sexuality lead to fewer social inequalities between people of different genders or different sexual identities? And, conversely, does increased social equality between women and men or between people with different sexual identities make the gender category less important, constraining and exclusionary? Is it gender as practice or gender as category that is the root of evil? These are also questions I keep in mind in my analysis of what aspects of gender are done, undone and redone across the three generations.

  • [1] Butler here combines Derrida’s theory of the instability of signification with Lacanian psychoanalysis: something had to be repressed in order to become a subject within the symbolic order, andthis produces psychic excesses that may surface and disturb an otherwise obedient gender performance. This gives her theory a dualism of adaption (the subject) and protest (the unconscious, thepsyche), which will be discussed further in Chap. 2. Since the protests are unconscious, the incorrect performances may disturb the power, but hardly rearticulate it (Stormhoj 2003: 132).
  • [2] See also McNay (2004) and Stormhoj (2013) for similar critiques of Butler’s ahistorical andabstract concept of agency. In her work within queer theory, Butler has engaged more explicitly inpolitical discussions, and argued that deconstruction and resignification alone are not enough tomake social and political transformation happen: ‘Something besides theory must take place, suchas interventions at social and political levels that involve actions, sustained labor and institutionalized practice’ (Butler 2004, 204).
  • [3] More psychosocially oriented work on class includes how class relations may also permeate theinteraction between parents and children long before the children have become aware of class differences (see, for instance, Walkerdine and Lucey 1989; Layton 2010; Lucey et al. 2016).
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