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Tuesday, 8 November 2011

Women and men in language: an analysis of seminaturalistic person descriptions – Article Critique

Women and men in language: an analysis of seminaturalistic person descriptions – Article Critique



Ann Weatherall is interested in areas of social psychology of language and communication, gender, and feminist psychology, which encouraged her to write this research article as part of a doctoral dissertation. Published in Human Communication Research in December 1998, the article of above title explores on references to men and women in prompted but impromptu discussions of a popular television program in Britain – Coronation Street. This article critique focuses on evaluation of the following aspects of the mentioned research article: a) the broad area (topic) covered; b) the research question(s) or problem(s); c) the scope and/or approach; d) the strengths and weaknesses; e) the relevance to general debates within the field; and f) the originality/distinctiveness.


Broad area (topic) covered

Hannah and Murachver (2007) assert that there have been numerous written accounts on how and why language differs between women and men. This makes the area extensive in terms of coverage. It could be considered that the broad area covered in the research article is the study of language and communication or linguistics. However, it is also argued that there are other areas in which the research article touches to a certain degree of effect and/or importance, including social sciences such as sociology, anthropology, and so on. On this given case, the study of language and communication is preferred to be the most important broad area (topic) covered and associated. Understanding language and communication has been an extensive area of empirical studies in all areas of specialization. Due to the indispensable function of language as communication tool for all humans regardless of generation, further understanding of its underlying principles, applications, and related issues is important. The study of language and communication paves way to related understanding of other aspects where language and communication is applied. In Weatherall’s research article, the application of language and communication is seen on how it was used in conversations particularly in terms of gender orientation. The first sentences of the research article recognizes the significant contribution of the study of language and communication in understanding how gender relations are reflected, created, and sustained in daily interaction. Recognizing this contribution is rooted on early empirical and theoretical researches that attempt to provide conclusive explanations in response to the growing debate on language and communication against gender relations particularly on the case of gender bias on women. The issues on gender bias, discrimination, and inequality on women have existed ever since the early ages. Since then, there are earlier attempts to address such issues yet it did not prosper as expected. Not until the movement for gender equality gradually evolved in the late 19th century and was fuelled by women movements in the 20th century; the mild, moderate and radical feminist groups mustered their organizing influence to slowly inflict change in the society (Kimmel, 2000, pp. 324), the controversy on men and women continuously lead to emergent areas of research and specialization.

The study of language and communication resulted to specific sub-division in reference to relevant effects to other areas. It shed light and awareness on areas related to social hierarchy, order, culture, and so on. On this research article, the author explored the how power and identity are communicated through the various ways men and women are referred to. There has been less empirical investigation and theoretical development on this subject during those times. More so, Weatherall aims to broaden and update the past works on sex bias particularly in relation to the case of language. The sociological and anthropological perspectives of this research article are linked with language itself, power, identity, social change, hierarchy, order, and culture of both men and women. Considering the broad area of the study of language and communication or linguistic as whole, this research article is recognized to be the base point of subsequent research studies supporting or challenging its given findings.


Research question(s) or problem(s)

            Weatherall’s research article works on single and primary research question: Can the language used to describe women and men in seminaturalistic conversations be understood as being biased against women? This single and primary research question is supported by three hypotheses:

  • H1: Male participants will use more first-name-only forms when describing female characters than when describing male characters and more full-name forms when describing male characters than when describing female characters.

  • H2a: Female characters will be referred to more often using kin terms than will male characters.

  • H2b: Descriptions of female characters will include more references to others than will descriptions of male characters.

  • H2c: Job titles will be used more often in descriptions of male characters than in descriptions of female characters.

  • H3: There will be more positive lexical items used to refer to male characters than to refer to female characters.

These hypotheses were based and guided by the three types of sexist language promulgated by Henley (1987) – language that ignores women, language that defines women narrowly, and language that depreciates women. Like in any other research activities, these set of hypotheses were tested in accordance to the findings of the study.

            Furthermore, the research article has several aims. These aims may be considered as major areas in which the whole research activity is directed. On page 278 of the article, it was stated that: “One of the aims of the present research was to examine claims about sexism in language by looking at how men and women were referred to in impromptu language use”. This aim complements the existing body of researches mainly focusing on demonstrating the forms of linguistic sex bias used in a spoken framework. Because understanding the way how gender categories were presented in conversation is important, it is of further recognized especially on developing knowledge that explain how social biases were communicated in social interaction. Another aim of Weatherall’s research article is articulated in page 279: “The aim of the study was to explore a conversational corpus for evidence of how sex bias is articulated in spontaneous descriptions of people”. This aim is considered as the most fundamental as the whole study mainly centers its details on collecting evidences on the quality of communication in reflection to sex bias especially on the case of spontaneous descriptions of people. The content of descriptions articulated by the participants is subjected toward examination on the possibility of the occurrence of any evidence of sex bias. According to Saunders and colleagues (2007, pp. 30), research question is the subject in which the research process will address. In frequent instances, it is also the precursor of research objectives. The important thing to consider in defining research question is its ability to have descriptive answer. Weatherall is excellent on this criterion. The research question is ‘just right’ (Clough & Nutbrown, 2002, pp. 34), which means “just right for investigation at this time, by this researcher in this setting”.


Scope and/or approach

            The research article is limited in finding out if the language used to describe women and men in seminaturalistic conversations can be understood as being biased against women using both qualitative and quantitative approaches. Weatherall employed specified research methods from participant selection, design, materials, procedure, and stages of analysis. It could be deemed that the author’s intention of identifying the specific areas of the methodology is effective not only on understanding how the findings were gathered and measured; rather it also addresses the issue of validity and reliability. On the aspect of participant selection, 146 students, consisting of 59 males and 87 females enrolled in their first year Culture and Communication course at an unidentified university in England were asked to answer a television-viewing behavior questionnaire. By using a chi-square analysis, the number of students as participants is reduced to 80 with the knowledge that they would be required to provide description on characters in popular television program in Britain entitled Coronation Street. On the other hand, the design used in the study is a median-split method. Four dyad types were formulated by pairing a total of 32 regular and 32 irregular viewers, thus resulting to the following pairs: “male regular and male irregular, male regular and female irregular, female regular and male irregular, and female regular and female irregular”. The reasons causal to the construction of dyad types are: “to promote detailed discussions of the program and to control for any sex differences in the use of personal references”. On the case of research materials, the author made use of a set of six images as stimuli taken from stills of the program. These images are representations of each character present in a single episode of Coronation Street broadcasted on April 22, 1991 that are also equal in number consisting of 7 males and 7 females plus one temporary female character. The male characters featured during the identified episode include Phil Jennings, Des Barnes, Andy MacDonald, Jim MacDonald, Steve MacDonald, Martin Platt, and Alf Roberts. Meanwhile, the female characters include Deirdre Barlow, Mavis Wilton, Stephanie Barnes, Phyllis Pearce, Liz MacDonald, Rita Fairclough, Audrey Roberts, and Mrs. Shaw (temporary character). The procedure used by Weatherall is simply characterized by situating each dyad in a room fitted with video cameras. The participants were given a folder containing images taken from the episode and arranged in random order different for each dyad. Then, the dyads started interacting with each others by providing relevant descriptions about the pictures. The conversations were recorded in video and transcribed afterwards. An interesting feature of the procedure is that the researcher did not inform the participants about the purpose of the research in advance. This plays a significant role on the objectivity of their descriptions. Lastly, the stages of analysis are quite complex yet remaining systematic. It began with a general summary of the descriptions provided by the participants. There were some adjustments that were done as the participants made reference to other characters of the program that did not appeared on the said episode and also to characters of other programs. The researcher focused on prompted references for analysis. Following this stage is the role of two coders in counting and categorizing the data, thus coming up with the following categories: “first name only, full name, kinship term (e.g., mother, father), job title, and other”. Kappa was used to calculate the reliability between the two coders resulting to good agreement. In the end stages of analysis, results were obtained and presented, and the discussion commenced.


Strengths and weaknesses

            The strengths of the research include its originality by using a popular television program, comprehensive set of research method and qualitative and quantitative approaches used, and its significant research results particularly in the broad area of the study of language and communication or linguistics. On the contrary, the weaknesses of the research were mainly associated on the relevant issues that affect the method used and overall presentation such as the ethical concern on the participants and the use of references that were published way back the 1960s.

            The concept is original in terms of using a popular television program in Britain those years. It has been a trend in language and communication studies that communication vehicles are subject of empirical and theoretical activities including novels and short stories and British soap opera and other fictional works. Weatherall’s attempt to explore Coronation Street is ‘just right’. Further, the comprehensive set of research method and qualitative and quantitative approaches used all throughout the research process can be considered as general solution to the drawbacks of each method or approach used in research. The wide-ranging and multiple tools used in quantitative approach of analysis addresses the issue of validity and reliability while the qualitative approach of analysis supported the limited ability of numbers to provide a complete description in response to a research question or problem. Lastly, significant research results elicited from the research activity contributes in bridging the identified gaps in the existing body of literatures about the research subject during those years. It was also assumed that this research article was the base point of subsequent research studies supporting or challenging its given findings. However, it must be considered that the findings found in this research article should be supported by other factors that are not included in its totality yet believed to have some degree of importance or effect (e.g. political and social or societal beliefs of the participants).

            Although Weatherall acknowledged the difficulties in studying language in the first parts of the research article, she still violated the ethical concern on the participants by not confirming to the standard procedures in conducting research study using people as key participants. The issue of confidentiality was not pointed out in any part of the research. Even if the participants were informed about the purpose of the research study and gave positive feedback, this must be considerably done prior to their participation for chances of refusal or backing out. Blumberg and associates (2005) and Robson (2002) argue that a researcher must accept any refusal to take part. The use of references that were published way back the 1960s is also considered as weakness because the applicability of the findings of these earlier research studies could be questionable and irrelevant during those years.


Relevance to general debates within the field

            The work of Weatherall is relevant to general debates within the field provided that the findings are ‘just right’ in those years or could be up to the present. It provided compelling arguments on the use of language in prompted but impromptu discussions in relation to coming up with evidences of sex bias. The results obtained were used to determine the pervasiveness of sex bias in language and was proven lesser than expected. It also provided recommendation on the aspect of documenting the way on how linguistic bias is routinized or legitimated in different conversational circumstances. On the latter sentences of the research article, Weatherall affirms: “Women’s negative linguistic position relative to men is not universal, but rather is restricted to particular forms and domains” (pp. 290). This may or may not be conclusive yet offered another area of empirical and theoretical scrutiny and development. The possibility of the assumption that this research article was the base point of subsequent research studies supporting or challenging its given findings is also palpable. In general, the effect of this study to the general debate within the field is manifested on its degree of influence to the existing argument of both parties supporting or challenging the use of language and communication in terms of sex bias in women.



            It is believed that this research study is original in some aspects particularly on the use of popular television program in Britain, comprehensive and multiple tools used in the research method, and its immediacy in providing compelling arguments on the ongoing and increasing general debate within the field. Although the background of the research study mainly includes earlier researches that date back to 1960s, the new set of findings is used to determine the acceptability of the earlier findings and their applicability to the current language and communication discourse. Also, the findings are used to bridge the gap of the previous empirical and theoretical studies and addressing the immediate need of the broad area of the study of language and communication while providing opportunities for further investigation.



Blumberg, B., Cooper, D. R., & Schindler, P. S. (2005). Business Research Methods. Maidenhead: McGraw Hill.


Clough, P. & Nutbrown, C. (2002). A Student’s Guide to Methodology. London: Sage.


Hannah, A. & Murachver, T. (2007, September). Gender Preferential Responses to Speech. Journal of Language and Social Psychology, 26(3), pp. 274-290.


Henley, N. M. (1987). This species that seeks a new language: On sexism in language and language change. In J. Penfold (Ed.), Women and language in transition (pp. 3-27). New York State University of New York Press.


Kimmel, M. (2000). The Gendered Society. London: Oxford University Press.


Robson, C. (2002). Real World Research, 2nd Edition. London: Blackwell Publishing.


Saunders, M., Lewis, P., & Thornhill, A. (2007). Research methods for business students, 4th Edition. London: Prentice Hall.


Weatherall, A. (1998, December). Women and Men in Language: An Analysis of Seminaturalistic Person Descriptions. Human Communication Research, 25(2), pp. 275-292.


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