Doing Gender: A Conversation Analytic Perspective by Cel;ia Kitzinger (2009)

Gender & Society
Doing Gender : A Conversation Analytic Perspective
Celia Kitzinger
Gender & Society 2009 23: 94 DOI: 10.1177/0891243208326730
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DOING GENDER A Conversation Analytic Perspective
CELIA KITZINGER University of York
Re-reading Doing Gender has confirmed its status for me both as a landmark publication and as a missed opportunity. Its achievement was to build on, develop, and promote Garfinkel’s (1967) focus on the mundane production of gender in interaction. What was missing was a description of a scholarly method for doing so.
Doing Gender was published in the same year as my first book, The Social Construction of Lesbianism (Kitzinger 1987). Although my per- spective derived from the sociology of knowledge (especially Berger and Luckmann 1967) and West and Zimmerman’s from ethnomethodology, there were clear resonances between my interest in understanding how the category “lesbian” was constructed, negotiated, and managed and their concern with “what is involved in doing gender as an ongoing activity embedded in everyday interaction” (West and Zimmerman 1987, 130). What these two pieces also share is that neither had a methodology ade- quate to its theoretical aims.
According to West and Zimmerman (1987, 127) the aim of their article was primarily theoretical. Although various studies were cited as provid- ing evidence of “doing gender,” no particular attention was paid to the methodologies used in these studies, which seem—with a few exceptions— to be a mix of analysis of ethnographic observation, interviews, and diaries. The implication of this omission is that the practices involved in “doing gender” can be isolated and described by relatively straightforward sociological observation and self-report. Effectively the same position is taken in Doing Difference (West and Fenstermaker 1995), which extends the ethnomethodological theory of gender to cover race and class (rele- gating “sexual orientation” to footnote 15), and treats the production of these “differences” as transparently accessible both to the sociological observer and (often) to social participants themselves.
GENDER & SOCIETY, Vol. 23 No. 1, February 2009 94-98 DOI: 10.1177/0891243208326730
© 2009 Sociologists for Women in Society

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Kitzinger / DOING GENDER 95
It is of course true that many ways of “doing gender” (or “doing sexu- ality,” “doing race,” etc.) are blatantly apparent. But ethnomethodology’s special focus has always been on the “seen but unnoticed” (Garfinkel 1967, 36) background features of everyday scenes—features which, precisely because they are “unnoticed,” cannot by definition (except under very spe- cial circumstances) be the subject of self-report.
At the time Doing Gender was written, a method for uncovering nor- mative understandings in ordinary interaction was already in existence. Conversation analysis (CA) emerged out of ethnomethodology in the 1960s and 1970s. West and Zimmerman not only knew about it but also, over the previous decade, had used CA in their own work to make claims about “doing gender” and “doing power” in face-to-face interaction (e.g., West 1984; West and Zimmerman 1977, 1982, 1983). The theoretical position advanced in Doing Gender is important in laying the groundwork for developing a conversation analytic approach to the study of genders and sexualities, so it is curious that not only does the article stop short of recommending CA—it never even mentions it. Despite reading—and teaching with—Doing Gender from around the time of its publication, nothing in their article motivated me to seek out the authors’ conversation analytically inspired publications until a decade later when, as a newly trained conversation analyst, I discovered belatedly that others had tried to bring the technical field of CA to bear on issues of power and oppression in everyday life.
CA relies on actual recorded interactions and uses its key discoveries about interactional practices to uncover embedded presuppositions of social participants in the course of ongoing interactions. Understanding these presuppositions can illuminate the operation of power and oppres- sion in everyday life. For example, one feature of the oppression of les- bians, gay men, and bisexual and transgendered people is that—unlike heterosexuals—there are many situations in which we do not freely reveal our “difference” to strangers. By contrast, heterosexuals very commonly make their heterosexuality apparent to total strangers in the first few sec- onds of a new interaction—as in this episode, drawn from the opening moments of a telephone conversation to a doctor staffing a phone line for the British National Health Service (Kitzinger 2005). As is quite common in these out-of-hours calls, the caller is requesting a home visit.
[DEC 1-2-12]
1 Doctor: Hello:,
2 Caller: Hel:lo, is that’ th’ doctor

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96 GENDER & SOCIETY / February 2009
  1. 3  Doctor:
  2. 4  Caller:
  1. 6  Doctor:
  2. 7  Caller:
  1. 9  Doctor:
  2. 10  Caller:
  3. 11  Doctor:
<Yes, Doctor {(deleted)) speaki::ng,
i:i: Yeah couldja’s come an’ see my wife please, ,h[h

She’s breathless,<She can’t .hh get ‘er

breath.hh! .n[hhh
[What’s: her
Ru- an’ where do you live.

The speaker refers to his “wife” in a cultural context in which only people categorized as male are legally entitled to enter the institution of marriage with women, thereby displaying himself to be both apparently male and apparently heterosexual. These early displays of heterosexuality are commonplace. By contrast, examination of over 150 calls to and from lesbian households reveals none in which a speaker displays her lesbian- ism to a stranger in the first few moments of the interaction (Land and Kitzinger 2005).
When speakers use reference terms like “my husband” or “my wife” that present them as members of heterosexual marriage, this has conse- quences for the way the interaction unfolds. For example, when the doctor agrees to make a home visit (as in the extract above, he routinely asks the caller for a home address. In designing his request, he displays inferences about the residential arrangements between caller and patient. Briefly (and somewhat oversimplified) when the caller refers to the patient as “my wife”, “my husband” or “my baby” (as in the extract above, line 4) the doctor asks “Where do you live”' (line 11); when the caller refers to the patient as “my friend” the doctor asks “Where does she (or he) live”. In differentially designing his questions in this way, he makes visible his presumption that married persons (and their young children) live together, and that friends do not which—in concert with other of his practices analysed in Kitzinger 2005—reflects and helps to constitute dominant western taken-for-granted heteronormative pre- sumptions about “the family.”
These presumptions, and the practices through which they are made manifest, are unlikely to be described in self-report interviews. Only by working on recorded data (not field notes) and on naturally occurring interaction (not interviews reporting those interactions) is this kind of detailed examination of “doing heteronormativity” made possible. A CA analysis exposes one of the mundane ways in which people—without
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Kitzinger / DOING GENDER 97
deliberate intent and in the course of other actions entirely—reproduce a world that socially excludes or marginalizes nonheterosexuals. This kind of oppression, woven into the social fabric of ordinary life, is not of course the only form of oppression, but it is one that CA is uniquely fitted to mak- ing visible and (thereby) accessible to challenge.
In criticising Doing Difference, Lynn Weber (1995, 501) treats episodes like these as insignificant, and describes them as “a few unremarkable actors in everyday interactions.” As a lesbian-feminist activist and scholar, I have always been concerned about the full spectrum of oppression, rang- ing from the “macro” level of law and social policy to the “micro” level of the minor indignities, hassles, and exclusions of everyday life. The “macro” level of oppression is readily accessible to various kind of (other- than-CA) analyses and to challenge via campaigns, petitions, marches, boycotts, court cases, and acts of civil disobedience (e.g., Kitzinger and Wilkinson 2004, 2006; Wilkinson and Kitzinger 2005, 2006). By contrast, the “micro” oppressions enacted through everyday interactions are often the most resistant to analysis and political challenge—they are, to use Weber’s (1995, 501) own term “unremarkable” in the sense that they are composed of the taken-for-granted stuff of ordinary human life. But the power of the ethnomethodological theory that underpins Doing Gender and Doing Difference (and CA as well) is the ability to point to the fact that these micro-oppressions constitute the commonplace experience of oppression and shore up, on a daily basis, the social structure that perpetuates it. As Fenstermaker and West (2002b, 210) put it “those ‘few unremarkable actors in everyday interactions’” are “responsible for the force of history, the exercise of institutional power, and enduring social structures.”
In sum, the value of Doing Gender was its theoretical articulation of the ethnomethodological principles that underwrite an understanding of oppression and resistance in everyday life. What it left out was the key empirical method for advancing that understanding (see Kitzinger, 2000). CA as a discipline had until recently very few practitioners interested in engaging with classic sociological concerns such as genders, sexualities, ethnicities, power, and oppression. West and Zimmerman are to be com- mended for being among the first to bring a CA sensibility to bear on these issues. This makes it all the more disappointing that in this important and now-classic article, CA is nowhere mentioned. If it had been, those of us whose reading of Doing Gender was informed by a passionate commit- ment to social justice might have discovered the value of CA for our research endeavours a decade earlier.
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