When "difference" is "dominance": A critique of the "anti-power-based" cultural approach to sex differences

Aki Uchida
1992 Language in society  
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more » ... tomization of two opposing approaches to studying sex differences in language use: the "difference/cultural" approach, which treats women and men as having "different but equally valid" rules of conversation, and the "dominance/power-based" approach, which focuses on male dominance and sexual division of labor in talk. I critique the stance taken by the difference approach. First, its notion of women and men as belonging to different "cultures" is too simplistic to account for everything that occurs in mixed-sex conversation. Second, the dichotomization of "power" and "culture" as two separate, independent concepts is inappropriate, because social interaction always occurs in the context of a patriarchal society. As a direction for further research, I propose that the relationship between gender and language should be approached from the viewpoint that we are doing gender in interaction. (Sociolinguistics, communication, conversational style, gender, sex differences) A "CULTURAL" APPROACH TO SEX DIFFERENCES2 In their article published in I982, anthropologists Maltz and Borker suggested a framework for examining the differences in speech between American women and men.3 This framework has attracted many researchers to this day, and the influence can be most clearly seen in the works of Tannen (i986, i99oa, i99ob, I99oc), which directly apply and advocate this approach. This framework adopts the view that sex difference is culture difference, that cross-sex communication is cross-cultural communication.4 Women and men "come from different sociolinguistic subcultures"; specifically, because the rules for informal interaction are acquired during the period of childhood and adolescence when girls and boys socially interact and play primarily with ? 1992 Cambridge University Press 0047-4045/92 $5.00 + .00 547 This content downloaded from on Thu, 14 Nov 2013 10:27:58 AM All use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions AKI UCHIDA peers of their own sex, women and men "learn to do different things with words in a conversation" (Maltz & Borker I982:200). This "difference/cultural" approach is based on Gumperz's (I982) framework for studying problems in interethnic communication. Members of different cultures will bring their own assumptions and rules of communication and apply them in intercultural encounters to understand what is going on. Differences in such assumptions and rules will result in asynchrony in the flow of conversation and misinterpretation of each other's intention, which tend to be negatively attributed to the personality of individuals or cultural stereotypes. Maltz and Borker maintained that the same thing happens in communication between the sexes. Women and men carry over to their adulthood the conversational patterns they learned from interacting with their same-sex peers during childhood, and the differences between these patterns creates conflict and misunderstandings when they try to engage in a friendly female-male conversation. Problems of sex differences are, therefore, primarily caused by this cross-cultural miscommunication. This cross-cultural view has been considered by its proponents and by some linguistic theorists as presenting an alternative to the explanation for sex differences in speech behavior in terms of power, commonly regarded as the "dominance or power-based" approach (Aries I987; Cameron I990; Coates & Cameron I988; Graddol & Swann I989; Maltz & Borker I982; Mulac, Gibbons, & Fujiyama I990; Tannen iggob, I99oc). The position taken by the cross-cultural view is that dominance and power have little to do with the explanation of sex differences, because the differencesalthough their outcome may be male dominanceexist without any intention on the part of the males to dominate. "[E]ven if both parties are attempting to treat one another as equals, cultural miscommunication results" (Maltz & Borker I982:200). The cross-cultural approach, compared with the dominance approach, allows us to account for the miscommunication without casting blame on either sex (Tannen iggob). But how adequate is this assessment? There seem to be two points regarding this position of using a two-culture framework that are worth questioning. Both stem from the practice of dichotomizing the two concepts of dominance and (cultural) difference. My first argument is that the proponents of the difference/cultural approach, as well as theorists who perceive a dichotomy of two opposing views of sex differences in speech, are falsely assuming that every study including the concept of power and male dominance in its analysis could be categorized under the dominance approach. My second, and more important, point is that it is a mistake to separate power and culture of women and menand to assume that the two are independent constructs, much less that one would sufficiently explain any sex difference. It is not only wrong on the part of the difference/cultural approach 548 This content downloaded from on Thu, 14 Nov 2013 10:27:58 AM All use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions WHEN ' DIFFERENCE " IS ' DOMINANCE " to underestimate the effects of power structure and dominance; it is harmful. These two points are discussed in the rest of this article. THE "DOMINANCE/POWER-BASED" APPROACH: FROM A HISTORICAL PERSPECTIVE The history of research on sex difference in speech behavior is not a long one, but quite a few researchers have noted some shifts in the framework for analysis in this area (e.g., Cameron out that the early articles on sex difference (dating up to the early 197os) described women's "different" use of language; the authors regarded speech style they labeled as "women's" (whether true or stereotyped) as inferior compared to the "normal," "standard" usage of men, attributing this deficiency to the psychological and personal traits of women. The most (in)famous classic work expressing this view may be Jespersen's account in his book Language (1922).
doi:10.1017/s0047404500015724 fatcat:wffimua3gjcfxpe4xeuc6zjc5q