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Chapter 5

SOC275H5 Chapter Notes - Chapter 5: Midlife Crisis, Role Theory, Social Constructionism

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Hae Yeon Choo

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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)
are gendered.
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

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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

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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
also situational.
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
and femininity.
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
of colour.
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.
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