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Per Caritatem

Non intratur in veritatem nisi per caritatem. St. Augustine




Linda Martín Alcoff on Gender as Positionality: An Account of Fluid Identity and Embodied Difference

By Cynthia R. Nielsen

June 25, 2013

Alcoff Visible IdentitiesPhilosopher Linda Martín Alcoff develops an account of subjectivity as positionality as a way to stress how gender acquires its meaning(s) from particular social and historical contexts (Visible Identities, 151). Her attention to gender’s social and historical location motivates her criticism of both cultural feminism and feminist poststructural theory. On the one hand, Alcoff finds the cultural feminist (essentialist, realist) position that emphasizes select “feminine” characteristics (e.g. nurture, intuition, etc.) problematic both for its essentialist tendencies and its failure to explain under what conditions such characteristics come about. In other words, the cultural feminists present a dehistoricized and decontextualized account of alleged “feminine” attributes (151). On the other hand, while eschewing essentialism and embracing nominalism, feminist poststructuralists engage in an “ahistorical approach to resistance” (151).[1] That is, feminist poststructuralists fail to give sufficient attention to the material particularities of our bodies. However, as race theorists have shown phenotypic differences such as skin color do matter when it comes to one’s lived experience.[2] The same is true of gendered bodily differences such as having breasts or the appearance of having breasts. Moreover, feminist poststructuralism’s variant of feminism is limited “to the negative tactics of reaction and deconstruction,”as meanings, definitions, and descriptions of “woman” are variously taken as inherently prescriptive and normative, and thus as oppressive.[3]

Alcoff’s critical remarks are not meant as a complete dismissal of either cultural feminism or poststructural feminism. In fact, Alcoff incorporates what she sees as the best insights of both views into her own account. For example, like the feminist poststructuralists, Alcoff is attentive to the myriad ways that power relations and discourses shape and produce gender (i.e. Foucault’s notion of productive power). However, Alcoff takes issue with a feminist poststructuralist tendency to claim that we are constructed “all the way down.” That is, Alcoff rejects the conclusion that because gender is socially constructed, we must embrace “a total erasure of individual agency within a social discourse or set of institutions, that is, the totalization of history’s imprint” (140). For Alcoff, an individual is able to resist dominant and constraining gender (and racialized) discourses and practices and can re-narrative her subjectivity. An individual agent’s intentional strategies and acts of resistance do not take place “outside” particular social and historical contexts; yet, such actions occur regularly and often result in significant social and political advances as well as new collective identities. (Consider, for example, Frederick Douglass’s acts of resistance against the dominant racist narratives of his day).[4] While collective identities, for Alcoff, are socially constructed, they are nonetheless real and gain their unity through social location, common experiences, and so forth.

Even so Alcoff’s notion of identity is fluid and multiple rather than fixed and homogenous. Here she draws upon the philosophical hermeneutical tradition, utilizing and developing Gadamer’s notion of an agent’s hermeneutical horizon (itself consisting of multiple, mutable perspectives) as an interpretive grid for understanding and being-in-the-world. Thus, one’s horizon may include one’s experience as a Latina, which is different from one’s experience as a lesbian, which is also different from one’s experience as an upper-class or highly educated female in a male-dominated profession. Each of these aspects or multiple identities (of oneself) involves a different set of social practices, discourses, expectations, and recognitions. Some identities within one’s horizon can be more easily compartmentalized than others; however, one’s gender and race, given their visibility and typical identification via select physical markers, must be navigated daily and cannot be relegated to a private (i.e. non-public and non-sociopolitical) realm. Even though one’s horizon and one’s various identities can congeal and become determinate and describable, they are not fixed; instead horizons and identities (political or otherwise) can be altered and expanded via new experiences, gains in understanding, and changes in socio-political structures, discourses, and practices.

Moreover, on Alcoff’s account an interpretative horizon is not analogous to a magnifying glass (100); rather, a horizon constitutes the self and thus is productive or co-creative of one’s world (lived experience). One sees and experiences the world as an Asian woman or as a black man. Here not only does one’s embodied difference matter, but one’s socio-economic location and political standing (i.e. one’s positionality) are also significant, as they impact how an individual is (or is not) recognized socially and legally and what opportunities she can pursue. Alcoff’s emphasis on our embodiment and social location constitutes a needed corrective to certain universalizing tendencies of the hermeneutical tradition. On the point of embodiment, Alcoff finds company with many cultural feminists who also highlight how women’s bodily and gender-coded difference must be recognized (whether we are speaking against the objectification of women in pornography or advocating for maternity leave so that a female’s body may heal). However, as noted earlier, Alcoff’s position does not necessitate an embrace of essentialism, as gender qua social construction is a social (not a natural) reality. To affirm gender as a social reality does not require one to make universal claims about alleged transhistorical feminine characteristics, activities, or roles or about women’s “nature” per se. In addition, on Alcoff’s view (contra tendencies in Butler) our discourse about gender is not in itself oppressive and constraining; it also enables us to describe real issues and concerns affecting women and to create more liberating narratives.

In agreement with Sally Haslanger’s realist position, Alcoff affirms that sexed identity is an objective type, that is, it describes a “unity without an underlying essence”, and the basis for this unity is neither random nor arbitrary (Alcoff 2006: 168). Here a type’s objectivity means that “the unifying factor is independent of us” (Alcoff 2006: 168). Alcoff’s argument for an objective basis for sexed identity does not entail affirming that sexed identity (or gender) is unmediated linguistically, untouched by human practices, or that the narratives about sexed identity are never used to oppress women. Rather, one can (as Alcoff does) embrace gender as a social construction and simultaneously argue that sexed identity is based on objective differences that are not mere products of discourse. For Alcoff, this objective basis is our differential labor divisions in biological reproduction. Specifically, Alcoff formulates her position as follows: “women and men are differentiated by virtue of their different relationship of possibility to biological reproduction, with biological reproduction referring to conceiving, giving birth, and breast-feeding, involving one’s own body” (Alcoff 2006: 172).[5] Here the idea is that certain activities involving one’s body are expected of females only such as the ability (whether actual, potential, or assumed) to give birth to children and to lactate (Alcoff 2006: 172). By articulating her position in terms of possibility or concrete potentiality, Alcoff’s view can account for infertile, prepubescent, and postmenapausal females as well as females who have no desire to bear children. Such is the case because all who fall under the category “women” (including those just mentioned) “will have a different set of practices, expectations, and feelings in regard to reproduction, no matter how actual their relationship to possibility is for it” (Alcoff 2006: 172). Of course, the degree, particular socio-political consequences, and so forth of a female’s reproductive potential will differ from society to society; yet this variation in no way negates the objective embodied aspects that Alcoff specifies.

Lastly, Alcoff argues that her account of sexed identity as an objective type “does not prescribe compulsory heterosexuality in the sense of mandating heterosexual coupling as the necessary means for the reproduction of children” (Alcoff 2006: 173). While conception does require uniting male and female biological material, human reproduction in the broad sense demands significantly more than a mere biological union. Human reproduction involves caring for the child and bringing it to full maturity—a process that can be accomplished by stable, loving adults and is not limited to heterosexual couples only. “Putting biological reproduction as the basis of sexual difference is not the same as putting heterosexuality at the basis or linking heterosexuality with reproduction in the broad sense” (Alcoff 2006: 173). Alcoff mentions several examples of how compulsory heterosexuality can have harmful effects on both the children and the mothers. For example, women who are forced through religious or cultural traditions or socio-economic structures to marry or remain in an unhealthy marriage are often subject to domestic violence and their children are likewise subject to child abuse. In addition, many children have been lovingly cared for and have thrived in single parent households and adoptive (both non-biological heterosexual and same-sex) families. In short, reproduction in this broad sense—from the support a pregnant women needs to the long-term nurture necessary to successfully bring a child into adulthood—is not the exclusive domain of heterosexual couplings. One can recognize an objective type based on a biological division of reproductive roles, reject the claim that such a recognition logically entails sustained heterosexual relationships, and argue for a dialectical relation between “nature” and “culture” where both are amenable to change via human practices (for example, various medical and other technologies).[6]


[1] For the particular cultural feminist and poststructural feminist theorists that Alcoff analyzes, see chapter 5 in Visible Identities.

[2] On how race matters for one’s lived experience, see Cynthia R. Nielsen, “Resistance Through Re-Narration: Fanon on De-constructing Racialized Subjectivities,” African Identities: Journal of Economics, Culture, and Society 9:4 (2011): 363–85. See also, Cynthia R. Nielsen, Foucault, Douglass, Fanon, and Scotus in Dialogue: On Social Construction and Freedom.

[3] On “negative feminism,” see Alcoff, Visible Identities, 141.

[4] On Douglass’s resistance strategies, see Cynthia R. Nielsen, “Resistance is Not Futile: Frederick Douglass on Panoptic Plantations and the Un-Making of Docile Bodies and Enslaved Souls,” Philosophy and Literature 35.2 (2011): 251–68.

[5] Alcoff later expands her notion of reproduction to include raising a child to full maturation. I will discuss this expanded notion shortly.

[6] For more on Alcoff’s fluid, non-absolute account of nature and culture, see Visible Identities, p. 175.

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