Posted by Pattie on 11/15/2002 08:30:00 AM

I've got something on my mind this morning and not a lot of time to tell it, so this may be a two-parter:

Tish is my window to the BLOG world. (Someday, I'm going to give up T.V. and spend my evenings reading Blogs, but until that day, I read Tish and get a sense of it.) Apparently several people have been debating whether specific bloggers and/or blogs on the Internet were sexist. While specific question is interesting and important (people should express their feelings about this), as a sociologist I'd like to address the general case: How does one determine who is sexist and who is not?

Having just posed the question, I'd like to say it is the wrong the question to ask. In order to show why it is the wrong question and then pose the better question, I must first offer a lesson in constructionist sociology. My apologies to readers who already know this, but it is an important point to make. I will bracket the lesson, so you can skip this part if you'd like, though you might disagree with what I think is constructionist and I'd cherish feedback.


Much of Western society is geared toward the individual as an entity that exists before anything else. That is, ultimately we ask questions about who a person is, we expect that a person's character, psychological make-up and moral standing determine how s/he acts, thinks and decides. Thus, the question being posed right now among the blogs is whether a particular person is sexist. Some may pose the question slightly different: are particular acts sexist, such as putting pictures of naked women on the web or talking about who is sexy? Shifting the question from designating the person as sexist to designating what the person does as sexist still concentrates the analysis upon the individual. It assumes one cause -- the person's character in the first case, the person's choice in the second case -- leads to one effect -- being sexist or acting sexist. In either case, the assumption makes the individual the focus of a linear analysis.

What if we began at a different point? What if we started with the language available to anyone who wants to talk about sex, sexuality or sexiness? All of us are limited by the words we are taught. If we assume that language came before the individual, we cannot stick to a linear-cause-leads-to-effect approach because language limits us, but then we invent new words (as a group and as individuals) and thus the resources we have in language are always changing. It is dynamic.

So we want to speak of something such as sex, but we are limited to the pool of words that we know. This pool of words reflects all of the attitudes, characteristics, actions and moral decisions made before we speak. That is, language reflects culture and history. The very second we speak, we are stuck with that culture and that history.

In addition, we are currently interacting with the listener or the reader. Thus, language not only draws upon the past, but it draws upon the present and future because it assumes that those who hear or read what the speaker or writer expresses will understand it. That dependency upon understanding means that we have to have a common experience, some common ground upon which to build this joint meaning. So the construction isn't complete until the meaning is shared. We cannot build our meanings alone even when we are talking to ourselves, because what we understand ourselves to be saying was taught to us by other people and is based upon how we view other people.

These language resources can be thought about as having various histories and cultures even within the same language. English spoken or written in England looks different than in the United States. English spoken or written in the Southeastern United States looks different than in New England. English spoken or written in the Queens looks different than in Manhatten. But dialect isn't the only variation. Mathematics has a vocabulary very different from Fine Arts. Even within a discipline, there are variations. Sociologist who study deviance has special terms not easily recognised by Medical Sociologists and vice versa. The particular histories of a group of people can also create variations in language.

And I hate this, but I have to go to work, so the sociology lesson and its implications are continued later...