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The Benchmark Sociologist

Dr Lucy Nicholas, Swinburne University 

The TASA 2016 conference held at ACU Melbourne was in many ways one of the most inspiring for gender and sexualities scholars, marking the first year of the Genders and Sexualities Special Interest Group. The room for this stream was often overflowing, testament to the wealth of expertise and interest in this important area, reflecting a surge in social consciousness on these phenomena. Given the energetic and contemporary feel on the ground that reflects the strength of this sub-discipline in Sociology globally, then, I was shocked (and, in fact, appalled) by a comment in one of the keynotes. This keynote, charting the global happiness survey, framed the discussion of gender, marriage and the family with the following statement:

“because this is a sociological association with a large representation of women, I wanted to build in some discussion around gender, and some discussion around marriage and the family”

The fact that there are women in the room is not a scholarly reason to discuss gender, marriage and family and represents an arcane push of gender back to the domestic sphere. This framing renders gender a ‘women’s problem’ and positions the social variable of gender a side point that has only to do with the private sphere, which sociologists should, by now, know it is not. Australia’s wonderful Prof. Raewyn Connell made this vehemently clear years ago when she shifted the field of gender, highlighting how men also do gender, and are also shaped and restricted by gender.  And there is a massive legacy of work that interrogates the fundamentally gendered masculinism of the neutralised public sphere, a masculinist neutralising that was at work in this keynote (see for more discussion of this in forthcoming publication The Persistence of Global Masculinism with Palgrave Macmillan, co-authored with Chris Agius ). Just because it is not explicitly about gender, doesn’t mean it is not gendered.

This statement also suggests that the domestic sphere is a women’s problem, and that marriage is more about women than men. This last point is particularly odd and antiquated, and harks back to a time when the only women you saw at gatherings of professional associations were the wives of the members attending the dinner. The statement elicited an audible gasp around me and made me, and – anecdotally – others, feel like we were not considered your average sociologist or member of society. Look around because TASA and, I would argue Sociology more broadly, is young, queer and female dominated (current member statistics show 416 members are women, 227 are men, 15 chose ‘prefer not to say’ and 115 left blank). And, shock, horror, many of those women do not have children and are not married, and many men are and do. Also, let’s not forget that the average Australian, the ‘benchmark Australian’ if you will, according to the most recent census is a 38-year-old woman.

At its core, for me this statement demonstrates a lack of reflection on the part of the speaker about the specificity of their own position, and an assumption of themselves as default that has justified and perpetuated the dominance of colonial white male dominated culture (see the image ‘benchmark man’ and ‘The Mirage of Merit’ by Margaret Thornton, from whom the term is borrowed).

As sociologists, aware of the social constitution of what we come to think of as ‘normal,’ it is our responsibility to be affirmative around inequality and difference and aware and critical of our privilege. It is our responsibility to not put all of the responsibility for the challenging of this privilege on those with subordinate positions (women, queers, people of colour). As an association we should strive to consider difference and diversity beyond special interest issues that pertain to ‘others’, reifying our own position(s) as the default. And given that TASA does represent a diversity on the ground, our academic foci should reflect this in ways that are meaningful and not tokenistic. However while it is true that the membership reflects this, it is also true that in Sociology, as in other disciplines, the senior roles do not reflect this.

As sociologists, then, especially when discussing contemporary societies as in the global happiness survey that was the focus of this keynote, to be mindful of the demographics of not just our organisation but of society, and mindful of the particularity of your own position.  In particular I implore those with the platform, especially our senior members who have greater access to large audiences, to decentre our privilege. This can come through in subtle ways, and requires us to take some responsibility for interrogating the norms of which we may be a part so as not to leave it to the marginal groups, and to take responsibility for remaining contemporary in understanding the language and modes of speaking about this difference or marginality that does not reify othering.

And so, as an expert in the sizeable, well developed, and conceptually sophisticated field of the sociology of gender and sexualities that has a wealth of publications and frameworks, and a member of the burgeoning Genders and Sexualities Special Interest Group, I have outlined a few things for participants talking about gender or sexuality to consider for this year’s conference:

  • Women are not a ‘special interest group’;
  • Gender is not a women’s issue, or a marginal issue, and is one of the primary social categories and stratifications that shapes the lives of all people;
  • Sexuality is not, or should not be, only an explicit issue for queer folk in sociology;
  • Parenting and family is not a women’s issue;
  • There are more than two genders and two sexualities (thanks TASA exec for adding pronoun to conference rego!!);
  • Get informed! Queer and feminist communities, and queer and feminist academics have developed language to speak about gender and sexual and gender diversity, so please take the initiative to do your reading, use the appropriate language and take it seriously in the same way that you would any discipline. Sociologists’ primary aim is to challenge commonsense understandings of social phenomena, so it is startling that gender and sexuality are so often treated by gender non-expert sociologists with commonsense and conservative perspectives
  • In particular, gender and sexually diverse people make up a sizeable portion of TASA membership, please don’t treat us like a science project and call us ‘homosexuals’!! Gender and sexually diverse folks are not these ‘others’ that are far away, we are many, and we are among you!

Lucy Nicholas is senior lecturer and major disciple coordinator at Swinburne University

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