Browsing through books: 5 books about (gendered) social relations

This is a post with five brief reviews of books that I consider to explore (gendered) social relations, one way or another.  I have read these library books slowly. But now the loans cannot be renewed anymore due to (1) the Aalto library database change and/or (2) my inability to use the new system, so I decided to crunch reviews together. This is another great opportunity to do a multi-book review.

Crafting Selves: Power, gender, and discourse of identity in a Japanese workplace by Marie Kondo (1990, The University of Chicago Press)

Initially I started to read this book because it was mentioned by a number of scholars as an example of experiential writing. Moreover, it is an ethnographic account so I decided to read it, although Japanese workplace in the 1980s is not self-evidently related to postgrowth work in 2020s. However, after some pages I was hooked! The way the narrative is written is fascinating. It makes visible the author’s own position in academia and elsewhere, their fieldwork and their conceptual work. If you ever have wondered how to include the wholeness of ethnographic fieldwork in one book, this is an excellent example.

The book has illuminative examples of culture and tension that a Japanese American woman  living Japan creates. Looking like a Japanese person but not knowing how to act like one in social situations crafts out identity in a powerful manner. In her ethnography, the author surrenders to be taught to behave like a good Japanese unmarried young woman. This reminds me how cultures and subcultures are being renewed by teaching and learning, although not necessarily in a such obvious way.

Due to a recent discussion about a text I wrote that was rejected because it was too personal to match the style of the outlet, I offer you a quote that caught my eye:

‘Making space in academic discourse for the personal and experiential (an invocation in turn never merely private, but created by culturally and historically specific discursive conventions, including the routinization of reflexivity in contemporary ethnography) still seems to me worthwhile in a world that valorizes conventional theoretical discussion of canonical texts and pays little attention to experimental writing strategies, particularly if they draw upon what is conventionally labelled “personal experience.”  For example, in a graduate seminar at Harvard, male students could label accounts using an experimental, first-person voice an “immature” form of reflexivity, while only works that displayed traditional “theoretical” prowess through a distant, third-person voice and lengthy discussions of canonical texts in social theory earned the accolade “mature reflexivity”. (Perhaps not incidentally, the “immature” account was written by a woman, the “mature” account by a man.) Reproducing the split between “personal” and “theoretical” in this conventional way in turn reinscribes and legitimizes the generic conventions of academic discourse and the monastic conceit of disinterested objectivity in the ivory tower, where the dispassionate, panoptical gaze of a Master Subject surveys all. My deployment of personal voice, experiential voices is opposed to this view, and I would instead argue that the theory/experience binary is permeable.’ (Kondo 1990: 303)

No wonder this book is considered exceptional. Because it is.

Climate change and gender in Rich Countries: Work, public policy and action by Marjorie Griffin Cohen (ed.) (2017, Routledge)

This edited book focuses on climate change and gender in rich countries. It is refreshing to see gender spelled out next to environmental issues. As a scholar deeply inspired by ecofeminist and feminist ecological thinking, I jump to every opportunity to deepen my knowledge about these themes. I especially appreciate this book because of its explicit focus on rich countries. The editor justifies this focus on data availability, but I would add a moral component to the limitation. It is rich countried after all who should lead the way toward carbon neutral future, because they have caused much of the emissions in the first place.

As is usually the case with edited books, I asked the Aalto library to order it due to a number chapters that I find interesting. In the process, several others emerged. In addition to the Introduction, the following chapters caught my attention:

Ch 3 It’s Not Just the Numbers: Challenging Masculinist Working Practices in Climate Change Decision-Making in UK Government and Environmental Non-Governmental Organizations by Susan Buckingham & Rakibe Kulcur

Ch 6 UK Environmental and Trade Union Groups’ Struggles to Integrate Gender Issues into Climate Change Analysis and Activism by Carl Mandy

Ch 11 Towards Humane Jobs: Recognizing Gendered, Multispecies Intersections and Possibilities by Kendra Coulter

Ch 12 Maybe Tomorrow Will Be Better: Gender and Farm Work in a Changing Climate by Amber Fletcher

Ch 13 Understanding the Gender Labours of Adaptation to Climate Change in Forest-Based Communities Through Different Models of Analysis by Maureen G. Reed

Ch 19 Using Information about Gender and Climate Change to Inform Green Economic Policies by Marjorie Griffin Cohen

The chapters are all quite short, which increases the probability of people reading them. Then again, short presentation forces the authors to leave something out. There is a danger that the text merely touches some interesting points before moving on to next ones. Nevertheless, I think this book is a welcomed addition to the ever increasing literature on gender and the environment.

The transnational activist: Transformations and comparisons from the Anglo-world since the nineteenth century by Stefan Berger and Sean Scalmer (Eds.) (2018, Palgrave Macmillian)

This is an edited volume with 13 chapters. This book dispels unawareness of transnational activism in Anglo-world before ‘nowadays.’ Indeed, the youth is often considered more globalised than the previous generations, although this book shows powerful examples, such as late 18th century anti-slavery activism.  The signifigance of these chapters is that they focus on the globalisation of social movements before the internet.  Can you imagine that? The editors write that global actors, such as Marx, Lenin and Gandhi, worked in ‘an era of newsprint, steamships, and the telegraph.’ Invasive knowledge is power!

The chapter that I wanted to read is From the Local to the Global and Back Again: The Rainforest Information Centre and Transnational Environmental Activism in the 1980s by Iain McIntyre (p. 283-309). Due to my (action) research with Meidän metsämme, I have been paying attention to forest related activism everywhere. It was magnificent to read about the opposition of deforestation during the time when I was a child. Poeple of forest have been there always.

The editors emphasise that the book is about Anglo-world transnational activism. Anglo-World was created by United Kingdom’s colonialism and later by its colonies, such as the United States. The limitation is deliberate and invites to explore the history of other regions. While I’m not a historian, I see the value in learning about the past. There has been people and other-than-humans before us. Learning from them challenges the great, and false, narrative of continious linear development.

Harold Garfinkel ja etnometodologia by John Heritage, translated by Ilkka Arminen, Outi Paloposki, Anssi Peräkylä, Sanna Vehviläinen ja Soile Veijola (1990, Gaudeamus)

Harold Garfinkel and ethnomethodology comes up every now and then when I read ethnographies or studies about organisations. I realised that I know his thinking too little, so I borrowed this translation of John Heritage’s book. I have to admit that I skimmed the book instead of reading it  systematically. This is most likely because ethnomethodology is not something I pursue intentionally. However, I am truly impressed of the width and breadth of Garfinkel’s work throughout his career.

The main argument grounding his versatile work is that social relations and institutions are reproduced constantly by (unintentional) choice, because people are socialised into norms and rules when they grow up. Heritage points out that Garfinkel showed remarkable imagination in his ability to observe the ways institutions and social relations are reproduced in specific locations. It is not easy to step ooutside one’s perception, I have noticed. Heritage argues that ethnomethodology is a social scientific innovation comparable to the microscope in natural sciences. While it is impossible to use such detailed analysis for an overall universal social theory, it enables new studies and findings constantly.

When skimming the book, I read more carefully the sections that deal with analysing institutions, conversations and work. These three themes are definitely important for my research as well. Especially in relation to working life studies Heritage points out how Garfinkel and other scholars have noticed the limits of social sciences in making sense of professions and professional knowledge. If we can only analyse the social interactions from the outside and/or provide naturalistic lists of practices done by the practitioners, what can social sciences really say about being X, a profession, and doing Y, activities specific for profession X? I struggle with this question weekly, if not daily. What can I say about postgrowth work as an ethnographer and an environmental social scientists?

Ruumiillisuus ja työelämä — Työruumis jälkiteollisessa taloudessa by Jaana Parviainen, Taina  Kinnunen and Ilmari Kortelainen (Eds.) (2017, Vastapaino)

Corporeality and working life – working bodies in post-industrial economy  (my translation) is an edited volume of 13 texts by Finnish speaking scholars. I got this originally for a Finnish academic text I was writing with a colleague, but we did not end up using this as a reference.  However, this does not take away the value of these texts, quite the contrary.

Many of the texts analyse the contradictions of workers in contemporary society. While wealth measured in currency is in its historical peak, some people feel pressured to work more and, thus, instrumentalised. The chapters highlight interesting case studies and sharp observations of how bodies are (not) expected to function in post-industrial economies.

While I consider the chapters fascinating, I also missed a longer introduction to the theme beyond what corporeality is about in social theorising. What are the contemporary advances in and challenges of (studying) corporeality in the time of ecological crisis? This could be a theme to explore myself.

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