Crossing Boundaries: Gender in Interdisciplinary Perspective?

Enikő Demény, Babes-Bolyai University (BBU), Cluj, Romania

Keywords: gender, interdisciplinarity, difference

The first question I am interested in and that I could identify in a number of position papers, is the interdisciplinary character of Gender Studies. The second question is how to teach (about) gender from a feminist perspective, and this issue is linked to an attempt to understand the link/relationship between the contextual – cultural, country – differences of the institutionalization of feminism/Women’s/Gender Studies and the feminist/women’s movement.

Crossing Disciplinary Boundaries
Marina Calloni’s suggestion in her position paper of using some key concepts as ‘a bridge for communicating and exemplifying different theoretical issues, historical frameworks, socio-economic issues, political problems, cultural dynamics and scientific frameworks’ (to students from different cultural and disciplinary backgrounds) resonates with my interests. A couple of years ago I was teaching an introductory course in gender studies for students coming from different disciplinary backgrounds (1). This was the first time I had thought about how it might be possible to integrate different approaches to gender in a common framework. As a member of the Interdisciplinary Group on Gender Studies (2) since the last Academic Year I teach an introductory course for students still coming from different disciplinary backgrounds, but this time on the MA Program in Gender Studies (3). Preparing for this course made me to think again about possible ways of integrating within a single framework the different approaches/perspectives on gender issues students are likely to have encountered during their undergraduate studies and will certainly encounter during their MA studies.

The concept through which I am trying to build this integrative framework is that of gender, and my objective is to illustrate to students the various approaches that make up the ‘gender issue’. The concept gender seems to be a good tool for this attempt since it is an overarching concept (Gullestad, 1989) across various disciplines. If we take a look at the curricula of various MA programs in Gender or Women’s Studies we can observe that this concept is present in the title of many courses, representing various academic disciplines (4). At the same time gender is a contested concept, which has been criticized for different reasons, among others for its impossibility to translate into some languages, and from different perspectives (Braidotti, 1994; Birke, 1999; Butler, 1990; 1993). The questions worth thinking about are: In which contexts and for what purposes is gender still a useful analytical tool? What will be lost if this concept is emptied from its normative dimension (its emancipatory power)? And what might be lost or gained by the ‘professionalization’ of gender research? How is this concept used in various disciplines or theories? Does it have the same meaning or are its meanings transformed by the theories it is employed by? Is there a well-defined concept ‘gender’, which constitutes a bridge across various disciplines/theories or does each discipline/theory have its own concept of gender, with different meanings?

To find answers to all these questions I will investigate the different meanings the concept ‘gender’ carries when it is used in various disciplines (5). In the first stage I propose to explore how the term gender is defined and used in ‘traditional’ academic disciplines (sociology, social psychology and anthropology) and to review the feminist critique of the ways the concept has been used in these disciplines (6).

The concept ‘gender’ was been used for the first time in the 1940s by John Money in a discourse meant to legitimize sex change (Hausman, 1995) and it began being employed in the social sciences from the late 1960s onwards (Unger, 1979). At that point the distinction made between sex and gender was meant to emphasize the fact that the differences between women and men are not a natural outcome of biological difference (Unger & Crawford, 1993).

Today there are feminists who challenge the sex/gender distinction, arguing that it reproduces the dichotomy between nature and culture, and hides the fact that sex itself is culturally constructed. In response, other theorists counter-claim that it is dangerous to go too far with such a constructivist approach to sex differences (Landweer, 2005).

Although the concept ‘gender’ has been introduced in academic discourse mainly by feminist theories, today it is often used in contexts that have no connection with feminism. In many contexts the term has been emptied of its normative dimension and become an explicative/descriptive term (7). The concept is used not only in gender studies or women’s/men’s studies but in almost all of the ‘traditional’ disciplines: sociology, anthropology, psychology, political science, history, philosophy, and so on, where it has ‘won’ its place among other ‘mainstream’ categories such as class, race and ethnicity. Each of the above mentioned disciplines expand our knowledge about ‘gender’ issues from their own perspectives and drawing on their own theoretical frameworks (8). In this way some disciplines focus on gender as a characteristic of individuals, while others employ a structural/institutional approach to gender.

The concept of gender is therefore used in various contexts, with different meanings: sex-gender system (Rubin, 1975), gender differences, gender as a social construction, gender relations, gender order, gender regimes, gender role development, and so on and it is employed in theories that focus on gender as a structural category (history of gender orders, societal organization of gender arrangements), in theories of the subject (e.g. psychoanalysis), in political theories, in theories of difference/equality, in construction/deconstruction theories, and so on. Using the same concept ‘gender’ across various disciplines and theories results in generating new meanings for and with this concept rather than using it in the same way in different theories, or disciplines.

Teaching Gender from a Feminist Perspective
What would it mean to use the concept ‘gender’ from a feminist perspective? My point of view is that concepts like gender, difference/diversity, power, or in/equality/equity cannot be claimed to be feminist concepts in themselves. All these concepts are also employed in theories that have nothing to do with feminism. What is important is how we use these concepts in various theories, which questions, issues, problems we formulate with these concepts. Static concepts cannot be truly feminist, if feminism would indeed like to be transformative. That is why I am interested in the relationship between these concepts, asking questions like: Through which mechanisms/power systems/structures are gender (intersected with class, race,…) differences transformed into inequalities? Or vice versa: through which mechanisms do existing and persisting gender (class, race, geographical, sexual,…) inequalities create and maintain gender (class, race,.. ) differences? In short, how gender is reproduced as a power relation (Connell, 1987)? While searching for answers to this type of question one cannot rely solely on one (traditional) disciplinary approach. Instead, this question has to be analyzed in terms of how social, historical, cultural, legal, economical, psychological and political dimensions cut across one another while shaping gender arrangements.

Taking the above into account a ‘working objective’ for teaching gender from a feminist perspective might be that the knowledge/information our students are accumulating during their studies on gender issues should not be of an additive character. Instead students need clear guidance on how to integrate these disparate knowledges. This is the point and the reason why I think it is very important from a feminist perspective to address the issue of inter/multi/trans-disciplinarity, as suggested in many of the position papers.
Veronica Vasterling suggests that the practice of interdisciplinarity itself has to be critically analysed, since it often results in a mis-application of concepts. I agree with her on this, and I propose to start to reflect on this practice by analysing how we use ‘gender’ in interdisciplinary contexts. This analysis could be extended to other concepts as well. My aim might be ‘the development of shared knowledge, common ground’, i.e. ‘[not only] using the same words when talking about things, but also acknowledging the rooting of the meaning of a world in a specific context’, as Theodossia Pavlidou expresses it in her paper. Paivi Korvajarvi and Ulla Holm also address the problem of inter/multi/transdisciplinarity in their position papers. Holm argues in favour of transdisciplinary practice over multidisciplinary approach, while Korvajarvi formulates a very important and realistic question, namely how far can we go with breaking disciplinary boundaries if take into account that we operate within organizational and administrative frames of social science. For the type of work I am interested in doing, the term interdisciplinarity/ transdisciplinarity (9) fits better than multidisciplinarity, since this latter suggests rather an additive character. For me the question is how can disciplinary knowledge be integrated in an interdisciplinary framework/practice and how can interdisciplinary practice inform disciplines?

Another issue captured my interest while reading the position papers of Therese Gerstenauer, Dasa Duhacek and Teresa Joaquim, and this is how gender and/or women’s studies have been developed in different countries and how this development is related to feminism, and to feminist or women’s movements. What difference does it make teaching gender in countries where there is/was a feminist movement and where there is/ not? In the two CEE countries I am more familiar with (Hungary and Romania), feminism is far from being an accepted ideology (Cheschebec, 1999; Gal, 1997). Feminism is mainly present as feminist theory in universities and not as a feminist movement in larger society. For example, in Romania there are only few NGOs with a feminist agenda (10). Many of my own students on the MA program in Gender Studies were interested to learn about gender issues, but some of them were not necessarily interested in feminist theories, and some even had anti-feminist feelings.

In these countries feminism is often perceived as a Western ‘import’, and ‘gender studies’ itself as a new ‘academic’ fashion. I am wondering if this refusal of feminism by the large majority of women in these countries (11) has any connection with the establishment of gender rather than women’s studies, while for example in Serbia (Belgrade), where there was an important centre of feminist activism during the war, there is a women studies centre. Or this is simply due to the fact that gender departments in Hungary and Romania were established at the same time that, in Western countries, women studies departments were beginning to be renamed as gender studies, and is therefore a direct recent import?

In conclusion, the institutionalization of gender studies, and what it means to teach and research gender in a certain country cannot be understood without knowing the context of these practices and the social, cultural, political and historical conditions under which they have been developed.

(1) I was teaching then on the MA Program in Cultural Anthropology of BBU.
(2) This group is a research unit of the Faculty of European Studies of BBU. The members of this group are professors with different ‘disciplinary’ academic backgrounds (philosophy, psychology, sociology, anthropology, ethnography, history, law, political science and economics) and they belong institutionally to the respective ‘disciplinary’ departments of BBU, or to the Faculty of European Studies of BBU. Aside from the courses they are offering on the MA program, some members of the group are also teaching courses on gender at undergraduate level. At present there is no Ph.D. training in Gender Studies in Cluj.
(3) The name of the MA Program is Gender, Differences and Inequalities, and it started in the 2003/2004 Academic Year. I teach on this MA program as a Visiting Lecturer and I co-teach the introductory course with Prof. Eniko Magyari-Vincze, the head of the Interdisciplinary Group, and the Director of the MA Program in Gender, Differences and Inequalities.
(4) In case of the MA Program on Gender, Differences and Inequalities the following courses are offered: Gender and Health; Gender and Law; Gender and Organisational Culture; The Gender Regimes of Institutions; Gender, Family and Demographic Behaviour; Social Inequalities and Gender Policies. At the undergraduate level the various departments offer courses on: Gender and Communication; Gender and Demography, Gender, Nation and Nationalism; Introduction to Gender Studies, Family and Gender Issues; Welfare Systems and Gender Inequalities.
(5) I started to work on this issue when I was co-writing an introductory course in gender for undergraduate students with Prof. Eniko Magyari-Vincze.
(6) Feminist theories, in an attempt to cross disciplinary boundaries, often have as a staring point the critique of a disciplinary approach.
(7) We can see this very often in sociology textbooks for undergraduates, for example.
(8) I write this from a CEE perspective, Cluj/Romania, where teaching about gender, especially at undergraduate level, is very much linked to and informed by disciplines, and less influenced by the new interdisciplinary fields such as cultural studies, postcolonial feminist studies or queer studies. It is at MA level when such interdisciplinary fields can get some representation. It is much more likely for example that students will learn about queer theories in an MA course in Gender Studies, than during their undergraduate studies. If they do not attend such an MA program, however, it is possible that they will not learn about this theory at all.
(9) Debates are ongoing about the best name for this feminist practice - multi-, inter- or trans-disciplinary - and about the relation of these practices/methods to disciplines and disciplinary practices and methods. In Romania during the ’90s we faced the same dilemma with the concepts ‘multicultural’ and ‘intercultural’, when debates were ongoing about which one of them was more politically correct, but not back up by any real, important change in practice.
(10) The recent survey carried out among Romanian NGOs by the Anna Society for Feminist Analysis demonstrates this point. See Societatea de Analize Feministe ANA. Dimensiunea de gen a ONG–urilor. Raport final, Iulie, 2004 (in Romanian) (The Gender Dimension of NGO’s. Final Report. July, 2004).
(11) I wrote about this issue in an article on women’s participation in civil society and the redefinition of gender regimes in postcommunist Romania (Demeny, 2001).

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