Monthly Archives: October 2013

Absence in the news: African feminism

As well as theorising absence/silence and looking at different approaches, one thing that we want to do in this blog is look at how absence and silence become topics in themselves. Following on from The Apparent King and Queen of Silence in Politics, in this post I wanted to return to an article that caught my eye in September:

African feminists

In the article, Salami asks

So why does the western feminist movement hardly look at African feminism for clues? Why does it only pay such little attention to the realisation of a once utopian fantasy of female majority leadership in Rwanda – where, since 2008, women have held over half the parliamentary seats? Feminists everywhere have spent decades campaigning for equality in political leadership, yet its achievement in Rwanda has been met with a loud silence.

There was plenty of discussion about why this might be the case in the comments below the line and it is an important question that has been posed elsewhere, but what also interested me was whether there was any way we could measure this kind of absence. That is not to devalue the salience of the perceived absence, but it constitutes an opportunity to think about methodological exploration.

Two absences are identified in the article: first, that the achievements of feminism in Rwanda have not been recognised and discussed; second that the role of African feminists in creating a more equal society have been ignored in western accounts. Any attempt to investigate these issues in a blog post is bound to be limited in scope but can perhaps indicate directions for a more thoughtful analysis and so I will look at the first absence.

One approach was to start with an open question and look at what regions or nationalities were mentioned with reference to feminism. As the article had  appeared in the Guardian, I started there. The 20 geographical identities that occurred most frequently in articles which contained mentions of feminist/feminism from the last 12 months were: England, French, India, African, Western, France, Russian, European, Italy, Africa, Afghanistan, Irish, Britain’s, Egypt, States, German, Russia, Wales, Germany, Ireland. The prominent position of African and Africa challenges the assumption of silence, but of course at this stage we are missing information about how Africa is being discussed in relation to feminism: are the most frequent countries sources for inspiration or concern? To answer this we would need to go into the collocates and concordances.

Another approach that I considered was to take the two other countries that were mentioned in the article, Iceland and Australia, and as a quick test of visibility, to compare the frequency of mentions on feminist websites. The results were quite mixed, Australia tended to get more mentions that the others but the ranking of Rwanda and Iceland varied widely according to the website. With more data we would be able to get a firmer picture but the tool is still too blunt and, as above, cannot account for how the status of women is being discussed.

So then I looked at the first 20 mentions for each country within two of the websites and identified whether they were talking about women as victims or poor role models (classified as negative below), or if they were talking about positive role models and changes that could benefit women. This is what I found:

feminist chart

The situation for women in Iceland was consistently discussed in positive terms, where there was an evaluation, while positive descriptions relating to Rwanda were less frequent. The positive mentions for Rwanda related to representation in parliament; the negative mentions referred mainly to women as victims of rape, in particular during the conflict, and female genital mutilation. In the Australia data, which contained a mixture of evaluations too, the positive and negative evaluations related to similar issues: in particular advances in availability of birth control medication and legislation limiting access to abortion. This level of detail could allow for a quantitative analysis that would be a more productive avenue and also lead towards understanding western feminist attitudes to Rwanda.

Subsequent explorations which get into the discourse analysis could look more specifically at how female leaders from these three countries are represented, and in addressing the second absence identified in the original article it would be revealing to explore who is credited with female leadership success in each context.

Those interested in representations of feminism in the media might be interested in ‘On the f-word: A corpus-based analysis of the media representation of feminism in British and German press discourse, 1990–2009’

Advertisements

Silence and hegemony

When it comes to the notion of discursive hegemony, the first thing that springs to mind with regard to absence is the way that hegemonic discourse excludes certain groups, topics and possible statements and, reversely, how constellations of discursive hegemony determine which perspectives are preferred and whose voices are heard in discourse. It seems as though silencing, as characterised by Thiesmeyer (2003) will always be involved in the establishment of discourse hegemony: “A major function of silencing is to contain this potential for opposition by identifying categories of persons and ideas about which speech and texts will be unacceptable (…). This process is complemented by the circulation of acceptable speech and texts that express some things at the expense of others (…)” (9).

It is typical for societies to have discourses about minorities, about deprived, disabled and mentally ‘deranged’ and others at the flat ends of the Bell curve of normality in which these groups are never themselves heard. “Silence is thus an endpoint  in a lost battle for the right to speak, just as the full participation in dominant discourse is the result of a struggle for power and an enactment or a justification of the position of power.” (Herdina 1996, 30).

But then, silence can also be subversive in the form of deliberate (and, ideally notable) opting out of hegemonic discourse or refusal to perform certain speech acts when they are strongly expected. In an increasingly communicative culture in which, as Cameron (2000) pointed out, economic value is assigned to communication (skills), when people become wary of the constant flow of communication and advertising and in a political climate of resignation in the face of spin dominating over deliberation, the subversive potential of absence and silence might increase.

To make matters more complicated, I recently came to think more about how silence about its own premises, in form of ‘the absence of the need to mention it’ could also be seen as the pillars of discursive hegemony: We don’t need to specify if we happen to be heterosexual, we don’t need to make explicit that it is good to be rich and bad to be mad. We don’t need to explain to anyone that immigration is a problem or at least a challenge. We don’t need to elaborate on the expectation of couples to be in love with one another. So when it comes to absence as a result of hegemony, we face a potentially harmful silencing (of what is not in the realms of discursive hegemony, of what it ‘othered out’), the potential of silence to subvert hegemonic discourse and the silence of hegemonic discourse about its own premises, which protects its dominance and pervasiveness. Once you start spelling these out, they become negotiable and may even sound ridiculous or absurd.


How do you analyse the thing you have identified as absent?

This weekend I was at the 5th International Language in the Media Conference in London, which was a great opportunity to catch up with friends and meet some new researchers too. I was talking about absence (of course!) and got some really good ideas for my project, which I will talk about more some other time.  But, basically, I have been looking at how we can investigate what is absent in discourses, and, what discourses are absent in discussion of migrants and migration in the press. I have been working on four main ways into the data:

  1. Corpus linguistic starting points
  2. (Critical) discourse analytic starting points
  3. Meta-linguistic markers as a starting point
  4. Use of external data as a starting point

And I thought I would start with the last in the list; the use of external data. In this category, I am thinking of non-linguistic data which does not come from the corpus, so the example I gave on Saturday was population statistics.

My idea was this: If we compare the rankings of ‘foreign-born residents in the UK’ with the rankings of mentions of nationalities in newspaper articles that also mention migration, can we start to identify which groups are under-represented? And can this tell us anything about the way migration is represented in the UK?

It is currently a very rough measure which needs refining, but it looks worth working on as a point of entry into the data. Most nationalities in the list occurred within 10 ranking places on each scale, for instance, people from Poland were ranked in second place in terms of population in the UK and 11th in terms of mentions in the newspapers. I then focussed on those that were ranked more than 10 places lower on the newspaper mentions list, than in the population list, as a way of identifying who perhaps was less visible. This is what came up:

  • 11-20 rankings lower: Ghana, Jamaica, Kenya, Lithuania, Malaysia, New Zealand, Nigeria, Portugal, Slovakia, South Africa
  • 21-30 rankings lower: Bangladesh, Somalia, Sri Lanka, Zimbabwe
  • 31+ ranking lower: Philippines, Hong Kong

But having found that these nationalities appear to be under-represented, as a discourse analyst, the problem is interpreting the data because the full answer won’t be/can’t be in the corpus, of course.

In a previous study of the Italian context, I found it useful to return to the population statistics and look at what employment roles dominated for particular nationalities and saw a strong correlation between domestic labour and low visibility. But this is only partial too, because as newspaper consumers we know that assimilation of different nationalities into one broader category, e.g. east European, is a common feature of the discourse, in part, because the nationality may not be known (by text producers or implied readers), in part, because it is a rhetorical device for creating threat.

And so, to return the heading: how do you analyse the thing that you have identified as being absent?