Bringing Sexuality to the Table
Language, Gender and Power in Seven Lesbian Families
Keywords:family interaction, lesbian, conversation analysis, power
In their 1995 study, “The ‘Father Knows Best’ Dynamic in Dinnertime Narratives,” Ochs and Taylor observed patterns of male dominance in conversations between heterosexual parents of nuclear families. The playing out of these imbalanced gender roles, the researchers cautioned, has a socializing effect that can be seen in the behavior of their young children. The paper presented here reexamines these power dynamics through an analysis of the discourse between lesbian parents with children. The author examines the linguistic tools used in the negotiation of power, both in comparison to Ochs and Taylor’s findings and for their own unique characteristics. This analysis reveals that in these seven families, like those in Ochs and Taylor’s research, one parent evaluates others’ speech and actions considerably more often than the other. However, the parents did not occupy the other roles examined in the original study in the same way. In particular, the role of primary recipient seems to be less powerful here than in the original study, while the role of elicitor appears to allow women a more effective means by which to attain and maintain control. A high incidence of joint elicitation and narration by the parents, and an active attempt to include children in the conversations were also found. These findings point to two conclusions: (1) the use of evaluative comments is not necessarily a gendered power tactic; (2) a high level of conscious decision making by lesbian parents seems to explain some of these differences in form. Future research should examine the influence of power rather than gender differences in speech acts. In so doing, we might more fully understand the nature of powerful language and which speech groups have access to that means of discourse.
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