Detaching ‘agency’ and ‘choice’ from voluntarism

I read an interesting paper by Ros Gill earlier which nicely frames one of my main theoretical interests. It’s a reflection on shifting fashions in how the relationship between culture and subjectivity has been conceptualised within cultural studies. This bit in particular caught my attention and the clarity with which it diagnoses this common explanatory tendency is commendable:

A recent article by Duits and van Zoonen (2006) is in many ways typical of this latter trend. It examined the moral panics in Dutch society occasioned by two articles of clothing – the Islamic headscarf and the ‘‘hypersexualized’’ (their term) g-string. Duits and van Zoonen assert that public reaction to these garments denies girls and young women ‘‘their agency and autonomy’’, and they argue that the proper response from feminists and other critical intellectuals is that all girls’ sartorial decisions should be understood as autonomous choices. Such a position, they argue, is respectful of girls’ own agency.

Their call for empirical research that listens to and respects young women’s voices is clearly important. But I am sceptical of the terms ‘‘agency’’, ‘‘autonomy’’ and ‘‘choice’’ that are mobilized so frequently in their argument. To what extent do these terms offer analytical purchase on the complex lived experience of girls and young women’s lives in postfeminist, neoliberal societies? Moreover, what kind of feminist politics follows from a position in which all behaviour (even following fashion) is understood within discourse or free choice and autonomy? The girls in Duits and van Zoonen’s argument seem strangely socially and culturally dislocated. They neither seem to operate in a world in which there are authoritarian parents or teachers, or in which organized religion or fashion exert any influence. Indeed, in the desire to ‘‘respect’’ girls’ ‘‘choices’’, any notion of cultural influence seems to have been evacuated entirely. Yet how can we account for the dominance of a fashion item such as a g-string without any reference to culture? Why the emphasis on young women pleasing themselves when the look that they achieve – or seek to achieve – is so similar?

On one level I don’t think this is a particularly difficult problem. We make choices but we do so in circumstances not of our own choosing. But to actually put this theoretical postulate into practice is much trickier. Nonetheless it frustrates me how frequently people seem to assume that voluntarism follows inevitably from an attentiveness to individual agency. This is a methodological problem not a theoretical one.

Categories: Outflanking Platitudes

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  1. YYYYYYYYYES. I’m encountering this so much with my dissertation right now. I think the problem comes because of the hegemony of rational choice theory. The cultural and social payoffs (including an avoidance of stigma) women would hope to gain from wearing g-strings are impossible to quantify. Because we can’t explain why–with objective numbers–why someone would dress that way, we have to just assume it’s voluntarism. The conflation makes it simple and easy, but dramatically diffuses any conflict inherent in the study.

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