Reproducing Gender? Essays on Educational Theory and Feminist Politics
reviewed by Haithe Anderson - 2003
Title: Reproducing Gender? Essays on Educational Theory and Feminist Politics
Author(s): Madeleine Arnot
Publisher: Routledge/Falmer, New York
ISBN: 0750708980, Pages: 288, Year: 2002
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This book brings together over two decades of Madeline Arnot’s contributions to the sociology of education. More precisely, it traces her involvement in the debates surrounding social and cultural reproduction theories and girls’ education. This compilation of articles, therefore, will be welcomed by academics who have followed her career, but also by those who wish to learn more about the evolution of reproduction theory. While Arnot’s work responds to social theorists like Pierre Bourdieu (e.g., 1977), Samuel Bowles, Herbert Gintis (1976) and others, she has drawn the greatest substance from Basil Bernstein (her doctoral supervisor in 1972). One of her major contributions to the study of gender and education, for example—her theory of gender codes—is derived from Bernstein’s (e.g., 1971/1975) theory of educational codes. (For her most in-depth treatment of Bernstein’s ideas see chapter 11.) Codes, as Bernstein thought of them, are regulatory devices that establish and reproduce forms of culture and social relations that are dependent on the division of labor. What Arnot added to this mix (and what Bernstein overlooked) was a focus on gender. As several essays in this book assert, we cannot fully understand how schooling reproduces class relations without an in-depth examination of how gender differences are used to maintain and uphold social class divisions.
While the title of the book places an emphasis on gender, as does her theory of gender codes, Arnot’s most original observations center on the education of girls. Her goal, as she mentions throughout the book, is to respond to a tradition in the sociology of education that “was constructed primarily by male academics who have continued to focus almost entirely on boys’ educational experiences” (p. 127). She makes use of the literature on schooling and masculinity when it suits her needs, but she is chiefly concerned with developing a feminist account of girls’ schooling that takes the interaction of social class, gender, and race (albeit to a lesser degree) seriously. The education of girls, in turn, is explored from the angle of pedagogy, curriculum (e.g. the content of school subjects), and educational policy (including an analysis of co-education, but also of school reform).
Though the topics investigated in this book are not new to feminists in education, Arnot’s emphasis on the interactions among home, school and workplace provides a unique point of view. Like Bernstein, she believes that schooling cannot be theorized outside the context of family and her concept of gender codes explores the connection between families and schools while retaining Bowles and Gintis’ (1976) insistence on the importance of schools and economic reproduction. Her major goal, as she says in Chapter Six, is to “expose the structural and interactional features of gender reproduction and conflict in families, in schools and in work places” (p. 117). She is convinced, moreover, that “It is only by reintegrating the family and the waged labour process in our analyses of schooling that we can hope to provide an adequate and a radical critique of current class and gender relations in education” (p. 142).
The clearest development of Arnot’s theory of gender codes, along with her underlying assumptions, can be found in Chapter Six. In her view, new members of society are socialized into hierarchal definitions of masculinity and femininity via a gender code that is put in place by the family and reproduced in schools. Through various forms of classification and modes of transmission “the dimensions of possible activity for both sexes are constructed around the oppositions of work/non-work, management/labour and work/leisure, but the opposition family/non-family overshadows all the others in the case of women” (pp. 120-121). During this process, “the productive world becomes ‘masculine’ even though so many women work within it, and the family world becomes ‘feminine’ even though men partner women in building a home” (p. 120).
To avoid appearing overly deterministic (a wide spread criticism of reproduction theories in general), Arnot prefaces her theory with three major assumptions. The first insists that gender is a social construct and, as a product of historical ways of thinking, she argues that gender is best viewed as a continuum. Her second major assumption flows from the first one—our experiences of gender classifications are not universal, nor are they fixed or unitary; not only are our notions of gender contextual, they are also very complex and contradictory. Her final assumption is that the analysis of gender and education should be predicated on a concept of difference that, in turn, is reinforced and insisted upon within the context of social class differences. The only meaningful way to understand gender and education, in short, is to understand how the dominant ideology “successfully hides the fact that gender is a cultural variable and one which is constructed within the context of class and gender power relations” (p. 119).
Although the majority of these essays are focused on the primary and secondary years of schooling, chapter eleven shifts our attention to the experiences of academic women. In it Arnot explores “the subjective positioning of women academics in relation to male theory and considers how such intellectual encounters contribute to the development of gender theory” (p. 226). She is particularly interested in how female academics from around the world—both feminists and non-feminists—describe their engagement with Bernstein’s theory of transmission and his sociology of pedagogy. Two key themes emerged from her interviews with these women. The first one is focused on the power and attraction of Bernstein’s theory; the other focuses on the relevance of his theory for the construction of a theory of gender pedagogy. The upshot is that, despite the fact that many consider Bersteinian ways of knowing to be male-centered (which some of her respondents found problematic while others did not), all experienced generative possibilities in his work and productively applied what they learned from him in the contexts of their particular interests.
This anthology stands as a worthy testament to a very productive academic career. In the end, however, I remain skeptical about some of the claims that Arnot used to situate and justify her contributions. After placing her work in “the emerging field of gender scholarship in education,” for example, she goes on to claim that the “originality of the field of gender and education research lies in its commitment to social analysis linked to critical praxis” (p. 1). None of Arnot's articles, however, directly substantiate this claim; while her work is filled with social analysis, it is difficult to see how it is any more (or less) committed to linking social analysis to critical praxis than the work of the non-feminist sociologists she critiques. If critical praxis refers to the ability of academic ideas to stimulate and provoke social change, in other words, it is not clear how her writing (or the writing of academic feminists in general) demonstrates a unique propensity to do that.
This is not to accuse Arnot of being apolitical; her writing is clearly political. Nor do I wish to rob her (or other feminists devoted to this ideal) of the exalted feeling that the “my-work-has-a-wider-social-utility” claim provides. I would like to insist, however, that if highly theoretical articles like the ones found in this book do impact social practice outside of academe, their impact will be varied as well as unpredictable.
What I can say with more surety, on the other hand, is that Arnot’s work has had a critical impact on practice within the academy and on the work of theorizing gender and education in particular. Like the academics she interviews in Chapter Eleven, in sum, she has made productive use of the ideas she inherited and new generations of scholars should be able to do the same with her work.
Berstein, B. (1971/1975). Class, codes and control (Vols. 1-3). London: Routledge & Kegan Paul.
Bourdieu, P. (1977). Outline of a theory of practice. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Bowles, S. & Ginitis, H. (1976). Schooling in capitalist America: Educational reform and the contradictions of economic life. New York: Basic Books.