Sara Ahmed is a feminist philosopher specializing in how the cultural politics of language use and discourse mediate social and embodied encounters with difference. She has published field-shaping contributions to queer and feminist theory, critical race and postcolonial theory, affect and emotion studies, and phenomenology. Since the publication of Differences that Matter: Feminist Theory and Postmodernism in 1998, her work has epitomized the value of contemporary feminist cultural studies to speak to and against the masculinist traditions of continental philosophy. Unequivocally inserting feminist politics into the rarified air of academic theory, it crosses the sexist boundary which corrals feminist thought into the category of “studies” while opposing it to male-authored philosophy—the latter automatically authorized to speak on the social and material “Real.” In doing so, her work sits squarely within discourse-analytical traditions that seek to expose how various epistemic scenes – activism, the media, and academia, to name a few -- sediment false authority on such issues as happiness, utility, and the good. Moreover, in contesting New Materialism’s search for some monist “matter” beneath experience, she traces how those linguistic moves impose insidiously singular concepts of what social “reality” is, and how it unfolds, for real people. As a field, communication studies concerns itself centrally with matters of social influence, scale, and power, such as the electoral effects of political speech, or the ability of a message to morph as it reaches new audiences. Turning a critical eye upon the (re)production of cultural norms and social structure through interpersonal and institutional encounters, Ahmed’s oeuvre explores the discursive logics and speech acts that sediment or transform the social meanings of race, gender, and other differences.
Rebecca S. Richards
For much of human history, “femininity” and “masculinity” were unknown terms. But that does not mean that the concept of gender did not exist. Indeed, many societies in recorded history had conceptions of what it means to be a gendered person—most often noted in the binary of “man” and “woman”—but these conceptions were normative and perceived as intrinsic to human behavior and culture. Masculinity and femininity were naturalized concepts, assumed to be the ways in which men and women should act, look, or communicate. In the 19th and 20th centuries, scholars and activists noted that femininity and masculinity are social constructions of a gendered society, often denoting the ways in which people, objects, and practices conform to or transgress gendered expectations. Both terms are highly contingent upon the cultural, historical, and geopolitical locations in which they are used, meaning that they can only be accurately understood or defined for a given time or context; it is impossible to define either term in a universal manner. Femininity, as an articulated concept, has a longer history of being visible and enforced by communities. Masculinity, on the contrary, historically elided critique or visibility because its attributes were often the normative and prized values and characteristics of a given social context. However, feminist movements and intellectual projects have brought masculinity to light, showing the ways in which masculinity, just as much as femininity, is a learned and enforced way of viewing actions, people, and things. In communication studies, current scholarship on masculinity and femininity examine how they circulate in a globalized world, picking up new definitions and often restructuring people’s lives. Even though both terms are abstractions with shifting definitions and applications, they create the conditions for people’s sense of identity and limit or enhance their ability to engage in communicative acts. Differently stated, while abstract concepts, they have material consequences. To understand how an abstract social construction creates material consequences, communication scholars have looked at several research locations where masculinity and femininity most obviously manifest, such as leadership and authority, media representations, rhetorical style and delivery, and interpersonal communications.
Patricia S. Parker, Jing Jiang, Courtney L. McCluney, and Verónica Caridad Rabelo
Difference in human experience can be parsed in a variety of ways and it is this parsing that provides the entry point to our discussion of “race,” “gender,” “class,” and “sexuality” as foci of study in the field of organizational communication. Social sorting of difference has material consequences, such as whether individuals, groups, organizations, communities, and nations have equal and equitable access to civil/participative liberties, food, clean water, health, housing, education, and meaningful work. Communication perspectives enable researchers to examine how difference is produced, sustained, and transformed through symbolic means. That is, communication organizes difference. In the field of organizational communication the communicative organizing of race, gender, class, and sexuality is examined in everyday social arrangements, such as corporate and not-for-profit organizations, communities, and other institutional contexts locally and globally. Topics of central concern in organizational communication difference studies are those related to work and the political economy of work, such as labor, conflicts between public and private domains, empowerment, and agency. Research on race, gender, class, and sexuality as communicatively structured difference has progressed in the field of organizational communication from early top-down functionalist approaches, to bottom-up and emergent interpretive/critical/materialist methods, to poststructuralist approaches that deconstruct the very notion of “categories” of difference. More complex intersectional approaches, including queer theory and postcolonial/decolonial theory, are currently gaining traction in the field of organizational communication. These advances signal that difference studies have matured over the last decades as the field moved toward questioning and deconstructing past approaches to knowledge production while finding commensurability across diverse theoretical and research perspectives. These moves open up more possibilities to respond to societal imperatives for understanding difference.
Isaac N. West
Queer perspectives in communication studies vary greatly, but they tend to share some common assumptions about the communicative force of norms, including those related to sexualities, genders, bodies, races, ethnicities, abilities, and desires. In general, queer perspectives question the legitimacy of hegemonic assumptions about bodies and sexualities, opting instead for more fluid and porous discourses and norms. Influenced by Michel Foucault’s theories about the productive and generative nature of discourses and Judith Butler’s elaboration on the performativity of identity and agency, communication studies scholars have mined queer theory for insights into our collective and individual investments in naturalized norms as well as efforts to resist them. One of the difficulties in corralling the varied meanings of “queer” into an encyclopedia entry is that it can operate as a noun, adjective, or verb, which has different implications for critics interested in its employ.