Doing gender

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In sociology and gender studies, "doing gender" is the idea that in Western culture, gender, rather than being an innate quality of individuals, is a psychologically ingrained social construct that actively surfaces in everyday human interaction. This term was coined by Candace West and Don Zimmerman in their seminal article "Doing Gender", published in 1987 in Gender and Society magazine. According to this research, an individual's performance of gender is intended to construct gendered behavior as naturally occurring. This façade furthers a system through which individuals are judged in terms of their failure or success to meet gendered societal expectations, called the accountability structure. The concept of doing gender was later expanded by West and Fenstermaker in the book Doing Gender, Doing Difference.


The concept of "doing" gender came from West and Zimmerman's article by the same title, originally written in 1977 but not published until 1987.[1] As of 2009, Doing Gender was the most cited article published in the journal Gender and Society.[2] West and Zimmerman illustrate that gender is performed in interactions, and that behaviors are assessed based on socially accepted conceptions of gender. Rather than focusing on how gender is ingrained in the individual or perpetuated by institutions, West and Zimmerman emphasize the interactional level as a site where gender is invoked and reinforced. They begin by differentiating sex from sex category and gender. In this piece, sex is the socially agreed upon criteria for being male or female, usually based on and individual's genitalia at birth or chromosomal typing before birth. Sex category is the assumed sex of the actor, regardless of the actor's actual sex, based on his or her body and behaviors. This is "established and sustained by the socially required identificatory displays that proclaim one's membership in one or the other category" (p. 127). Gender is the degree to which an actor is masculine or feminine, in light of societal expectations about what is appropriate for one's sex category.[3]

Gender is further described as 'omnirelevant,' as it is apparent and relevant in almost every interaction. In their article, West and Zimmerman use examples such as bathrooms, sports, coupling, conversations, professions and the division of labor to illustrate the ways in which gender is prevalent in many taken for granted activities. West and Zimmerman employ the example of a professional woman in a male-dominated field, through which it becomes apparent that the woman will have to make decisions as to whether or not she should engage in unfeminine behavior that would otherwise be an integral part of her professional identity.[3]

Another component of this theory is gendered assessment of behavior. In the above example, the woman is engaging in behavior that will be assessed as either masculine or feminine by her coworkers. According to West and Zimmerman, this woman will be evaluated based on how her actions compare to accountability standards of the sex category she belongs to. Deviations from these expectations do not have an immediate effect on the accountability structure itself. Instead, failures to meet these standards are attributed to the individual rather than to the rigidity of recognized categories. With this theory, West and Zimmerman stress the importance of social interaction in maintaining the gender structure. Because individuals do and assess gender in interaction, gender is visible in a wide variety of activities such as conversation, appearance, mannerisms, body language, and the type of activity.[3]


The idea that gender is something that individuals actively 'do' was largely inspired by the social psychological approach taken by Erving Goffman (1976) in "Gender Display" (p. 129). Goffman theorizes that humans make the assumption that each has an "essential nature," which can be interpreted by reading "natural signs given off or expressed by them" (p. 75). One of the most basic natures that can be assumed from interpreting these signs is one's masculinity or femininity. Not only is gender often determined by others relatively easily, but this determination often establishes the ways in which individuals interact with one another. Goffman asserts that, because we habitually function within such scripts, they are taken to be further evidence of essential natures. He coins the term 'gender display' as a way to conceptualize the ways in which individuals act in a gender appropriate manner. However, these performances are optional and vulnerable to disturbance, as inappropriate gender display can just as easily be invoked as socially accepted ones. Goffman asserts that there is a 'scheduling' of gender displays around activities, so that the activities themselves are not interrupted by gender displays. For instance, colleagues may interact in a gendered manner during their lunch hour, rather than while they are working together on a project. West and Zimmerman take issue with this piece of Goffman's perspective, claiming that this masks the ways in which gender displays permeate nearly all social situations in that individuals cannot avoid being interpreted as masculine or feminine.[3]

Responses and critiques[edit]

The concept of doing gender has been critiqued by scholars who assert that it does not take human agency and acts of resistance into account.[4] In order to illustrate the possibility of change, several works have been published in which researchers claim to document an 'undoing' or 'redoing' of gender. Francine M. Deutsch, in "Undoing Gender" (2007), examines how the concept of doing gender has been employed in research. Deutsch uses examples of studies that use West and Zimmerman's work to illustrate how normative gender ideals are apparent in a variety of contexts. This, she argues, contributes to the invisibility of gender transgression and does not work towards West and Zimmerman's goal of eliminating gender inequity. In order to facilitate the undoing of gender, Deutsch suggests that "The study of the interactional level could expand beyond simply documenting the persistence of inequality to examine (1) when and how social interactions become less gendered, not just differently gendered; (2) the conditions under which gender is irrelevant in social interactions; (3) whether all gendered interactions reinforce inequality; (4) how the structural (institutional) and interactional levels might work together to produce change; and (5) interaction as the site of change" (p. 114). By focusing on these areas, Deutsch asserts, it is easier to find practical solutions to problems cause by gender inequity.[5]

Catherine Connell (2010) presented the idea of 'redoing gender' as well as 'doing transgender' in her work, "Doing, Undoing or Redoing Gender?: Learning from the Workplace Experiences of Transpeople." Connell posits that transpeople may redo gender by altering normative ideas of gender in their interactions, but may simultaneously participate in the doing of gender in other ways. Connell coins the term 'doing transgender' in order to provide a way to examine how transpeople must make sense of the disconnect between sex, gender and sex category, which they may obscure or actively express in interactions.[6]

In January 2009, the academic journal Gender and Society published a West and Zimmerman Symposium, in honor of the concept of doing gender. Nine short articles were composed for the symposium, including a piece by West and Zimmerman. Several authors argued that the doing gender framework did not allow for agency, intent or consciousness. Other authors argued that biology needed to be focused on when considering doing gender, in order to understand what role the body plays in gender assessment.[1][2][4][7][8][9][10][11][12]

West and Zimmerman responded with an article titled “Accounting for Doing Gender,” in which they restated their original argument, with an emphasis on accountability. In this, they argued, the doing gender framework does not hide agency, but contextualizes it. Because individuals' gender will be interpreted based on the accountability structure, the effectiveness of their resistance may not serve to 'undo' gender. The authors contend that gender may be 'redone' but never 'undone,' as accountability structures may change but gender will not disappear.[1]

Doing Difference[edit]

Doing Difference is a landmark concept that grew out of the authors' earlier idea [13] of "doing gender", first presented at the American Sociological Association in 1977 by Candace West and Don Zimmerman [14] and published in an early issue of Gender and Society in 1987.[15] In 1995, Candace West and Sarah Fenstermaker sought to extend the idea of gender as an ongoing interactional process into the realms of race and class.

They begin their argument by asserting that the intersection of these three fundamental ways to categorize social difference cannot simply be thought of in a mathematical or even strictly hierarchical sense. That is, simply plugging in these concepts as variables in a multiple regression model to predict life success in a particular society provides a simplified way to look at their relative effects, but would fail to provide an adequate basis for even understanding, lesser yet altering systemic inequalities based on race, class, and gender. For instance, Poor black women in the United States face immense social disadvantages, but to place them at the bottom of some abstract listing of vulnerable populations tells us little about how race, class, and gender interacted in their biography and social milieu to constrain and direct their lives. Their analysis of these core differences from the standpoint of ethnomethodology turns the focus away from individual characteristics. Instead, they are understood processually as "emergent properties of social situations" which simultaneously produce systematically different outcomes for social groups and the rationale for such disparities.

The authors assert that the reason race and class were not adequately considered in earlier works is because the feminist movement has historically been the province of white middle class women in the developed world who were not sufficiently affected or attuned to the nature of these corollary oppressions. Furthermore, few women outside this privileged lot were able to gain access to institutions of higher education, which might have permitted them to engage in the academic discourse and activity about such shortcomings. Even if they had, the gatekeepers within the academy and at leading journals made this unlikely process even more difficult. Perhaps overt racism and classism (and sexism) is less apparent today in these institutions, but the tendency remains for those in positions of power to view the world in a way that discounts the experience of marginalized groups. A greater understanding of this core critique within Third-wave feminism can be gained through reading the early works of Patricia Hill Collins and bell hooks.

The central theme of "difference" here is meant to illustrate how the concepts of race and gender have been falsely conceived as biologically bound predictors of behavior and aptitude among those who are a certain skin color or sex. The commonalities within these somewhat arbitrary categories often exaggerated and the behavior of the most dominant group within the category (e.g. rich white men or women) becomes idealized as the only appropriate way to fulfill one social role. This conceptualization is then employed as a means of excluding and stigmatizing those who do not or cannot live up to these standards. This process of "doing difference" is realized in constant interpersonal interactions that reaffirm and reproduce social structure. Experiencing the world through the interaction of these "essentialized" characteristics and especially through dominant group's frame of reference (power interests) produces a pattern of thought and behavior that reproduces these social inequalities.

Social science research has rendered dubious any claim that race can simply be conflated with color, or gender with genitalia, or even class with paychecks. Class may not seem as prone to ideas about natural social differentiation, but within capitalist societies, it is often assumed that one's economic situation is a more or less direct indication of one's capacity to achieve. Since women and people of color taken are more often poor, natural disadvantage is at least tacitly assumed by many. Given the general observation that powerful groups seem to rely heavily on these ideas of natural subordination, many liberationist thinkers came to the conclusion that this essentialism would be a prime rhetorical vehicle to subvert. Thus, the deconstruction of role theory and functionalism within sociology was a central theme from the 1960s onward. This still left a somewhat gaping theoretical vacuum, one that continues to be felt by people struggling with this challenge to fundamentally alter their social cosmology.

Social constructionism has assumed the major explanatory role in these discussions by positing that the meanings of these supposedly ascribed statuses are in fact situationally dependent on the sort of social context in which we employ them. That is, race, class, and gender aren't just objective scientific facts, but dynamic processes of culturally constructing cues for moral behavior (for which one can be held personally accountable) in a particular circumstance. It is these constantly occurring processes, not some divinely decreed grand plan, which reproduces social structure. Individuals "do difference" when they acknowledge (knowingly or unknowingly) how their categorization renders them socially accountable to acting in a particular way in a situation. However, when individuals recalibrate "doing difference" to produce alternative ways to conceptualize interaction patterns, it amounts to social change.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b c Accounting for Doing Gender, by Candace West and Don H. Zimmerman. doi: 10.1177/0891243208326529. Gender & Society, February 2009, vol. 23, no. 1, 112-122.
  2. ^ a b "Doing Gender" as Canon or Agenda: A Symposium on West and Zimmerman, by Nancy C. Jurik and Cynthia Siemsen. doi: 10.1177/0891243208326677. Gender & Society, February 2009, vol. 23, no. 1, 72-75.
  3. ^ a b c d Doing Gender, by Candace West and Don H. Zimmerman. doi: 10.1177/0891243287001002002. Gender & Society, June 1987 vol. 1, no. 2, 125-151.
  4. ^ a b The Figure of the Transwoman of Color Through the Lens of “Doing Gender,” by Salvador Vidal-Ortiz. doi: 10.1177/0891243208326461. Gender & Society, February 2009 vol. 23, no. 1, 99-103.
  5. ^ Undoing Gender, by Francine M. Deutsch. doi: 10.1177/0891243206293577. Gender & Society, February 2007, vol. 21, no. 1, 106-127.
  6. ^ Doing, Undoing, or Redoing Gender? : Learning from the Workplace Experiences of Transpeople, by Catherine Connell. doi: 10.1177/0891243209356429. Gender & Society, February 2010, vol. 24, no. 1, 31-55.
  7. ^ Categories Are Not Enough, by Dorothy E. Smith. doi: 10.1177/0891243208327081. Gender & Society, February 2009, vol. 23, no. 1, 76-80.
  8. ^ From Doing to Undoing: Gender as We Know It, by Barbara J. Risman. doi: 10.1177/0891243208326874. Gender & Society, February 2009, vol. 23, no. 1 81-84.
  9. ^ "Doing Gender": The Impact and Future of a Salient Sociological Concept, by James W. Messerschmidt. doi: 10.1177/0891243208326253. Gender & Society, February 2009, vol. 23, no. 1, 85-88.
  10. ^ "I was Aggressive for the Streets, Pretty for the Pictures": Gender, Difference, and the Inner-City Girl, by Nikki Jones. doi: 10.1177/0891243208326676. Gender & Society, February 2009, vol. 23, no. 1, 89-93.
  11. ^ Doing Gender: A Conversation Analytic Perspective, by Celia Kitzinger. doi: 10.1177/0891243208326730. Gender & Society, February 2009, vol. 23, no. 1, 94-98.
  12. ^ Accountable Conduct: “Doing Gender” in Transsexual and Political Retrospect, by Raewyn Connell. doi: 10.1177/0891243208327175. Gender & Society, February 2009, vol. 23, no. 1, 104-111.
  13. ^ "Gender & Society, Vol. 23, No. 1, 112-122 (2009)". Retrieved 2013-11-02. 
  14. ^ presented in 1977
  15. ^ "Gender and Society". 1987-06-01. Retrieved 2013-11-02. 

Further reading[edit]

  • Bruni, Attila; Silvia Gherardi and Barbara Poggio (July 2004). "Doing gender, doing entrepreneurship: An ethnographic account of intertwined practices". Gender, Work & Organization 11 (4): 406–429. doi:10.1111/j.1468-0432.2004.00240.x. 
  • Dryden, Caroline (1999). Being Married, Doing Gender: A Critical Analysis of Gender Relationships in Marriage. London and New York: Routledge. ISBN 041516558X. 
  • Eckert, Penelope; McConnell-Ginet, Sally (2003). Language and Gender. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. ISBN 0521654262. 
  • McDowell, Linda (1992). "Doing gender: Feminism, feminists and research methods in human geography". Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers 17 (4): 399–416. doi:10.2307/622707. 
  • Prince Cooke, Lynn (September 2006). "'Doing' gender in context: household bargaining and risk of divorce in Germany and the United States". American Journal of Sociology 112 (2): 442–472. doi:10.1086/506417. 
  • Simpson, Sally S.; Elis, Lori (1995). "Doing gender: Sorting out the caste and crime conundrum". Criminology 33: 47–81. doi:10.1111/j.1745-9125.1995.tb01171.x. 
  • Williams, Clare (2000). "Doing health, doing gender: teenagers, diabetes and asthma". Social Science & Medicine 50 (3): 387–396. doi:10.1016/s0277-9536(99)00340-8. 
  • Google scholar references on Doing Difference