Editors: Thompson, Martha E. and Michael Armato
Publishers: Polity Press, Cambridge
Book review by Finn Mackay, Centre for Gender & Violence Research, University of Bristol.
This useful and up to date core textbook would be most suitable for undergraduate students of Sociology or indeed other disciplines within social science with a focus on culture and society. The textbook is arranged by theme, covering ten different themes: Bodies; Families, Education; Work; Health and Illness; Media; Politics; Interpersonal Violence and ending with a chapter on how to integrate a feminist sociological imagination into research on gender and society.
The book fittingly starts with a discussion of the sex segregation of many public toilets. This is used as a route in to begin thinking about the social construction of gender and the social demand to police one’s gender and that of others. The text is pitched quite low, which is why it would suit students new to Gender Studies and Sociology. It is definitely more suited for those who have not questioned their identity much or considered how their personal identity and role may have been shaped by external cultural forces.
I was glad to see at the start of the book a section on how and why feminism is still relevant as a social movement and as a social force. Throughout the book text boxes offer case studies of particular academic theorists but also of activists and campaign organisations; these provide further examples of the resonance and impact of feminism. Near the end of the book, in the Politics theme, there is also a good section on the breadth of feminist activism and the many sources available to learn more about feminism as a movement past and present.
At the end of every chapter the key concepts are reiterated, providing a concise dictionary of the many complex terms that are used in our disciplines. Although these are again aimed at those new to these subjects, I’m sure that many would find them useful as they are very concise. Indeed, these definitions are a great feature of the book, making it a useful toolkit to consult when studying and writing or teaching. They would probably be relevant to anyone working in this field and may well provide useful, practical, short and simple definitions of terms and theories one has probably been using for so long the original definition is rarely returned to or thought of!
For example, the writers provide a concise definition of just what a feminist sociological imagination actually is: “a feminist curiosity about the link between individual experiences of gender and social, economic, and political life, combined with a systematic investigative approach that considers gender inequality, intersectionality, a relational global perspective, and social justice” (Thompson & Armatto, 2012:5).
My only critique of the book would be that it is decidedly American it its language, phrasing, terms and references. Unfortunately, it also sometimes slips between usage of the terms ‘gender’ and ‘sex’; despite cautioning against such a conflation right at the start of the book. For example, in one section on health, the reader is asked to think about the ‘gender’ of their midwife or other health professional. I don’t think the authors are asking here whether the midwife was camp or high femme! This is within a discussion on attitudes towards health, pathologisation and the relationships between patients and medical professionals. The question is really asking whether the reader or the reader’s mother had a male or female professional delivering at the birth, rather than enquiring about the gender of that person. If the latter, then readers could have been asked to think about the sex and gender of the health professional for example.
The entry level pitch of the textbook also means that some assumptions are made right from the start. For example in the introduction during the discussion on public toilets, assumptions are made that the reader has probably never had to think about using a toilet for the opposite-sex and would probably feel uncomfortable being in a toilet considered to be reserved for a different gender. Of course, in reality this is not so simple, and is another example of the problems created by conflating the terms sex and gender. For example, some people may feel comfortable in their sex identification and therefore be using the ‘right’ toilet for their sex, but not for their gender, according to cultural norms.
However, apart from that minor complaint, this is a useful publication and a welcome addition to entry level textbooks specifically on analysing society from a gendered and feminist lens. I will certainly be recommending it to my undergraduate students.