Feminism and Malestream Sociology

Some Feminists argue that early sociology was ‘malestream’ – meaning it was mainly focused on studying boys and men and theorising about women’s roles by Functionalists (for example) was itself patriarchal. This post explores whether sociology is still malestream today.

Malestream sociology is a term developed by Feminist theorists who argue that early sociology was dominated by men and thus produced a biased male-centred account of the social world.

According to Abbot Wallace and Tyler (2005) early sociological studies and theories variously ignore or distort (through a male lens) the experience of women and girls altogether; fail to acknowledge that women are subordinated to men; and fail to take account of the fact that women’s experience of this subordination is an important factor in explaining women’s experiences and positions in the social structure.

The material below should be useful to students studying the the theory part of the theory and methods module and is summarised from the book linked and pictured immediately above.

Five Feminist Criticisms of Malestream Sociology

Abbot, Wallace and Tyler (2005) identified five main criticisms of ‘malestream’ sociology which have been developed by Feminists.

Traditional sociology was mainly focused on studying boys and men in most fields of study.

Studies using all male samples have been generalised to all people, including women.

Areas of social life which have traditionally been part of the female-domain were neglected in early sociology – for example there were no sociological studies on housework or childcare until the early 1970s.

On the rare occasion when women were the focus of sociological studies they were often theorised about in stereotypical ways. For example Pollack, who studied female criminals argued that women tended to commit more ‘devious’ (hidden) crimes such as murdering by poison (which often went undetected) because they were used to faking orgasms from their partners which made them good at hiding crimes.

Abbot et al themselves suggest that early theorising about women’s roles by Functionalists was kind of ideological. For example, Parsons developed his social systems theory in which ‘every existing role had a function that contributed to the maintenance of the whole’ – and women’s role within the family was to be the care-givers and domestic labourers.

In the final point above, what Parsons (and Functionalists more generally) failed to consider was that their conception of women’s roles in society was itself part of a patriarchal world view which itself contributed to maintaining that patriarchy.

Feminising Sociology – Differential Progress

Abbot and Wallace accept the fact that sociology has become less malestream since the 1970s, but progress towards including the study of women and the inclusion of women in studying society has been variable, depending on the general topic areas.

Some topic areas have been more fully reconstructed from feminist perspectives – such as cultural sociology, and the sociology of the body, identity and sexuality.

In other areas ‘full reconstruction’ has not taken place but Feminism has made ‘significant progress’ – such as the sociology of the family and education.

And then there are some areas where Feminism has not made much of an impact such as social theory and the sociology of class and stratification.

Dealing with MaleStream Sociology

Feminists generally agree that something needs to be done to make sociology less male-dominated, but disagree over what strategies to adopt.

Some Feminists emphasis an ‘integration‘ approach – suggesting that Feminists need to simply fill in the gaps of existing research. However Abbot and Wallace reject this approach, arguing that any Feminist research that is ‘tagged on’ to existing malestream sociology will be marginalised. In short, this approach does nothing to tackle the subordination of women within sociology itself.

Separatism supports a ‘sociology for women by women’ which argues that women need to break away from malestream sociology and conduct their own research completely apart from established sociology. Abbot and Wallace are more sympathetic to this approach but suggest there is a risk that such a separate Feminist sociology would still end up being marginalised by the dominant malestream established sociology.

A third approach, suggested by Abbot and Wallace is that of ‘reconceptualisation‘ – in which existing sociological studies and theories are reworked to fully incorporate the experiences of women; and any future research is to be rejected unless it can explain the experiences of both men and women fully.

In this final approach, the idea is to embed Feminism into sociology such that the discipline can apply to all genders, not just men, and while difficult to achieve Abbot and Wallace believe that progress is possible.

Is Contemporary Sociology still Malestream in 2022?

Abbot and Wallace made the observations above in 2005, almost 20 years ago now, so you might like to think about the extent to which their observations are still true today.

Certainly in A-level Sociology text books if you read through the social theories sections, the vast majority of the theories are by men, but this might just be because these text books are themselves dated and contain limited material from after 2010 themselves!

Certainly there are sections on sex and gender inequalities within every major topic area, so gender issues are firmly embedded within the specification but I am not convinced they are dealt with as thoroughly as other areas.

One area that is severely lacking IMO is the broader study of sexuality, beyond just men and women but looking at the experiences of LGBTQ individuals.

This is an interesting question for A-level sociology students to consider as they progress through their studies.

Sources/ Find out More

This post was adapted from Haralambos and Holborn(2013) Sociology Themes and Perspectives 8th Edition.

Abbot Wallace and Tyler (2005) An Introduction to Sociology, Feminist Perspectives

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