Gender in World Perspective (3rd edition)

Raewyn Connell and Rebecca Pearse

Book Review

In a world where gender issues are increasingly in the spotlight (for example, in the recent past, see debates in the media around violence against women during the trial of athlete Oscar Pistorius and cases of rape in India and discussions on same-sex marriage in some countries with the simultaneous tightening of laws on homosexuality in places such as Russia and Uganda), this updated version of Raewyn Connell’s book Gender, is an important contribution. It is aimed at those beginning their journey of study on gender, and is probably most useful for students. However, this book is accessible and interesting enough to be read by practitioners, activists, and the general public.

My enjoyment of Raewyn Connell and Rebecca Pearse’s book was further enhanced by their methodological references and notes. Their appreciation of good research, and their use of it to explore and theorise ideas of gender, makes the book both rigorous in its approach, and also interesting for people concerned not only with what we know, but how we go about knowing these things. It draws on the considerable expertise and experience of Raewyn Connell and Rebecca Pearse, and their continuing commitment and enthusiasm for the issues comes through clearly, and gives the book pace and interest.

The book opens with an accessible introduction, explaining the importance of gender as a concept, and how we need to look beyond simplistic, dichotomous understandings and examine relationships and structures as well (p. 11). This is then illustrated by a summary of five different pieces of research – all qualitative, and on different areas of gender that problematise embedded assumptions. These range from research done with primary school age children, examining how they are active participants in the construction of gender, to men in the South African mines, and the way that gender interacts with underlying economic and social processes to create different ideas of ‘manhood’. One of the interesting elements of the book, that perhaps sets it apart from many others, is that it does appear to balance the focus of gender analysis between the lived experiences of both women and men.

In the next chapter, sex differences are considered, together with the relationship between bodies and structures. In order to understand gender as an arena of analysis we need to look at how our bodies are constructed as male/female within the social and cultural contexts that we occupy: ‘The social world is never simply reproduced; it is always reconstituted by practice’ (p. 51). However, in this chapter (Chapter 3), the analysis and examples seem to reflect earlier editions, more concentrated on the experience of life in the global North, and social and economic realities located in advanced capitalist norms.

The key question, about how categories of ‘men’ and ‘women’ are constructed and placed at the centre of a ‘theory of gender’, is addressed in the following chapter, where the work of several gender theorists is outlined. It is at this point (Chapter 4) that we are introduced to gender as a political project in a more global context. The tensions and synergies between a ‘theory of gender’ and the political economy of gender bring power and specific interests to the debate, and I might have made this a far more prominent feature of the analysis from the very beginning.

Chapter 5 develops the idea of gender politics more fully, and introduces a ‘political tool’, which looks at gender relations in four dimensions: direct, discursive, and colonising power; production, consumption, and gendered accumulation; cathexis, emotional relations; and symbolism, culture, and discourse. These dimensions have been articulated in previous editions of the book, and reflect a less ‘international’ focus. However as a ‘tool’, I would argue that it can and should be used to understand different contexts. To do this successfully, the intersections between gender, class, race, and ethnicity need to be clearly understood in any given location if the tool is to relate accurately to the lived experiences of women in their personal and working lives. For example, the idea of emotional labour is articulated in different Northern contexts, but it could be used to better comprehend the way global ‘care chains’ are constructed, and the impact on the gendered identities of migrant women.

The second part of this chapter gives several examples of these lived experiences, which reveal precisely the complexity that a ‘tool’ cannot. Up to this point, the book has followed a broadly similar pattern to previous editions, with new material added and the analyses updated with some more international focus. The following chapters seem to look forward more, and most obviously focus on the international context through ‘core’ areas in which gender can (and must) be understood: gender in personal life covers areas of sexuality and identity, and offers the idea of ‘embodied learning’. Again, like the ‘political tool’, this is a concept that Raewyn Connell and Rebecca Pearse could perhaps explore in other cultural and country contexts, and it has, for example, exciting possibilities when thinking about how colonial power and oppression has been reproduced through gendered bodies. The chapter on gender and environment contains hugely important debates, possibly of most political importance in the coming decade, one of the most striking for me being the danger of instrumentalism in the environment/gender narratives, similar to that which exists in the gender/(smart) economics narratives in development.

The final chapter, on economies, states, and global gender relations, is where I was perhaps most disappointed. I would have expected to see a much greater emphasis on the work of feminist economists over the last three decades, but there is only the smallest mention of this important area of gender analysis. Similarly, I craved more analysis of the contribution and failures of the Women in Development (WID) and Gender and Development (GAD) approaches, but some key thinkers in this area were missing (and in fact the reference to Baden and Goetz’s 1998 article, on p. 149, is misquoted). And despite the insightful analysis of globalisation, neoliberalism, and gender in the book, I felt there was a gap around women’s work in the informal sector, and women in trade unions.

However, despite these lacunae, this updated edition serves well as an introduction to gender; and as such it simply cannot be expected to cover everything. But perhaps in being a generalist introduction to the subject, it misses out on some of the most interesting and exciting areas of gender analysis. I would nevertheless recommend this book to as broad a readership as possible. It is only with this more complex and challenging understanding of gender that we will begin to see the shifts that are necessary if we are to challenge and change the gendered structures of constraint surrounding all of our lives.

© 2015, Fenella Porter, Ruskin College (Oxford) and Birkbeck College (London), UK

Gender in World Perspective (3rd edition) is published by Polity.
Review originally published in Gender & Development 23.2 (2015)