Marjorie Harness Goodwin
Hoboken, NJ: Wiley-Blackwell, 2006

Reviewed by Jamie Sherman, Princeton University

Carol Gilligan’s influential 1982 book In a Different Voice posited distinct male and female “orientations” to moral development, with males concerned with rights, rules, separation and independence, and females preoccupied with relationships, care, attachment and dependence. In legitimizing women’s access to “ways of knowing,” the work may be seen as a response to prevalent perceptions of men as powerful, women as powerless. Critics, Marjorie Harness Goodwin among them, argue that Gilligan’s work nonetheless served to bolster stereotypic assumptions that place women and girls in a “dualistic deficit model” that has shaped much subsequent research within psychology and the social sciences, including Anthropology. In The Hidden Life of Girls, Goodwin counters such “dual cultures” theories through conversational analysis of playground dynamics amongst girls aged 10-12. Goodwin’s book offers both an analytical argument against a-historical and a-contextual understandings of female cultural worlds, and a methodological argument for conversational analysis – close reading of the “sequential organization of the stream of talk-in-interaction” – as revealing the mechanisms through which social and moral worlds are constructed and enforced.

Resting broadly on 35 years of research in elementary schools across the United States, and more narrowly on evidence gathered in a three year longitudinal study of children at a multi-racial charter school in Los Angeles, California, Goodwin uses video and audiotape to capture children’s talk and play. This largely observational method is posited as a corrective to research that too frequently relies on laboratory settings and interview techniques. Although from a cultural-anthropological perspective one might wish for a less cursory discussion of ethnographic emphasis on observation over participation, the focus of the project on children’ processes of social construction give this method some clear, if not unproblematic advantages.
Structurally, and despite a unifying argument in relation to dual cultures, the book feels more like a series of points than an unfolding. Chapters are structured around stereotypes associated with feminine sociality that are then refuted through conversational analysis of various activities. Chapter Two confronts the perception of girls’ games as simple, cooperative, and noncompetitive by examining hopscotch games in different contexts across the United States. From Chapter Three on, the book narrows its focus to a “popular clique” of girls at a multi-ethnic, socio-economically diverse school in Los Angeles; it addresses girls’ concerns with justice and debate (Chapter Three), shifting dynamics of power and communication in jump roping (Chapter Four), the indexing of social status (Chapters Five and Six), and the management of group boundaries in direct and indirect modes of gossip and exclusion (Chapter Seven). Because Goodwin focuses discussion on kinds of activities, chapters have a tendency to shift around the temporally such that one never gets a sense of the children as a group evolving over time, nor as a community one might “enter” and get to know. This rhetorical distance from her subjects, in conjunction with a tendency toward the technical language of “format tying,” “polarity markers,” and “aggravated correction,” make for a dry and somewhat challenging read despite the inherent “juiciness” of the material. Thankfully, examples are frequent and serve to vividly illuminate the sometimes dense vocabulary. A clearer discussion, however, of connections between technical categorizations and global theoretical points would have been helpful. It is not entirely clear, for example, why Goodwin chooses “conversational analysis” over “practice theory,” or why it is necessary to establish that particular games may be considered “situated activity systems.”

Goodwin’s preoccupation with countering dualistic models of gendered interaction, while providing a strong and convincing core argument, represents the book’s chief limitation, flattening the complexity and nuance clearly evident in the examples. This is particularly frustrating in her discussion of the role of class and ethnicity. Goodwin argues that the girls construct and negotiate social hierarchies through embodied practices of inclusion and exclusion that make symbolic reference to both class and ethnicity, yet she never addresses the place and relevance of tensions, ambiguities and exceptions clearly present in the group she studies. In Chapter Five, for example, she finds that girls reproduce hierarchies of social class through discussions of middle class activities, such as music or dance lessons to which poorer children have no access. In Chapter Six, one of the central examples is a discussion criticizing another (absent) girl for being overly materialistic, “too trendy” in contrast to those present who don’t mind if their shirts are two years old. Yet Goodwin never discusses the relationship between these two dynamics, nor how these class distinctions play out for “Sarah,” the one working class girl in an otherwise middle and upper class clique.

These problems notwithstanding, The Hidden Life of Girls brings light to bear on important issues that make individual chapters good candidates for academic coursework focused on anthropological questions of gender, education, childhood, and the relationship between everyday interactions and the construction of larger social and moral categories. While the focus is on girls, the wealth of comparison with all boy and mixed gender contexts makes clear the interdependence of gendered categories and provokes thought, if not nearly enough discussion, on the distinctions between them. Goodwin’s effective disruption of the popular Mars versus Venus conceptualization of male and female “cultures” stands as an important corrective, and both her analysis and the rich examples serve nicely to illustrate culture and social order as constructed through practices where children are anything but passive and absorbent. The structure of the chapters as self-contained units make it easy to assign portions of the text in conjunction with other readings, and the familiarity of these games to (at least) American born students lends the material a resonance that the discursive style of the book sometimes lacks.

References Cited
Gilligan, Carol. In a Different Voice : Psychological Theory and Women’s Development. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1982.

Goodwin, Marjorie Harness. The Hidden Life of Girls: Games of Stance, Status, and Exclusion, Blackwell Studies in Discourse and Culture. Malden, MA: Blackwell Pub., 2006.

Jamie Sherman is a doctoral candidate at Princeton University working on questions of gender, race, performance and urban experience in the United States. Her dissertation fieldwork explores ideological and bodily transformations in a hardcore bodybuilding gym in Brooklyn, NY.

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