talking and listening from women's standpoint

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    Talking and Listening from Women's Standpoint: Feminist Strategies for Interviewing andAnalysisAuthor(s): Marjorie L. DevaultSource: Social Problems, Vol. 37, No. 1, (Feb., 1990), pp. 96-116Published by: University of California Press on behalf of the Society for the Study of SocialProblemsStable URL: 10/06/2008 01:35

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  • Talking and Listening from Women's Standpoint: Feminist Strategies for Interviewing and Analysis* MARJORIE L. DEVAULT, Syracuse University

    This article combines feminist perspectives on women and language with a recent emphasis in qualitative meth- ods on linguistic aspects of interview research. The feminist proposition that language is often incongruent with the realities of women 's experiences provides an opening for methodological strategies aimed at the recovery and analysis of experiences that women often have difficulty articulating. Analytic strategies are discussed in relation to four research processes, each conceived in terms of language use: constructing topics, listening to respondents, transcribing and editing interview material, and writing about respondents' lives.

    The research generated by academic feminism-involving a new and careful attention to women's experiences-is beginning to "bring women in" to theorizing. But this research also demonstrates how traditional paradigms have been shaped by the concerns and relevances of a relatively small group of powerful men. The dilemma for the feminist scholar, always, is to find ways of working within some disciplinary tradition while aiming at an intellectual revolution that will transform that tradition (Stacey and Thorne 1985). In order to transform sociology-to write women and their diverse experiences into the discipline-we need to move toward new methods for writing about women's lives and activities without leaving sociology altogether. But the routine procedures of the discipline pull us insistently toward conventional understandings that distort women's experiences (Smith 1987, 1989).

    Feminist methodology should provide strategies for managing this central contradic- tion-strategies that will help us with the "balancing act" demanded of any scholar who at- tempts innovative research within a scholarly tradition. I use the term "strategies" to suggest that feminist methodology will not prescribe a single model or formula. Rather, I think of feminist methods as distinctive approaches to subverting the established procedures of disci- plinary practice tied to the agendas of the powerful (Smith 1974). In the discussion that fol- lows, I pursue some implications of feminism for the production and use of interview data. I do not treat questions about the ethics of interviewing or relations with informants, which have been discussed extensively by feminist researchers (e.g., Mies 1983; Oakley 1981; Reinharz 1983; Stacey 1988). In many ways, my approach is solidly grounded in a tradition of qualitative sociological inquiry and in relatively conventional methods for conducting inter- views. But I will suggest that feminism gives us distinctive ways of extending the methods of this qualitative tradition.

    I begin with an observation central to much feminist thinking: that language itself re- flects male experiences, and that its categories are often incongruent with women's lives. This apparent obstacle to expression, I will argue, can be turned to advantage through attention to

    * An earlier version of this paper was presented at the annual meeting of the Society for the Study of Symbolic Interaction, New York, August 1986, and portions of that talk were excerpted in Women and Language, 1987, 10:33-36. I am indebted to Arlene Kaplan Daniels and Howard S. Becker for teaching me about interviewing and for helpful comments on this paper; to the late Marianne Paget, Dorothy E. Smith, Darlene Douglas-Steele and Judith Wittner for many discussions of these issues; to the Stone Center for Developmental Services and Studies at Wellesley College, where I began to write this paper; and to Syracuse University, whose assistance enabled me to complete the work. Correspondence to: DeVault, Department of Sociology, Syracuse University, Syracuse, NY 13244-4300.

    96 SOCIAL PROBLEMS, Vol. 37, No. 1, February 1990

  • Feminist Interviewing and Analysis 97

    research as activity fundamentally grounded in talk. Qualitative researchers of various sorts have become increasingly conscious in recent years of the obvious but mostly taken-for- granted feature of the data they collect: that interviews consist of talk (Paget 1983; Mishler 1986a). This new awareness is related to the insights of phenomenologists, who investigate the production of everyday consciousness (see e.g., Psathas 1973; Darroch and Silvers 1983), and ethnomethodologists, who have taken as problematic the patterns of talk and interaction through which the members of any group constitute a shared reality (Garfinkel 1967; Heritage 1984). I will suggest that this new kind of attention to the language of research should be central to the feminist project. Assuming relatively standard procedures for interviewing, I will examine, as social interaction grounded in language, four aspects of work with interview data: constructing topics, listening, editing, and writing. My aim is to bring into the method- ological discussion insights from feminist linguists about women's relation to language and to speech, and to examine, as aspects of social research, the processes of talking and listening "as women." My understanding of what it means to talk or listen "as a woman" is based on the concept of "women's standpoint" (Smith 1987; Hartsock 1981); the approach does not imply that all women share a single position or perspective, but rather insists on the importance of following out the implications of women's (and others') various locations in socially organized activities (see also DeVault 1990).

    Women and Language

    Language was an early topic for feminist researchers and by now there is a large body of research on women and language (for summaries, see Thorne and Henley 1975; Lakoff 1975; Miller and Swift 1977; Spender [1980] 1985; Thorne, Kramarae, and Henley 1983). These stud- ies demonstrate how linguistic forms (the generic "he," for example) exclude women, and how vocabulary and syntax make women deviant. The names of experiences often do not fit for women. For an example that is simple and immediate, consider the difficulties that arise in an attempt to apply the terms "work" and "leisure" to most women's lives. Many of the household activities so prominent in women's lives do not fit comfortably into either category (see e.g., Smith 1987:68), and many of women's activities, such as family, community, and volunteer work, are best described as "invisible work" (Daniels 1987). There are other exam- ples-the terms "public" and "private," for example, construct a distinction that obscures wo- men's "multiple crisscrossings" of fluid and constantly shifting boundaries (Saraceno 1984:7). Such disjunctures between language and women's lives have been central to feminist scholar- ship; presumably, there are many more to be revealed. Presumably, as well, the lack of fit between women's lives and the words available for talking about experience present real difficulties for ordinary women's self-expression in their everyday lives. If words often do not quite fit, then women who want to talk of their experiences must "translate," either saying things that are not quite right, or working at using the language in non-standard ways.

    To some extent, this kind of problem must exist for everyone: language can never fit perfectly with individual experience. My claim, however, is that the problems of what we might call linguistic incongruence must be greater for some groups than for others. Research on gender differences in speech provides some support for this claim, suggesting that, in at least some contexts, women face particular difficulties of speech. In mixed-sex dyads and groups, women are less listened to than men and less likely to be credited for the things they say in groups; they are interrupted more often than men; the topics they introduce into con- versations are less often taken up by others; and they do more work than men to keep conver- sations going. Further, Candace West (1982) suggests that responses to speech are so thoroughly gendered that women cannot overcome these difficulties by simply adopting "male" styles: she found that when women did interrupt male speakers, they were more

  • 98 DEVAULT

    likely than male interrupters to be ignored, a pattern she speculatively attributes t

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