Karen Ashcraft and Dennis Mumby
Sage Publications, 2003
Reviewed by Mimi Saunders, socio-cultural anthropologist
Ashcraft and Mumby contend that gender is “a basic constitutive feature of organizations” (96). Reworking Gender explores the multi-faceted relationship between gender and work through a collection of review essays and a brief case study. The reviews consider the research documenting the gendered character of work, gender’s operation in the production and maintenance of work identities and arrangements, and recent work conceptualizing gender itself as a form of labor (190).
The authors’ goal is to articulate a framework – one, they argue, that is only implicit in feminist organizational studies – that will enable scholars to more effectively analyze the multiple meanings of gender and work. In order to fully explore issues of power, discourse, identity, and organization, this framework must incorporate the insights of both modernist and postmodernist theory. According to Ashcraft and Mumby, the model for such a framework already exists in feminism. Born as a modernist project, feminism retains a commitment to social change and supports explanations that are historically and materially grounded. At the same time, feminism’s interest in voice, suspicion of universal knowledge claims, and debates over essentialized notions of ‘woman’ parallel certain postmodern concerns. Positioned within modernism while remaining critical of it, feminism is the ideal guide for “navigating” and “mediating” the tensions between modernist and postmodernist logics (82).
The first four chapters survey feminist and postmodern approaches to organizational research and review feminist engagements with modernist and postmodern approaches in organizational studies. Of particular interest is Ashcraft’s mapping of feminist organizational studies into four categories, each of which highlights a specific aspect of the relationship between discourse, gender, and organization. As specialists in the relatively interdisciplinary field of organizational communication, Ashcraft and Mumby also review the work of sociologists and anthropologists.
Reworking Gender hits its stride in the fifth chapter when the authors propose their own framework – a feminist communicology of organization. Focused on communication, which is defined as a “process through which . . . selves and settings are constituted,” this framework builds on the dialectical tension between modernist and postmodernist approaches (116). For example, the authors argue for analyzing gender as a co-construct that is always constituted in relation to other discourses of difference (other genders, as well as sexuality, class, and race). Likewise power is considered at micro and macro levels as a process of subject-making and subjectification. Thus, the authors advocate a framework that is attuned to both the play of agency and its limits. Discourse, in turn, is consideration in relation to a “material world” shaped by historically-specific political economic forces (175). Finally, the authors “foreground ethical questions” without foreclosing debate on the goals and strategies of political praxis (128). The authors demonstrate how the feminist communicological approach can be applied in a case study that traces the historical construction of the airline pilot as a masculinized professional identity. The final chapter elaborates their framework.
While I found the review essays even handed and insightful, the case study was not entirely successful in achieving the authors’ objectives. Ashcraft and Mumby argue for the importance of analyzing the interplay between micro and macro level communication, but the case study offers few finely textured data beyond Ashcraft’s interviews. This is partly a definitional issue. The authors loosely define micro-level communication as “situated interactions” (172 ), then included corporate press releases, and professional organization newsletters (which I would categorize as meso-level communication) as micro-level practice. The lack of genuine micro-level data can also be attributed to the authors’ relative inexperience with historical research methods.
This book is most significant as a feminist intervention in debates over the centrality of gender in organizational studies. Although the book directly addresses colleagues within Ashcraft and Mumby’s discipline, this book will also interest a broader group of scholars and students who investigate the relationship between gender and work. The book is an instructive reminder of the pervasive presence of gender (as gendered work, the gendering effects of work, and gender as a “work-in-progress”) in formal and informal organizations. Reworking Gender will aid anthropologists who wish to engage with scholars in organizational studies. Advanced undergraduate and graduate students will appreciate the authors’ careful and insightful survey of feminist, modernist, and postmodernist theory. I would not recommend using the volume in its entirety; however I would include selections (i.e. the chapters surveying feminist organizational studies, setting forth the authors’ framework and the case study) in an upper division or graduate level course in the anthropology of work or an undergraduate seminar in feminist research methods.
Mimi Saunders is a sociocultural anthropologist who has taught graduate and undergraduate courses on the anthropology of work, gender and science, and feminist theories of gender and sexuality at University of California Irvine and Davis. She recently completed an essay analyzing the paradoxical processes spread of a standardized classification scheme in California secondary schools. In addition, she is revising a manuscript on teachers’ negotiation of gendered and racialized identities in inner-city high schools.