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What Is the Relationship between Gender and Discourse?

By Emily Daw
Updated: May 23, 2024

In sociolinguistics and other related areas of academia, discourse is usually defined as the relationship between language and its real-world context. Many researchers and theorists relate discourse specifically to power structures in a given society, and this is the area where there is the most overlap between gender and discourse. Approaches to gender and discourse research may analyze the way language reflects or influences gender stereotypes, or they may discuss the differences between how men and women use language.

Much use of the word discourse in the late 20th and early 21st centuries was influenced by the work of the French philosopher Michel Foucault, who defined the use of language and other sign systems as a means to control people's actions. Drawing on Foucault's theories, many researchers have analyzed gender in relation to existing social and cultural power structures. Some theorists argue that the way language is used re-enforces existing power structures, while others claim that discourse simply reflects the existing state of affairs. The relationship between power and discourse may also be viewed as cyclical or mutually re-enforcing: social structures influence language, and language influences social structures. Foucaultian approaches to gender and discourse tend to focus on the relationship between gender and power.

Some research focuses on the difference between how men and women are portrayed in discourse. For instance, some studies of gender and discourse analyze the way men and women are viewed in public communication, such as advertising or TV. The goal of such analysis is often to reveal the unspoken assumptions about gender interactions and the underlying power structures that these interactions reveal.

On the other hand, a significant portion of gender discourse studies analyzes the difference between how women and men themselves use language. These types of studies almost always concentrate on a particular culture or sub-culture. For example, one study of Malagasy-speaking people revealed women's speech to be more direct in that cultural context, while men's speech was more round-about. This study provoked debate about the types of power wielded when each style of communication was used.

Across many different cultures, women's speech styles are often found to have power within domestic circumstances, while men's speech is believed to be more powerful in public settings. Most theorists believe that this difference is due primarily to the way boys and girls are socialized from a young age, rather than from innate biological differences between the sexes. They may disagree, however, about whether these differences constitute a form of societal oppression of women. Those who identify as gender-egalitarian or gender-liberal may argue that these differences should not exist. On the other hand, some people, such as difference feminists, would respond that although the power assigned to women in society is of a different type than that assigned to men, it is not an inherently unequal system.

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Discussion Comments
By fify — On Mar 25, 2014

@stoneMason-- I'm not sure but I don't think we can make many generalizations about gender in discourse within a society. I think it varies from subgroup to subgroup.

By stoneMason — On Mar 25, 2014

Has anyone here looked into studies about men's and women's discourse in the US and what they reveal?

I have a theory that American women are less oppressed and so the discourse of American men and women must be more similar than discourse of men and women in other countries.

For example, I think that in many patriarchial societies, women share their opinion less, especially when men are around. In such cultures, women usually suggest ideas but are not able to make or express decisions. Men usually decide for them and their discourse is stern.

Does anyone agree with me?

By fBoyle — On Mar 24, 2014

I think that discourse both reflects existing state of affairs and reinforces existing power structures. I don't think it's one or the other, both occur simultaneously.

For example, discourse in films are not only a reflection of current dynamics in society, but it also reinforces or supports those dynamics. I think that discourse has a huge impact on how society views gender. I think that society is like a sponge, absorbing information it is provided with. So when discourse is used to make a statement about gender, society may start thinking this way even if it did not previously. At the same time, this discourse does not come out of nowhere. It is based on already existing social structures.

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