The Case for Superordinate Studies

By Brod, Harry | Transformations, September 3, 1997 | Go to article overview

The Case for Superordinate Studies


Brod, Harry, Transformations


The Case for Superordinate Studies

If I were to tell a group of people that we were going to discuss the issue of gender, most would assume that the ensuing discussion would be about women. But allowing "gender" to stand as a euphemism for "women" is a serious mistake. For what speaks here is not the voice of feminism, but rather the voice of patriarchy. Having the generic term signify women rather than men in this case leaves women marked, but men unmarked by gender. This perpetuates the patriarchal standard by which women are "Other," and men are simply "normal" people, unremarkable and unremarked upon.

The analogous point holds true for other social categories, such as race. It is racist consciousness which sees people of color as having racial or ethnic identities, but sees whites as "just regular, plain folks." Ask a typical group of U.S. citizens to state their ethnicity, and a truly remarkable thing usually happens. In a culture which is very much oriented toward the present and the future, with relatively little historical consciousness, people will suddenly begin to talk about their grandparents and where they came from. They will name every nationality except the obvious one: they will not identify as "American." (I am aware of the ethnocentrism that permits "American" to mean someone specifically from the United States rather than from the rest of the Americas, but I use the term here in its common meaning). For "American" does not seem to them to be an ethnicity. It functions instead as the assumed norm, the implicit background against which all other groups stand out and are identified and evaluated. This is precisely a manifestation of the ethnocentrism and racism of white European Americans.

Anti-racist consciousness rejects this "normalizing" of European whiteness, with its accompanying de-normalizing or pathologizing people of color as "non-white" or "non-European." Antiracist consciousness insists instead that white Europeans be understood as one racial/ethnic group among others. Similarly, feminism insists that men too have a gender and must accordingly, be understood as fully gendered beings.

These examples illustrate the need for what I call "superordinate studies." These are inquiries that use concepts such as race, gender, class, sexual orientation, and so on as analytical categories to interrogate the lives of the dominant rather than the subordinate group. Terms such as "men's studies" or "critical studies of men and masculinities" and "critical race studies" have emerged to designate such investigations in terms of gender and race, respectively. There is now a large body of literature on masculinities that has emerged in the last decade, and a sizeable body of literature on whiteness that did not exist just five years ago. However, although studies of ruling classes have been plentiful, we do not yet have "straight studies." Perhaps it is too early to see what queer studies may still engender.

Some may well object that the primary point of such things as women's studies and black studies is precisely that the traditional curriculum has always been what I am calling "superordinate studies." That is to say, the very existence of such new fields arises from the long overdue recognition that traditional knowledge has only been knowledge of, by and for dominant social groups. How then can one possibly argue that such ideologies as anti-racism and feminism lead to calls for more studies of whites and men?

The central and essential difference between the new superordinate studies and the old lies not so much in what is being studied, but in how it is studied. These new perspectives are fueled by the fundamental insight that such things as race, class and gender are best understood not as properties of separate individuals, but rather as relationships between individuals and among groups, specifically relationships of hierarchy and power. Race and gender are not the different colors and shapes of our skins that divide us. …

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