Muted group theory

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The Muted Group Theory (MGT) is a critical communication theory that examines asymmetrical power-related issues between genders, cultures, societies, and groups. According to Richard West and Lynn H. Turner “It helps us understand any group that is silenced by the inadequacies of their language[1]” (West, Turner, 2010). For example, when there is a “dominant” language or activity by a group, there are members who have “lower-power” and could feel silenced because of their inexperience in that language or activity. This is when MGT occurs. The key elements in MGT are dominant and subordinate groups, which are often used to characterize the relationship between men and women, respectively.


The Muted Group Theory was firstly developed in the field of cultural anthropology; however, it has been taken up by other fields of inquiry such as communication, feminist, and cross-cultural studies. Introduced by the British Anthropologist Edwin Ardener, the Muted Group Theory is a critical theory that explores the asymmetrical relationship – mostly established by language – between dominant and silenced groups. Ardern’s study shows that it is men that have mainly produced ideas and knowledge concerning the world. Consequently, the voices of women have been ignored and ‘muted’. As part of the critical approach to the world, the Muted Group Theory explores power and societal structure in relation to the dynamism between dominant and subordinated groups.

As aforementioned the Muted Group Theory has been conceptualized, elaborated, and applied by many scholars. Deborah Ballard-Reisch (2010) for instance discusses how those who are connected to subordinate groups don’t speak up on the issues they face instead keeps the issues to themselves. The result is having many unresolved issues without hope of a solution.[2] Sarah Funderburke (2012) suggests that in doing a proper study of men and women, it is important to first define what the term “sex” means, for it is defined differently for each individual. Gender, is a term also used in the process of defining what “sex” is. Depending upon how one defines these terms will determine the role expectancy between the two genders.[3] The work of Charlotte Kroløkke (2005) indicates surveys conducted towards gender communication theories help one to focus their knowledge about the underlying assumptions as well as allow one to analyze the progression from first waves of feminism.[4] Also, analyzing these theories helps scholars find their own inspiration of change within these scopes. Furthermore, Anastacia Kurylo (2013) suggests group of scholars and other researchers from different backgrounds around the world assembled to introduce intercultural communication to undergraduate college students using four approaches. The four approaches were meant to show a range of diversity of issues and topics for the students.[5] Last but not least, Anita Taylor (2000) With a wide range of voices from women of the U.S all the way to Japan, this volume collects their stories that have been unheard. The muted group theory divides this volume into two sections, one with voices of women whose voices have been softened but has strong messages. The second section is with women whose voices have been silenced.[6]

Origin of the Muted Group Theory[edit]

The first formulation of the Muted Group Theory emerges from one of Edwin Ardener’s short essays, entitled "Belief and the Problem of Women", in which Ardener explores the ‘problem’ of women .[7] In social anthropology, the problem of women is divided in two parts: technical and analytical .[7] The technical problem is that although half of the population and society is technically made up of women, ethnographers have often ignored this half of the population .[7] Ardener writes that "those trained in ethnography evidently have a bias towards the kinds of model that men are ready to provide (or to concur in) rather than towards any that women might provide".[8] He also suggests that the reason behind this lies in that men tend to give a “bounded model of society”[8] akin to the ones that ethnographers are attracted to.[8] Therefore, men are those who produce and control symbolic production in a society. This leads to the analytical part of the problem which attempts to answer the question: "[…] if the models of society made by most ethnographers tend to be models derived from the male portion of that society, how does the symbolic weight of the other mass of persons express itself?".[9]

Ardener's Dominant Group vs Muted Group

After conducting an experiment with the information in his essay, the results showed, while not fully proven, that the male point of view in society is the norm or dominant, which is why it is depicted with a standard solid line in this graph. On the other hand, female point of view is considered as non-dominant and non-standard, so it falls in the muted category with the broken line. According to Ardener, because male-based understanding of society represents the dominant worldview, certain groups get silenced or muted and they are not able to fully incorporate their experiences in such dominant structures of society. He thus writes: "In these terms if the male perception yields a dominant structure, the female one is a muted structure".[10] Moreover, Ardener’s concept of muted groups does not only apply to women but can be applied to other non-dominant groups within societal structures.

Muted Group Theory and Communication[edit]

Cheris Kramarae is one of the main theorists who investigates the Muted Group Theory in the communication studies field. Her contribution to the Muted Group Theory comes from her interest in the relationship between gender and social interaction. Language, its use, and its structure play a central role in her analysis of society. Her main idea is that social interaction and communication create the current language structure. Because the latter was mainly built by men, men have an advantage over women. Consequently, women cannot express their thoughts through their own words because their language use is limited by the rules of a man’s language.[11] Kramarae states, "The language of a particular culture does not serve all its speakers equally, for not all speakers contribute in an equal fashion to its formulation. Women (as well as members of other non-dominant groups) are not as free or as able as men are to say what they wish, because the words and the norms for their use have been formulated by the dominant group, men."

The 'Muting' Process[edit]

According to Gerdrin, muting or silencing is a social phenomenon based on the tacit understanding that within a society there are dominant and non-dominant groups.[12] Thus, the muting process is a socially shared phenomenon that presupposes a collective understanding of who is in power and who is not.[12] Several scholars have researched and studied how this process occurs. Houston and Kramarae posit that women have been silenced in many ways by for example ridiculing women’s related lexicon, reinforcing family hierarchies, constructing a male-controlled media, trivializing their opinions, ideas, and concerns, and censoring women’s voices.[13] A central factor that contributes to these silencing methods is the trivialization of the lexicon and speech patterns that is often used to describe female activities e.g. with expressions such as chattering, gossiping, nagging, whining, bitching .[13] Social rituals are another example of a place in which the muting process takes place. Kramarae suggests that many elements within wedding ceremonies place women in a silenced position. For example, the fact that the father of the bride ‘gives her away’ to the groom, that the position of the bride – at the left of the minister – is considered less privileged than the one of the groom, that the groom announces his vows first, and that the groom is asked to kiss the bride, are all factors that contribute to the position of a woman as subordinated to the one of the man.

West and Turner's Muting or Silencing Process

As Catherine MacKinnon (one of the leading voices in the feminist legal movement )[14] suggests, the law sees women similarly as men see women.[15] Like language, the legal system has thus been created, defined, and interpreted mostly by men.[15] In the context of unequal power relations between men and women, MacKinnon proposes new standards to define and evaluate sexual harassment and sex-related issues considered as the consequence of unwanted impositions of sexual requirements .[16] Her gender inequality theory and redefinition of legal practices and concepts are often considered challenging, provocative, and sometimes flawed .[17] However, Finley argues that there has been a recent interest in feminist jurisprudence and legal scholarship inspired by the law’s failure to see that despite the legal removal of barriers, sexes are not socially equal .[18]

According to West and Turner (2010), here are strategies to avoid the 'Muting' process:

  • Name the silencing factors, had it been men or news agencies.
  • Reclaim, elevate and celebrate women’s discourse.
  • Create new words to the language system that are inclusive of marginalized groups and gendered words and experiences.
  • Use media platforms (traditional and new) to voice groups.

Assumptions of the Muted Group Theory[edit]

  • Using men’s words is a disadvantage to women because Kramarae believes that "Women perceive the world differently from men because of women’s and men’s different experience and activities rooted in the division of labor".[11] She also believes that men and women are vastly different and thus will view the world differently from men. This stems from the distinction between the meanings of the words "sex" and "gender." Kramerae believes that communication between men and women is not on an even level. This is because language is man made. This makes it easier for men to communicate over women. The Symbolic Interactionism Theory believes that 'the extent of knowing is the extent of naming (pg 462).' When applying this to muted group, this means women have an extreme disadvantage over men because men are the namers.
  • Kramarae also explains that men’s control over language has produced an abundance of derogatory words for women and their speech patterns. Some of these include names such as slut, whore, easy lay along with speech patterns such as gossiping, whining, and bitching.[13] However have much fewer names to describe themselves and most of them are seen in a positive/ sexual light. These include words such as stud, player, and pimp (p. 465). Kramarae suggests these harmful words shape our reality. She believes that "words constantly ignored may eventually come to be unspoken and perhaps even unthought." This can lead women to doubt themselves and the intentions of their feelings (p. 465). Women are at a disadvantage once again. If a man has multiple sexual partners he can be seen as the words previously stated. However these words do not have a negative connotation. If women have multiple sexual partners, the words to describe her are very different from the words to describe a man. These carry negative connotations.
  • Kramarae also says that women need to choose their words carefully in public. This is because according to Kramarae "what women want to say and can say best cannot be said easily because the language template is not of their own making" (p. 459). “Another example of this male-dominated language Kramarae brings up is that in public speaking, women most often use sports and war analogies (things most women do not usually associate themselves to) in order to relate to their male audiences. Women do this to accomplish their objectives of getting ahead in life. This, they feel, is difficult if they do not gear their speech toward men, using words and analogies to which they can relate. This stems from the market being dominated by males for so long. Almost all prominent authors, theorists, and scientists have historically been male. This allows for them to give women the "facts" they should believe about society and life in general."[19]

Kramarae believes that “males have more difficulty than females in understanding what members of the other gender mean.” Dale Spender of Woman’s Studies International Quarterly gave insight into Kramarae’s statement by adding the idea that many men realize by listening to women they would be revoking some of their power and privilege. “The crucial issue here is that if women cease to be muted, men cease to be so dominant and to some males this may seem unfair because it represents a loss of rights.” A man can easily avoid this issue by simply stating “I’ll never understand women” (p. 461).

Applications of Muted group theory[edit]

Muted Groups in Mass Media[edit]

According to Kramarae, women have been locked out of the publishing business until 1970; thus they lacked influence on mass media and have often been misrepresented in history. The reason behind this lies in the predominance of male gatekeepers, whom are defined as editors and other arbiters of a culture who determine which books, essays, poetry, plays, film scripts, etc. will appear in the mass media.[20] Male gatekeepers have thus been muting non-dominant groups especially women in mass media until the 1970s. Similarly, Pamela Creedon argues that in the mid-70s there is an increase of women in the male dominated profession of journalism . According to Creedon, this gender switch phenomenon was the result of the large amount of women that enrolled in Journalism and Mass Communication curses in the mid-70s.[21] Creedon’s theory is supported by the latest Radio Television Digital News Association - Hofstra University Annual Survey shows that: (1) In TV, the number of women news directors rose to the highest percentage ever, and women in the workforce rose to the second-highest level ever, (2) the number of minority workforce in TV news has risen to 22.4%, the highest it's been in 13 years and the second highest level ever, and (3) the number of minorities in the radio workforce rose to the highest level since the mid-1990s. Although the number of women and minorities in the mass media force has generally increased, many studies shows that women and minorities are still partially muted in the mass media landscape, dues to their being mis-represented.[22]

Current Status of Women in Mass Media

In The Status of Women in the U.S. Media 2014, The Women’s Media Centre researches explore the current status of women in the mass media industry. The report compiles 27,000 pieces of content among “20 of the most widely circulated, read, and viewed, and listened TV networks, newspapers, news wires, and online news in the United States”.[23] The results show that women (36.1%) are significantly out-numbered by men (63.4%). More precisely:

  • In the evening news broadcast shows on ABC, CBS, NBC, and PBS, men anchors constitute 60% of the overall number of news anchors . However, the percentage of female anchors varies significantly when the news broadcasts are examined individually.[23]
  • Among the 10 most circulated newspapers, male authors constitute 63% of the total number of bylines.[23]
  • On the Internet, the number of male authors is between 52% and 70%.[23]

Although the number of women on TV news broadcasts is generally growing the misrepresentation of women does not only regard their presence as anchors but also the events that they cover. Several studies show that while men mainly report on ‘hard’ news, women are often relegated to cover ‘soft’ news. Thus, women are often muted in terms of the topics they tend to cover.[23][24][25]

Although the Women’s Media Centre study is very U.S.-centric, non-dominant groups are often muted even in other country’s media landscapes. For example, Aparna Hebbani and Charise-Rose Wills have explored how Muslim women have often been muted in the Australian mass media sphere.[26] Their study shows that women that wear a hijab/burqa are often inaccurately and negatively connoted in Australian mass media.[26] According to the authors, Muslim women represent a muted group and thus cannot entirely incorporate their experiences, views, and perspective in their representation in Australian media. Thus, there is a social hierarchy that is privileging certain groups via Australian mass media.[26] It also show that although currently muted, this group is attempting to gain a voice in this media landscape by engaging and interacting with members of the dominant culture in order to negotiate their silenced position.[26]

Muted Group Theory and the Internet[edit]

Kramarae has performed research about the internet to examine if men gatekeep and control such a widely used device. Kramarae’s research leads to the belief that the traditional set up of the muted group theory exists on the internet as well. Almost all of the original creators of the internet in the 1970s and 1980s were male. Today there is about a 50/50 split on internet usage between men and women. However, all of the bones of the software and the setup of the internet is seen as masculine. Men also dominate technology fields causing women to continue being marginalized. Many of the metaphors used to describe the internet are masculine. These masculine terms such as information superhighway, new frontier, and global community affect the way that the muted group feels about the internet. Kramarae believes that the internet is on track to being more evenly balanced between males and females. She thinks with the advances of blogs, wikis, and online education that females will have a stronger voice (p. 457-458). They are able to voice their opinions in varied forms of technology and can relate to other women in their own way.

Barzilai-Nahon’s Network Gatekeeper Theory (NGT), whose theory helps bring the gatekeeping concept into the networked world. Barzilai-Nahon was driven to develop NGT because traditional gatekeeping literature ignored the role of the gated thus failing to recognise the dynamism of the gatekeeping environment. Most relevant herein is not only was NGT developed specifically with the Internet in mind, but it moves gatekeeping from a traditional focus on information ‘selection’, ‘processes’, ‘distribution’ and ‘intermediaries’ to ‘information control’:

  • Finally, a context of information and networks makes it necessary to re-examine the vocabulary of gatekeeping, moving from processes of selection (Communication), information distribution and protection (Information Science), and information intermediary (Management Science) to a more flexible construct of information control, allowing inclusion of more types of information handling that have occurred before and new types which occur due to networks.[27]

NGT helps identify the processes and mechanisms used for gatekeeping, and most particularly highlights information control as the thread that ties the various online gatekeeperstogether. Under NGT, an act of gatekeeping involves a gatekeeper and gated, the movement of information through a gate, and the use of a gatekeeping process and mechanism. A gatekeeping process involves doing some of the following: selecting, channelling, shaping, manipulating and deleting information. For example, a gatekeeping process might involve selecting which information to publish, or channelling information through a channel, or deleting information by removing it, or shaping information into a particular form. Her taxonomy of mechanisms for gatekeeping is particularly useful. The mechanisms include, for example, channelling (i.e. search engines, hyperlinks), censorship (i.e. filtering, blocking, zoning), value-added (i.e. customisation tools), infrastructure (i.e. network access), user interaction (i.e. default homepages, hypertext links), and editorial mechanisms (i.e. technical controls, information content).[28]

Muted Group Theory and Email Communication[edit]

According to Kissack, traditionally communication has been constructed within the framework of a male dominated society. Women in corporate organizations are expected to use language associated with women that is 'female-preferential' language, this has been considered as lower than the 'male-preferential' language. The primary difference between the two is 'male-preferential' language consists of details such as opinions and facts whereas 'female-preferential' language consists mainly of personal details, emotions reflected in the conversations, also there is a great use of adjectives in it.[29]

  • In the western world women in the 1940s pursued jobs such as teaching in schools, hairdresser, and waitresses while men were at war. However, after the war period the society did not encourage the participation in women in the workplace, and this way tried to assert male dominance in the society. Organizations till date appear to have a male dominance; the female experiences are at times not taken into account at the workplace the way the male experiences are, that is the ‘structure’ is maintained by men who primarily use communication from the male perspective.[29] When emails in organizations are studied, they can be used to decipher whether the sender is a man or a woman. Researchers reveal that the way men communicate in emails differs from the way the women do.
  • One of the ways that women are differentiated can be observed when we take the ‘performance appraisals’ into consideration. What they mainly consist of is reviews that are based on the standards that are more like ‘masculine’ standards. Another interesting behavioral trait that can showcase mutation is women who try to emulate ‘male behaviors’ in order to attain promotions and get ahead in the workplace.[29]
  • There are some conventional stereotypes attached to men and women in society, when an individual’s behavior deviates from this norm they attain ‘negative feedback’ for this opposition to the norm by their actions. In the case of women, this gets quite complicated as women are told to act in a certain manner, but when they do try and emulate their male counterparts they are ‘discriminated’ and ‘discouraged’ for acting that way.[29]

‘Muteness’ is more glaringly present in the case of emails, the reason for that being that in the case of ‘email’ the only source of reference is the ‘text’ used for the same. In the beginning email was perceived as a ‘lean’ medium that can act as a means to level the field for both the ‘dominant group’ and its ‘subordinate’ counterpart.[29]

When can it be said that woman’s voice is ‘muted’ in an organizational frame? In the words of Kissack,

If female-preferential language is marginalized within organizations due to its deviation from male-preferential language, and female preferential language is an indication of women attempting to speak within prescriptive norms as well as an attempt to express themselves through an unaccommodating male-prescribed language, then women’s voice is being muted.[29]

According to Thompson men and women in their early days tend to spend time with ‘same-sex groups’ and thereby adapt their communication style to their groups. In spite of this fact, what it is important to note is that both these communication styles function in the realms of the ‘patriarchal society’[29] Most of the goals of organizations are met by the usage of ‘male-preferential’ language, as they tend to focus on aspects such as ‘economic gain’ and ‘performance improved.’ The main point of an organizational email is that it can help an employee male or female to fulfill their work duties and women are not able to achieve this using language more relevant to them, so in order to attain success in their workplace they have to go beyond their natural realm and utilize ‘male-preferential’ language.[29]

Muted Group Theory Across Cultures[edit]

Although the Muted Group Theory has been mainly developed as a feminist theory, there are other silenced groups in society .[30] Mark Orbe, a communication theorist, has suggested that in the U.S. the dominant group consists of white, heterosexual, middle-class, males. Thus, groups that distinguish themselves from the dominant one in terms of race, age, gender, sexual orientation, and economic status can potentially be silenced or muted. In African-American communication research: Toward a deeper understanding of interethnic communication (1995) and Constructing co-cultural theory: An explication of culture, power, and communication (1998), Orbe fleshed out two important extensions of muted group theory:

  • Muting as described in muted group theory can be applied to many cultural groups. Orbe stated that research performed by the dominant white European culture has created a view of African-American communication “which promotes the illusion that all African-Americans, regardless of gender, age, class, or sexual orientation, communicate in a similar manner” [31]
  • There are several ways in which members of a muted group can face their position within the dominant culture. Orbe identified 26 different ways that members of muted groups can use to face the structures and messages imposed by dominant groups. For example, individuals can choose to (1) emphasize commonalities and downplay cultural differences, (2) educate others about norms of the muted group, and (3) avoid members of the dominant group. Orbe also suggests that individuals choose one of the 26 different ways based on previous experiences, context, abilities, and perceived costs and rewards.

Therefore, although Kramarae focuses on women’s muted voices, she also opens the door to the application of muted group theory to issues beyond gender differences. Orbe, however, not only applies this theoretical framework to a different muted groups i.e. African-Americans, but also contributes by assessing "how individual and small collectives work together to negotiate their muted group status”.[32][33][34] Further, although various groups can be considered as muted within society, silenced and dominant groups can also exist within any group. For example, Anita Taylor and M. J. Hardman posit that feminist movements can also present dominant subgroups that mute other groups within the same movement. Thus, members within oppressed groups can have diverse opinions and one can become dominant and further mute the others .[35]

Mark Orbe is a communication theorist for the african americans muted group theory. He is extending Cheris Kramarae work for the cultures of African Americans. Orbe found that there is not just one way that the members of the MGP can deal with there position within the dominant culture. Orbe actually identified 26 different behaviors that members of the muted group theory choses from in dealing with structures and message of the dominant society. -Orbe

Attenuation of the Bias Language Phenomenon[edit]

A Feminist Dictionary[edit]

Kramarae states that in order to change muted group status we also need to change dictionaries. Traditional dictionaries rely on the majority of their information to come from male literary sources. These male sources have the power to exclude words important to or created by women. Furthering this idea, Kramarae and Paula Treichler created A Feminist Dictionary with words they believed Merriam-Webster defined on male ideas. For example, the word 'Cuckold' is defined as 'the husband of an unfaithful wife' in Merriam Webster. However, there is no term for a wife who has an unfaithful husband. She is simply called a wife. Another example Kramarae defined was the word 'doll.' She defined 'doll' as 'a toy playmate given to, or made by children. Some adult males continue their childhood by labeling adult female companions "dolls." The feminist dictionary includes up to 2,500 words to emphasize women’s linguistic ability and to give women words of empowerment and change their muted status.[36]

Field of Education[edit]

  • Female students encounter a number of problems with respect to 'reporting' their troubles such as 'sexual harassment','poor advising' and not much encouragement towards the field of learning.[37] Kramarae has raised several thought provoking ideas such as the thought of education including ways to incorporate elements such as 'women's humor,' 'speechlessness,' and ways to address the issue of 'abusive language.'[37]

Houston believes in order to create a positive reform in education it might be useful to revise the curriculum and lay special stress on 'woman-centered communication' education. 'Women's studies' (WS) have been evolving and growing through the ages, today there is greater demand for faculty to be on initiatives such as WS programs, and the 'African American programs.'[37]

  • In the realm of a classroom men and women utilize language quite differently, the way they bond within their own sex is quite different when we compare the styles of both men and women. Women tend to bond with each other through the process of discussing their problems on the other hand men bond with each other with 'playful insults' and 'put downs.'[38] In the event of classroom discussions men tend too believe that they are supposed to dominate the class discussion while women avoid to dominate the discussions.[38]
  • In 2014 women working in the United States that were fulltime were paid 79% of what men were paid. The gap is now decreasing since the 1970's due to largely women progress in education. Also the participation of women work force. The more educated women are the more we can try to make things fair.- Catherine Hill,

Critiques of Muted Group Theory[edit]

Deborah Tannen the theorist that created Genderlect Theory criticizes feminist scholars like Kramarae for assuming that men are trying to control women. Tannen acknowledges that differences in male and female communication styles sometimes lead to imbalances of power, but unlike Kramarae, she is willing to assume that the problems are caused primarily by men’s and women’s different styles. Tannen warns readers that “bad feelings and imputation of bad motives or bad character can come about when there was no intentions to dominate, to wield power [39] Kramerae thinks Tannen's opinion is false. She believes men belittle and ignore women whenever they speak out against being muted. Both theorists believe muting is involved, but they see it from different standpoints.

Edwin Ardener saw that muted group theory had pragmatic as well as analytical potentials.[40] Edwin Ardener always maintained that muted group theory was not only, or even primarily, about women - although women comprised a conspicuous case in point. In fact he also drew on his personal experience as a sensitive (intellectual) boy among hearty (sportive) boys in an all boys London secondary school. As a result of his early encounters with boys, thereafter he identified with other groups in society for whom self-expression was constrained.[40]

Is muted group out dated? In the 1970s and 1980s the muted group theory challenged the status quo, of academe at least. While many women reading and discussing the theory thought it made sense of their own lives, many other academics thought it wasn't proper—theoretically and politically. It certainly wasn't like any of the theories in introductory communication texts then. It was pretty radical. If the muted group theory now isn't as exciting as it once seemed, this is due in part to its success and the success of theories and actions related to it. Shirley and Edwin Ardener suggested that there are "dominant modes of expression in any society which have been generated by the dominant structure within it".[41] They wrote that women, due to their structural places in society, have different models of reality. Their perspectives are "muted" because they do not form part of the dominant communication system of the society.[42]

Other Related Theories[edit]

There are many theories that appear to be related to the Muted Group Theory. These include but are not limited to: Spiral of Silence Theory (SST), Feminist Standpoint Theory (FST) or Standpoint Theory, and Groupthink Theory (GT),

Read More:


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