Critical Reflections on Performativity and 'Un/Doing' Gender and Sexuality in Talk

    Research output: Contribution to book/anthology/report/conference proceedingBook chapterResearchpeer-review


    Recently, scholars have tried to coax conversation analysis (CA) from being an empirical or descriptive discipline to becoming a critical one by reflecting on the ideological assumptions behind its 'objective' analyses of 'everyday' conduct (Wetherell 1998, Billig 1999a, 1999b and Hutchby 1999). I too have been provoked by the unfortunate separation of politics and analysis that often appears to go with a ‘naive empiricism’ in much of CA. But another motivation for revisiting and (re)theorising the analysis of talk, social interaction and discursive practice has come in the form of the productive challenge posed by feminist and queer theories that conceive of gender (and sexuality) as something we ‘do’, not ‘are’. This view is representative of the ‘performative turn’ that can be traced in many fields and disciplines, with distinctive histories and trajectories. The source of this recent 'turn' is most often traceable in the first instance to the work of the feminist philosopher Judith Butler. Butler’s (1990) troubling of how we think of gender and identity has worked through into many fields, including literary studies (Sedgwick 1993c), performance theory (Parker & Sedgwick 1995a), sociology (Esterberg 1996), philosophy (Benhabib et al. 1995) and cultural studies (Bell 1999), and it has made occasional in-roads into feminist sociolinguistics, where for example it has been used to criticise the essentialism of positing a women’s (and a men’s) language (see Cameron 1997a, 1997b). Although the 'performative turn' has surfaced slowly and unevenly in studies of gender and sexuality in everyday language use, it is clear that the 'turn' in general is in part responsible for the reinvigoration of the analysis of agency and identity. At first glance it may seem that the recent developments in queer theory, especially the poststructuralist theorising of Judith Butler (1990, 1993b, 1997b) and Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick (1990, 1993b), are distant from the concerns of interactional pragmatics and conversation analysis, yet a surprising number of crissings and crossings emerge when we consider the complex questions of agency, subjectivity, identity, normativity and power. Even though it is not renowned for dealing with gender and sexuality, the field of conversation analysis is intimately familiar with the fine-grained analysis of the complexities of practical action, agency and identity in talk. Because of this focus we need to consider carefully in what ways CA might be relevant and applicable to feminism and queer studies, especially with regard to developing an appropriate methodology for analysing the performativity of sexuality in talk. In this chapter I examine how notions of 'doing', particularly of gender and sexuality, in studies of conversation and talk-in-interaction are similar to and different from the notion of 'performativity' in the work of Judith Butler. I refer not only to her argument that gender identity "is performatively constituted by the very ‘expressions’ that are said to be its results” (1990: 25), but also to some other lesser known arguments concerning power, subjection and the body. What I propose to do is trace the concept of performativity as it is conceived in the theory of gender performativity and as it relates to the field of conversation analysis. The basic tenets of both are explicitly compared in the hope that we can find suggestive new directions for CA by bringing it and 'post-identity' gender theory into dialogue. To do justice to the variety and contemporary relevance of past work, a critical review of the early foundations of a perspective on 'doing' gender are uncovered in the writings of Goffman and Garfinkel. Kessler & McKenna's (1978) groundbreaking social constructionist understanding of gender/sex based on their studies of categorisation practices is also briefly assessed. The prime focus for comparison, however, is the model of 'doing' gender first proposed by West & Zimmerman (1987). It is fruitful at this juncture to ask what ideological baggage conversation analysis brings with it, so Butler's enquiries are used to ask awkward questions and to develop new topics for a qualitative methodology suitable for the analysis of the everyday constitution of gender and sexuality through language practices in interactional encounters. The other side of the coin is that the turn to the performative in contemporary feminist and queer theory, which has borrowed selectively from a notion of linguistic performativity, seems to have missed an opportunity to ground its theorising in an alternative 'empirical' account of conversational practice and action.
    Original languageEnglish
    Title of host publicationTalking Gender and Sexuality
    EditorsPaul McIlvenny
    Number of pages38
    Place of PublicationAmsterdam
    PublisherJohn Benjamins Publishing Company
    Publication date2002
    ISBN (Print)9027251142
    Publication statusPublished - 2002


    • gender
    • performativity
    • conversation analysis
    • sexuality

    Fingerprint Dive into the research topics of 'Critical Reflections on Performativity and 'Un/Doing' Gender and Sexuality in Talk'. Together they form a unique fingerprint.

  • Projects

    Cite this

    McIlvenny, P. (2002). Critical Reflections on Performativity and 'Un/Doing' Gender and Sexuality in Talk. In P. McIlvenny (Ed.), Talking Gender and Sexuality (pp. 111-149). John Benjamins Publishing Company.