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date: 04 December 2020

(p. 27) Gender and Politics: Concepts and Methods

Identifying a set of substantive categories and an array of approaches, this volume implicitly delineates the boundaries of the field of politics and gender. In a field as diverse and diffuse as gender politics, the result is necessarily incomplete, representing our collective “mobilization of bias” or our sense of what had to be included. In this section, the chapters provide a conceptual basis for evaluating this array and hopefully will spark ideas in the reader for new ways and areas of study not envisioned here.

The complex concepts that are central for contemporary study of gender—sex, sexuality, heteronormativity, intersectionality, and feminism as well as gender itself—are subject to sustained discussion and analysis. Introductory feminist texts used to say that gender was the social meaning of sex. But feminists have increasingly come to eschew such biological foundationalism and to agree that sex itself is a social construct. In the contemporary world, we might say that gender is a form of social organization that exalts the masculine and denigrates and dismisses the feminine. But contemporary feminists have also begun to theorize subordinated masculinities and intersectional privilege and (p. 28) marginalization. Definitions of gender tend to reflect the theoretical approach of the analyst. Some ways of thinking about gender, or gender–race, are inextricably linked to these other concepts, such as intersectionality or sexuality. Feminism is a concept that is in some ways even more fraught, having clear connections to political action and actors and serving as an ideal for many scholars and activists. Feminism is at once a research agenda, a political program, and an ideal. In some ways, we can say that it is a term that potentially embraces all of the worlds women and men, so we should not expect it to be simple to define or unidimensional in its content.

Thus, the account of what gender is, what sex is, what sexuality and race are, and how they are all interrelated is constantly contested and developing. The essays in this section cannot make these complex matters simple, though we hope the essays provide valuable guides to the debates about and main approaches to these concepts. Collectively, though, these essays do lay out the ways that contemporary gender politics has embraced the exploration of these meanings and relationships as a theoretical and empirical area of study, and the subsequent sections take up aspects of these questions—from body to nation to market to state—showing how gender shapes politics (and vice versa) across these dimensions.

No less tricky is the definition of politics, which we discuss to some degree in the introduction to the handbook. The political has sometimes been defined rather narrowly as pertaining to the activities of governing, to the formal institutions of government. Gender scholars have much to say about governing and governance but cast a wider net, as do many mainstream scholars as well. Politics, understood as “the authoritative allocation of value” (in David Easton’s classic formulation) or as the working of systems of power and authority, has a much wider purview. Systems of power work, gender scholars show, not only through elections and militaries but also through processes of normalization and social construction by recognizing some families and bodies as acceptable and others as deviant, powerless, or properly marginalized. Systems of power allow some to speak while others are silenced; these powerful discourses elevate some identities and ideas and suppress or ridicule others. These broader definitions, then, are centrally about identifying the complex ways that power and authority suffuse polity, economy, and society.

Both feminists and mainstream political theorists put power at the center of a definition of politics, but more scholars talk about power than define it or explain what it means and how it works. Mainstream scholars, beginning with Robert Dahl, write about distinctive faces of power; Dahl’s work is generally the basis for distinguishing the first (and perhaps most intuitive) face of power (when one person has power over another, getting that person to do things they would not otherwise do). The second face of power, generally associated with Peter Bachrach and Morton Baratz, is power that results from particular forms of organization and categories—the mobilization of bias—and that obscures some issues and questions and prevents their discussion. This face of power (p. 29) is thought of as the power to set the agenda. The third face of power, usually traced to the work of Stephen Lukes, is to persuade people that their interests are such that they ought not question the organization of categories or try to do certain things in the first place.

This mainstream discussion of power, however, has been unconnected with feminist discussions of power, which focus more on power as a structural relationship (following Michel Foucault) and on acting together, in concert, in a voluntary way, to achieve positive ends as a kind of power (following Hannah Arendt), often called empowerment. Feminist critiques of domination and power as a social relation inform both moves and have much to say to traditional discussions of power. Feminist international relations theorists such as Cynthia Enloe, Elisabeth Prugl, and Brigit Locher have shown how feminist notions of power are important for political science. In fact, one might see in current work by Kathryn Sikkink and others on the way so-called soft power of norms and persuasion, civil society modes of influence, and the connections between identity and such norms as examples of the importance of collective empowerment and of power as a way to construct identities and interests. The important role that norms or “informal institutions” play in the current exercise of bureaucratic authority or power might also demonstrate the way that power is incorporated into particular discourses. Thus, political scientists interested in power should read not only the essay in this section on power but also the essays in other sections on institutions, norms, and global governance, and the section on civil society.

Feminism as a research paradigm not only provides an expanded set of subjects for political scientists but also brings some additional tools to the discussion of methods, methodology, and epistemology. Although no specific method or research tool is the most feminist choice in all circumstances (e.g., participant observation and regression analysis are equally feminist in the abstract), some specific features of feminist research guide decisions about method, methodology, and theory. These distinctive features reflect an epistemology that explores and acknowledges the role of politics in the production of knowledge itself and seeks to take account of the political dimensions of science. Thus, the realm of gender and politics potentially includes the study of political science or, even more broadly, social science.

In her essay titled “Sex, Gender, and Sexuality: From Naturalized Presumption to Analytical Categories,” Mary Hawkesworth explicates the concepts of sex, gender, and sexuality. She reviews the multiplicity of ways the concept of gender is understood. She relates it to both sex and sexuality, showing how gender, sexuality, and even the seemingly foundational biological category of sex are socially constructed.

The second essay, “Intersectionality” by Valerie Chepp and Patricia Hill Collins, presents an overview of some of the main ideas of intersectionality. The chapter approaches the burgeoning field of studies of intersectionality as a distinctive knowledge project that has shaped the social sciences, summarizes (p. 30) its core ideas, and discusses selected specific contributions of the field. The chapter outlines the consequences from the identification of intersectionality research with women’s studies and gender scholarship. In this essay, the meaning of intersectionality throughout some of its applications to political phenomena of American democracy from legislatures to hip-hop.

The third essay, “Feminism,” by Rita Dhamoon reviews debates among feminists about what feminism means, considering different ways of understanding feminism, its central features, and methods of inquiry deployed by feminists. These debates concern whether feminists should aim for equality or difference, whether differences among women force us to abandon the concept of gender, and whether “women” can be thought of as a group with agency or identity or whether we should focus our energies on destabilizing and deconstructing gender.

In the fourth essay, titled “Power, Politics, Domination, and Oppression,” Moya Lloyd points out that feminist and mainstream discussions of power have proceeded with little cross-fertilization. And although there is no single way to characterize feminist discussions of power, a number of different currents in feminist thinking can be discerned about power and politics. Lloyd discusses four such currents: power as a resource; power as a capacity; power as domination, or power-over; and power as productive.

The last essay in this section, by Brooke Ackerly and Jacqui True, reviews debates about methods and methodologies in gender and politics. The chapter shows how feminist social scientists adapt and refine a range of methods for feminist questions and feminist purposes. This distinctive methodological process, rather than any single research design or analytical method, defines feminist approaches to methods. The reasons for these methodological developments are explained, and some concrete examples of these methodological processes and approaches are given from the contemporary study of gender and politics.