Political institutions 'doing gender': the limits of the knowledge approach.

Author:Ostendorf, Helga

1 Introduction (1)

In Germany three out of five school leavers take up an apprenticeship in the "dual" system of vocational education and training (VET). The apprenticeships alternate between school and training companies. In this system sex segregation is remarkably persistent. Since the end of the 1970s, when policies to open up male-dominated apprenticeships for girls were first carried out, the participation of girls in such apprenticeships rose on average at a rate of just 0,1 per cent yearly. Girls now make up 3.2 per cent of the apprenticies in metalworking and 4.1 per cent in electronics. (2) Research has shown that job histories of women depend solely on the initial vocational education and training they completed, and not--as often supposed--on the number of children or the income of the husbands (Born 2000, Kruger 1998). Thus, vocational guidance is of outstanding importance for forming and directing gender-relations. In Germany vocational guidance is primarily the responsibility of the Federal Employment Agency (Bundesagentur fur Arbeit--BA); and until 1998 it even had a monopoly on vocational counselling. Nearly two million young people ask the BA for advice every year.

In my empirical study about the "gendering" of the vocational guidance agencies (published in 2005) I found that the BA hinders girls to choose more uncommon occupations. This is not caused by the overall opinions and norms of the counsellors, but by organisational rules and by working tools. The counsellors must work with tools like brochures and computer programs and this was indeed where gender norms were reproduced. Moreover, I detected that the counsellors have substantial knowledge gaps about girls' and boys' needs. The reason for these gaps can be found in the way counsellor-specific knowledge is produced and dissimilated.

In political analysis "knowledge" currently seems to be a central category. For example the section "Policy Analysis and Administration Science" of the German Association for Political Science (DVPW) devoted its annual congress in 2011 to "Knowledge in Politics and Administration". In feminist analysis a so-called "gender knowledge approach" is--as Angelika Wetterer (2008a: 13) points out--an approach which is just as "booming". Meanwhile, this originally sociological approach has spread over to feminist political scientists. (3) In this essay I discuss this "gender knowledge approach" and in doing so, I intend to elucidate the benefits and limits of the knowledge approach in general. In my opinion, this gender knowledge approach is able to give worthy insights; but as I explain in this essay, it is not sufficient to unravel the reasons of gendered outcome of political institutions. The gender knowledge approach needs to be supplemented and improved with some political theories and approaches which I will present here.

This essay is divided into three sections. First, I give a brief overview of theories and methods of my study and then discuss the "new institutionalism". The next, main section starts with an introduction of the gender knowledge approach. I then present my findings on the knowledge of vocational guidance counsellors. These findings show substantial deficiencies and pose the question of why such deficiencies occur. The personal backgrounds of the counsellors brought some insights into insufficient supports for girls, but the main reasons were found in the political structure and in the construction of the BA. I elaborate where "gendering" can be interwoven in organisational design, and I argue that if the "gendering" of political institutions--their outcome--is analysed, then we need to focus not just solely on the knowledge of the actors but on the institutional frameworks which are of utmost influence. Here I illustrate the importance of the theses of James J. March and Johann Olsen (1984, 2005) who point out that political institutions can be "actors in their own right". In chapter four I summarize these findings and introduce "guiding principles" as more useful categories of theory, as opposed to "forms" of knowledge.

2 Institutional Approach and Methods of my Study

My research project was centred on two questions: First, I wanted to find out why the public career-guidance-agencies place just a low number of girls in male-dominated education and trainings, and, secondly, I asked why some local agencies arrange more apprenticeships for girls in such trainings than others. The study is basically grounded in "new institutionalism" (March/Olsen 1984, 2005; Mayntz/Scharpf 1995) accompanied by a frame-theory of political institutions (Gohler 1997a & b) (see Fig. 1): These theories about the nature of the state lead to questions on how the state-apparatus acts. Connected with policy analysis approaches, theories on institutionalism have been proven to be particularly useful. The second building block of theories was taken to explain the "nature or character of girls and women". These theories can be divided in two conflicting strands: the theory of gender-difference and the theory of gender as a social construction. Last but not least, the theories which explain "gender as a social construction" and "state apparatuses" can be thought together. This leads to the consequence that the sociological theory of gender as a social construction has to be enlarged: Gender is not solely a social but also a political construction. Institutions "have distributional effects", as Georginia Waylen (2009: 248) points out.


Gerhard Gohler defines political institutions as follows:

"Political Institutions are systems of rules for the construction and conduction of binding, relevant decisions that relate to society as a whole, and the instances of a symbolic display of the basic accomplishments of and measure of orientation within a society. As such, they are not only a fixed frame but they are also a congealed pattern of the political bargaining space" (Gohler 1997b: 26; own translation).

Institutions can guide and steer a society by regulations, bans, and incentives. Moreover, they provide orientation about values and principles of the social and political order. The fundamental moral concepts and principles of orientation are made visible by symbolic display.

In Gerhard Gohler's theory symbols play a crucial role. Symbols are signs with a "surplus" (Uberschussgehalt). Due to the condensed message they inherit, the meaning of symbols--in contrast of that of signs--is not unambiguous or fixed. Symbols leave possibilities for interpretation and different possibilities as well as for consent and for rejection. The messages can be varied individually by different interpretation. But if a soundboard exists, the message will be emphasized "enormously" (Gohler 1997b: 32). Like playing a violin, particular sides of the addressees have to be brought into vibration (Gohler 2007: 104). Steering by symbols is intentionally and a conventional means of steering horizontally in non-hierarchical systems. As such it is "soft power" par excellence (ibid.: 103). Gohler points out that it is important to understand the function symbols have for the construction of social reality. For a gender knowledge approach these remarks cannot be weighted enough: Symbols construct social reality by carrying gender norms. I will come back again later to this thesis (see Fig. 6).

Fig. 6:


"Always following the latest fashion trend, fabrics (...) and numerous trendy accessories are used. Tasks also include personal customer advice and accurate cutting out of material, both in manufacturing new clothes as well as making alterations."


"The products are made by hand or machine after working models or technical drawings with complete dimension accuracy. All goods are made in job shop production by the toolmakers independently."

Source: Bundesanstalt fur Arbeit: Beruf Aktuell. Issue 2001/2002, pp. 73 and 159; own translation.

While Gerhard Gohler's work is based on political theory, the starting point of James J. March's and Johann P. Olsen's work has been founded in empirical observations. In their work on "new institutionalism" (1984) they emphasize organisational factors in political life and highlight (1) the inefficiencies of history, which involve "a greater concern for the ways in which institutions learn from their experience" and "the role of standard operating procedures, professions and expertise in storing and recalling history" (ibid.: 743). Furthermore, they stress (2) the relevance of time for when problems arise, (3) the relevance of the ways in which interests and preferences develop, (4) the relevance of relationships of norms and their significance, ambiguity and inconsistence, (5) the relevance of the "institutional demography", the mosaic of private lives that impact on collective behaviour, (6) the relevance of the "symbolic order", i.e. the "ordering force of symbols, rituals, ceremonies, stories and drama in political life" (ibid.: 744). They do not deny the social context of politics nor the motives of individual actors, but "the new institutionalism insists on a more autonomous role for political institutions" (ibid.: 738):

"The bureaucratic agency, the legislative committee and the appellate court are arenas for contending social forces, but they are also collections of standard operating procedures and structures that define and defend interests. They are political actors in their own right" (738).

By using the term "new institutionalism" March and Olsen signal that they connect the "old" institutionalism of political science with political theory. In my opinion the often used term "historical institutionalism" (Hall/Taylor 1996 and others) is misleading because this approach is not solely useful for historical research. In contrast, it is "a promising theoretical approach for the study of gender, institutions and power" (Kenny 2007: 97), and--indeed--is "helpful for...

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