Gender Justice & Neoliberal Transformations Working Group



The Gender Justice Working Group undertakes multi-sited, collaborative research so as to produce innovative ideas about how to address social issues more effectively, and thereby to contribute to more just social relations. Although economic justice issues have received increased attention since the financial crisis of 2008, they continue to be discussed in terms that rarely include questions of gender and sexuality. Across our work, gender is a central unit of analysis rather than simply a recurring theme, the lens through which we apprehend and historicize the social, political, and economic shifts ushered in by neoliberalism. Given the centrality of gender and sexuality to both state formation and contemporary operations of statecraft, we argue that this engagement is crucial to theorizing neoliberalism, and particularly so in relation to transformations in the welfare state, the feminization of labor, and the increase in affective labor broadly.

The goal of this project is to build a robust picture of context that includes key points of global comparison, chosen both for sites that highlight key aspects of the phenomena called “neoliberalism” or “globalization” and for the analytic interests of particular scholars in the collaboration. We are equally interested in empirical and theoretical assessments of developing activist responses to new austerity regimes, such as those that have informed the global Occupy and Precariat movements, as well those that have informed local efforts to pursue new forms of social change, whether in Buenos Aires, Copenhagen, Detroit, Lagos, Mexico City or New York. Through collaborative research and theorizing, the members of this working group aim to analyze the multiple dimensions of global economic and cultural restructuring as they interactively circulate.

Much work on neoliberalism can be divided into two approaches: either site-specific engagements or systems-level analyses that attempt to provide a broader framework. Our project recognizes the contributions and limitations of both these approaches, as the former provides specificity and depth at the expense of breadth, while the latter privileges structural forces while eliding power relations and obscuring the particularities of place and positioning. For instance, despite the valuable insights on the global continuities of power provided by analyses of global systems, this work does not attend to the important ways people are variously positioned within their local contexts. Alternately, scholarship on the effects of structural adjustment in specific locations may poignantly demonstrate the myriad failings of these economic policies, but rarely provides a way to relate these shortcomings to a broader context. Our model both brings together work situated in particular contexts and presents a framework for theorizing the global transformations wrought by neoliberalism. This project simultaneously stresses the significance of insights gained by deep engagement with a particular site and recognizes the limitations of this approach vis-à-vis providing a much-needed conceptual framework. The comparative element of our project will allow us to maintain the necessary focus on place and relations of power, while the synthetic element will provide a framework through which we might apprehend the structural inequalities propelling neoliberalism across the globe.

There are a number of reasons why analyses which cut across social issues are few, despite the need for better, more sophisticated assessments of social problems. Part of this sparsity is due to the fact that building projects that bring together issues and the processes in which they are embedded is difficult and expensive. There are also methodological blocks to this type of analysis. Scholars generally develop expertise on particular issues in particular locations. Moreover, funding streams, whether from university research centers, government, or foundation sources, tend to be defined either by single issues or by region. Most of the methods we have for relating these issues are comparative, rather than inter-active, leaving us without a method of either connecting sites that are compared or traces the ways in which they affect and relate to each other. By building a project based on collaboration among scholars with a range of already existing expertise, we hope to overcome some of these barriers and to enable a fuller understanding of pressing issues. Forging an analysis of social relations that can traverse issues, fieldsites, and interpretive frameworks is one of our primary ambitions for this project.

The Barnard Center for Research on Women took up this level of collaboration as an outgrowth of existing projects. At Barnard, beginning in 2007, we initiated a series of projects interrogating the linkages among gender, sexual and economic justice (two reports in our “New Feminist Solutions” series, Towards a Vision of Sexual and Economic Justice, and Desiring Change, came out of these research projects). Another conversation had been initiated via a 2009 Ford Foundation Difficult Dialogues Initiative faculty seminar on inequality in New York City, in which faculty from various disciplines sought to forge cross-issue connections between issues such as homelessness and addiction, education and poverty, migration and policing. These conversations made clear the need to situate the case of New York in terms of a broader global field, not only to better understand the empirical phenomena at hand but also as a way of challenging the self-evidence of our own theoretical constructs. Neoliberalism means different things in Manhattan and Buffalo, in Seoul and in Buenos Aires. How do these different meanings diverge as well as inform one another? An initial workshop on Gender Justice and Neoliberal Transformations was held at Barnard College in September 2012 with thirty scholars working on different issues in different areas of the world. The results of this workshop have now been published in BCRW’s webjournal, The Scholar & Feminist Online.

The research team for the multi-year collaborative Gender Justice project was developed from this workshop and met for the first time at the Universidad de Buenos Aires at a pre-conference meeting before the International Association for the Study of Sexuality, Culture and Society (IASSCS) in August 2013. At that meeting the team began to develop its synthetic method and heard from local gender justice activists, who shared their analyses of neoliberalism, and its implications for the politics of gender and sexuality in Argentina. Members of the team also presented at the IASSCS on a panel entitled “The Sexual Politics of Neoliberalism.” We held a similar workshop and set of presentations at Barnard College in March 2014 and Mexico City in March 2015.

Our eventual goal is to produce a book manuscript that will reflect the boundary-crossing that we deem pivotal to this analysis, with each chapter co-authored by teams of scholars who, working across fieldsites and issues, are poised to do precisely this bridging.

We intend to supplement the research our team produces for this project through innovative forms of critical pedagogy. Principal Investigators Elizabeth Bernstein and Janet Jakobsen have also piloted a new course using the Gender Justice framework in which students participated in research conducted with community-based organizations in New York City that are working to address the effects of contemporary neoliberal transformations. By partnering with organizations like SAKHI for South Asian WomenThe Sex Workers Outreach ProjectQueer Survival Economies, and the New York Women’s Foundation, the students in “Theorizing Activisms” were able to conduct research that is of use to the initiatives of local activists. The “Gender Justice and Neoliberal Transformations” issue of Scholar & Feminist Online is widely used by students and we expect one of the outcomes of our project to be helping a broad range of students to explore the local impact of economic austerity, while situating these effects in the comparative and synthetic framework of the larger research project.

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The Scholar and Feminist Online: Gender, Justice, and Neoliberal Transformations
Issue 11.1-11.2 | Fall 2012/Spring 2013
Guest edited by Elizabeth Bernstein and Janet R. Jakobsen

This issue of The Scholar & Feminist Online forges new ground by weaving together issues of gender and sexuality, usually sidelined in conversations about neoliberalism, with questions of the economy and political processes. Bringing together a diverse group of scholars who work on a wide array of regions, sites, and issues, the issue makes rich connections between Detroit and Buenos Aires, privatization and gambling, and migration, caring labor, and sex work. Using short papers, videos, poetry, art, and photography, the contributors consider the meanings of neoliberalism through questions of how it is lived, how it connects people, places, and issues, and importantly, what its contradictions can reveal about the possibilities for social change and justice. Piercing through the heart of this issue are the urgent questions the editors ask in the introduction: “If neoliberalism is the current context for action, what might gender justice become?” And equally important, “If another world is possible, what kind of world would we desire it to be?”

Read the full issue

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Working Group Members

Principal Investigators

  • Elizabeth Bernstein, Associate Professor of Women’s Studies and Sociology, Barnard College. Specializes in the convergence of feminist, neoliberal, and evangelical Christian interests in the shaping of contemporary U.S. policies around the traffic in women.
  • Janet Jakobsen, Ann Whitney Olin Professor of Women’s, Gender and Sexuality Studies, Barnard College. Specializes in ethics and public policy with a particular focus on social movements related to religion, gender and sexuality.

Core Participants

  • Ana Amuchástegui, Professor of Social Psychology, Universidad Autónoma Metropolitana-Xochimilco. Researches contemporary sexual politics and reproductive rights in Mexico.
  • Sealing Cheng, Associate Professor of Anthropology, Chinese University, Hong Kong. Specializes in questions of gender, migration, and refugees in Hong Kong and South Korea.
  • Abosede George, Assistant Professor of History, Barnard College. Specializes in the history of urbanization, gender and neoliberalism in Lagos, Nigeria.
  • Louis F. Graham, Assistant Professor of Community Health Education, School of Public Health, University of Massachusetts, Amherst. Specializes in Health Inequities and LGBT Health with a focus on the city of Detroit.
  • Maja Horn, Assistant Professor of Spanish and Latin American Cultures, Barnard College, Columbia University. Specializes in literature, art and performances of gender and sexuality in the Dominican Republic.
  • Kerwin Kaye, Assistant Professor of Sociology, Wesleyan University. Specializes in gender, addiction, and incarceration in New York City.
  • Tami Navarro, Associate Director, Barnard Center for Research on Women. Specializes in neoliberal development, gender, subjectivity, the Caribbean.
  • Mark Padilla, Associate Professor of Global Studies, Florida International University. Principle Investigator of Ford Foundation Project on inequality, sexuality, and youth in Detroit, Michigan.
  • Mario Pecheny, Professor of Political Science, University of Buenos Aires, Argentina. Researching HIV, sexual and health politics in Latin America.
  • Sine Plambech, Researcher, Danish Institute for International Studies. Studies international migration, human trafficking, sex work, global care chains, gender, and humanitarianism.
  • Svati Shah, Assistant Professor of Women, Gender, and Sexuality Studies, University of Massachusetts – Amherst. Researching the political economy of migration, sex work, development, and urbanization in South Asia and South Asian diaspora.

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