Analysing Mumsnet Talk at the Intersection of Gender and Class
When I started my PhD, exploring the discursive construction of motherhood in the Mumsnet ‘talk’ discussion forum, my attention was focused solely on the social category of gender. My central research question - ‘is parenting gendered in Mumsnet interactions?’ - as well as my choice to locate this study firmly in the field of gender and language, are a testament to my particular interest in gender. Yet, discussions about my research, with friends and colleagues alike, have often led to the same question: ‘But what about class?’ For many of my colleagues, particularly those working in the discipline of Sociology, the Mumsnet site is as obviously classed as it is gendered.
But I have been far more reluctant to engage with ‘class’ than ‘gender’ as an analytical category. This reluctance is mirrored in the field of gender and language as a whole, from which in-depth analyses of class, and intersections of class and gender, are strikingly absent. This is not surprising, considering gender and language scholars’ well-documented reluctance, in the wake of the postmodern turn, to make assumptions on the basis of monolithic identity categorisations (see Cameron, 1996; Eckert & McConnell-Ginet, 1992). The influence of postmodernist theories such as poststructuralism and social constructionism has led to widespread scepticism of totalising categories in the field, and ‘class’, with its connotations of division and hierarchical order, can be seen as a particularly limiting system of categorisation.
Yet, as my study has developed, I have recognised markers of wealth and cultural interests in the talk of Mumsnet users that have brought classed categories to the front of my mind. I have begun to realise that I cannot fully appreciate the identity constructions of Mumsnet users without paying attention to the cultural assumptions around class that may be relevant to my participants and their readers. My subsequent engagement with literature on class and social stratification (for example, Bourdieu, 1984; Goldthorpe, 1980), as well as theories of indexicality (Ochs, 1992) and performativity (Butler, 1999), has led me to develop a framework for analysing the relevance of gender and class in Mumsnet ‘talk’ that is consistent with my poststructuralist outlook. Following Holmes and Stubbe (2003) in the field of gender and language, I have used this literature review to develop a summary of documented indicators of class in academic research, such as wealth, cultural interests, occupation and education.
Returning to my analysis of a Mumsnet ‘talk’ thread titled ‘Can we have a child exchange?’ in the light of further study and theorisation, I have been able to claim with more confidence that contributors to this thread index class, together with femininity, by drawing on resources that have been widely associated with particular classed groups. For example, some participants draw attention to their children’s culturally ‘highbrow’ (Bourdieu, 1984) interests, such as opera or playing a musical instrument, and most use formal, sophisticated vocabulary in a way that displays their communicative competence in relation to educational and professional spheres. More specifically, I have found that contributors to this thread draw on such resources in their performance of what I call the ‘good mother’: a classed, gendered subject that is positioned exclusively in relation to children.
The notion that Mumsnet users can draw on linguistic resources that are indexical of class, and that in doing so they may perform classed identities, has become an important part of my analysis of Mumsnet ‘talk’, far more so than I initially anticipated. Still, I don’t regret delaying my attention to class in this study. By allowing the relevance of class and classed categories to emerge through my analysis, I have been able to draw confident conclusions about their relevance. My scepticism of class (and indeed of gender) as a macro category remains, and I would argue that the relevance of identity categories is best evidenced in the text, through close, microlinguistic analysis.
Contact: mackenj1 at aston dot ac dot uk
Bourdieu, P. (1984). Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgement of Taste. (R. Nice, Ed.). London and New York: Routledge Classics.
Butler, J. (1999). Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity (Tenth Anni.). London and New York: Routledge Classics.
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Eckert, P., & McConnell-Ginet, S. (1992). Think Practically and Look Locally : Language and Gender as Community- Based Practice. Annual Review of Anthropology, 21, 461–490.
Goldthorpe, J. H. (1980). Social Mobility and Class Structure in Modern Britain. Oxford: Clarendon Press.
Holmes, J., & Stubbe, M. (2003). “Feminine” Workplaces: Stereotype and Reality. In J. Holmes & M. Meyerhoff (Eds.), The Handbook of Language and Gender (pp. 573–600). Malden, MA; Oxford, UK; Victoria, Australia: Blackwell Publishing.
Ochs, E. (1992). Indexing Gender. In A. Duranti & C. Goodwin (Eds.), Rethinking Context: Language as an Interactive Phenomenon (pp. 335–358). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.