What is Essentialism?

Essentialism, in its most stripped down meaning refers to the belief that people and/or phenomenon have an underlying and unchanging 'essence'. I like to work with a definition that refers to any statement that seeks to close off the possibility of changeable human behaviour. The term essentialism is commonly used in three main ways.

Firstly it refers to the use of biological, physiological and, increasingly, genetic, causes as explanations for human social behaviour. In this case little, if any, explanatory weight is given to psychological, sociological or cultural explanations. An example would be to argue that men are more aggressive than women and that this is inevitable due to hormonal differences. So the intention here is to use biology to argue that a particular social difference and/or behaviour is unchangeable.

A second use of the term essentialism is when generalised statements are asserted that make no reference to cross-cultural differences or previous historical variation. This is also sometimes called universalism. An example would be to state that men are more visual then women, in all cultures and at all times. Against this a sociologist or anthropologist may argue that the way we use our senses, and which ones we prioritise, is very definately something that varies between cultures and throughout history.

Thirdly, the term essentialism refers to when in everyday conversation or also in academic writing we make use of unified concepts. This means when we talk of the experiences, for example, of white disabled women. Now at first glance this is better than simply making a generalisation about 'women' or the 'disabled' per se. However even when we introduce a few levels of specification we still talk in a highly problematic way. In other words, to use the above example, the experiences of white, disabled, women is not unified but highly mixed or variable (or 'heterogeneous' to use a longer word) and is also likely to change over time due to differing economic and cultural conditions. This third sort of essentialism is tolerated more (certainly in acdemic writing) than the first two, but still remains problematic.

It is worth bearing in mind that within academic writing the charge of essentialism is used in a very adversarial way, as an allegation of the worst crime. Sometimes an essentialist statement may be used as a political strategy and it is fair to say that critiques of essentialism do not always delve into the reasons why a particular essentialist assertion is made. Moreover, the first type of essentialism should not merely be restricted to biological overdeterminism (the over use of biological explanation for social behaviour) but also to sociological overdeterminism (when one tries to explain something solely by recourse to social, as opposed to biological or psychological explanations). Sociological overdeterminism is also sometimes referred to as discursive essentialism.

Why have charges of essentialism been made towards ecofeminism? Some ecofeminists have indeed argued that 'women are closer to nature than men' or 'more empathic than men'. Why might thay have done this? In what ways are phrases such as 'Mother Earth' essentialist, are they useful, or dangerous to use politically? In other words can the feminisation of nature (and indeed the flipside, the naturalisation of women) that has been the source of much damaging ideology over recent centuries be re-appropriated as a positive political discourse for change? I personally doubt this and am rather suspicious of this strategy, though I am still interested as to why this might be a strategy for some women. So it is true to say that the 'charge' of essentialism sometimes levelled against ecofeminism is in a small way justified. However, it is usually used by mainstream feminism to argue that all ecofeminism positions are essentialist and that ecofeminism should be ignored as a valid theory of liberation. This charge is used to silence ecofeminism. [The charge of essentialism is also sometimes used to silence the arguments of French feminist theorists such as Irigaray, essentialism may be present but is it a criterion for ignoring everything someone has to say?]. Any glance around the main feminism introductory texts bears witness to the silencing of ecofeminism, a silencing that also takes place in the male dominated environmental philosophy field.

So one has to be very careful with the subject of essentialism, on all sides! If we delve deeper, as some are, we begin to see further problems with the whole idea of essentialism. For example, most charges of essentialism assume that the biological realm is a static one, and the social, or cultural realm is dynamic. This, for me, is another problematic dualism and in my current thinking I think that critiques of essentialism (as well as critiques of critiques of essentialism) will be rewarded if they begin to think in ways of re-introducing a sense of temporality into what we think of as 'essence'. The recent history of Western thought has been somewhat atemporal. We have not wanted to dwell to much upon change as ultimately this means facing up to our own mortality. I will leave you with that thought for now. Click here to go back to Ecofeminisms in Process