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Muted group theory

Muted group theory (MGT) is developed by social anthropologists Edwin Ardener and Shirley Ardener in 1975. The theory describes the relationship between a dominant group and its subordinate group(s): As the dominant group contributes mostly to the formulation of the language system, including the norms and vocabulary, members from the subordinate group have to learn and use the dominant-made language to express themselves. However, this translation process may result in loss and distortion of information as the people from subordinate groups cannot articulate their ideas clearly. The dominant may also ignore the voice of the lower-power. All these may eventually lead to the mutedness of the subordinate group. Although this theory is initially developed to study the different situations faced by women and men, it can also be applied to any marginalized group that is muted by the inadequacies of their languages.

There are three basic assumptions which are central to MGT: 1) The different experiences caused by the division of labor result in the different perceptions that women and men hold towards the world. 2) Women find it difficult to articulate their ideas as men's experience are dominant. 3) Women have to go through a translation process when speaking in order to participate in social life.

The study of MGT also offers resolution to change the muting status quo, i.e., naming the strategies of silencing, reclaiming, elevating and celebrating women's discourse, and creating new languages based on the experience of the marginalized group.

The Muted Group Theory was firstly developed in the field of cultural anthropology by the British Anthropologist Edwin Ardener. 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 explored the "problem" of women. In social anthropology, the problem of women is divided in two parts: technical and analytical. 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. 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". He also suggests that the reason behind this is that men tend to give a "bounded model of society" akin to the ones that ethnographers are attracted to. 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?".

  • 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.
  • 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".
  • 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.


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