Notes on: Silva, E.  (2000)  'The cook, the cooker and the gendering of the kitchen', in Sociological Review, 48  (4): 612 - 629.

Dave Harris

[This article claims to draw upon some high-powered theory, in the form of post structuralism and actor network theory, and ordered to analyse the interactions between domestic cooking technologies and gender relations. Whether you need such high-powered theory remains to be seen.]

Technologies incorporate processes by which gender is constituted, as recent feminist analyses suggest. It becomes apparent that both gender and technology are processes or performances. This leads to analyzing ways in which cookers both embody and constrain gendered relations. Classical actor network theory tends to neglect gender, however, and so post-structuralist feminist analysis is also required.

In ANT, technologies themselves are both configured by human agents and are themselves social agents. Such an argument enables analyses of interactions which can be seen as the result of  'the inscription of interests, politics and power' (613). However, it is a  'taken-for-granted scenario of male power' that tends to dominate in ANT, and while power as capacity or effectiveness is studied, 'power as domination remains invisible' (613).

Gender can also be seen as an appearance or performance, and  'Many women's gender identity is still located through household tasks' (613). At the same time, there are social changes in gender identities. Conceptions of gender are also  'embedded in the instruments of housework' (613), and changes in these conceptions can be studied. There are two developments in particular that have brought significant change -- the thermostat oven control, and the microwave oven. The various manuals, sales leaflets and articles describing these machines can be researched. These machines have not simply reproduced a stable gender identity for the cook.

Scott argues that gender becomes  'implicated in social processes' at four levels  (613):  'culturally available symbols that evoke multiple  (and often contradictory) representations... normative concepts that fixed dominant meanings of such symbols... institutional complexes in which these are articulated... ways in which the relevant symbols norms and institutions are implicated in the construction of subjective gender identities' (quoting Scott, 613). This work can be used to guide analysis of how gender appears historically, especially when combined with insights from ANT.

In particular, it is possible to use the notion of the script, or  'framework of action for agents' (614)  [I thought this was a symbolic interactionist term]. Scripts are involved in relating technologies to relations in households. Operating instructions can be seen as scripts, while recipes are attempts to regulate their interpretation and use. These activities can be seen as operating at levels 3 and 4 above. Activities take place against the background of the domestication of technology in households. This constitutes a  'household  "moral economy"' (614).

It is clear that cooking is only one activity involved in feeding a family. Emotional and ideological notions are involved, and these are connected to technology. Cookers help to determine what can be cooked, when, how, and to what standard, interacting with limits imposed by time and money.

Deciding a cooking temperature used to be a matter of craft and experience, and so the introduction of thermostatically controlled cookers in the 1920s and 1930s had a considerable impact. These cookers were marketed in particular at  'the middle-class housewife who had to run her home largely or entirely unaided because of the growing shortage of servants' (615). Instructional materials and sales materials claimed that thermostat provided for fully automatic cooking, although it was acknowledged that considerable monitoring of the cooking process was involved in real usages. The cook's role was simply not acknowledged, however  [and many examples are given of actual instructions and recipes]. The claims to automaticity therefore offer a false universalisation of the cooking experience, embodied in the middle-class housewife without servants. These people are to be innovators, but also are expected to display the classic 'cheerful, fresh, nourishing image of proper womanhood' (617).

Some cooking innovations, based on electricity, were withheld because they were seen to clash with this conventional female role. Electric cookers initially simulated solid fuel and gas cookers, and it took a further 50 years to develop the microwave oven from the invention of the magnetron in the 1940s. This too was presented as a great time saver. Microwaves were sometimes introduced alongside other conventional cookers. Ownership spread rapidly in the Eighties and Nineties, and growth might be connected see the availability of convenience foods and working women with dependent children.

Cooking with microwaves also requires some technical proficiency, and it is common not to cook with them but to use them to re or preheat. This pattern may be produced either by limits of the technology, the increasing role of the cook's tacit knowledge, or some incommensurability are two in the technology and the user. There have been many attempts to redress the latter, in the form of designing control panels or issuing guides. New technologies include temperature probes and moisture sensors to guide cooking time. The technology is limited and probably does not really save much time. It also requires an unacknowledged cook to perform the essential monitoring. This time, the intended cook is  'a busy professional... or an overworked parent', however  (619). The cook does require tacit knowledge, but there is an alternative in that certain raw materials, including particular types of potatoes or rice, can be used to produce the effect of automatic cooking, and the  'engineering of agricultural products' will make this more possible in the future  (620).

These scripts contain gender identities. Further connections between gender and cooking have also been discussed. Cooking has been associated with female caring, or those relationship has changed over time. Both the technological developments discussed have brought changes, for example microwave technology has enabled a more diverse set of identities, which now include  'men  (young and old), children  (girls and boys), women who do not like cooking  (or do not know how to cook), women who are good cooks, and people living on their own and families  [sic]' (620). Both technologies do not acknowledge the role of a monitor or a cook with tacit knowledge. This is part of the general view that females are expected to give care freely. Even if cooking saved time, women were expected to undertake other labours, such as sewing or gardening. Where cooking skill is acknowledged,  'the cook appears gendered as woman' (620). It is women who are advised to make best use of the new technology, by cooking and freezing portions of food, sometimes so that men and children can reheat them.

Men still only cook on the margins, heating up food, or becoming involved wherever there is a chance to display,  'such as in barbecues and dinner parties' (620). The technology reflects these expectations.

Changes in the gendered nature of cooking have also been affected by much wider networks involving  'the use of restaurants, school meals, and hours of employment outside the home, as well as utensils, washing up, convenience foods, etc' (621). Machines have not made a difference on their own, although advertising material can sometimes render the cook absent. There is an attempt  'to address neutered cooks' (621).

There is thus a complex pattern of interaction between gender practices and technology, especially between the identity of carers and the technological development of cookers. Scripts are embedded in the instruction materials for cookers, but users of the technologies also depart from these scripts. Scripts assume a wider social context  [such as the absent but skilled female cook].

It is possible that the cook is now perceived not so much as a woman but rather as a stupid person --  'absent minded, clumsy,  "as a child"  and technically ignorant' (621). To this extent only, microwave technology has been responsible for the  'democratization and deskilling of the cooking process: it therefore becomes possible for either man or woman to be a stupid cook' (621).

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