Radical Psychology Fall 1999, Vol. 1, Issue 2.

Postmodernity and the Politics of Feminist Psychology

Alexa Hepburn

Postmodernity and the Politics of Feminist Psychology


This paper reviews and develops arguments in support of the claim that a postmodern theoretical perspective can inform critical feminist analysis. The argument is set in the context of feminist psychology, where there has been a general move away from what are classified as postmodern theoretical and analytical perspectives. This paper argues instead that these postmodern perspectives can assist in identifying the linguistic structures of exclusion employed in the service of patriarchal ideologies. To illustrate this argument, the paper falls into six sections. The first section employs Lyotard's work on metanarratives, examining the possibility of a postmodern political stance. The second section illustrates the importance of Derrida's work on deconstruction in developing this further - for feminist debates generally, featured in section three, and for feminist discursive psychology in particular, examined in section four. In the interests of empirically grounding this theoretical work, section five comprises a short piece of analysis of teachers' talk about school bullying, designed to illustrate the central arguments developed in preceding sections - that postmodernism is important for feminist practice in psychology as it can provide us with the means to identify binary oppositions and metanarratives which organise gender stereotyped constructions. The concluding section summarises and clarifies the arguments, suggesting that future work in feminist psychology can, by embracing a postmodern stance, gain a greater understanding of the political effects of the deployment of discursive strategies that are oppressive to women.

Postmodernity and the Politics of Feminist Psychology


At the heart of many debates in feminism is the question of whether a feminist approach needs to be grounded in some sexed specificity or 'reality' of the female (body) if it is to proceed as a critical/political practice. Feminist psychology is no different: in the edited collection Feminism and Discourse many of the contributors, as well as editors Sue Wilkinson and Celia Kitzinger, express concerns about the difficulties in espousing a clear feminist political voice due to the postmodern relativising shift implicit in discourse analysis. In response to such debates, this paper argues that a postmodern analytical perspective is not antithetical to a critical feminist stance, and offers various theoretical arguments in its support. The aim is to demonstrate that a strong postmodern perspective, in allowing us a greater sensitivity towards the structures of exclusion that have served patriarchal ideologies, can be a precondition for particular types of feminist commitment.

In developing arguments for a postmodern feminist perspective in psychology, this paper goes 'back to basics' with a discussion of postmodern philosophy - Jean-Francois Lyotard's work on postmodernism, and Derrida's work on deconstruction. There follows a discussion of their relevance to feminist thought generally, with particular focus on Judith Butler's use of deconstruction. These insights are then applied to the issues and debates that are currently live in feminist psychology. It is argued that binaries such as realism and relativism, and the positioning of postmodern forms of analysis as 'relativist' and therefore apolitical, all serve to replicate the same certainties organised by binary logic which have helped to create the exclusion of women, and thus given rise to the need for feminism. If we seek to ground our feminist claims in some kind of realist account, we may find - in line with postmodern feminist warnings - that our grounding in materiality has itself been constituted through the exclusion and violation of the feminine.

In order to clarify these claims, this paper falls into six sections: Section 1 examines arguments advanced by Lyotard and others relating to the possibility of a postmodern political stance; section 2 examines the importance of deconstruction in developing this. Sections 3 and 4 highlight potential uses of deconstruction for feminist thought generally, and for feminist psychology in particular. Section 5 will comprise a short analysis of teachers' gendered constructions of school bullying, to illustrate the utility of some of the postmodern insights developed earlier. The final section will draw together the main arguments developed throughout the paper.

1) Postmodern Politics

This section will investigate the possibility of developing a postmodern political stance, as a way of engaging with positions that argue that the relativism implicit in postmodern approaches is antithetical to feminist political goals. First it is necessary to examine the use of the term 'postmodernism'. Although there are problems in saying what postmodernism 'is', perhaps we can turn it on itself and ask instead what it might 'do', what function it serves. Postmodernism often serves to group together certain writers such as Butler, Lyotard, Foucault, Derrida, (who might not be too happy about this) perhaps due to their putative anti-establishment and anti-realist stance.

Butler (1995) suggests that postmodernism is often invoked as a catch-all term for approaches which subvert important modernist concerns such as 'the effort to shore up primary processes, to establish in advance that any theory of politics requires a subject' (ibid. p35). The term has often been used in critical and feminist psychology texts in a similar way to warn of the dangers of abandoning politics by abandoning the subject, or the real, or some such kind of grounding (e.g. Parker, 1988; Sampson, 1990; Burman, 1990; Gill 1995). However, according to theorists such as Gergen (e.g. 1994) we must not understand postmodernism as just another 'totalitarian discourse', but rather as 'an invitation to reflexivity' (p. 414) - a way of seeing realities, and selves, as local, provisional and political.

So perhaps rather than getting caught in self-referential questioning about whether the subject or the real exist, we can ask - what do such warnings about postmodernism achieve? The positioning of postmodern claims as nonpolitical? Is there such a thing as a nonpolitical claim? Perhaps they serve to position the claims of their proponents as 'properly political', to warrant specific types of political action over others. Perhaps statements such as 'postmodernism is running rampant without political direction' (Simons & Billig, 1994) could be motivated by an implicit commitment to a certain kind of politics. But then what might a postmodern politics look like?

One of the clearest defences of a postmodern politics comes from a consideration of aspects of Lyotard's work. Modernism is a term that he uses to: designate any science that legitimates itself with reference to…an explicit appeal to some grand narrative, such as the dialectics of Spirit, the hermeneutics of meaning, the emancipation of the rational or working subject, or the creation of wealth (Lyotard, 1984, p. xxiii) According to Lyotard, the main problems with modernism arise from two of its distinguishing features: the requirement of a metanarrative, and the need to have a communicable representation of reality. The failure of modernist scientific knowledge and rationality to achieve the status of an overarching methodology, and the consequent 'incredulity towards metanarratives' and a 'crisis of representation' have led to growing dissatisfaction with modernism, out of which has sprung 'the postmodern condition' (Lyotard, 1984).

Metanarratives are organising stories or narratives which create a unification of ideas and methodologies which may be used to understand all aspects of the social world. For example, in political/social institutions there are 'unitary systems' based on an overarching idea, grounded in a metanarrative, of what constitutes a 'good' or 'just' life. Enlightenment myths presuppose that true emancipation can only be achieved through the application of rationality to communicable ideas. Modernists such as Jürgen Habermas (1990) have stayed within this enclosure, seeking emancipation in a universal consensus, created through rational communication and dialectic. One of the key ideas to be taken from Lyotard's work is the issue of how operating within a metanarrative, with a fixed point of reference, leads one to legitimate one's argument with reference to this metanarrative, such that it seems that one has some pre-discursive realm to appeal to as a way of grounding one's argument.

Lyotard holds that these distinguishing features of modernism - metanarratives and the representation/reality dialectic - have acted as forces which are insensitive to differences, and are consequently repressive and exclusionary forces. In particular, political structures are notably maladapted to the eclectic and fragmentary nature of the postmodern condition, and many different groups and value systems become marginalised as a result. Modernism incorporates and organises a desire for certain legitimating criteria. These certainties re/create a 'violence to the other', the marginalisation of certain sectors of the population - e.g. women, children, ethnic minorities - leading to their consequent powerlessness. The violence of certainty operates defensively, transparently, a power which can be used without even calling it such. It follows that a postmodern analysis of participants' discourse, in being sensitive to the ways that power can operate through metanarratives, can give us as feminists the tools we need to challenge the big stories that organize our lives. A postmodern analysis can also show us the ways in which traditional rationalist representations of reality suppress the emergence of their own discursive power.

From a postmodern perspective, the certainties that modernism constructs as a necessary grounding for political claims are also the forces which operate against the stated aim, usually in the form of some kind of attempted emancipation from oppression through political action. Despite this - and most importantly for this paper - the assumption that critiques of a postmodern politics often make is that political action and social change can be sustained only through the operation of some pre-given truth or metanarrative - the perceived problem with postmodernism being often that it involves a critical stance being taken towards certainties. For example - 'the flight from foundationalism, and the suspicion against claims of truth, is at the same time a flight from politics' (Baumann, 1992, p. 5). Or Simons and Billig's (1994) earlier statement that 'postmodernism is running rampant without political direction'.

Thinking within this modernist paradigm one can indeed be left wondering whether a postmodern feminism "saws the branch… upon which it sits precisely at the moment when it has managed, finally, to seize the saw in the first place…" (Docherty, 1993, p. 365). In other words, by refusing to define some essential femaleness in a unified and coherent way, postmodern feminism could be accused of throwing the politically grounding femaleness of the baby out with the oppressively gender stereotyped bath water. The postmodern approach to this kind of problem would be to question whose baby we are throwing out - that is to say, whose version of politics and femaleness is grounding this argument?

From a range of positions critical to postmodernism the general call is for a watered down version of it, in which it is possible to identify fixed points of reference, or self-referential metanarratives. These metanarratives give us the criteria to assert, for instance, that there are such things as 'women', and that we therefore have a unified political identity around which to mobilise (e.g. Gill, 1995). One way of steering a course through these complex debates, and thereby clarifying our critical aims, is to consider aspects of Jacques Derrida's development of deconstruction.

2) Derrida and Deconstruction

Deconstruction has been central to the development of postmodern and post-structuralist thought. Any approach which is critical or defensive of postmodernism needs to incorporate an understanding of the implications of deconstruction, both for politics and for analysis. So what exactly is deconstruction? Derrida would resist answering this type of question: 'All sentences of the type "deconstruction is X" or "deconstruction is not X" a priori miss the point' (Derrida, 1983, p. 275). A better way of describing deconstruction would be as a critical orientation towards asking 'what is x?' Derrida wants to deconstruct any text that equates truth with presence or logos, which privileges the voice over writing, and which debases forms of otherness.

Deconstruction, while inevitably employing the language of metaphysics, points the way towards subverting the logic of metaphysics. Because deconstruction is parasitic on the fixities of metaphysical texts, it can be seen as the name given to the potential strategies and tactics that highlight potential disruptions that are already contained within the text. This is an important point - many critical writers in psychology seem to see deconstruction as a pre-given method that one brings to a text, while others have taken deconstruction to mean the taking apart of existing constructions (see Hepburn (1999) for a review and critique of these positions). Deconstruction from a Derridean perspective is more subtle, involving an openness to the ways in which a text contradicts or subverts its own logic. These themes of reflexivity and subversion relate to the notion of the double movement (which is taken up by Judith Butler in section 3 of this paper) in the sense that it is not assumed that we can get to some reality independent of our constructions of it. It is important for any approach that wants to challenge the status quo to work reflexively and subversively within existing constructions.

But what are these metaphysical texts that Derrida wants to deconstruct? Metaphysics asks big philosophical questions about the nature of truth, knowledge, existence of God and so on. In seeking answers to these questions, Western metaphysics has traditionally looked for fundamental principles with which to ground them. Metaphysics is invariably organised by the impulse to seek some ultimate origin or logos - which can mean logic, reason, God and so forth. Derrida calls this quest for some centred truth logocentrism, and has developed deconstruction as a way of disrupting it, and of showing us how texts can contradict themselves, at once questioning and presupposing metaphysical assumptions. In doing this, deconstruction is subversive of traditional forms of understanding, without pretending it can completely step outside those traditional understandings: it works within a tradition in order to subvert that tradition. It involves critically thinking through, rather than implausibly stepping outside, the metaphysical texts that organise our lives.

Central to metaphysical texts, and therefore to any deconstruction, are dualities the elements of which can be given positive and negative values depending on their ability to reflect the logos or reality. A marginalised term, assigned a negative value, can still shape the dominant concepts and ideas in a text. Deconstruction seeks to recover this excluded term. This involves the identification of particular dualisms, such as mind/body, male/female, speech/writing - some of the classic dominant/subordinate dualisms which have organised the progression of Western thought. Deconstruction shows how the marginalised 'side' can be given priority over the dominant side, allowing meaning to emerge from what Derrida calls 'undecideables' such as differance, the trace, the pharmakon. To oversimplify, the principle of uncertainty is embraced in that the either/or binary logic is replaced by the 'logic of supplementarity' (Derrida, 1976) which has a both/and, neither/nor construction. The pharmakon is both poison and cure; differance refers to both difference and deferral, both conceptuality and the possibility of non-conceptuality; "The supplement is neither a presence nor an absence. No ontology can think its operation" (p. 314). Derrida's introduction of the logic of supplementarity subverts the binary logic which organises our constructions in logocentric ways.

Deconstruction therefore clears the way for freer movement - it is not simply about the destruction or dissembling of constructions, as is often assumed. Judith Butler captures this point well: to deconstruct the subject is not to negate or throw away the concept; on the contrary, deconstruction implies only that we suspend all commitments to that which the term 'the subject' refers, and that we consider the linguistic function it serves in the consolidation and concealment of authority (Butler, 1995, p. 49) Thus to gain a deconstructive understanding of the term 'femininity', for example, we need to suspend our commitment to that which the term has traditionally referred to, and focus instead on what the term is employed to do. Butler highlights the sense in which deconstruction can open up terms for redeployment, rather than simply accepting or negating them. We are still surrounded by terms like 'feminine' and 'woman': instead of blindly accepting or pretending that we can simply discard them, we need to use them subversively, and to become sensitive to contexts in which they can be deployed oppressively. Rather than accept one meaning as the defining form of femaleness, the identity around which we must mobilise, we need to become more open to the different ways that femaleness can be defined for us and by us, in different ways and in different contexts, to achieve different things. Deconstruction increases our sensitivity towards the function of terms, by freeing them up to be mobilised in alternative ways, in alternative critical and political arenas. One can then go on to argue that deconstruction, although invoking a radical relativisation, can be seen in some ethical sense as 'responsibility to the other' (e.g. Critchley, 1992), or that it emerges as 'compatible with a feminist commitment to emancipatory and empowerment work' (Burman, 1998, p. 10, contrasting with her somewhat anti-deconstructive position in Burman 1990).

Deconstruction has a tendency to relativise - to demonstrate that the fixity invoked by a text is organised by its own structural features, its own economy of signification - e.g.binary logic - rather than through reference to some extra-discursive 'reality'. Deconstruction therefore subverts metaphysics by introducing terms which 'either/or' logic cannot deal with. As with Lyotard's work, there is a drive against self-legitimating claims to certainty or reality. The argument is, therefore, that any text contains within itself the potential for its own subversion. That subversion involves our suspension of commitment to the meaning of a term, replacing it with a sensitivity to the way that the meaning is constructed in situ, and also an exploration of the function that this particular construction might serve. It is this radical subversion and uncertainty, so characteristic of postmodernism, which modernist feminists have found so troubling and which postmodern feminists can find so liberating. The following section explores the tension between these two feminist approaches in more detail.

3) Postmodernism and Feminism

This section will examine and clarify the pros and cons of adopting a postmodern feminist approach. For the purposes of rhetorical clarity and pedagogic value, for those unfamiliar with these debates, this involves utilising the horrendously neat and dangerously polarised categories 'modern' and 'postmodern'. For feminists in the modernist tradition, feminism involves "the ideology of a female nature or female essence reappropriated by feminists themselves in an effort to revalidate undervalued female attributes" (Alcoff, 1988, p. 408). Alcoff calls these 'cultural feminists'. However, for the postmodern feminist the problem with the modernist feminist response is that it misses the way oppression works discursively - it …does not criticize the fundamental mechanism of oppressive power used to perpetuate sexism and in fact reinvokes that mechanism in its supposed solution. The mechanism of power referred to here is the construction of the subject by a discourse that weaves knowledge and power into a coercive structure… (Alcoff, 1988, p. 415). By seeking to mobilize around some essential feminine identity, the modernist feminist is in danger of missing out on the Foucauldian sense in which identity can be constructed through a profound, discursively organised subjection (c.f. Foucault, 1982). We therefore need to take a deconstructive line - to try to understand the use to which the discursive notion of an 'essential female identity' is being put, rather than simply accept it as given. It is this structure of signification that is the focus for deconstructing potentially oppressive frameworks.

In response to this criticism, modernist feminists point to the fact that for centuries women have been denied the position of subject, and have been defined as lacking, as other. They suggest that in order to gain a strong political voice feminists need to steer clear of the postmodern trap which would deny us our own language and experiences. Developing a deconstructive counter to this type of argument, Peggy Kamuf makes the following challenge: …if feminist theory lets itself be guided by questions such as what is women's language, literature, style or experience, from where does it get its faith…if not from the same central store that supplies humanism with its faith in the universal truth of man?…will it have done anything more than reproduce the structure of woman's exclusion in the same code which has been extended to include her? (Kamuf, 1982, pp. 44-45) Again there is concern among postmodern feminists that the fixity which keeps women's 'language, literature, style or experience' as exclusively women's, is the same fixity which organises humanist accounts - the metanarrative which exhorts us to seek universal truths within ourselves. Instead the postmodern feminist would seek to replace unitary ideas about identity with the more fluid postmodern variety - "with plural and complexly constructed conceptions of social identity, treating gender as one relevant strand among others, attending also to class, race, ethnicity, age, and sexual orientation" as Nancy Fraser and Linda Nicholson (1988, p. 101) suggest.

Arguing from a postmodern perspective, Judith Butler dismisses the claim that feminism needs to have any kind of grounding in materiality. She asks "how is it that the materiality of sex is understood as that which only bears cultural constructions and, therefore, cannot be a construction?" (Butler, 1993, p. 28) - or in other words, what grounds do we have for understanding femaleness as somehow prior to its discursive construction? To say that something is a construction does not mean it is artificial or easily dispensed with. This formulation of real versus constructed (which the modern versus postmodern dialectic re/constructed by this paper taps into) would be begging the constructionists' questions about existing divisions between material and constructed worlds: divisions that are, after all, imposed by realist positions.

Butler engages in an examination of the 'scenography and topography of construction', while stressing that the 'matrix of power' which organises this scenography cannot be articulated if we take constructedness and materiality as binary opposites. The following quote illustrates the importance of deconstruction for a postmodern feminist perspective: the category of women does not become useless through deconstruction…Surely it must be possible both to use the term…even as one is used and positioned by it, and also to subject the term to a critique which interrogates the exclusionary operations and differential power relations that construct and delimit feminist invocations of "women"…it is a critique without which feminism loses its democratizing potential through refusing to engage - take stock of, and become transformed by - the exclusions which put it into play. (Butler, 1993, p. 29)Here Butler struggles with the use of the category woman. As we have seen, feminist debate has in some ways polarized around this issue, with the modernist side insisting that feminism does not make sense without the term woman, while the postmodern side warns against the dangers of unreflexively taking on board terms like woman, which have been central to our continued oppression.

Borrowing another Derridean term, Butler emphasises the importance of a kind of double movement, which allows feminists to have both political identification and recognition, while maintaining the constructionist necessity that this kind of identification should itself be perpetually open to examination and reinscription. She also stresses, like Fraser and Nicholson (1988), the importance of developing a multiplicity of identificatory sites, rather than advocating a single identity around which to mobilise.

This section has clarified arguments for and against postmodern feminist practice, serving as a considerable simplification of a large and diverse body of feminist theorising. The following section will go on to examine some of the implications that these debates can have for the practice of feminist psychology.

4) Postmodernism for Feminist Psychologists

The wedding of theory and practice, which is essential to the postmodern feminist perspective, has been constructed as problematic by some feminists. Rosalind Gill (1995) follows Erica Burman (1992) in making the distinction between discourse analysis in theory and application: discourse analysis's theoretical commitment to relativism gives us the critical edge we need, yet provides no grounds for 'application' in terms of a feminist politics. So here we have a rehearsal of the same argument between modern and postmodern feminists referred to in the previous section - that in order to develop a strong feminist voice we need some kind of grounding - some kind of given about femaleness. In summing up Gill's work, Wilkinson and Kitzinger (1995, p. 6) provide us with four clear problems created by the postmodern relativism implicit in the discursive approach in psychology:

  1. The tendency in discourse analysis to stress simple diversity masks power differences.
  2. The notion of multiple fragmented subject positions can lead to the denial of any single identity around which to organise.
  3. The discursive emphasis on the micro-politics of power downplays macro-structural inequalities.
  4. The discursive commitment to relativism disavows the grounds for feminist politics.
Each of these points can be tackled in turn:

Problem 1 suggests that the typically postmodern emphasis on diversity and plurality occludes the operation of power. In dealing with this point, let me first state that the discursive psychologist emphasises diversity as an argument against the commonly held view in psychology that individuals are in possession of various kinds of fixed and measurable cognitive apparatus - attitudes, attributes, traits or personalities. This relates us back to realist/relativist issues about what can be known prior to analysis. If we can just 'know' that people have personalities, attitudes, motivations and intentions which give rise to their subsequent behaviour, then we are justified in trying to describe them. From a deconstructive perspective, however, if we want to examine the kind of work that terms such as 'attitude' 'personality' and 'intention' do in practice, then we need to suspend our commitment to the traditional 'given' meanings of these terms. The problem with modernist feminist understandings of this suspension of commitment is that it is also taken as a suspension of commitment to feminist politics.

This is not the case, however. If by suspending our commitment to traditional meanings we gain a greater understanding of the way their discursive power is concealed, then surely we are doing a great deal to understand how the oppression of women is perpetuated. As section 2 on Lyotard showed, a postmodern analysis can increase our sensitivity to the taken-for-granted stories or metanarratives that organise our lives. Far from masking power differences, the stress on diversity can enable us to gain a greater sensitivity to the way oppressive discourses operate.

Problem 2 recognises that difficulties arise for feminism when identities are constructed as diverse or fragmented. It is similar to problem 1 in failing to see the postmodern emphasis on diversity as an important component in our reflexive understanding of the construction of identities. The ability to create fixity about what people 'are like', and to lodge explanations of problem behaviour within problem individuals, is part of psychology's oppressive power, and relates to Kamuff's point about how it is possible to end up reproducing 'the structure of woman's exclusion in the same code which has been extended to include her' (Kamuf, 1982, p. 44-45) - the 'code' here being the need to organise our feminist agenda around a 'single identity'. This can also be related to Butler's point that as feminists we lose our 'democratizing potential through refusing to engage - take stock of, and become transformed by - the exclusions which put it [feminism] into play' (Butler, 1993, p. 29). The 'exclusions' here can refer to the exclusion of other identities, other ways of being, which mobilisation around a single female identity is in danger of replicating.

As a way of illustrating further the value of diversity for feminists, a postmodern approach such as discourse analysis can show that even when voice is given to more emancipatory discourses it is possible to reveal the tensions and more subtle ways in which inegalitarian talk is being done (e.g. Wetherell et al., 1987; Gill, 1993). By stressing 'simple diversity', discourse analysis can subvert the tendency to facticity about individuals and groups which more traditional approaches in psychology replicate.

Problem 3 suggests that the discursive emphasis on the micro-politics of power downplays macro-structural inequalities. The criticism is that in focusing analytically on discourses, in questioning presuppositions, we are ignoring the wider political picture. The counter to this from a postmodern perspective is simply that 'micro' discourses are such a pervasive aspect of the construction of what we take to be our 'macro' environment, that the micro/macro distinction becomes rather blurred. Ultimately any postmodern account which involved Derridean deconstruction or Foucauldian power/knowledge would take issue with the conceptualisation of power in terms of 'micro' versus 'macro' structures. In a Foucauldian account it is recognised that power operates not just from the top, in terms of the macro structures and institutional authority of the state, but also from below, in the day to day unquestioned acceptance and employment of particular 'micro' discourses. It makes no sense to talk of macro-structural inequalities which are not already constituted 'micro' discursively.

Problem 4 suggests that the discursive commitment to relativism is at odds with feminist politics. Gill (1995) is particularly emphatic on this point. She criticizes postmodernism's 'theoretical commitment to relativism' (p. 166), and also criticizes self-avowed relativists (i.e. Edwards et al., 1995) who argue that there is no contradiction between a relativist position and 'being a fully paid up member of a particular culture with commitments and a common-sense notion of reality' (Gill, 1995, p. 174).

In order to tackle this point (and see Hepburn, (2000a) for a more elaborate critique of anti-relativist positions in feminist psychology) we can return to the notion of the 'double movement' - a relativising move in which we suspend our commitment to the traditional, unified meaning of a term, e.g. 'woman', in order to better understand how such meanings can be deployed oppressively. This does not mean that we reject the term altogether. Again Judith Butler (1993) can expand on this: To call a presupposition into question is not the same as doing away with it; rather, it is to free it from its metaphysical lodgings in order to understand what political interests were secured in and by that metaphysical placing, and thereby to permit the term to occupy and to serve very different political aims (p. 30). If, as feminist psychologists, we are sensitized to the ways in which accounts are constructed as truthful or factual, then we can begin to understand the way that some constructions give an impression of being true or real, such that they become part of our everyday common-sense way of understanding ourselves. This can afford us insights into which political interests particular taken-for-granted discourses serve. Far from becoming politically sterile by adopting a postmodern perspective, we are instead made more aware of the ways in which particular claims can serve particular political interests. For example, the claim that the discursive commitment to relativism is at odds with feminist politics can be seen to serve the interests of a particular kind of politics that the authors may feel is the most appropriate for feminists.

The postmodern view holds that instead of appealing to foundations for political claims, we can appeal to context. In the absence of some external reference point or objective criterion we must look to the context of what is being examined, and be aware that there is no pre-discursive realm with which to ground our claims. Hence a basis for the postmodern political stance is that we can direct our criticisms at what 'is': there is not so much a rejection of consensus as a rejection of claims based on 'possession' of some fixed identity. A rejection of certainty about our identity is not a rejection of commitment to the fundamental feminist principle of the eradication of the oppression of women. Indeed, a major contribution of feminist psychologists could be the documentation of the oppressive consequences of assuming some fixed identity. This is one of the themes which will emerge from the analytical section, in which the utility of a postmodern stance for feminist psychology is further illustrated through merging aspects of the postmodern theories outlined above with the practical business of analysing texts.

5) Introduction to Analysis

In this short analytical section I will be using two extracts to illustrate specific points related to the arguments developed above. The general approach to the conversational interviews conducted for the wider research project on which this analysis is based, was to encourage teachers and pupils to talk informally about school bullying and related issues such as discipline and punishment; I also offered pupils' ideas from prior interviews for teachers to comment on. Research aims and questions centred around the identification of discursive strategies which construct relations, positions and regimes within the existing hierarchical set-up of schools.

The research involved the investigation of two first-year Scottish secondary school classes. This section focuses on one specific aspect of the teachers' interviews - their talk about gender differences as they relate to school bullying. The method of recruitment was informal, involving my asking around for participants in staff rooms. Teachers were told that interviews would last 15 minutes, although all the teachers involved went beyond this estimate, with some interviews lasting over an hour. All participants interviewed were assured of total anonymity. The research and what it entailed was explained as clearly as possible. Prior to each interview, participants were assured of their right to withdraw, and given the chance to ask questions both before and after interviews. Transcription conventions can be found in appendix 1.

A) Binary Oppositions

This section will examine the employment of oppositions in a piece of talk about school bullying. The aim is to understand the ways in which oppositions can be employed to construct accounts in particular ways. The following extract occurred in the context of the interviewer's request for any experiences of school bullying the teacher might have had:

Extract 1 Teacher S1: 56-73 1 Teacher: …I find that the worst kind of bullying that goes on

2 is the insidious bullying, where there's no physical

3 bullying but it's mental bullying=4 Interviewer: =mm, mm

5 Teacher: erm and I have seen strong boys reduced to (.) tears=

6 Interviewer: ºoh [dearº

7 Teacher: [=with it, I've also seen physical bullying,

8 Interviewer: mm 9 Teacher: I personally think that the physical bullying is

10 probably ea:sier to cope with 11 Interviewer: yeah12 Teacher: erm, and you can probably get erm, th-the child

13 thinking along the rightlines14 Interviewer: mm

15 Teacher: whereas um, the mental bullying is much more

16 difficult to cope with

17 Interviewer: mm

18 Teacher: it's ?also getting the bully to admit that their

19 behaviour is bullying, and to understand what we:'re

20 meaning by bullying, and also parents,

21 Interviewer: mm

22 Teacher: um, within the last year I've had a sense that a girl 23 was bullying, er, verbal bullying, now the father

24 being ar:my (.) would only accept that bullying was 25 physical, he wouldn't ac?cept that bullying could be

26 verbal… In line with the postmodern approaches which this paper has been advocating, what will be important in this analysis will be to suspend commitment to taken-for-granted notions of what bullying 'is', to be replaced by a focus on the ways in which bullying gets constructed, and what those constructions appear to achieve. One of the interesting features of this account is what Derrida might call the play of binary oppositions that organise the construction of what bullying is, how it is to be defined and evaluated. The most ubiquitous opposition here is that of mental/physical, in which the 'mental' side is given a negative evaluation - it is 'the worst kind of bullying' and 'insidious' (lines 1-2). This mental bullying is associated with verbal bullying, how children bully one another when they are not being 'physical'. The above account demonstrates some of the rhetorical uses of such a distinction: for the teacher it is helping to persuade parents and young people to share her definition of the problem - that even when intimidation does not involve physical violence it still 'means' bullying. For the father, on the other hand, it could be used rhetorically as a form of justification for his daughter's actions.

Other rhetorical uses of the mental/physical distinction, can be seen in the phrase 'I have seen strong boys reduced to tears' (line 4). Firstly there is an introduction of gendered identities into the equation - 'strong boys', boys whose physical capacity to fight back is invoked. The type of bullying which would involve physical violence would somehow be easier for both the 'strong boy' and the teacher to cope with: less likely to reduce our 'strong boy' to tears, less 'insidious' and more easily spotted by the teacher.

There is therefore a lining up of male/female, with mental/physical. Also implicated are strength/weakness and reason/emotion, in that the emotional response of crying is considered weak, not the normal response one would expect from a 'strong boy'. The lining up of 'mental' with 'verbal' is also interesting, in the sense that the distinctions relate to the modernist metaphysical view of language - the verbal - as a mirror of some internal reality - the mental - which invariably locates problems at an individual level, rather than seeing them as embedded in the wider discursive network. So as Derrida would predict, there are a number of binary oppositions organising the ways that we understand and evaluate what it is to be human, gendered and bullied. These binaries take on evaluations, such that some are employable as more positive: e.g. male, physical, strength, at the expense of their oppositions: female, mental, weakness.

This makes an important point for the postmodern feminist, as we can see these oppositions as useful in the organisation of a patriarchal ideology, typified by this 'male is positive, female is negative' kind of construction. As Butler (1993) suggests, by adopting a postmodern deconstructive perspective in our feminist work we have a clearer insight into the political (e.g. patriarchal) interests served by particular metaphysical constructions. This is also important as it clarifies the argument made against Gill's (1995) position discussed earlier, in that it clearly demonstrates the possibility of a political postmodern feminist stance.

It is perhaps important at this point to highlight the shift of focus that this type of analysis involves for psychologists. Rather than simply making claims about what teachers have said about male-female differences in bullying behaviour, which can be taken as a straightforward description of the teachers' perceptions of differences between male and female bullying, or indeed as evidence of real gender differences in bullying, we can ask instead 'what discursive strategies are employed in the creation of fixed categories?' This is a deconstructive move in which the whole system of categorisation is questioned, allowing us to become more sensitive to the subtle assumptions that position us in particular ways, and to gain some insight into the positive and negative evaluations that tend to accompany dualistic constructions.

Derrida's work suggests that logocentric certainties can be created and perpetuated by such binary oppositions. Deconstruction involves ultimately creating problems for the boundaries of such dualities, for example calling into question the unitary categories of 'female', which, as discussed earlier, can be at odds with some modernist feminists' political projects. However by exposing these categories to this radical questioning, the postmodern feminist is able to subject them to an interrogation of the exclusionary operations and differential power relations that allow women to be constructed as women in the first place. Our task is therefore to examine the linguistic and political functions that gendered categories serve, rather than to accept them, or aspects of them, as grounding for our political claims. This second excerpt highlights the importance of this position.

B) The metanarrative of personality

The following extract occurred again in the context of a discussion about the teacher's experiences of school bullying, but this time the interviewer had asked a direct question earlier on about whether the teacher had noticed a difference in levels of bullying between girls and boys.

Extract 2 Teacher C2: 214-238

1 Teacher: …what I've noticed recently and >certainly at

2 Chapelhill there is much more< fema-aggression from

3 girls, I mean the girls are attacking the boys as

4 well as girls, and its in exactly the same way as

5 ?boys used to do it (0.2) em (.) tripping someone up 6 ((10 lines omitted))

7 …er, although I ?still think that on the whole girls

8 conform more because girls are more people group

9 orientated, and boys work a lot more

10 individualistically (0.2) parallel lines generally

11 (.) they don't get into such close re?lation?ships

12 Interviewer: yeah (.) yeah do you think that's more to do with

13 our views of masculinity and feminin[ity=

14 Teacher: [no

15 Interviewer: =that we've imposed=

16 Teacher: =I do think it (.) it is more (0.4) personality

17 thing, and lots of girls and boys cross over of

18 course=

19 Interviewer [ºmmº

20 Teacher: [=but at the extremes there's >certainly at one

21 extreme< (.) masculine characteristics, there are

22 more boys in that, and the caring (.) soft (.) er,

23 Interviewer: nurturant sort of?=

24 Teacher: =yes nurturant are more dominant in the girls (.) but 25 as I say you get this big cross over…

The following analysis applies Lyotard's notion of 'metanarrative' - a dominant narrative about the nature of reality, which acts to unify ideas, allowing them to legitimate themselves with reference to this dominant narrative in a self-referential and circular way.

In this extract we can see the boundaries between male and female being both challenged and kept in place. They are challenged in the sense that this teacher reports having 'noticed recently' that girls are being physically aggressive in the same way as boys (lines 1-5). What is interesting then is to look at the discursive resources which keep the gendered dualities in play; one obvious resource relates to the use of 'personality' - 'I do think it, it is more, personality thing…' (lines 16-17) which does the kind of fixity of identity that allows the account to appear to be 'describing' something, such as 'masculine characteristics' (line 21).

From a postmodern feminist perspective then, the binary organising Excerpt 2 above relates to two fixed points of masculinity and femininity, which are at either end of some continuum. Utilizing aspects of Lyotard's perspective, this 'masculine/feminine personality characteristics' construction can then be proposed as an explanation for a paradox. The paradox is that this teacher begins by documenting the prevalence of female physical bullying in the school, while ending up reinforcing the same 'male=physical, female=mental' binary oppositions identified in the previous excerpt. From a Lyotardian perspective, we could see the individualism (and its more explicit cognitivism) that the term personality draws upon as one of the metanarratives shaping this account.

Lyotard argues that we generally appeal to metanarratives in a self-referential way as legitimating criteria, and here we can see that 'personality' is similarly invoked, as a means of legitimating male-female 'personality' differences. Thus is created the illusion of some pre-discursive realm to which to appeal as a way of grounding our claims about what is peculiar to maleness and femaleness, resulting in a tautology: the teacher ends up explaining male/female differences in terms of male/female differences: they just exist, they are 'part of the personality'. Any evidence to the contrary, e.g. female physical bullying, is now constructed as a 'cross over'.

The focus on 'personality' here has parallels with the work of discursive psychologists (e.g. Edwards and Potter 1992), who point to the use of psychological terms such as 'personality' as participants' terms, worked up, as in this account, to do particular bits of business, rather than something psychologists should think they can decontextualise, reify and then measure (for an analysis which brings Derrida and discursive psychology together more explicitly see Hepburn, 2000b). This account therefore does the kind of fixity about identity that probably most feminist interpretations - modern or postmodern - would want to challenge. I would argue however that the postmodern perspective provides us with the most devastating critical ammunition, by examining what the deployment of these categories achieves, while remaining - as any feminist position inevitably is - politically engaged.

To develop this line of thinking in a more overtly political way, one could venture that a very good way of maintaining the political status quo is to propose fixities about people, and to use these as some kind of explanation. For example, the claim - implicit in much of the psychological theorizing about bullying (e.g. Olweus, 1978; Roland, 1988; Besag, 1989) - that 'this person is bullying verbally because she is female' deflects attention away from the social, cultural and discursive factors which make this kind of bullying seem appropriate to particular people. This point has been developed in more detail by Hepburn (1997). By keeping our political perspective at the level of identity politics we ignore the many other factors - exclusions, subordinations - that have shaped that identity.

6) Conclusions

This paper has presented arguments for adopting a postmodern feminist stance in psychology, and has marshalled arguments from theorists typically defined as 'postmodern'. The way that postmodernism impacts on debates in feminist theory relates to whether we should replicate traditional ways of doing power, by invoking some kind of single and unified identity for women to mobilize around, or whether we need to take postmodern theoretical arguments on board, so as not to reproduce the structures of exclusion and power/knowledge relations which have previously served to position us in negative and powerless ways. To call for a 'single identity around which to mobilise' is therefore to risk replicating the same structures of exclusion that have organized patriarchal ideologies. It follows that, far from leaving us no grounds for a feminist politics, postmodernism gives us a range of critical tools for challenging oppressive and patriarchal constructions, as well as the ability to identify modernist discursive constructions which may be so central to our understanding, that their power to construct and reproduce gendered subjectivities is occluded.

The analytical section in this paper aimed to show the value of postmodern discourse analysis for feminism, by highlighting various ways in which fixity about appropriate gendered behaviour can get done. The first excerpt drew on Derrida's work on deconstruction and the identification of binary oppositions. It demonstrated how constructions of school bullying can be polarised around mental/physical, male/female, strong/weak dualities. It is also suggested that 'verbal' or 'mental' bullying can be contructed as 'insidious' and upsetting for 'strong boys'. What was proposed then was a deconstruction of fixed categories of male and female, and the final excerpt showed that even when these categories are called into question, they can be kept in place by the metanarrative of personality, which locates explanations for behaviour within the individual - their 'characteristics' - in a self-referential kind of way.

The analysis therefore demonstrates one of the central deconstructive themes of this paper, that it is not enough simply to overturn or subvert evaluations accompanying existing dualities such as male/female. Rather we need to suspend our commitment to the traditional unified meanings of these categories. This demonstrates the importance of deconstruction in sensitising us to the operation of dualities and metanarratives which can do fixity about the types of people we ought to be in relation to our gender - as witness the teachers' use of binaries to re/create the construction of femaleness as 'soft' and 'weak'.

From a postmodern perspective, femininity can be many different things to different people in different contexts. As soon as we define and unify the category 'woman' we have refused some aspect of this potential diversity, and deployed the same kind of appropriation and exclusion that has served the modernist patriarchal domain so well. The implications of these insights for feminist postmodern analysis include the need to begin to document this appropriation by examining the ways in which femininity is constructed as a fixed category in various types of text. The various tools being developed by discursive psychologists, e.g. Edwards and Potter (1992), Potter (1996) and Edwards (1997) can be important for a clearer understanding of the ways in which facts and truths - e.g. about gender, personalities, or any other realities - are built up and presented as such.

Our power as gendered subjects lies in recognising our own discursive construction - the exclusions and constructions that have put us as 'women' 'into play' - and it is precisely these kinds of insights which allow a postmodern discourse analysis its political leverage. We do have the grounds to say that, based on a postmodern analysis of these issues, there are political implications in conceptualising femaleness in one way rather than another. This will give us what we most need as feminists - the ability to identify the political effects of the deployment of discursive strategies that relate to women.

What feminist theory faces, or any kind of theory for that matter, is an endless positing of foundations, and an endless commitment to metaphysical binaries and metanarratives. Postmodernism gives us the endless vigilance and questioning we need to be able to unmask political positions behind claims often rhetorically constructed as factual or neutral. Our task as feminist analysts - especially those of us working within the discipline of psychology - is to identify the discursive moves related to feminism and femininity which attempt to place themselves beyond question. We also need the ability to see more clearly and consider more comprehensively the political consequences of accepting premises that have historically effected our subordination. We need to recognise the economies of signification that occur in logocentric frameworks, which structure the reification, evaluation and marginalisation of terms such as male and female, and which can make our feelings and experiences seem prior to their textual construction. This will equip us with the resources necessary to challenge the limits of humanist identity politics, to struggle against fixed sexual or gendered identities, and to affirm creativity rather than identity.

Appendix 1: Brief transcription notation
Um:: colons represent lengthening of the preceding sound; the more colons, the greater the lengthening.
I've- a hyphen represents the cut-off of the preceding sound, often by a stop.
>right, RIGHT< Less than/greater than signs enclose noticeably quicker talk than the surrounding. Capital letters show significantly increased volume.
re?lation?ships up and down arrows represent sharp upward and downward pitch shifts in the following sounds. Underlining represents stress, usually by volume; the more underlining the greater the stress.
hhh hh .hh  'h' represents aspiration, sometimes simply hearable breathing, sometimes laughter, etc.; when preceded by a superimposed dot, it marks in-breath.
hhh[hh .hh]
[I just ]
left brackets represent point of overlap onset; right brackets represent point of overlap resolution.
.,? punctuation marks intonation, not grammar; period, comma and 'question mark' indicate downward, 'continuative', and upward contours respectively.
(0.2)(.) numbers in parentheses represent silence in tenths of a second; a dot in parentheses represents a micro-pause, less than two tenths of a second.

mm hmm° 

the degree signs enclose significantly lowered volume.


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Correspondence to:

Psychology Division

School of Social Sciences

Nottingham Trent University

Burton Street



email: alexa.hepburn@ntu.ac.uk

tel: 0115 941 8418

fax: 0115 948 6551

Acknowledgements: I would like to thank Jonathan Potter, Ros Gill, Erica Burman and Sue Wilkinson for helpful comments on an earlier draft. Also thanks to the FAST women's group at Staffordshire University - Harriette Marshall, Angie Burns, Helen Lee, Ceri Parsons and Bianca Raabe (Manchester Metropolitan University).

Biographical note: Alexa Hepburn is Senior Lecturer in Psychology at Nottingham Trent University.  Her research has focused on power, discourse and school bullying; on theoretical issues in social and critical psychology; and on the implications of deconstruction for psychology.   She is currently preparing a book on approaches to critical psychology.

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