Research Topics

A Canon of Many Voices. Gender Studies in the German-Speaking World

Symbolbild Gender; © ColourboxSymbolic gender image; © ColourboxGender studies in the German-speaking world is a multifaceted field, as the Second Annual Conference of the Gender Studies Association (Gender e.V.) in Oldenburg demonstrated in early 2012.

The discussions pursued by participants in the conference, which took place on 3 and 4 February 2012 at the Centre for Interdisciplinary Women’s and Gender Research at Carl von Ossietzky University in Oldenburg, cut right across all kinds of boundaries between universities, politics, art and culture, subjects and professions, generations and status groups.

They enthusiastically talked about a range of issues – some of them controversial – such as the way the field of gender studies perceives itself, the various attempts to institutionalize it at universities in the German-speaking world and questions relating to the topic of the conference, namely “Wanderings. Migrations & Transformations from Gender-Study Perspectives“.

Critical perspectives

Second Annual Conference of the Gender Studies Association; © Südpol-Redaktionsbüro/M.MangelsdorfGender studies not only addresses the differences between men and women that are brought about by the roles society assigns to each, but also focuses on the differences that exist between women and between men.

Even in the early days of gender studies, for example, Afro-American women made it quite clear that they are unable to identify with the feminist theories of white middle-class women. The discrimination they experience as a result of their skin colour must be explored in the same way that sexist discrimination is. Homosexuals not wishing to bow to “heteronormativity”, choosing instead to express their sexual orientation even when this runs contrary to conventional norms, have likewise contributed to the broadening and differentiation of the field of gender studies.

Symbolic gender image; © ColourboxTo sum up: “Gender studies looks at processes of hierarchization and norm setting which give rise to instances of social exclusion and marginalization”. This is how Antke Engel, founder of the Institute for Queer Theory, concisely explains what can be regarded as the driving force behind a field of research and teaching which has been evolving in the German-speaking world for more than a decade now.

Not a subject in the conventional sense

Gender studies does not see itself as a subject in the conventional sense. It is an interdisciplinary field involving different subjects, as well as a political movement both inside and outside the world of academia. For gender studies it is not enough to generate knowledge within the academic setting: it is also keen to work out how to translate gender theory discourse into practice.

How can knowledge transfer be achieved, for instance between medicine, the natural sciences and technological science and the humanities, social and cultural sciences? And how can this knowledge help drive forward social changes beyond the walls of the academic world? As gender trainer Regina Frey vociferously demands: “We must intervene!”

For all their disputes, everyone agrees that it is essential never to tire of critically examining practices that seem to have become established and taken for granted in society. How for example can ‘diversity’ be formulated in such a way that it doesn’t serve merely as a marketing buzzword but as a form of knowledge and a way of life? How do discourse and practices that discriminate between people for reasons of gender, sexual orientation, social class or ethnicity reinforce and overlap with each other?

10th workshop of the Committee of Women's and Gender Studies Institutions in German-speaking Areas (KEG) at the Second Annual Conference of the Gender Studies Association; © Nina Ewers zum Rode 2012


Young researchers in particular have demonstrated that migrations can also take place between different types of boundaries in people, bodies, images or terms. IT expert Corinna Barth, for instance, asks how technical artefacts such as computers or robots can be created in a gender-critical sense and inscribed with human forms of thinking, feeling and communication, while media theorist Anja Michaelsen explores the problem that the adoption of children across national borders often constitutes an invisible form of migration which is surrounded by silence from a feminist perspective.

Cover of “Gender Studies in the German-speaking Area. Degree Courses. Experiences. Challenges“ (2004); © trafo verlagSociologist Miriam Trzeciak and ethnologist Sabine Hess take much the same underlying tone in their critical analysis of border policies. Trzeciak asks how autonomy and self-determination – in short, empowerment – can be conceptualized if migrant women are exploited in the maquiladoras of Northern Mexico yet themselves describe the benefits of their work as increasing their “dignity”?

Hess emphasizes that gender is deeply embedded in migration policy. She reveals that the anti-violence to women stances adopted by restrictive border regimes are in some cases turned against women themselves, so that the question needs to be asked time and time again which strategies are genuinely suitable for gender-sensitive (migration) policy.

Built on sand

Once again, Oldenburg has highlighted the diversity of voices in gender studies with its questions of “cognitive identity” and canonization (or de-canonization). PhD students in gender studies have made important contributions to this with their Initiative Zukunft & Nachwuchs (the Future & Young Academics Initiative, or IZN). They suggest that there is a trend towards gender studies searching for a home for itself in the context of university knowledge production.

Cover of `Migration, Mobility, Gender`; © Budrich UniPress VerlagEven at the first workshop of the Committee of Women’s and Gender Studies Institutions in German-speaking Areas (KEG) in 2003, Susanne Baer already outlined these trends in the workshop report entitled Geschlechterstudien im deutschsprachigen Raum. Studiengänge. Erfahrungen. Herausforderungen (i.e. Gender Studies in German-speaking Areas. Degree Courses. Experiences. Challenges). Together with Bettina Mathes, she proposed “building a shifting home on sand [for gender studies] to reflect the shifting norm that is inherent to the canon.”

In the spirit of this ten-year tradition of shifting, searching and migrating, academics in the field of gender studies will continue to come together: in 2013 this will happen at the Specialist and Work Conference at Goethe University in Frankfurt am Main.

Dr Marion Mangelsdorf
is a lecturer and head of the Centre of Anthropology and Gender Studies (ZAG) at the University of Freiburg.

Translation: Chris Cave
Copyright: Goethe-Institut e. V., Internet-Redaktion
February 2012

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