Joan Acker and the Shift from Patriarchy to Gender

by: Tristan Bridges and James W. Messerschmidt

Cross-posted with permission from Inequality by (Interior) Design here.

We’ve read some of the tributes to the feminist sociological genius of Joan Acker.  And much of that work has celebrated one specific application of her work.  For instance, Tristan posted last week on Acker’s most cited article—“Hierarchies, Jobs, Bodies: A Theory of Gendered Organizations” (1990)—which examined the ways that gender is so embedded in the structure of organizations that we often fail to appreciate just how much it shapes our lives, experiences, and opportunities.  But, this specific piece of her scholarship was actually her applied work. It was an application of a theoretical turn she was suggesting all sociologists of gender follow.  And we did.  Acker was involved in an incredibly important theoretical debate that helped shape the feminist sociology we practice today.

“Patriarchy” is a concept that is less used today in feminist social science than it was in the late-1970s and 1980s.  The term has a slippery and imprecise feel, but this wasn’t always the case. There were incredibly nuanced debates about patriarchy as a social structure or as one part of “dual systems” (capitalism + patriarchy) and exactly what this meant and involved theoretically. Today, we examine “gender.”  Indeed, the chief sociological publication is entitled Gender & Society, not Patriarchy & SocietyAcker - The Problem with PatriarchyBut in the 1970s and 1980s, patriarchy was employed theoretically much more often.  Feminist scholars identified patriarchy to focus the critique of existing theoretical work that offered problematic explanations of the subordination of women.  As Acker put it in “The Problem with Patriarchy,” a short article published in Sociology in 1989: “Existing theory attributed women’s domination by men either to nature or social necessity rather than to social structural processes, unequal power, or exploitation” (1989a: 235). The concept of patriarchy offered a focus for this critique. Continue reading “Joan Acker and the Shift from Patriarchy to Gender”