Gender as a mindbender

June 23, 1995

After reading the interview with Deborah Tannen (THES, June 9), I wondered, not for the first time, whether media treatment of her has something to do with the fact that her work is about gender.

I am not claiming there is a bias against Tannen: on the contrary, what worries me is that her thesis concerning gender and communicational style is never subjected to critical scrutiny or placed in any intellectual context-though it is controversial and other researchers would dispute it. Is language and gender too trivial a topic to justify going beyond the most blandly laudatory treatment of Tannen's ideas? Would you take the same superficial approach to the work of other bestselling academics like Noam Chomsky or Stephen Hawking?

The Tannen feature contains one misconception. It is suggested that feminists have criticised Tannen's work for biological essentialism. If true, this would make the critics look silly; but it is not. What is true is that a significant number of researchers in language and gender studies, not generic "feminists" but sociolinguists, just like Tannen, take issue with her on other grounds, for instance that she is selective in her use and interpretation of the available research evidence, and that by placing gender differences in a symmetrical "misunderstanding" frame, she tends to gloss over the salience in many contexts of power or status hierarchies.

These are legitimate matters for academic debate, and they have indeed been debated, sometimes quite acrimoniously. Deborah Tannen may be a household name, but she has not received uniformly positive reviews in the scholarly journals. I do not expect TheTHES to take sides, but I do find it disappointing that a publication aimed at academics should fail to acknowledge that there is any debate at all. This is part of a more general tendency to judge gender scholarship by different, less informed and in this case less exacting standards than are applied elsewhere. I cannot speak for Tannen, but I am infuriated by this patronising attitude.

DEBORAH CAMERON Senior lecturer in linguistics University of Strathclyde

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