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”

Remembering: Joan Acker

Editor’s note:

In the course of going to graduate school and (seemingly) reading endlessly, many of the feminist sociology authors I read came to feel like friends. I don’t know if I am alone in this feeling, but often as I read their work (sometimes over and over as I pondered my own), I felt like there was a conversation going on between us. Those works created an academic home where feminism and sociology could merge.Joan Acker was one of those “friends” for me. We never met and I would be shocked if she knew who I was but I knew her through her work. My research was profoundly shaped by her 1990 article in Gender & Society, “Hierarchies, Jobs, Bodies: A Theory of Gendered Organizations,”  Vol. 4, No. 2, pp. 139-158. And I have drawn on this, and her other work, throughout my career. 
A year into being the editor of that same journal, I know I am not the only one to find her work insightful and important. There is probably not a week that goes by without a citation to her research coming across my desk. Indeed, you can not publish a paper on gender and organizations without citing her. 
The editorial team at Gender & Society offer our condolences to Professor Acker’s family, friends and colleagues. We are ever grateful for her contributions to the field and for the stellar standard set by her scholarship. We continue to strive to meet that standard every day.
Jo Reger is a professor of sociology at Oakland University in Michigan and the editor of Gender & Society.
The below is cross-posted with permission from Inequality by (Interior) Design here.

The Enduring Feminist Sociology of Joan Acker

Joan Acker recently passed away.  I read the news on Twitter—someone in my news feed shared, “The world lost a giant.”  It’s true.  Her scholarship was titanic.  Acker quite literally altered the way we understand gender and provided a framework for understanding the ways gender becomes embedded in social structures and institutions that we have all been relying on ever since.  Joan Acker is my favorite kind of sociologist—she questioned something the rest of us had been under the assumption was unquestionable.  As the sociologist Jurgen Habermas wrote, “It takes an earthquake to make us aware that we had regarded the ground on which we stand everyday as unshakable.”  Joan Acker shook the very ground upon which sociologists of gender stood in this sense.  She questioned the unquestionable in the best of all ways.  She lay bare a theory and method of understanding gender inequality that helped us better understand just how pernicious it is. Continue reading “Remembering: Joan Acker”