Social construction of gender difference
||It has been suggested that Gender performativity and Doing gender be merged into this article. (Discuss) Proposed since November 2012.|
The idea that gender difference is socially constructed is a view present in many philosophical and sociological theories about gender. According to this view, society and culture create gender roles, and these roles are prescribed as ideal or appropriate behaviour for a person of that specific gender. Stronger versions argue that the differences in behavior between men and women are entirely social conventions, whereas weaker versions believe that behaviour is defined by biological universal factors to some extent, but that social conventions also have some effect on gendered behaviour. Other theories claim that there are more genders than just the two most commonly accepted (male and female).
- 1 Basic concepts
- 2 Applications of gender performance
- 3 Social construction of gender during development
- 4 Research methods
- 5 Promoting social change and criticisms
- 6 See also
- 7 References
The roots of the social constructionist movement in psychology are related to the criticism of the objectivism assumed by positivist/empiricist concepts of knowledge (Gergen, 1985). Among the most popular variations of the social constructionist theories is the gender role theory, considered by Alsop, Fitzsimmons and Lennon (2002) as an early form of social constructionism. The focus on power and hierarchy reveals inspiration stemming from a Marxist framework, utilized for instance by materialist feminism, and Foucault’s writings on discourse. Social constructionism, briefly, is the concept that there are many things that people “know” or take to be “reality” that are at least partially, if not completely, socially situated. For example, Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker writes that "some categories really are social constructions: they exist only because people tacitly agree to act as if they exist. Examples include money, tenure, citizenship, decorations for bravery, and the presidency of the United States."
The basic assumptions of social constructionism, as described by Marecek, Crawford & Popp, are:
- (1) Social constructionism is a theory of knowledge. Social Constructionism focuses on how meaning is created. Emerging from the criticism of Objectivity, Social Constructionism challenges concepts of knowledge put forward by Positivism, which postulates the externality of reality and that empirically-proved truths are mind-independent. According to Marecek, Crawford & Popp knowledge is an "account of reality produced collaboratively by a community of knowers" Thus, Social Constructionism focuses on how meaning is created.
- (2) Knowledge is a social product. According to Marecek, Crawford & Popp knowledge is an "account of reality produced collaboratively by a community of knowers". Thus, social constructionists focus on how meaning is created and suggest that knowledge is not only a social product, but a product of a specifically situated society; various accounts of reality depend on place and time – in order to study knowledge as a social product, one has to historicize and contextualize the given description of reality.
- (3) Power and hierarchy underlie social construction. This focus results in showing how individuals differ in status, entitlement, efficacy, self-respect and other traits based on the kind of interactions one is involved in and subjected to.
- (4) Language is at the core of knowledge. Language is considered the building block of culture; it conveys meaning and creates the system of knowledge we participate in. Ultimately, language has a huge influence on how we perceive reality and, as a result, is the creator of this reality.
- (5) Social construction is a dynamic process. Social constructionists emphasize the complexity of how knowledge is created in social interactions. Knowledge and meanings are not stable or constant; they are co-constructed in interactions with others, negotiated, modified and shifted. People are active in their perception, understanding and sharing of knowledge acquired from their social milieu. It is prudent therefore to consider this process when explaining the social construction of knowledge, including knowledge concerning gender.
- (6) The individual and society are indissoluble. Social constructionists question the Western idea of an autonomous individual who can draw a clear line between the self and the society. According to social constructionism, individuals can create meaning only in relation to what they are exposed to in their environment. Paradoxically, the same individuals co-create the meanings that are available in this environment. Marecek et al. conclude therefore that the society and the individual are indissoluble and mutually constitutive.
Alsop, Fitzsimmons & Lennon also note that the constructionist accounts of gender creation can be divided into two main streams:
- Materialist theories, which underline the structural aspects of the social environment that are responsible for perpetuating certain gender roles;
- Discursive theories, which stress the creation, through language and culture, of meanings that are associated with gender.
They also argue that both the materialist and discursive theories of social construction of gender can be either essentialist or non-essentialist. This means that some of these theories assume a clear biological division between women and men when considering the social creation of masculinity and femininity, while other contest the assumption of the biological division between the sexes as independent of social construction.
Gender, according to West and Zimmerman, is not a personal trait; it is “an emergent feature of social situations: both as an outcome of and a rationale for various social arrangements, and as a means of legitimating one of the most fundamental divisions of society.” (West & Zimmerman, 1977, p. 126) Historically, the term gender was adopted as means of distinguishing between biological sex and socialized aspects of femininity and masculinity. Moreover, gender was considered achieved and more or less stable after it is acquired in early childhood. Contemporary constructionist perspective, as proposed by Fenstermaker and West, proposes treating gender as an activity (“doing”) of utilizing normative prescriptions and beliefs about sex categories based on situational variables. These “gender activities” constitute our belonging to a sex as based on the socially accepted dichotomy of “women” and “men”. It is noted, however, that these activities are not always perceived (by the audience) as being either “masculine” or “feminine”, they are at constant risk of being assessed as more or less “womanly” or “manly”; ultimately, any behavior may be judged based upon its “manly” or “womanly” nature. “Doing gender” is in fact based on these interactions that are constituted of ongoing assessments in various situations. This in turn points to the situational nature of gender rather than its inherent, essentialist and individual nature.
Gender identity and sexuality/sexual orientation
Gender identity is not a stable, fixed trait - rather, it is socially constructed and may vary over time for an individual . Simone de Beauvoir’s quote, "one is not born a woman, but becomes one" is applicable here.[clarification needed] The notion of womanhood or femininity is accomplished through an active process of creating gender through interacting with others in a particular social context. Society typically only recognizes two genders. Therefore, when transsexuals want to have a sex change operation, they must prove that they can "pass" as a man or woman - so even the choice of changing one’s gender is socially constructed . The fact that these individuals want to be one sex or the other speaks to the “'essentialness'" of our sexual natures as woman or as men"[clarification needed]
Diamond and Butterworth show how gender identity and sexual identity are fluid and do not always fall into two essentialist categories (man or woman and gay or straight) through their interviews with sexual minority women over the course of ten years. One woman had a relatively normal early childhood but around adolescence questioned her sexuality and remained stable in her gender and sexual identity until she started working with men and assumed a masculine “stance” and started to question her gender identity. When ‘she’ became a ‘he’ he began to find men attractive and gradually identified as homosexual as a man.
The perception of sexuality by others is an extension of others’ perceptions of one’s gender. Heterosexuality is assumed for those individuals who appear to act appropriately masculine or appropriately feminine. If one wants to be perceived as a lesbian, one must first be perceived as a woman; if one wants to be seen as a gay man, one has to be seen as a man.
Core gender identity
The sense of one’s gender identity is acquired through the internalization of external knowledge. However, it is in fact never fully acquired – it has to be constantly performed and reenacted in social interactions. According to Alsop, Fitzsimmons & Lennon (2002, p. 86), “Gender is part of an identity woven from a complex and specific social whole, and requiring very specific and local readings”. Thus, gender identity can be defined as part of socially situated understanding of gender. LaFrance, Paluck and Brescoll note that as a term, “gender identity” serves a specific function. It allows individuals to express their attitude towards and stance in relation to their current status as either women or men. Turning the scope of gender from a social consensus to objectivity to one’s self-identification with a certain gender expression leaves much more space for describing variation among individuals.
Intersections of gender identity with other identities
The way gender is constructed for an individual depends on gendered interactions the individual has with others as well as other identities or roles he or she may have. Gender, race, class, and other oppressions are all potential omnirelevant categories, though they are not ALL identically salient in every set of social relationships in which inequality is done.[clarification needed] Multiple oppressions are not seen as having “additive” or “multiplicative” effects but are seen as simultaneously depending on each other to create a unique form of oppression. Although West and Fenstermaker do not elaborate on exactly how intersectionality can be incorporated into social constructionist theory, they do say that intersecting social identities are constant “interactional accomplishments” (p. 96).
While men and women are held accountable for normative conceptions of gender, this accountability can differ in content based on ethnicity, race, age, class, etc. Hurtado argues that white woman and women of color experience gender differently because of their relationship to white men and that both groups of women are used to substantiate male power in different ways. Women of color are subordinated through rejection, or denial of the “patriarchal invitation to privilege”. White men see women of color as workers and objects of sexual aggression; this allows the men to display power and sexual aggression without the emotional attachment that they have with white women. White women are accountable for their gendered display as subservient to white men while women of color are held accountable for their gendered performance as sexual objects and as wikt:recalcitrant and wikt:bawdy women in relations with white men. West and Fenstermaker conclude that doing gender involves different versions of accountability, depending on women’s “relational position” to white men.
Gender as accomplishment
Gender, according to West and Zimmerman, is not simply what one is, but what one does - it is actively produced within social interactions. Gender is an accomplishment : “the activity of managing situated conduct in light of normative conceptions of attitudes and activities appropriate for one’s sex category”. People do not have to be in mixed gender groups or in groups at all for the performance of gender to occur; the production of gender occurs with others and is even performed alone, in the imagined presence of others. “Doing” gender is not just about conforming to stereotypical gender roles - it is the active engagement in any behavior that is gendered, or behavior that may be evaluated as gendered.
The performance of gender varies given the context: time, space, social interaction, etc. The enactment of gender roles is context dependent - roles are “situated identities” instead of “master identities”. The sociology of knowledge must first of all concern itself with what people “know” as “reality” in their everyday, non- or pre-theoretical lives. In other words, individual perceptions of “knowledge” or reality...must be the central focus.”.
These performances normalize the essentialism of sex categories. In other words, by doing gender, we reinforce the essential categories of gender - that there are only two categories that are mutually exclusive. The idea that men and women are essentially different is what makes men and women behave in ways that appear essentially different. Though sex categorization is based on biological sex, it is maintained as a category through socially constructed displays of gender (for example, you could identify a transgender person as female when in fact she is biologically male).
Institutions also create normative conceptions of gender. In other words, gender is simultaneously created and maintained - “both a process and a product, medium and outcome of such power relations”. In his examination of blue and white-collar workers, Mumby  argued that hegemonic or dominant masculinity provides a standard of acceptable behavior for men, and at the same time, is the product of men’s behavior. This can be said for constructions of any identity in certain contexts (e.g. femininity, race, Black femininity, etc.).
We hold ourselves and each other accountable for our presentations of gender (how we ‘measure up’). We are aware that others may evaluate and characterize our behavior. This is an interactional process (not just an individual one). Social constructionism asserts that gender is a category that people evaluate is omnirelevant to social life. Gender as omnirelevant means that we can always be judged by what we do as a man or as a woman. This is the basis for the reasoning that people are always performing gender and that gender is always relevant in social situations.
Accountability can apply to behaviors that do conform to cultural conceptions as well as those behaviors that deviate - it is the possibility of being held accountable that is important in social constructionism. For example, Stobbe examined the rationale that people gave for why there were small numbers of women in the auto industry. Men cited the idea that such dirty work was unsuitable for women and women were unable to train because of family duties. Stobbe argues that the male workers created a machisimo masculinity to distinguish themselves from women who might have been qualified to work in the auto shop. Women who do work in male-dominated professions have to carefully maintain and simultaneously balance their femininity and professional credibility (e.g.)
Even though gender seems more salient in some situations - for instance, when a woman enters a male-dominated profession - gender categories also become salient in contexts in which gender is less obvious. For instance, gender is maintained before the woman enters the male-dominated group through conceptions of masculinity
Race, class, and other oppressions can also be omnirelevant categories, though they are not ALL identically salient in every set of social relationships in which inequality is done. We have preconceived notions about what particular racial groups look like (although there is no biological component to this categorization). Accountability is interactional because it does not occur solely within the individual. It is also institutional because individuals may be held accountable for their behaviors by institutions or by others in social situations, as a member of any social group (gender, race, class, etc.;). This notion of accountability makes gender dynamic because what is considered appropriate behavior for women and women changes and is reproduced over time and is reproduced differently depending on context. Gender is created in different ways among uneducated and educated African Americans.
Sex is a distinction based on biological criteria used to distinguish males from females.
Sex category is applied to a person in everyday life through commonly recognized cues that are not necessarily fulfilling biological criteria of sex.
Applications of gender performance
Division of labor
Coltrane studied heterosexual, White, and dual-earner couples who either shared parenting tasks equally or shared parenting tasks less equally. For both groups, perceptions of how the parenting was gendered shaped their reasoning behind the allocation of parenting tasks. For instance, shared parenting couples believed that men and women were just as capable parents while unequally shared parenting couples believed that there were innate gender differences in the ability to nurture. Their discussions of parenting arrangements centered around normative conceptions of gender/ “the essential womanly nature of child care” [clarification needed]
Judith Lorber argues that sex and gender are not pure categories; while they are different physiologically they are “transformed by social practices to fit into the salient categories of a society, the most pervasive of which are ‘female’ and ‘male’”.
Lorber cites different rules and values for the opposing genders in the same sport (e.g. basketball, gymnastics). Some claim that sports are constructed on the basis of men’s physical abilities - they construct “men’s bodies to be powerful and women’s bodies to be sexual”[weasel words]. George shows how women “do” gender in subtle ways through bodily displays- women developed muscle but not “too much" so as not to look “too masculine”.
According to Gergen, language “creates the world and frames the truths that can be told,” therefore language can be analyzed to uncover how categories are socially constructed. West and Zimmerman discuss how, when men and women interact, they reinforce essential gender differences and therefore maintain a power differential.[clarification needed] Men dictate what gets talked about and by whom.[dubious ] In other words, what is considered important in the conversation is constructed by men who direct conversations and the women who accept this reality.[dubious ]
Hochschild demonstrated that female flight attendants embodied (and performed) White, middle-class conceptions of femininity through their emotional labor - they allay fears of passengers and played ‘hostess’ to make passengers as comfortable as possible during the flight. Not only are the women performing essential femininity but the airline itself, on the corporate level, produces gender as well. Advertisements for airlines that include a smiling female flight attendant with a slogan like “we move our tails for you” profit from making a business out of gender construction.
Social construction of gender during development
In high schools, gender- based harassment serves as a form of gender boundary policing. Girls are expected to conform to stereotypical gendered appearances, as are boys. Both male and female students regularly take part in policing gender boundaries through bullying. Male students frequently harass male and female students, while female students generally only harass other female students. The practice of male students bullying other male students is explicitly linked to machismo that boys are expected to subscribe to in order to be constructed and related to as ‘normal’ boys. Many girls report that boys tease and ridicule them on the basis of their appearance, which is linked to boys asserting masculine power through sexist practices of denigrating girls. This also serves to perpetuate the idea that appearance is a female’s most important asset. The way in which girls harass other girls is through gossiping, instead of confronting the other girls directly. Unique appearances and attempts to stand out among girls are regarded very negatively. This type of female on female bullying sets the standard for appearance norms and the importance of appearance for females. Overall, gender-based harassment serves to define and enforce gender boundaries of high school students by high school students.
Adolescents view of adulthood
Gender is a cultural construction which creates an environment where an adolescent’s performance in high school is related to their life goals and expectations. Because most young women know they want to be mothers and wives, the choice of professions and future goals can be inherently flawed by the gender constraints. Because a girl may want to be a mother later her academics in High school can create clear gender difference because “higher occupational expectations, educational expectations, and academic grades were more strongly associated with the expected age of parenthood for girls than for boys”. With “young women recognizing potential conflicts between the demands of work and family” they will not try as hard in high school allowing males to achieve higher academic achievement then girls. Crocket and Beal in their article The Life Course in the Making: Gender and the Development of Adolescents “gender differences in the anticipated timing of future role transitions, the impact of expectations and values on these expected timings, and the extent to which expectations foreshadow actual behavior”. The actions of a youth in high school greatly impact the choices the individual will have over a lifetime. Women especially are constrained in the way they view their adulthood even at a young age because of motherhood.
Adolescents view on adulthood is also determined by their employment in high school. Many boys work during high school who “unlike young women, young men who had not worked during high school did not quite match their peers”. Because many other boys are working men who don’t work may not be as successful after graduation. In the book Working and Growing Up in America By Jeylan T. Mortimer explains “youth who work during high school, and those who devote more hours to work, are more vocationally successful after leaving high school. This creates a distinct gender difference in which men are more likely to be employed after high school then women if they have worked during high school. This could also have an adverse effect on males because working to much in high school can cause an increase in dropout rates. This means women may be at an academic advantage if they do not work in high school and focus on school work.
High school continues to become more high pressure environment with academic and social riggers increasing the expectations of adolescents. High school is a large transitional period for teenagers causing them to “cope with these various transitions in different ways; some negotiate the passages easily whereas others develop serious behavioral and psychological problems”. One of these psychological problems is depression. While the environment of high school can be stressful biological functions also play a large role is psychological well-being. Negriff and Susman explain in their article Pubertal Timing, Depression, and Externalizing Problems “the same hormones that increase during puberty are also related to depression and aggressive tendencies. Higher levels of testosterone are associated with increased aggression in boys and girls, whereas higher estrogen for girls is associated with increased depressive symptoms”. The gender difference may not just be the cultural expectations in high school, but rather a biological function of the sex we are born with. While hormones have been linked to depression self-esteem has also been linked to high school student’s depression. One study done by James Battle in 1980 took 26 student ages 15–18 showed a correlation between depression and self-esteem. In the 80’s research had not looked past adults and Battle’s research was some of the first of its kind which showed a direct correlation between self-esteem and depression.Self-esteem is not a product of our biology but rather is culturally constructed. Girls in high school also tend to have lower self-esteem due to body image. With depression and self-esteem being so closely linked the potential for having the disease can result in an educational experience which can be compromised. Depression can be isolating and without proper academics and social support high school can be challenging. Along with higher rates of self-esteem issues in adolescent’s girls can more adversely affect their academics and social life in high school.
High school is a major transitional period for girls and boys as their body’s transition into men and women. The end of high school is usually marked by the turning of 18 years old a major milestone in an individual’s life. Boys and girls go through this transformation within high school where each gender faces body satisfaction differently. There are many different factors which affect body image “including sex, media, parental relationship, and puberty as well as weight and popularity. The intersectionality of these factor cause unique experiences for adolescents during this period within their lives. As their body changes so are the environment in which they live in. Body image is closely linked to psychological well-being during adolescence and can cause harmful effects when a child has body dissatisfaction. Helen Winfield in her article Body Image and Psychological Well-Being in Adolescents: The Relationship between Gender and School Type explains an adolescences high school experience is closely linked to their perceived body image. She analyzed over 336 teenagers and found “ratings of physical attractiveness and body image remain relatively stable across the early teenage years, but become increasingly negative around age 15–18 years because of pubertal changes”. This shift during the high school years can cause serious psychological problems for adolescence. These psychological problems can manifest as bulimia and anorexia causing serious lifelong problems. These body image issues are especially prevalent in girls but as boys enter puberty expectations of height and muscle mass change as well. Geoffrey H. Cohane, Harrison G. Pope Jr. in their article Body image in boys: A review of the literature argues “girls typically wanted to be thinner, boys frequently wanted to be bigger”. This clearly shows the gender difference in body image cause different beauty ideals. An adolescent’s gender affects their body image and their high school experience.
The social construction of gender in high schools has shaped the ways in which male and female students are believed to perform in various subjects, such as math, science, and literature. In the past, gender has been used to define the potential of students in areas of qualitative and quantitative subjects.[dubious ] It was traditionally thought that male students were naturally better at quantitative subjects, such as math and science; female students were considered to be better at qualitative subjects, such as literature, writing, and art. Now it is known that that, while on average boys and girls perform similarly in math, boys are overrepresented among the very best performers as well as among the very worst. According to the 1994 report "Intelligence: Knowns and Unknowns" by the American Psychological Association, "Most standard tests of intelligence have been constructed so that there are no overall score differences between females and males." Differences have been found, however, in specific areas such as mathematics and verbal measures. It has also been stated that teachers have found that when certain types of teaching, such as experiments that reflect daily life, works for girls, it generally works for boys too . “Since there are no innate or essential intelligence differences in our society, the explanations must be social and cultural.[dubious ] More specifically, they must be tied to how gender, as a social process, is lived, experienced, prescribed, and enforced in our society” [opinion] Overall, sex differences tend to be smaller than most other demographic differences. [clarification needed] The results of the 1992 NAEP 12th grade science tests, on a 500 point scale, show that the differences of scores between white and African American students were around 48 points and differences between male and female students were around 11 points. This is evidence that gender does not play as large of a role in academic performance as race and class.[clarification needed]
Inclusiveness and acceptance play significant roles in social constructionist practice – examples include sharing work with others in a cooperative manner, including a diverse sample, being open to other interpretations of data, and blurring the lines between scientific research, participatory research and social activism. The blurring of scientific research also means incorporating other disciplines into psychological work (e.g. performative psychology includes artistic expression or humor) and thinking in terms that go beyond traditional scientific language. These methods are not currently valued in psychology because they are not seen as “scientific.”
A social constructionist psychologist can make it explicit that his or her perspective is not universally true in all contexts across historical periods. Social constructionists recognize that every researcher has an opinion and is biased in some way. They acknowledge that their own views and findings/results of a study are open to deconstructive critique – no grand truth can be found because everything is context-specific and has potential to change across time periods and different situations. Related to this is the idea that social constructionists must constantly question their own work because their work can be constantly reinterpreted and have different meanings at different times
Doing gender also means (men) doing dominance and (women) doing submissiveness and it reinforces the essentialism of gender categories. In order for subordination to go unquestioned, the structure must not appear as a cultural product - it must seem natural. Social movements can challenge the categories that appear “natural.” Certain legislation can promote equality for men and women, which could question whether there need to be two categories of gender at all (if both are treated equally). Social change relies on an understanding of how inequality is rooted in gender accomplishment.
Throughout the history, women have been fighting for their rights regarding various issues. One of the most significant revolutions in this century is the Feminist movement. The first wave which began in 1854 was a fight for women's rights to education and to voting by the Suffragettes. What the women want to change through the revolutions, it is not only about fighting for their rights, it is more essentially about earning recognition and respect from the general public acknowledging the fact that they are not inferior than men and thus deserving to be treated equally and granted fair opportunities.
Criticism and opportunities to "undo" gender
Because the theory says that one can “do” gender whether he or she conforms to gender norms or not (we are always held accountable for behaving in accordance with gender norms), change seems impossible. If resisting and conforming to gender norms does not prevent us from “doing” gender, how would we “undo” gender? In addition, if essential differences between the sexes are problematic, a society where gender is omnirelevant could be argued to always uphold gender inequality. The language of “doing” gender implies doing difference instead of unraveling it. Most studies that rely on social constructionism explore the ways in which gender is constructed but nevertheless demonstrate how those gender constructions uphold gender as a construct and gender inequality.
However, because gender is “done” or constructed, it can also be “undone” or deconstructed. Researchers need to focus more on the variations in gender inequality that exist across societies, over time, and even within a society. 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.
Nurture versus nature
Theories that imply that gendered behavior is totally or mostly due to social conventions and culture fall into the nurture end of the Nature versus nurture debate. Much empirical research has been done on to what extent gendered behavior stems from biological factors. For more information on such research see Gender role#Anthropology and evolution
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