Notes for Comparative Social History Reading List: Wallach Scott

Comment* on Joan Wallach Scott, Gender and the Politics of History (revised edition, New York: Columbia University Press, 1999).

As with reading Gareth Stedman Jones’ collection of pieces in The Languages of Class, to read this collection of articles is to observe the working out of ideas; to observe theory as process. Joan Wallach Scott covers a lot of ground, pointing to a number of historiographical inadequacies along the way. There are comments on the non-transparency of documents and the limits of historians. These are not new problems, but her disciplinary critique indicates that new approaches do not necessarily furnish a quick fix, and suggests that Scott, like Stedman Jones, would like to find one. She imparts a sense of wanting some sort of firm and common ground within the discipline. Historiography seems in need of defense against fragmentation, even though, according to Scott, it is not realistic to seek final ‘authority’ or pursue “universal explanation.”[1] The unity she seeks appears to be of a different kind.

With respect to gender history, Scott notes a “powerful resistance” by a ‘ruling elite’ (read men) to changing or complicating established approaches to history on the basis of details newly reported by historians of women. She observes that “New facts might document the existence of women in the past, but they did not necessarily change the importance (or lack of it) attributed to women’s activities. Indeed, the separate treatment of women could serve to confirm their marginal and particularized relationship to those (male) subjects already established as dominant and universal.”[2] The commonality Scott is searching for therefore seems to be one that would see women and men accorded equal merit in a mutually-pursued gender-conscious historiography.

Aware of “the difficulty of establishing clear and fixed definitions,” Scott is careful to explain her conception of gender.[3] She accepts that gender is constructed. The act of gendering in effect claims/ proclaims difference within social organization.[4] In discussing groups involved in dealing with difference and establishing identity (by which she appears to mean that the group’s members express consciousness of the similarity of their condition), Scott focuses primarily on describing women reacting against prevalent, oppressive conditions. By and large she appears to assume that men have already established their identity. It is worth noting that her definitional concern does not extend to clearly explaining what she means by identity. It should. A good deal of her difficulty with the concept likely stems from semantic ambiguity. In any case, people are described as fashioning their identities out of available cultural resources (all manner of symbols, and presumably the body as well). They promote these identities in accord with political understandings and through social organization. In short, they group and act as a group within their society. Interestingly, although the cultural, social, and political spheres of society are included in Scott’s description of her understanding, she does not specifically address economic factors. They are not given an explicit position in her formulation. Economy appears to disappear within the word ‘power.’ Biological factors are similarly skirted. Whatever is biological about gender is subsumed, uninvestigated, within the word ‘sex,’ which does not appear to be considered the basis for determining a real grouping, but functions as a convenient grammatical element, now and then. It is not that economic inequality or biological determinism is taken as understood, quite the opposite. But whatever relation might exist between economy and biology is not outlined. Scott in fact reacts against social history that has “reduced human agency to a function of economic forces and made gender one of its many by-products.”[5] She does not explicitly deny the possibility that proclaiming difference signals a ‘class relation’—in fact she avers that in some “contests for power … identities of class are created.”[6] Inequality is therefore implied to be present and the subject of struggle, where identity is an issue. However, the major inequality according to Scott’s formulation appears to be one of ‘power.’[7] In her discourse, consideration of the material world—and of the material considerations of past actors as having explicit political economic affect—is effaced.

Scott treats power as a prevalent variable, along the lines of a normative given, but, although it infuses everything, she does not provide a concerted examination of what it is. By inference, “power relationships” seems to be a verbal substitute for ‘class relations’ wherever the contest being investigated turns on the issue of gender inequality.[8] Power is presented as “differential control over or access to material and symbolic resources.”[9] It is therefore consistent with ‘ownership.’ But, with respect to gender contests, what is not subjected to questioning is how this ownership is established or enforced—it just is, already, as though power is a latent quality in human beings. Thus, power as Scott uses the word would seem to be more consistent with the nineteenth-century definition, ‘an ability to do work,’ than with a definition that would suggest it was an overt expression of force, the actual doing of work.

Scott works through a definition of politics in various articles. The point, it seems, is that she seeks to reposition gender contests as political, not merely sexual.[10] Politics is “the power relationships”, “the power dynamics.”[11] She notes that Stedman Jones characterizes politics as the attempts to effect “formal participation in the government or state,” and that Thompson defines it as “the form of expression of class consciousness, [it] is a cultural and historical product.”[12]  But Scott appends a caveat, stating that “I mean not contests about formal participation in government … but contests about power and knowledge that dealt variously and often simultaneously with voting, work, family, and gender.”[13]

In Scott’s descriptions of contests about power and knowledge, hierarchy is invariably present. Society is modeled on it. Scott’s academic argument about the relative positions of class, race, and gender as categories of analysis reflects it.[14] Hierarchical organization is obviously regarded as important. In most instances, her pivotal point turns on establishing that hierarchy exists—it is intrinsic to the inequality that power perpetuates.[15] However, throughout Scott’s discussions, there is an unsubstantiated leap made to the conclusion that this “whole system of social relationships” has always, everywhere been historically endemic.[16] Scott observes, “[H]ow this system works” ought to be explored.[17] In my opinion, where it came from and how it has been perpetuated over time ought to as well. I am not suggesting that there is a need to illuminate a pre-historic primordial past. I am objecting that an unbroken trajectory into the present of an unvarying relation fully formed in a primordial past has been assumed. If ‘power relationships’ are not biologically determined, but actively enforced; if people have agency and Stedman Jones is correct in stating that “Social alliances do not simply happen, they are brought into being and re-created by the construction and periodic reconstruction of a common political discourse,” then the assumption of unceasing, invariable transmission of a primordial condition needs critical assessment.[18]

Scott’s, and Bonnie G. Smith’s, writings suggest that such assessment is possible. For example, why not interrogate the numerous allusions to the enthusiasm (particularly evident from the 1400s on) among empire-obsessed European nations for debating the relative merits of emulating either Greek or Roman models of empire and socio-political arrangement (in which slavery and the separation of women from active citizenship were affected)? Why not ask where and when modeling political economic institutions after previous empires was pursued, how it was instituted, by whom, and why? Scott’s comments indicate that such questions raise objections, and not from the ‘ruling elite.’ She complains that answering such questions tends to support contentions that “economic causality takes precedence, and patriarchy always develops and changes as a function of relations of production.”[19] I am mystified as to why that possibility would be regarded as less palatable than the idea of biological determinism. As well, if, on the basis of evidence, historians tend to confirm that a pattern ‘always’ is so, perhaps this is a phenomena worth making note of.

I am sensitive to Scott’s (and other feminist historians’) disinterest in examining the institutionalization of political economic hierarchy in western European societies, in light of my interest in historical process in North American societies. For example, Red River from 1810–1870 was a society organized without the benefit of full-time fundamental state-regulated institutions. There was no consistently state-regulated military, bureaucracy, or system of currency. There was no state representative, just an understanding on the part of settlers that Britain was ‘over there, across the ocean’ and they were among its free-born citizens. There was civil society—in all respects ‘normal’ and relatively modern for the time. The people were gendered. Yet the system of government and social relations were non-hierarchically organized. This quasi-stateless system was not invented on the spot, or modeled after a utopian European conception. It was based on the experience of more that one-half, possibly more than three-quarters, of the people counted among its founders of having grown up within completely stateless systems of social organization (an experience predominantly of women, but of men as well). I am also interested that, aside from an absentee state, the political economy did not have a strong commercial-field-cultivation agrarian base. That form of agrarian support was minimal in the sense that it did not rise far above subsistence levels. Yet, there was development. There were calls for increased development. And in fact, though development in field-crop production was accomplished by the application of force—and invasion—such development did take place. The installation of state structures, of a program of extensive agrarian expansion, and of regulated hierarchical social organization occurred concurrently and by conscious design. The political economic, social, and cultural status of all women and children and a substantial number of men in the Red River region was profoundly altered—downward. These were civilized and sophisticated people. Their ‘domestication’ was a political act with economic repercussions.

Oddly, while suspicious of political-economic historiographical inquiry, another aspect of Scott’s concern with the ‘politics of history’ involves decrying “history’s atheoretical stance.”[20] She expresses alarm that “epistemological turmoil” is upsetting ‘social scientists’ in general.[21] Apparently she believes ‘theory’ is in need of a concerted rescue effort, to prevent a historiographically induced demise. I don’t agree. I do not share what I take to be a predominant assumption in some circles: that theory is somehow distinct from, by way of being vastly superior to, hypothesis. Hypothesis in turn, as an ‘untested guess,’ seems to be equated to conjecture or some set of ‘popular belief.’ I do not regard a historiographical hypothesis as merely conjectural (meaning other peoples’ guesses, probably offered on the basis of somebody’s observation at some point). A hypothesis differs in that it is backed by a historian’s ‘observation’ in the sense that perusing historical sources supports the logic of a hypothesis’ formulation. I regard hypotheses as provisional, but, so do I regard theories. Historiographical theory must always be provisional, because it can never be finally proven. As long as time continues and people remain constrained within its dimension, theory cannot become ‘truth.’ No matter how many historians reach conclusions that accord with a theory, there is no guarantee that another historian will never find evidence that contradicts the theory. No matter what the state of academic consensus, a theory is subject to disproof if even one historian finds one piece of evidence that disagrees with the theory’s predictions/ prescriptions. That a dissenting historian may be ignored by colleagues does not make their orthodoxy any truer. Because every historian brings a set of theoretical constructs to their work, because history has been assembled as a discipline, and because historical method takes place at the level of theory (there is no physical, actual past in the present to experiment on), in my opinion historiography is chock-full of theory. Scott approaches theory as if it is the means of containing and ordering reality. Yet, as her critique of Stedman Jones illustrates, her discussions of theory become discussions in which whatever past is ostensibly referred to is actually an unpeopled, unlived discourse. She poses questions, the answering of which is destined to be forever put off, because she seeks unanimity in agreement as to what, in theory, that discursively established world looks like. For all her optimistic tone, and assertion that ultimately theorists are positioned to “change the world,” I remain skeptical. I would like to know: whose world? where? how?[22]

One multifaceted theoretical bundle that Scott wonders about is identity. She finds it a source of questions: “How do individuals become members of social groups? How are group identities defined and formed? What influences people to act as members of groups? Are processes of group identification common or variable? How do those marked by multiple differences … determine the salience of one or another of these identities? Can these differences, which together constitute the meanings of individual and collective identities, be conceived of historically?”[23] I differ with Scott on how these questions might be addressed within historiography.

As I interpret her argument, Scott would employ gender as an “analytic tool” based on understanding gender as indicative of “the relations between the sexes … [being] a primary aspect of social organization.” This social organization in which gender is engendered is predicated as hierarchical, as is any gender relation. Inspired by Foucault, what Scott seeks to arrive at is a detailed description of what sorts of ‘power relations’ exist(ed?) in all areas of life were gender can be found. I find two problems in this approach. First, stating gender as a primary and hierarchical aspect of social organization introduces a ‘universalizing’ statement at a level that is too far up the socializing ladder of ‘individuals in society as mode of structuring’ to conceptually allow for the possibility of anything other than a western European model of society as representative of the ‘norm.’ Thus, Western European society escapes historicization and is outside of historical process. Her approach is trapped inside a limited model of the possible predicated on an even smaller notion of the probable.[24] Second, embarking on a Foucaultian-led journey to search out and describe the “expanding” historical sites of ‘multiple and mobile power relations” in which gender is a factor can be expected to yield only an ever-expanding—never completed— description of people relating in various ways. If it does allow for an “end … [to] seeming dichotomies,” it does not logically lead to any sort of explanation. It does not necessarily differ significantly from embarking on a project were the goal is to annotate the life of every person ever born, because, everyone is assumed to be gendered after the universal mode set out in the first objection above.[25]

I agree with Scott’s statement that: “[all] normative statements depend on the refusal or repression of alternative possibilities, and sometimes overt contests about them take place (at what moments and under what circumstances ought to be a concern of historians).”[26] I have therefore attempted to formulate a hypothesis that rests on a universalizing and trans-temporal statement that occurs at as low a level on the socializing ladder as I can get: people want to get along with other people (because odds are they will die if they don’t), but people find getting along with each other difficult. My hypothesis is that the getting-along difficulties arise whenever differences are perceived to exist. What this ‘means’ in my estimation, is: first, that consciousness of difference precedes proclamations of ‘identity’; and second, that a contest over something lies at the heart of every difference. The continuities and discontinuities of contests do not lie outside of historical process. Conceiving of identity formation as a signal of a consciously engaged-in contest allows each of Scott’s questions to be answered.

As to her last one: “Can these differences, which together constitute the meanings of individual and collective identities, be conceived of historically?” my conjecture, as of this moment, is yes. If identity is understood as a signal of contest then it should be possible to choose a historical collectivity as a subject, and through research, determine which identities were predominant, in abeyance, or non-existent among what proportion of members of what sorts of groups within that collectivity through time. This would also shed light on what sorts of contests arise in which kinds of contexts. The point would be to determine whether it is possible to isolate specific catalysts as of central importance to generating consciousness of difference—or not. This would be a historiographical project in which limits can be set that do not preclude arriving at a conclusion that at least suggests the viability of a theoretical explanation. The explanation can be arrived at without the reification of ‘power,’ but, I suspect will make recourse to ‘class’ as a relational, historical phenomenon.


*Written c. 2005 in preparation for PH.D. comp. exam; see “bibliography 2: knowing Social History; Field: Comparative Social History: select themes in consciousness and identity” this site.

[1] Joan Wallach Scott, Gender and thePolitics of History, 7.

[2] Ibid., 3.

[3] Ibid., 54.

[4] Ibid., 2.

[5] Ibid., 22, see also 25.

[6] Ibid., 57, see also 76, 64.

[7] Ibid., 46.

[8] Ibid., 24.

[9] Ibid., 46.

[10] Ibid., 74.

[11] Ibid., 3, 10.

[12] Ibid., 57, 76.

[13] Ibid., 95.

[14] Ibid., 30.

[15] Ibid., 41.

[16] MacKinnon quoted, ibid.,  34.

[17] Ibid., see also 47.

[18] Gareth Stedman Jones, Languages of Class, 253.

[19] Scott, Gender, 35.

[20] Ibid., 17.

[21] Ibid., 41.

[22] Ibid., 67; 56-66, 77.

[23] Ibid., 25.

[24] Ibid., 27.

[25] Ibid., 31.

[26] Ibid., 43; 55.


About hallnjean

PhD in Canadian History
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