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Is 'Gender' Easy to Study?

Even if women's studies centres concentrated more on academic work rather than the action programmes imposed on them by the University Grants Commission, would they be equipped to do so? Most women's studies practitioners skirt the tricky issues of methodology and concept and march ahead bravely, meticulously documenting "women's oppression". The tragedy is that this empiricism does not equip us in developing our own theoretical foundations. If we want women's studies to be an interdisciplinary enterprise, we will have to see if it can be integrated as a specific epistemology to rebuild the existing structure of knowledge by creating new organising concepts, methodologies, skills and reciprocal assimilation of various disciplines.

Is ‘Gender’ Easy to Study?

Some Reflections

Even if women’s studies centres concentrated more on academic work rather than the action programmes imposed on them by the University Grants Commission, would they be equippedto do so? Most women’s studies practitioners skirt the tricky issues of methodology and conceptand march ahead bravely, meticulously documenting “women’s oppression”. The tragedy isthat this empiricism does not equip us in developing our own theoretical foundations. If we wantwomen’s studies to be an interdisciplinary enterprise, we will have to see if it can be integrated asa specific epistemology to rebuild the existing structure of knowledge by creating neworganising concepts, methodologies, skills and reciprocal assimilation of various disciplines.


ne is nowadays alternating between “gender studies” “women studies”, “women’s studies” – a confusing problem of choice! Whether one’s choice has to depend on one’s political belief or it is a matter of custom is not clear. However “feminist studies” has not found much favour. It is supposed to smack of western influence; we are after all now post-colonial and we do not hate our men as some fear what feminists do. Though the terms feminism and feminist theory are considered acceptable in writing about women in the academia, in the established women’s studies centres in higher education institutes, the term women studies is generally used (henceforth referred to as WS). Therefore what I wish to do here is, to comment on some things that has failed to receive much attention – namely, the theoretical and methodological problems inherent in our present practice. I must add that this in no way belittles the excellent work done in various disciplines, in particular universities by renowned scholars. Padmini Swaminathan in this issue bemoans the fact that many women’s studies centres have neglected their responsibility of serious research and theorising, thanks to the heavy, bureaucratic hand of the University Grants Commission (UGC) in pushing them all towards action programmes as a price for receiving UGC grants. I am not addressing therefore the issue of how women’s studies got institutionalised in higher education. It has been ably commented on by others before [Sharma 2003]. My concern is even if WS centres did academic work as Padmini Swaminathan wants them to do, are we all equipped to do so?

We associate WS with the academic enterprise of teaching and research. The analysis of the position of women in various contexts stretches beyond academic corridors incorporated if inadequately, often inappropriately, in mainstream discourse on development which employs “gender” in preference to “women”. There are numerous publications that deal with gender as a development issue for example by Oxfam [Wallace and March 1991]. Gender of course is not irrelevant to development; but in so far as it engages primarily with “outcomes” rather than processes, theorising does not develop. Mainstreaming betrays the persuasive impact of international agencies, whose grants and loans dictate their preferred, hegemonic language. It is ironical that in a country where rural women are doing an enormous amount of non-marketed production, we borrow the term “care economy” used in the context of a full-blown market economy, reducing the significance of rural Indian women’s work of basic livelihood maintenance to that of mere housekeeping. Part of the problem is many agencies, now engaged with including gender as a “variable” are innocent of the historical trajectory of the term and its link with feminism, feminist theory and feminist politics.

Theories of society deal with how society is organised, detect patterns and linkages, explain particular social phenomena and suggest underlying principles. WS is also a theory of society trying to explain one aspect of it, that of relations between men and women. Can WS claim the status of a discipline? A discipline has a specific set of conceptual tools, a distinct theoretical vocabulary and certain well defined analytical frameworks [Krishnaraj 2001]. It has to support distinct methodologies and its subject matter has to have a well defined scope. My answer would be yes and no. In some ways it is a discipline but in other ways no. It has ambiguous characteristics like a chameleon – partaking of area studies, subject, and discipline in complex ways. Or is it a platypus difficult to categorise, neither fish nor fowl? You can have your own conclusion on this.

In what sense should we then understand WS and deal with it? I suggest the following:

  • how WS created or added to existing frameworks,
  • how it modified other frameworks,
  • what contribution it made to specific disciplines: did it add new areas of inquiry, previously not considered legitimate part of the domain?
  • Concepts with Multiple Meanings

    WS developed unique conceptual, analytical formulations that now can be used to analyse women’s subordination and inequality. We may not have a unified discipline called WS but we have clusters within it, each of which has privileged sites. It is not the content matter but the questions asked and the way questions are formulated that marks the departure. Just as we say all problems in society have an economic or political aspect, all issues have a gender aspect. The core concepts used – gender, sexual division of labour and patriarchy can be applied across disciplines. Sexual division of labour and its implications have found a home in economics; likewise gender as an analytical category can capture complex social processes and is a relational concept. Gender relations presuppose the relations between men and women, yet in practice women remain the focus.

    Economic and Political Weekly October 21, 2006

    Gender is also used as a thought category. We can also see it as something that enters into and constitute all other relations [Rege 2003]. For the latter, we need to unpack the meaning of male and female and the consequence of being assigned to one or the other. But we cannot read a priori a single determinant of a culture. Gender has multiple meanings – as ideology, as social process, as social product. There lies the difficulty of establishing clarity. Similarly patriarchy is not a universal coherent entity – it too varies in different contexts. We have now given up the attempt to treat it as one and have made it an adjective: patriarchal attitude, behaviour, traditions that privilege men.

    The starting point of feminism was its assumption that one could specify “a” cause of women’s oppression – it was “patriarchy”, which was articulated through male control of female sexuality and fertility, system of inheritance that privileged the male and use of female labour. In other words, the cause was laid at the door of structure – the connection between the economic system and patriarchy and the way it linked home and workplace. However, the new intellectual wave of post-structural and postmodernist approaches led to the break up of this consensus. Added to this was the shift to microanalysis of “gender relations” and the loss of the earlier confident distinction between sex and gender [Barrett and Phillips 1992].

    Feminist scholars are trained in different disciplines and try to incorporate “gender” in their teaching and research but few of us are dealing with some fundamental conceptual and methodological problems in feminist theorising with which many feminist scholars over the years have grappled. A kind of routine syllabus of “liberal feminism, socialist feminism and radical feminism” is dished out and the student has no idea what to do with it. In any case, most WS practitioners skirt the tricky issues of methodology and concept and we march ahead bravely documenting meticulously “women’s oppression”. The tragedy is this empiricism does not equip us in developing our own theoretical foundations whose lacunae is what Padmini is worried about. If we want WS as an interdisciplinary enterprise, we will have to see whether WS can be integrated as a specific epistemology to rebuild the existing structure of knowledge by creating new organising concepts, methodologies, skills and reciprocal assimilation of various disciplines. We have not arrived there yet but WS’s core concepts – gender, sexual division of labour and patriarchy have been creatively used by many disciplines including economics.

    The most useful innovation was Amartya Sen’s cooperativeconflict to describe intrahousehold dynamics but it can also be projected to situations outside the family-household to capture differential resource allocation and differential valuation of contribution by women and men in varied contexts. However, the concept does not enable us to study in a combined way both the cooperation and the conflict, to clearly distinguish between them at particular points each one. What is the cooperation for? It could be compromises to keep peace. Does that enhance women’s authority? Endowments, entitlements are other expansive terms, which can find application across a wide range of situations – class, caste or gender. This is of particular significance in third world economies where there is joint production within the household as well as individual contribution. Other authors have carried this further by analysing age and gender endowments, age and gender entitled allocations of resources, and age – gender contributions and the outcome for women and men in terms of welfare [Katz 1991; Krishnaraj 1996, 2001].

    In the following sections we can briefly deal with some of our troubling ambiguities.

    Women’s Experience

    WS we say deals with women’s experience, but for a truly transformative endeavour we have to interrogate women’s experience from a vantage point not available to local culture and traditions – that is the vantage point of equality and distributive justice. While experience simply exists and is experienced, only from a critical reflection can there be a feminist “standpoint”. All women have experiences, but not all women have a feminist understanding of their experiences. Our problems here are: (a) what is it about women’s lives that leads to feminist understanding? What aspect of women’s individual and collective lives is epistemically relevant for feminist knowledge? (b) by treating experiences as a set of pre-existing objective circumstances that condition gender and identity, which in turn defines self-interest, needs and agency are we not caught in circular logic? Experiences explain gender differences and gender differences explain the asymmetry of male and female experience.


    The particular connotation of the word “woman” extends beyond description into the realm of power and politics. Gendered division of labour and accompanying relations of power are inseparable in meaning but it gains a political nuance, as it takes on a quality of universality and over ridings. All women spend more time on house work, have more responsibility for child rearing, have less access to many social and material resources, have less access to public spaces and public power. What constitutes then a morally relevant difference between women? In any existing society there are many circumstances in which individuals and their choices are not valued equally. How are we to understand and distinguish between incidental and significant difference, between true and false beliefs or choices worthy of respect and those based on distorted preferences and social myths.1 As Sandra Harding says:

    What makes feminism possible is not that women share certain kinds of experiences, for women’s experiences of patriarchal oppression differ by race, class and culture. Instead feminism names the fact that women can federate around their common resistance to all forms of male domination. There cannot be “a” feminist standpoint as the generator of true stories about social life [Harding 1987].

    There is a persistent tension between specificity and universality. While accepting difference, there is also the apprehension that without an ontologically grounded feminist subject there can be no politics, there is the danger of being deprived of the right to a humanist universality [Sunder Rajan 1993]. The post-modernist, post-structural theories that have now come in vogue, and our loss of faith in rationality and science, implies an abandonment of the goal of scientific knowledge and introduces false polarities that will result in dividing ourselves. “Concepts and categories through which we appropriate, analyse and construct the world

    We are grateful to Maithreyi Krishnaraj for help in putting together this issue of the Review of Women’s Studies. –Ed

    Economic and Political Weekly October 21, 2006 have a history within which we ourselves are implicated” [Barrett and Phillips 1992]. Forging a commonality across differences has to become a goal rather than a given, if we wish to promote an egalitarian and emancipatory movement. Our challenge then is to devise a gender-focused framework of analysis that allows for the construction of multiple, contingent connections among differently located women such that each retains a claim to full humanity even as she identifies and is identified with others.2

    We also have to grapple with class, caste and ethnicity differences, which today are hyphenated. In this method of operation, the abstraction is created when the different social organisations and existences are pulled apart and each part is assumed to have a substantive self regulating structure, as a ground for a separate oppression. The social whole becomes merely aggregative. We need a method of analysis in which the different social movements can retain both their specificity and, at the same time, reveal their implications and constitutive relation to all other relations.3

    Equality and Empowerment

    We have moved away from the notion of the “Towards Equality” report to empowerment. One wonders how this transition took place. Is it more threatening to talk of equality of men and women? Is it that women claim they are different? Other problems could be: how do we operationalise it? Without some notions of what we consider as important, it is difficult to decide between equality of opportunity and equality of outcome. One way of conceptualising equality is to refer to the “human” – liberation would then imply retaining and achieving what we consider quintessentially “human”. The notion of capabilities articulated by Amartya Sen carries us over this problem of what should we aspire for as humans. He spelt out capability as “being and functioning” for what one perceives as one’s good. His concept of freedom [Sen 1999] is located within a fundamental philosophical teleology. Freedom as the ultimate goal does not quite tell us freedom for what.

    Sen also applauds “agency” but here again we know quite often that women’s agency subserves others’ welfare than her own. If she earns more she spends more for the family. Unfortunately, economic “empowerment” which is no doubt a necessary condition for further emancipation is never sufficient – ideology intrudes. In policy this agency approach without an awareness of woman’s gender construct uses woman as instrument rather than as a liberatory process for herself. The refrain goes like this: educate a woman because she will send girls to school; she will reduce fertility; she will use her earnings to promote family welfare as opposed to men who may not do so. Women are good investment for development. Do we also ask whether the investment is good for her? Now why do we assume responsibility automatically translates into authority? Today, increasingly, the burden of supporting families behoves on women either because men are involuntarily unemployed or because men choose what kind of job they would prefer and are voluntarily unemployed.

    Gender, Capabilities and Freedom

    The topic of human nature is as old as philosophy. The association of femininity with nature, implying that women are only reproducers while high culture and rationality is the domain of men, was seen as an instrument of oppression denying women

    Orient Longmas

    Economic and Political Weekly October 21, 2006

    the mantle of the human. This old connection can be discarded as a relic, argues Plumwood, and that the relevant problem for both women and men is that of becoming simply and unproblematically and fully human. What is human is problematic in so far as it appears to discount our connectedness with the non-human world [Plumwood 1990; Jaggar 1983]. Leaving this philosophical speculation aside, we can go to the concrete world of human life as it is lived.

    Feminists have tried to fill the gap that Sen left open. Nussbaum defends the universal applicability of the concept of “human” without resorting to metaphysics. She fills in by answering the question about what activities characteristically performed by human beings are so central that they seem definitive of a life that is truly human [Nussbaum 2006]. Her list is articulated at a high level of generality, capacities that could be actualised in any cultural context.

    These are: normal life expectancy, bodily integrity (freedom of movement, freedom from violent assault) opportunities for sexual satisfaction and reproductive choice, being able to plan one’s life in accordance with one’s own concept of the good, being able to love and play, being able to shape one’s political environment through the rights of political participation, association and free speech, being able to shape one’s material environment, right to property ownership and through equal opportunity for employment that allows one to work fully as a human being, exercising practical reason and entering into meaningful relationships of mutual recognition with other workers. Practices that interfere with these capabilities should be stopped.

    Nussbaum’s approach is cast in the liberal humanistic mould, taking the individual as “given”, deflecting attention from processes that makes us who we are. She does not indicate through what institutions, and social practices, by what method of redistribution we can work to allocate resources so as to ameliorate material deprivation.

    Social Capital

    Social capital as a non-market dimension evolved in economics to denote such things as trust, norms, culture and community. Economic transactions are rarely, purely market determined.4 To women social capital is critical to survive. Yet it can also be constrictive. Most caste, community networks are conservative.5 Agarwal postulates that acting as a group, support from the state, support from social groups, entrenched property relations, political structure and social perception can enhance women’s bargaining power within the family and outside [Agarwal 2003]. These supporting groups must be those who uphold women’s rights.

    Masculinity: Neglected Dimension

    In mainstreaming gender concerns there is an exclusive focus on women as agents of change. We should also be addressing men and masculinity because gender issues are not only women’s problems, and femininity does not exist in isolation from masculinity. The image and power of one determines the image and power of the other. Such false polarity is perpetuated despite evidence that personality traits lie in a continuum – men and women both partake of characteristics in varying degrees according one’s own personal history [Krishnaraj 1996]. Masculinity is associated with control and aggression.6 Women are taking sole responsibility to confront violence

    against women. It is time men joined the struggle to eliminate

    this violence.7 Can we build a truly non-patriarchal family? What would it

    be like? When does his/hers become ours too? Towards this goal

    we have to be content with the understanding that transitional

    epistemologies are appropriate for transitional cultures.




    [Revised text of a lecture delivered at the Department of Sociology, Mumbai University on September 7, 2006].

    1 Elimination of female foetuses or infants and the high value accorded to male offspring is not common to all societies. Nor is the custom of dowry as a price paid to the groom’s family as an inducement to marry a girl, which makes girls a liability to parents.

    2 The current controversy about religious personal laws of Muslim women and whether the custom of wearing a hijab or burqa is a cultural difference that has to be respected.

    3 Uma Chakravarty has done this admirably in her “gendering caste” where she integrates caste and gender. Dalit literature attempts the same with caste and class.

    4 Contracts are based on trust. Many businesses are close family net works.

    5 So often women/girls are punished for violating community norms regarding caste or sexual behaviour.

    6 A man found wanting in this notion of strength is ridiculed. In India people send bangles to mock such a person for his effeminacy.

    7 There are winds of change among sections of the educated class. More men taking responsibility for housework and child care, more men valuing gentleness, more men valuing their spouses by performing rituals which earlier were exclusively done by women for long life of partners.


    Agarwal, Bina (2003): ‘Gender and Land Rights Revisited: Explaining New Prospects, via, the State, Family and Market’ in S Rizvi (ed), Agrarian Change, Gender, and Land Rights, Blackwell and UNRISD, Geneva.

    Barrett Michele and Ann Phillips (eds) (1992): Destabilising Theory, Polity Press.

    Harding, Sandra (1987): Feminism and Methodology, Indiana University Press and Open University, Bloomington, US.

    Jaggar, Alison (1983): Feminist Politics and Human Nature, Rowman and Littlefield Publisher Inc, US.

    Katz, Elizabeth (1991): ‘Breaking the Myth of Harmony: Theoretical Guidelines to the Study of Rural Third World Women’, Review of Radical Political Economics, 23, 3 and 4.

    Krishnaraj, Maithreyi (1996): ‘Androgyny: Alternative to Gender Polarity?’ Economic and Political Weekly, 31, 16 and 17, April 20-27.

  • (1996): ‘Feminist Economics: Going beyond Critique’, monograph, Indian Association of Women Studies.
  • (2001): ‘How Gender Figures in Economic Theorising and Philosophy’, Economic and Political Weekly, 35(17), April 28.
  • Nussbaum, Martha (2006): ‘Gender and Capabilities and Freedom’ in Bina Agarwal, Jane Humphries and Ingrid Robeyns (eds), Capabilities, Freedom and Equality: Amartya Sen’s Work from A Gender Perspective.

    Plumwood, Val (1990): ‘Women, Humanity and Nature’ in Sean Sayers and Peter Osborne (eds), Socialism, Feminism and Philosophy: A Radical Philosophy Reader, Routledge, London, New York.

    Rege, Sharmila (2003): ‘More than Tacking Women on to the Macro Picture: Feminist Contribution to Globalisation Discourse’, Economic and Political Weekly, 38(43) October 25.

    Sharma, Kumud (2003): ‘Institutionalising Feminist Agenda(s)’, Economic and Political Weekly, 38, (43), October 25.

    Sen, Amartya (1999): Development as Freedom, Alfred A Knopf, New York.

    Sunder Rajan, Rajeswari (1993): Real and Imagined Women: Gender, Culture

    and Post Colonialism, Routledge, London. Wallace, Tina and Candida March (1991): Changing Perceptions: Writings on Gender and Development, Oxfam, Oxford.

    Economic and Political Weekly October 21, 2006

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