What do We Know about Gender? On the Cultural Production of Knowledge, Theory, and Gender

Term Paper (Advanced seminar), 2000

58 Pages, Grade: 1,3 (A)


List of contents


part one: KNOWLEDGE

1. A ‘Folk Theory’ of Knowledge
The Objectivist Paradigm
Basic Cultural Conceptualisations

2. Knowledge as a Cultural Product
The “Nature” of Knowledge
Processes of the Production of Knowledge

3. Summary: What Has That Got to Do with Theory?
Scientific Knowledge
Subjectivity, and the Dream of the Individual
Conclusion and Outlook

part two: GENDER

4. Theorising SEX and GENDER
The Heterosexual Norm
Identities – Transgressions – Subversions?

5. Discussion: Priscilla, Queen of the Desert
GENDER (Re-) Produced
Cultural Context (Contested)
Subversive Representations?!

Final Remarks



We are born as either boys or girls, and we will be men or women. Even those who are “sexually different” are still classified male or female. There is no neither-nor, there is no both, there is no in-between. We grow into the world around us and, as we grow older, we begin to understand reality. We have knowledge of the world and we can work with that knowledge: We know what is true, real, just. We can also speak about abstract concepts, such as feelings, politics, history, and we understand each other, we know what we mean. We categorise the world according to natural, obvious criteria into discrete kinds. For instance, we are either men or women.

This essay is an attempt at tackling most of the above assumptions. All of our thinking – whether abstract or concrete – will be regarded as based on interacting cognitive, social and cultural systems, such as perception, categorisation, language, belief, etc. There are no social/ cultural aspects independent of general cognitive structures, and cognitive processes are in turn influenced by social/ cultural patterns. For most of us, this sounds intuitively dubious: Do we not perceive the world all in the same way? Are there not universal similarities in basic categories and in sensual perception? Can we, for instance, claim a cultural influence on our visual or acoustic perception?

Recent research in Cognitive Sciences[1] (e.g., psychology, psycholinguistics, language philosophy, etc.) has suggested that we may have to assume something in that direction. Categories, for instance colours, are categorised differently in different cultures. Not that items in the world actually do “look different” (in terms of properties of reflection, wave lengths of light, etc.), but culture-specific categorisations depend on the specific kinds of bodily and social interactions within a given culture. Obviously, these experiences and interactions differ between cultures, to a larger or lesser extent. These culture-specific kinds of interactions with “the world” form part of the basis for language codes, cognitive processes, social interaction patterns, concepts, beliefs, emotions, etc.

I will take these assumptions as the starting point and as the basis of my argument. I want to take a look at the cultural concepts “knowledge” and “gender”, which go largely without saying, let alone questioning, in most cultural discourse.

In the first part of this paper, I want to show “knowledge” as a culturally produced construct, I will outline aspects of processes of the production of knowledge in our Western culture, and I want to suggest an approach to the production of theory following from that. My main question throughout this first part will be: What do we understand by “knowledge”, how does it come into being, and which consequences for the production of theory will arise out of a notion of “knowledge” such as I will suggest.

In part two I will be concerned with our knowledge about a basic cultural concept of Western culture: That of GENDER in its various appearances throughout cultural discourse. I will introduce Judith Butler’s notion of GENDER as ‘an ongoing discursive practice’[2], and discuss its consequences for an analysis of cultural practices of the production of knowledge and theory. Finally, I want to apply this understanding of knowledge (production) to an analysis of a cultural document, the film Paris Is Burning, in terms of processes of the (re)production of gender knowledge.

When I use terms as ‘critically discuss’ or ‘analyse’, this might imply that I see myself as standing outside of the cultural processes I am talking about. This is not the case. It just shows how language – and thus thought – is inextricably bound up with those philosophical assumptions I am going to discuss below, and it clearly demonstrates the difficulties one has to face when taking on any attempt at thinking out-with the constraints of thought imposed by the dominant culture and language. I have to acknowledge that I am a subject with particular social and cultural settings and experiences which determine the observations I make, the questions I ask, and any conclusions I draw. There is no “outside” of culture and language, but that does not mean we can be uncritical of our own position in culture. We have to be aware of our own “subjectivity” (another term I will have to speak about), and reflect on it as a crucial factor to be considered in the process of the production of theory.

1. A ‘Folk Theory’ of Knowledge

When we talk about what we “know”, we seem to have a fairly clear idea of what we mean by that. On the one hand, we judge knowledge on the grounds of experiences of our physical and social interaction with the world around us. That way, there appears to be a reality outside and independent of the individual, a reality every one can perceive in a fairly similar way. On the other hand, our knowledge makes reference to culturally held beliefs about “the way things are”. This kind of knowledge is of a highly abstract nature and obviously culturally dependent. Both kinds of knowledge are commonly understood as “real”, i.e. as objectively verifiable or falsifiable in the world. This is what we refer to as “facts”.

Very broadly, this is what I will call a “folk theory” of knowledge[3], i.e. strongly held beliefs about the nature of knowledge and reality used in everyday life.

In the following paragraphs I want to argue that neither our beliefs about the world, nor our physical and social interactions are culturally independent. What is more, I want to advocate the view that the underlying conception of “the reality” we perceive as independently existing is itself a cultural construct, a belief, a philosophical assumption. There is nothing wrong with a folk theory of knowledge as a means of managing our lives. However, we have to become aware of the nature of that folk theory, and its impact on “expert theory”, in order to understand the nature of social and cultural conceptualisations which are usually taken for granted. This way it may be possible to take into account the subjects of the production of knowledge, to provide an alternative to what is called the “objectivist paradigm”.

The Objectivist Paradigm

The philosophical paradigm of objectivism can be traced back at least to the Greek philosophers (Homer, Plato, Aristotle), and it has been dominating European/ Western thinking ever since. This paradigm has provided the very basis for most cultural conceptualisation, thus having become so “natural” to everyone that the underlying assumptions never have to be explicitly stated. This way, I want to argue, these assumptions have structured our conceptualisation of the world to such an extent that any alternative view seems to be almost “unthinkable” to us. The “unintelligibility” of very different cultures clearly illustrates this.[4]

Lakoff characterises this paradigm in the following way:

‘The objectivist paradigm, as I will describe it, is an idealization. Each of the doctrines described here is widely held, though perhaps not all are held by any one person. Moreover, the versions I’ve given of the doctrines are fairly general; many philosophers hold more sophisticated versions... [...] ... we must first consider the worldview in which it is embedded – a metaphysical view that is taken as being so obviously true as to be beyond question.

OBJECTIVIST METAPHYSICS: All of reality consists of entities, which have fixed properties and relations holding among them at any instant. [...]

OBJECTIVIST ESSENTIALISM: Among the properties that things have, some are essential; that is, they are those properties that make a thing what it is, and without which it would not be that kind [Lakoff’s italics] of thing. Other properties are accidental – that is, they are properties that things happen to have, not properties that capture the essence of the thing. [...]

THE DOCTRINE OF OBJECTIVE CATEGORIES: The entities in the world form objectively existing categories based on their shared objective properties.’

(Lakoff 1987, 158-161)

In the objectivist paradigm, two very basic assumptions have to be explicitly stated in order to understand the impact it has on our common sense-understanding of the world: First of all, there is what Lakoff calls the ‘metaphysics of objectivism’, i.e. the belief in the existence of one and only one correct description of an external reality. This assumption is metaphysical in that it understands human reason as independent from all materiality, and therefore as referring to an independent “truth”. The very notion of “truth” as describing the nature of the world independent of the subjects doing the reasoning provides the basis for most of our conceptualisations. The objectivist paradigm prepares the ground for our traditional – and most commonplace – understanding of the relation between “reality” and “reason”. Lakoff puts it more systematically:

‘- Meaning is based on truth and reference; it concerns the relationship between symbols and things in the world. [...]
- The mind is separate from, and independent of, the body. [...]
- Reason is transcendental, in that it transcendents – goes beyond – the way human beings, or any other kind of beings – happen to think. It concerns the inferential relationships among all possible concepts in this universe or any other. [...]
- There is a correct, God’s eye view of the world – a single correct way of understanding what is and is not true.
- All people think using the same conceptual system.’

(Lakoff 1987, 9)

I want to argue that the assumptions stemming from and being related to the objectivist epistemology are underlying most of our “common sense” knowledge as well as much of our “expert knowledge”. By the latter I mean those forms of knowledge produced in – and largely for – academic/ scientific research, including all areas of specialised knowledge about any one particular field. This knowledge is typically held by a comparatively small number of “knowers”, and it co-exists besides folk theories about the same areas, although they are often on conflicting terms with each other. Knowledge about expert knowledge itself is embedded in our folk theories of science. This expert knowledge is often believed to be more “truly” representing the way the world “is” while its grounding in particular theories, approaches, assumptions, etc. is being ignored.

In my next point I will proceed to show how some of our most basic cultural concepts are firmly rooted in the objectivist paradigm, and I will try to present a criticism of this paradigm in various aspects.

Basic Cultural Conceptualisations

I will confine myself to some of those concepts which are, in my eyes, assigned an especially important value in cultural discourse. I have grouped them roughly into three discussions, proceeding from the general to the particular.

REALITY[5], TRUTH, and HISTORY[6] are all, in our culture, fundamentally related to the objectivist paradigm as I have sketched it above. The notion of REALITY as having a fixed independent existence is reflected in a culture’s perception and categorisation of “the world”. While there is certainly a physical reality independent of human beings, we must not assume that it is of the nature we perceive and understand it to be. On the contrary, REALITY is different in different cultures, and for different individuals. This, however, is not the way the cultural concept of REALITY is commonly understood. The REALITY we talk about is an idealised common frame of reference that people conveniently use to communicate. This common REALITY has to be “updated” continually, by people exchanging codes about their particular perceptions and conceptualisations, thereby modifying, conventionalising and confirming their common core of knowledge about “the world”. At the same time, people have their own “private reality” that rarely or never finds its way into the common core, simply because it is never communicated to anybody else. And yet, this “private reality”, very often in the form of thoughts, memories, dreams, fantasies, etc., is a very real and manifest part of everyone’s individual world.

The objectivist notion of REALITY is closely linked to the concept of TRUTH: We consider something to be TRUE if, and only if, it either confirms with the common REALITY in an obvious way, or it can be proved by ways or means which are commonly accepted as “objective”, e.g. scientific, experience based, etc. Here we can see the way these concepts are hooked up inextricably: What is REAL has to be TRUE (of the world), what is TRUE must be objectively provable, and objective is only that which is REAL. This is quite a simplification, as it leaves out many other aspects about these concepts. However, at the heart of TRUTH and REALITY lies the conviction that the world is structured in the way we perceive it, never mind the individual/ culture/ institution/ etc. who is subject – and interpreter – of that perception in particular circumstances.

The concept of HISTORY is important for anyone culture as it provides the basis for a continuous reality. Without HISTORY, REALITY would just consist of an individual’s sensory perception at any one moment in time. HISTORY is the framework for continuity and, therefore, for REALITY and TRUTH. However, HISTORY is not independent of these two, at any rate not in our culture: Commonly, we speak of HISTORY with reference to events, social formations, patterns of thought, habits, etc. that can be shown to have existed in the past. These are strongly linked to the notion of TRUTH in that we consider as “proper” historical data those which can be proved. The methods to do this, in turn, depend on our understanding of the sciences as being “objective” – as far as possible. Only fairly recently attempts have been made to take into account the “fictitious” nature of all documents in historical research[7]. This objectivist notion of HISTORY is not necessarily present in all cultures. We know documents of what are called “archaic” cultures which reveal a conceptualisation of HISTORY as overtly relying on and consisting of myths, stories, beliefs, etc.[8] I dare say that is the case just as much in our time as it was then. The difference, however, is that Western thinking systematically denies the “self-made” nature of our HISTORY, instead insisting on the “factuality” of HISTORY, of REALITY, of the world. The importance of a shift in the historical epistemology is called into attention by Michel Foucault:

Recurrent distributions [Foucault’s italics] reveal several pasts, several forms of connexion, several hierarchies of importance, several networks of determination, several teleologies... [...]: thus historical descriptions are necessarily ordered by the present state of knowledge, they increase with every transformation and never cease, in turn, to break with themselves...’

(Foucault 1969, 5)


“Natural facts”, which are produced by authorities of science (called Biology), are understood as reflecting the world as it is. However, even a seemingly simple thing as categorising, for instance, the animal species “Zebra” is not that clear-cut at all: The categorisation of species always depends on the particular scientific approach one is adopting[9]. It is important to realise that what we commonly regard as biological “facts” are also constructs made up by human beings, and thus cannot be viewed independent of their makers. This becomes very important when we speak about the human body and its conceptualisations, e.g. about GENDER and SEXUALITY. I will not go into great detail about this as it will be taken up in part two of this paper. It must suffice for the moment to consider the far-reaching consequences of the dominant objectivist paradigm for GENDER categories:

‘The fact that the biological differences between the sexes are less than we usually assume is, in itself, enough reason to dispute theories which have anchored sex differences in behaviour to a biological cause. Those who have promoted such theories have used them to argue either that biology prevents from social, legal, political, and economic equality between men and women, or that equality can be reached only by a slow process of re-education and reform. [...] Once we have constructed our world-view and language around the male-female dichotomy, other concepts are automatically linked to it. The normality-abnormality dichotomy hangs on the male-female dichotomy. If individuals must be fitted into either a male or female category, then those who do not fit must be abnormal, or disordered, or even diseased.’

(G.T. Kaplan & L.J. Rogers in: Gunew 1990, 225)

The above mentioned link of GENDER to norms is only one of many other mappings on to the binary conceptualisation of the sexes. They are supported by scientific KNOWLEDGE about nature, thus made TRUE by the objectivist standards we set for REALITY.

Two other binary concepts linked to that of MALE-FEMALE are the dichotomies of CULTURE-NATURE and REASON-EMOTION. This analogy is a commonplace observation in Feminist research by now, but it is nevertheless omnipresent (and almost omnipotent, it seems) in everyday KNOWLEDGE about these dichotomies: Take, for instance, EMOTIONS. They are, often even in scientific literature, treated as just individuals’ feelings, without any basis in the factual world, except as effects of hormonal functions. Lakoff, however, shows that and how emotions are on the same cognitive level as REASON, or abstract thought. EMOTIONS are structured along similar lines as any other domain of human language[10]. And it is interesting to see how such a sociological phenomenon as rape can be to be rooted in the conceptualisation of SEXUALITY, which seems to be closely connected with that of ANGER[11]. EMOTIONS in common cultural language are still construed in opposition to “clear”, “rational” thought, in short, to REASON. This opposition is then easily extended to GENDER-differences in both folk and scientific theory. Likewise, CULTURE is associated with dominance over NATURE, manipulating and moulding the “raw material” into some “useful” shape. CULTURE is mastering NATURE, the world, it is linked to rationality and power. And to MASCULINITY, as opposed to FEMININE intuition, feeling, and dangerous incalculability.

The third group of concepts that seems to be of major importance for our production of knowledge consists of the SUBJECT, its IDENTITY, and GENDER. All three of these are still assumed to be relatively fixed and stable characteristics of an individual, although they have been challenged by postmodern and feminist theorists for some time. The reason why they are so resistant to these challenges may lie in their firm grounding in the objectivist view that is predominant in our thinking: The individual human being is seen as an entity in the world with a set of features by which it can be classified. The first thing people are asked for are in most cases name, nationality (SUBJECT and IDENTITY) and to tick the F/M-box (GENDER). These are considered permanent, and meaningful, categories by which subjects can be differentiated. The meaning they are bestowed with entails all cultural knowledge about these categories, be it conscious or unconscious. It is here that these concepts hook up with the objectivist paradigm and gain the cultural force that they have.

2. Knowledge as a Cultural Product

The notion of knowledge as a cultural product has been developed and elaborated by theorists of philosophy, language, sociology, cultural studies, etc. for at least two decades now, and the resulting literature is overwhelming. I will, therefore, confine myself to some aspects relevant to my argument, making reference only to very few theorists. I will be guided by two questions: What is knowledge and how has it been conceptualised? And second: How is knowledge being produced, how can the processes of knowledge production be described and analysed, where is it produced, and what role does subjectivity play in that?

The “Nature” of Knowledge

I want to very briefly sketch a history of some of the major approaches towards theories of knowledge of the 20th century, and then present what I call a “cognitive-cultural” approach to knowledge. Let me start with a very general, but not trivial, definition of knowledge by Sneja Gunew:

‘...for the moment, knowing will be defined as any kind of meaning production, as the way we make sense of the world by learning various sets of conventions.’

(Sneja Gunew, in Gunew, 14)

This understanding of knowledge is based on at least two different theories of the 20th century: The notion of knowledge as the product of social processes was most prominently established by Louis Althusser in his re-reading of Marx’s writings for his theory of “ideology”[12]. Althusser argued that knowledge was produced by determinate, concrete, material practices, worked upon materials such as concepts, language, theories, etc. He developed a theory of “ideology” and its places and mechanisms of production in “Ideological State Apparatuses”, such as religion, bureaucracy, education, etc. “Ideology” in the general sense, he claims, is omnipresent and transhistorical, while particular ideologies are formed by particular determinate systems of value and rationalisation in a given culture, in the interest of the dominant class. This focus on “class” shows his grounding in Marxist theory, while his distinction between “ideology”, as forms of knowledge obscuring underlying structures of repression, domination and exclusion, as opposed to “science”, as “true” knowledge independent from ideology, is based on an objectivist and metaphysical notion of independent TRUTH and REALITY. Furthermore, Althusser describes science as the transformation of “raw material” into shaped, useful knowledge, thereby affirming and reproducing one of the oldest and most pervasive dichotomies underlying Western thought, namely that of NATURE as opposed to CULTURE, with all its conceptual associations.

Secondly, Gunew’s provisional definition of knowledge makes reference to structuralist theory as introduced by Ferdinand de Saussure[13] and elaborated by generations of linguists, anthropologist, philosophers, etc., since then. Structuralism is based on the assumption that MEANING only exists in the relation between signs within a systems, i.e. that it has no reference to the world outside of these. Thus, structuralist theory is the first epistemology to break with metaphysical notions of REALITY and MEANING. The work of the French anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss on the history of cultural concepts, such as myths[14], has provided the paradigm for many historical analyses of cultural patterns. However, structuralism has come under criticism, on the one hand, for its inability to account for material processes of social determination and production outside of the limits of its systems of signs, and on the other, for its reliance on the notion of a free and stable subject which is able to determine and control its own discourse and the meaning intended.

Undoubtedly, one of the major post-structuralist theorists of knowledge was Michel Foucault with his attempt to formulate a theoretical framework outside of logocentric structures of thought with his concepts of “Archaeology” and “Genealogy”:

‘The language of psychiatry, which is a monologue of reason about [Foucault’s italics] madness, could be established only on the basis of such silence. I have not tried to write a history of that language, but rather the archaeology of that silence.’

(Foucault 1961, xii-xiii)

When Foucault’s archaeologies foregrounded and analysed historically marginalised and silenced discourses, they relied on a conception of “power” as a repressive, negative force. His concept of genealogy was based on an understanding and – in my eyes the first – systematic analysis of “power” as a productive force, underlying all social processes:

‘If power was anything but repressive, if it never did anything but say no, do you really believe that we should manage to obey it? What gives power its hold, what makes it accepted, is quite simply the fact that it runs through, it produces things, it induces pleasure, it forms knowledge, it produces discourse; it must be considered as a productive network which runs through the entire social body much more than as a negative instance whose function is repression.’

(Michel Foucault, in Morris/ Patton 1978, 36)

Power, in that sense, is not a thing, an entity, or commodity, but it exists only in actions. Power is exercised, it functions through and across modes of production, ideologies, discourses, institutions, practices, etc.[15]

‘It is true, it seems to me, that power is “always already there”, that one is never “outside”, that there are no “margins” in which those in rupture with the system may gambol. But this does not mean that it is necessary to admit an unavoidable form of domination or an absolute privilege of the law. That one can never be “outside of power” does not mean that one is in every way trapped.’

(Michel Foucault in: Morris/ Patton 1978, 70/ 71)

Theory, Foucault claimed, is a strategy, it has no reference to TRUTH or REALITY, but only to other theories, to other statements within its discourse. Foucault’s theory of power and knowledge has had a remarkable influence on cultural and political criticism, and also on Feminist theory.

Another major theory I want to mention, even though it is not explicitly a theory about knowledge, came from a re-reading of Freud by the French psychoanalyst Jaques Lacan. His subversion of the philosophical assumptions of TRUTH, the SUBJECT, REALITY, and KNOWLEDGE, challenged phallocentric traditions governing most, if not all academic disciplines. The analysis of processes of the “unconscious”, of desire and drive may provide a powerful tool for developing alternative theories of sexuality and gender. Two other names to be mentioned are Luce Irigaray and Julia Kristeva with their readings and re-interpretations of Lacan and Jaques Derrida (and his theory of “deconstruction”).

I cannot go into any more depth or detail about any of these theories, and the writers and theories presented are by no means exhaustive, even to the extent of my own limited knowledge. Also, I am conscious of the dominance of French writers in this survey of theories. I am aware that this is not representative of the range of theories produced, and I can only apologise for this with regard to my own limited reading.


[1] See for instance George Lakoff: Women, Fire, and Dangerous Things. (1987)

[2] Judith Butler: Gender Trouble. (1989)

[3] I have borrowed this term from (Lakoff 1987)

[4] I take this term from (Lakoff 1987), p 157 ff

[5] I will use capital letters whenever I want to indicate the understanding of these items as cultural constructs in the form of common cultural knowledge.

[6] Related to that, and probably equally important, is the concept of MEANING. However, this would lead me too far astray. This issue will find mentioning in part two, when I talk about GENDER.

[7] Cf. the strain of thought subsumed under “New Historicism” in the U.S.A.: The specific approach taken is to treat “historical” documents like literary texts, and vice versa, literary texts as representing “historical reality”.

[8] Cf. (Lévi-Strauss 1978, ch. 5)

[9] Cf. (Lakoff 1987, pp. 185 ff)

[10] Cf. (Lakoff 1987, pp. 380 ff): Case study of the concept of ANGER

[11] Cf. (Lakoff 1987, pp.409-415); this is not an exhaustive analysis of the phenomenon of rape, but it shows some potential explanation for its massive appearance in our Western society in our conceptualisations of SEXUALITY.

[12] cf. Louis Althusser: For Marx. 1966 (translation 1969)

[13] cf. Ferdinand de Saussure: Course of General Linguistics. (based on lectures in the 1930’s, translation 1959)

[14] cf. Claude Lévi-Strauss: Mythologiques.I-VI 1970 ff. (Introduction to a Science of Mythology. I-IV)

[15] cf. Elizabeth Grosz, in Gunew, 80-91

Excerpt out of 58 pages


What do We Know about Gender? On the Cultural Production of Knowledge, Theory, and Gender
University of Glasgow  (Department of Sociology and Anthropology)
Feminist Issues in Sociological Theory and Analysis
1,3 (A)
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ISBN (eBook)
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What, Know, Gender, Cultural, Production, Knowledge, Theory, Gender, Feminist, Issues, Sociological, Theory, Analysis
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Michael Obenaus (Author), 2000, What do We Know about Gender? On the Cultural Production of Knowledge, Theory, and Gender, Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/23527


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