• In one of it most thoughtful definitions, sociology was described by C. Wright Mills as the
intersection of biography and history, its goal to locate an individual in both time and space
and understand the contexts in which a person constructs his or her identity.
• Sociology’s bedrock assumption, upon which its analyses of structures and institutions
rest, is that individual’s shape their lives within both historical and social contexts.
• We do not do so simply because we are biologically programmed to act in certain ways,
nor because we have inevitable human tasks to solve as we age.
• Rather, we respond to the world we encounter, shaping, modifying, and creating our
identities through those encounters with other people and within social institutions.
• Sociological perspectives on gender assume the variability of gendered identities that
anthropological research has explored, the biological “imperatives” toward gender identity
and differentiation, and the psychological imperatives toward autonomy and connection that
modern society requires of individuals in the modern world.
• To a sociologist, both our biographies (identities) and histories (evolving social structures)
• Like other social sciences, sociology begins with a critique of biological determinism,
examining variations among men and among women, as well as differences between them.
• The social sciences thus begin with the explicitly social origin of our patterns of
• Our lives depend on social interaction. Stories of isolated children (leading to damage or
death) suggest that biology alone (anatomic composition) doesn’t determine our
development as we might have thought.
• We need to interact, to be socialized, to be part of society. It is interaction, not our
bodies, that makes us who we are.
• When we say that gender identity is socially constructed, what we mean is that our identities
are a fluid assemblage of the meanings and behaviours that we construct from the values,
images, and prescriptions we find in the world around us.
• It’s the task of the sociological perspective to specify the ways in which our own
experiences, our interactions with others, and the institutions combine to shape our sense of
who we are.
• Biology provides the raw materials, whereas society and history provide the context, the
instruction manual that we follow to construct our identities.
A Social Constructionist Perspective
• We have identified four elements of a social constructionist perspective on gender.
• Definitions of masculinity and femininity vary, first, from culture to culture, and, second,
in any one cultural over historical time. Third, gender definitions also vary over the
course of a person’s life. Finally, definitions of masculinity and femininity will vary within any one culture at any one time - by race, class, ethnicity, age, sexuality, education,
region of the country, etc.
• Social constructionism thus adds specific dimensions to the exploration of gender.
• To explain difference, social constructionism offers an analysis of the plurality of gender
definitions; to explain power, it emphasizes the ways in which some definitions become
normative through the struggles of different groups of power - including the power to
• Finally, to explain the institutional dimension, social constructionism moves beyond
socialization of gendered individuals who occupy gender-neutral sites to the study of the
interplay between gendered individuals and gendered institutions.
Beyond Sex Role Theory
• Social psychologists located the process of acquisition of gender identity in the
developmental patterns of individuals in their families and in early childhood interaction.
• Specifically, sex roles theorists explored the ways in which individuals come to be gendered
and the ways in which they negotiate their way toward some sense of internal consistency
and coherence, despite contradictory role definitions.
• Sociologists have identified six significant problems with sex role theory - problems that
require its modification.
• First, the use of the idea of role has the curious effect of actually minimizing the
importance of gender.
• Role theory uses drama as a metaphor- we learn our roles through socialization and
then perform them for others. Gender “is not a role in the same sense that being a
teacher, sister, or friend is a role.”
• Gender, like race or age, is deeper, less changeable and infuses the more specific
roles one plays; thus a female teacher differs from a male teacher in important
sociological respects (e.g., she is likely to receive less pay, status, and credibility).
• To make gender a role like any other role is to diminish its power in structuring our
• Second, sex role theory posits singular normative definitions of masculinity and
• We cannot speak of masculinity or femininity as though each were a constant,
singular, universal essence.
• By positing this false universalism, sex role theory assumes what needs to be
explained - how the normative definition is established and reproduced - and explains
away all the differences among men and among women.
• Yet differences - race, class, ethnicity, sexuality, age, region - all inform, shape, and
modify our definitions of gender. Sex role theory cannot fully accommodate these
• Thus social constructionists speak of masculinities and femininities.
• Third, sociologists challenge sex role theory. Gender is not only plural, it is also
relational. But sex role theory posits two separate spheres, as if sex role differentiation
were more a matter of sorting a herd of cattle into two appropriate pens for branding.
• Surveys indicate that men construct their ideas of what it means to be men in constant reference to definitions of femininity.
• What it means to be a man is to be “notawoman”, as Robert McElvaine claims;
indeed, social psychologists have emphasized that although different groups of men
may disagree about other traits and their significance in gender definitions, the “anti-
femininity” component of masculinity is perhaps the dominant and universal
• Fourth, sex role theory ignores the fact that because gender is plural and relational, it is
• What it means to be a man or a woman varies in different contexts. Those
different institutional contexts demand and produce different forms of masculinity
• Gender is not a property of individuals, but rather a specific set of behaviours that
is produced is specific social situations. And thus gender changes as the situation
• The fifth and perhaps most significant problem in sex role theory is that it depolarizes
gender, making gender a set of individual attributes and not an aspect of social
• The notion of “role” focuses attention more on individuals than on social structure,
and implies that “the female role” and “the male role” are complementary (i.e.,
separate or different but equal); writes sociologist Judith Stacey and Barrie Thorne.
• Sex role theory’s inability to explore the relationship between gender and power leads to
the sixth and final problem - sex role theory is inadequate in comprehending the
dynamics of change.
• Movements for social change, like feminism or gay liberation, become movements to
expand role definitions, to change role expectations, and redistribute the power in
• They demand the reallocation of resources and an end to forms of inequality that are
embedded in social institutions as well as sex role stereotypes.
• We do not speak of “race roles”, as such an idea would be absurd, because: (1) the
differences within each race are far greater than the differences between races; (2)
what it means to be white or black is always constructed in relationship to the other;
(3) those definitions make no sense outside the context of the racially based power
that white people, as a group, maintain over people of colour, as a group.
• Movements for racial equality are about more than expanding role options for people
• Ultimately, to use role theory to explain race or gender is to blame the victim. If our
gendered behaviours “stem from fundamental personality differences, socialized early in
life, then responsibility must lie at our own feet”. -David Tresemer
• This is called the “Sambo theory of oppression” -R. Stephen Warner
• “The victims internalize the maladaptive set of values of the oppressive system. Thus
behaviour that appears incompetent, deferential, and self-degrading is assumed to
reflect the crippled capabilities of the personality.” -R. Stephen Warner
A Note About Power
• It is impossible to explain gender without adequately understanding power - not because
power is the consequence of gender difference, but rather because power is what produces
those gender differences in the first place. • To say that gender is a power relation - the power of men over women and the power of
some men or women over other men or women - is among the more controversial
arguments of the social constructionist perspective.
• Whereas other theories explain male domination as the result of sex differences, social
constructionism explains differences as the result of domination.
• Although men as a group may be in power, most individual men are not “in power”, and they
do not feel powerful.
• Like gender, power is not the property of individuals, but rather a property of group life, of
social life. Power is. It can neither be willed away or ignored.
• In addition to its focus on power, sociology adds three crucial dimensions to the study of
gender: (1) the life-course perspective, (2) a macro-level institutional analysis, and (3) a
microlevel interactionist approach.
Gender Through the Life Course
• Developmental psychologists have provided compelling evidence concerning the acquisition
of gender identity in early childhood.
• Through socialization, especially in families and schools, the basic elements of gender
identity are established, the foundation laid for future elaboration and expression.
• Gender identity may be fixed indelibly by puberty, which is marked by all the physical
changes that mark the full-fledged assumption of adult masculinity and femininity.
• Sociologists used to think that the three primary institutions of socialization were the family,
school, and church; the three primary bearers of their socializing message were parents,
teachers, and religious figures (priests, ministers, rabbis, imams, and the like). This model
has proved inaccurate for two reasons:
• First, it assumes that socialization is a smooth process that is accomplished by the end
of childhood, when family, school, and church have receded in significance in a person’s
• Second, it views the socialization process from the point of view of the socializer, not the
• Media and peer groups are, today, part of the pentagram of socializing institutions. They
do not recede after early childhood, where family, church, and school leave off.
• Some of the messages from peer groups and media reinforce what we’ve learned;
other messages directly contradict those earlier message. And it’s up to us to sort it
• Consider the staple of daytime self-help talk shows: the midlife crisis.
• In the 1970s, two best-selling books (Season’s of a Man’s Life and Passages)
popularized the belief that middle-aged men (and to a lesser extent, women) go through
a developmental “crisis” characterized by pressure to make wholesale changes in their
work, relationships, and leisure.
• Thirty years later, the mid-life crisis remains a popular concept, the subject of pop
psychology books and websites offering advice to people who struggle with the
symptoms of the “crisis”: depression, angst, irrational behaviour, and strong urges to seek out new partners.
• Careful research clearly demonstrates that this so-called crisis is not typical.
• Belief in mid-life crisis may partially hinge on what’s called “confirmation bias”, whereby a
single case or a few cases of the expected behaviour confirm the belief, especially when the
behaviour is attention-getting or widely reported.
• In other words, if we happen to know a man who spent the year after his 45th birthday
getting a divorce, dating a 22-year-old, buying a sports car and taking up skydiving, we
might believe in the mid-life crisis, even though we know a dozen other middle-aged
men who have done none of these things.
• On the other hand, the mid-life crisis may be so compelling because it feels right; in this
sense, it may simply ring true to many middle-aged people trying to find narrative
coherence in their lives and the world around them.
• There is increasing evidence that human happiness follows a U-shaped pattern, that is,
happiness is high in early life, declines to its lowest levels somewhere around the early 40s,
and then climbs to high levels again as we age.
• As the meaning of age varies by gender (aged men receive less stigmatization than do
aged women), so does the experience of aging. Women are far more likely to have
maintained close contract with family, friends, and colleagues and head into retirement with
a larger, more intact support system than men.
• With this support, women tend to be less isolated and lonely and are therefore more
likely to live longer.
• As the reference to difference in life expectancy shows, gender is just as salient at the end
of our lives as it was during them. However, the lifespan gap is decreasing.
• By 2040, women in Western nations will live to be about 100, and men will live to be
• The social effects of an aging population are many, and may include important implications
• The strength of the life course approach is that it permits us to understand that gender is
not simply a role, but a complex interplay among biology, id