Deconstructing equality versus difference: Or the uses of poststructuralist theory for

Deconstructing equality versus difference: Or
the uses of poststructuralist theory for
feminism/Joan. W. Scott
Claim: feminism needs theory
that can analyse the workings of patriarchy in all
its manifestations – ideological, institutional,
organizational, subjective – that can account for
continuities and change.
Her answer: poststructuralism
Why? It provides new ways of analysing
constructions of meaning and relationships of
power that called unitary, universal categories
into question and historicized concepts
otherwise treated as natural (e.g. man/woman) or
absolute (equality or justice).
Language: a meaning constituting system
through which meaning is constructed and
cultural practices organized and by which,
accordingly people represent and understand
their world, including who they are and how
they relate to others.
 Language is not a representation of ideas.
 Analysis of language provides a point of
entry for understanding how social relations
are conceived (i.e. how they work: how
institutions are organized, how relations of
production are experienced, and how
collective identity is established.
 Words and texts have no fixed or intrinsic
 There is no transparent or self-evident
relationship between words and texts, nor
between ideas or things.
 There is no basic or ultimate correspondence
between language and the world.
Questions how meaning has been acquired?
 How and in which specific contexts, among
specific communities of people and by
which textual and social processes has
meaning been acquired?
 How meanings change?
 How have some meanings emerged as
normative and others have been
 What do these processes reveal about how
power is constituted and operates?
Discourse: is a historically, socially and
institutionally specific structure of statements,
terms, categories and beliefs.(Foucault)
 The elaboration of meaning involves
conflict and power.
 Meanings are locally contested within
discursive 'field of force".
 The power to control a particular field
resides in claims to (scientific) knowledge
embodied in disciplinary and professional
organizations, in institutions (hospitals,
prisons, schools, factories) and in social
relationships (doctor/patient),
teacher/student, employer/worker,
parent/child, husband/wife).
 Discourse is contained or expressed in
organizations and institutions as well as in
 Discursive field overlap, influence and
compete with one another.
 They appeal to one another's "truths" for
authority and legitimation.
 Conflicts within discoursive fields are
framed to follow from rather then question
the legitimating "truths".
 We are often drawn into the assumptions of
the very discourse we ought to question.
Significance of Foucault's work: thinking
differently about the politics of the contextual
construction of social meanings, about
organizing principles for political action as
"equality" and "difference".
Difference: Meaning is made through implicit
or explicit contrast, that a positive definition
rests on the negation or repression of something
represented as antithetical to it.
(Any unitary concept contains repressed or
negated material: it is established in explicit
opposition to another terms.
 Any analysis of meaning involves teasing
out these negations and opposition, figuring
out how (and whether) they are operating in
specific contexts.
 Oppositions rest on metaphors and crossreferences.
 Sexual difference (masculine/feminine)
serves to encode or establish meanings that
are literally unrelated to gender or the body.
The meanings of gender become tied to
cultural representations and these in turn
establish terms by which relations between
women and men are organized and
The interdependence is hierarchical with one
term dominant or prior, the opposite term
secondary and subordinate.
Western binary oppositions (Derrida)
Unity/diversity, identity/difference,
presence/absence, universality/specificity
 First term given primacy, the second weaker
or derivative.
 First terms derive their meaning from the
second. Secondary terms can be seen as
generative of the first terms.
 Analysis of meaning cannot take binary
oppositions at face value but must
"deconstruct" them for the process they
Deconstruction: Analyzing the operations of
difference in texts, the ways in which meanings
are made to work.
1. the reversal
2. displacement of binary oppositions.
Aim: revealing the interdependence of
seemingly dichotomous terms and their
meaning relative to a particular history.
Achievement: Shows that oppositions are not
natural but constructive oppositions,
constructed for particular contexts.
Equality versus difference
(equality is not the elimination of difference, and
difference does not preclude equality)
"The difference dilemma"
 ignoring difference in the case of
subordinated groups  leads faulty
(e.g. employing who is best according to the
criteria imposed by the historically dominant
group – men, whites, the healthy).
 focusing on difference can underscore the
stigma or deviance.
(e.g. affirmative action/ Did she get the job
because she is black, woman or
Alternative: rejecting the idea that equalityversus-difference constitutes an opposition.
 Ask how the dichotomous pairing of
equality and difference itself works. i.e. how
concepts work to constraint and construct
specific meanings
attention to the operations of difference and
insistence on differences not a simple
substitution of multiply for binary difference.
1. Systematic criticism of the operations of
categorical differences, revealing exclusions
and inclusions – hierarchies - it constructs.
2. A refusal of their ultimate "truth".
(refusal not in the name of sameness or
identity but in the name of an equality that
rests on differences)
What does these differences do?
 Confound, disrupt and render
ambiguous the meaning of any fixed
binary opposition.