Social Construction of Gender
The social construction of gender is a central feature of contemporary gender studies within sociology as well as within other social science and humanities fields. The term and attendant theories assert that the behaviors, beliefs, embodied identities, and the experiences of men and women are not the product of innate biology. Instead, processes of socialization based on the norms, values, and social structures within a particular social context shape individuals. As an elaboration of the metatheory of social constructionism, arguments about the social construction of gender emerged as part of the feminist critiques of sexism and phallocentrism within the lives and social roles of individuals, in scientific knowledge creation, and in society at large. Since then, the theories and methodological practices that rely on an understanding of gender as socially constructed have been integrated throughout most fields of social and scientific study. Within the field of education, theoretical and empirical attention has focused on whether and how education as an agent of socialization participates in the construction and reproduction of gendered citizens and gender stratification.
This entry begins with a discussion of the concept of social constructionism as opposed to essentialism and how these two discourses have produced different narratives regarding sex and gender. The entry continues with an explanation of the differences between sex and gender as categories and the limits of notions of biology and nature in regard to an understanding of human gender expression. The entry concludes with reflections on education as a site for the normalization of gender conformity and the critiques of this model presented by scholars and activists, particularly those from the transgender communities.
Social constructionism developed in the 1960s in opposition to the taken-for-granted, essentialist approaches that dominated scientific and social scientific study. Tied to assumptions of materialist reality that are integral to positivism, essentialism assumes that all things (including types of human beings) have intrinsic, unchangeable properties. To know what type of thing an entity is, is to know what that thing is like and not like, how it behaves, and how it will respond to stimuli, according to essentialism. This metatheory has historically attributed the nature of human beings to a number of forces including a god or gods, to nature, or in the case of modern science, to biology and more specifically to genes and genetic imperatives.
Within the social sciences, essentialism manifested as the search for biological bases for individual, interpersonal, and societal practices and patterns of inequality. Historically, this meant looking for explanations of criminality within facial features and measurements (phrenology), substantiating racial inequality in polygenism (that humans are descended from different, unequal genetic lines), and gender roles in “natural law.” More contemporarily, differences between men and women have been explained by the effects of hormones on brain structure and function, or on natural, physiological difference. Explanations for educational inequalities between boys and girls, for example, argued that boys had a genetic predisposition for math and science and this accounted for differences in test scores and educational outcomes. Research, however, has documented that little difference actually exists in mathematics testing between genders, whereas social stereotypes and interpersonal dynamics within the classroom continue to influence girls’ performance.
Whereas essentialism is rooted in the fixed universal characteristics of things, social constructionism claims that what we as individuals “know” to be true and real is shaped by the material and ideological context that we live within. Although essentialism suggests that the real and true nature of things (or people) is always already present and simply needs to be uncovered, social constructionism suggests that things (or people) are placed within systems of classification and attributed meaning based on the available framework within a specific social context. That is, reality is crafted through language systems and everyday interaction within social institutions. As individuals navigate the social world, their behaviors and beliefs are molded by the established language, patterns, and processes available for accomplishing tasks and making sense of the world. These established patterns and processes constitute social institutions (such as work, politics, religion, family, and education) and are, in turn, supported and perpetuated through their repetition and enactment. The result is that social norms and institutions in each society shape individuals’ bodies and selves, social interactions, and reality. Patterned differences between societies, cultures, and people are therefore the product of social and cultural rather than innate difference.
As a metatheory, social constructionism encompasses a range of theoretical and methodological approaches that share several epistemological premises. First, social constructionism asserts that the meaning and nature of things is not fixed but rather based on social meaning-making processes. Second, the metatheory assumes that reality is continually constructed, reconstructed, and transformed through meaning-making processes. How ever, knowledge systems are persistent and not easily transformed; social forces work to maintain socially constructed facts. Finally, social constructionism argues that the features of reality may be socially constructed, but they have concrete effects on the lives and experiences of individuals. The many varieties of social constructionist theories vary in the degree to which they accept any intrinsic character for objects or people. On one extreme, objects are constructed wholly through ideas; on the other, historical and cultural meaning is laid atop a fixed reality. Similarly, constructionist theories have been employed for the making of both progressive and conservative social and political claims.
Built on symbolic interactionist theories, Peter Berger and Thomas Luckmann’s 1966 book The Social Construction of Reality was the first effort to articulate this metatheoretical approach. The book laid out the social processes by which individuals and societies come to make sense of the world around them. More notably, Berger and Luckmann highlighted how society is both the product of human interaction and meaning- making, and experienced as real and influential in the lives of individuals. The implication of social constructionism on gender theorizing was profound. A social constructionist perspective asserted that differences between men and women were the product of power relations rather than some inborn difference of physiology or subjectivity.
Gender as Distinct from Sex
Though gender has historically held only grammatical significance as a concept, it came into usage in the mid-19th century as part of an effort to distinguish the social status of men and women, from the reproductive and somatic features of male and female sex. The separation of sex and gender had its roots in early feminist thinking. A number of 19th- and early-20th-century writers such as Mary Wollstonecraft and Simone de Beauvoir argued that the body was not destiny, or at least not the origin of inequality between men and women. They endeavored to explain the public and private subordination of women as the product of cultural rather than biological forces.
Building on these foremothers, feminist movements of the 1970s extended this critique, asserting that cultural beliefs about women were inherently unequal (i.e., sexist) and provided the foundation for discrimination and misogyny. The most significant of these early texts was Gender: An Ethno-methodological Approach, by Suzanne Kessler and Wendy McKenna. This book was the first comprehensive effort to chart the relationship between sex and gender and substantiate the claim that gender was not the social manifestation of biological reality. Instead, Kessler and McKenna argued that gender was a set of social norms and beliefs internalized by individuals and varied over time and across cultures. Building on this early work, activists and scholars pointed to women’s subordination in all aspect of society and epistemology and charted the cultural beliefs about women’s emotionality, domesticity, dependence, and fragility used to justify and naturalize this stratification. Feminism demanded changes in social norms and gender ideologies, asserting that inequality could be and must be eliminated through the social construction of more egalitarian gender roles for men and women.
The distinction between sex and gender has taken hold within many social scientific fields but remains only modestly observed in other fields of study or arenas of social life. Instead, sex and gender are often used interchangeably or assumed to flow directly from one to the other, wherein each sex produces one and only one gender. To further complicate usage, there is often conceptual conflation with sexuality (desire and identity) such that nonconformity to gender norms in society is assumed to be a marker of nonheterosexual sexual identities and desires. Despite these challenges, gender has taken hold within sociological theorizing and as a key part of the growth of social constructionist theories in general. By framing gender as a set of sociocultural roles and norms used to differentiate men and women, theorists are able to unbraid sex, gender, and sexuality and draw attention to the distinct but mutually constitutive relationships between these three aspects of the personal and social self. Although there are many definitions of gender, unifying them all is the assertion that the characteristics of men and women are socially constructed and not biologically determined. Thus, the term gender itself, at least within feminist sociological traditions, assumes social constructionism. The social construction of gender is positioned in opposition to a gender essentialist or determinist perspective that assumes men and women (and the differences between them) are the natural, innate, and biological manifestations of genetics.
Building on Kessler and McKenna’s 1978 treatise, theorists such as Judith Lorber, Candace West, and Don Zimmerman have elaborated how gender is socially constructed and constituted in interaction. West and Zimmerman extended Kessler and McKenna’s ethnomethodological approach in their development of a theory of “doing gender” wherein gender is conceptualized as something that is actively produced through interaction and not as the intrinsic feature of individuals. Lorber’s book, Paradoxes of Gender, approached the social construction of gender from a more structural perspective, establishing how gender is constructed as two unequal social statuses. Persistent inequalities between men and women in all areas of social life, including in income, work, family, and politics, have been investigated from a social constructionist perspective. Unlike essentialist theories that often attribute gender inequalities to innate, biological, and psychological differences between men and women, social constructionist theories explain these inequalities as the dividends of unequal social norms and beliefs that shape the individual, interactional, and structural features of a society.
For many individuals, the everyday experience of gender is inconsequential. One’s position in the gender system, and the social norms and expectations aligned with this categorization, are so taken for granted that they feel inevitable. Experiential and status differences are explained away as natural outcomes of the biological traits of men and women, thus justifying and naturalizing individual and institutional inequalities between genders. According to the social construction of gender, however, both the taken-for-grantedness of gender and its production of inequality are the product of socialization—the internalization of social norms and beliefs about men, women, transgender individuals, and their differences.
Gender socialization begins before birth as parents pick a child’s name, design its nursery, and receive gifts. After children are born, their emotional and physical needs, likes and dislikes, and wants and desires are assumed, based on the social norms and expectations for their assigned gender. The ways in which parents, relatives, caretakers, and strangers interact with children are also based on these assumptions and when children express interests, desires, attitudes, or subjectivities that are out of line, negative sanctions reinforce the compulsory nature of gender. As children enter school, gender socialization broadens beyond family—gender difference is learned and reinforced through the explicit and hidden curriculum, institutional practices (such as separate bathrooms and the division of playground space), and interaction with peer groups.
Beginning in the 1970s, alongside the expansion of feminist scholarship within sociology as a whole, feminist education scholars turned an empirical lens toward understanding whether and how educational sites worked to maintain normative constructions of gender, as well as gender inequality. Some scholars have documented how educational choices by men and women are shaped by gendered cultural expectations, and internalized through processes of socialization. Alongside this scholarship, many feminist scholars have engaged in empirical study aimed at debunking essentialist theories of differences in men’s and women’s intellectual and educational strengths. Contrary to essentialist conceptualizations of men as innately logical and oriented toward math and science and women as innately emotional and oriented toward humanities and caretaking professions, many scholars have documented the existence of a “hidden curriculum” that transmits and polices hegemonic constructions of gender and gender relations.
The hidden curriculum passes on beliefs, values, and practices appropriate for boys/men and girls/women through classroom activities and practices (e.g., games of boys vs. girls), and examples used in the classroom and in textbooks, as well as in sanctioned practices on the playground, in the lunchroom, and after school. The social construction of gender also manifests in classroom dynamics themselves. For example, researchers have found through observation that boys are more often engaged by teachers in problem- solving tasks and tend to speak more often. As children age, girls speak less and less in classrooms. It is not coincidence that these patterns of individual and institutional behavior align with social norms about men and women; education as an agent of socialization transmits social norms and beliefs about gender to children, thus participating in the social construction of gender. Recent research shows that gender differences in a range of educational measures in the United States, including curricular tracking, degree completion, and testing, have shrunk substantially since the passage of Title IX in 1972, which prohibited discrimination on the basis of sex in U.S. public education. Unequal sex segregation persists, however. Simultaneously, race and class continue to intersect with gender to produce unequal outcomes for boys and girls within and across race and class categories.
The social construction of gender has been critiqued by both essentialist and feminist scholars. Pointing to the persistence of gender norms and inequalities, gender essentialists have argued that societal differences in experience and status are the product of evolutionary sex differentiation. On the other end of the spectrum, some feminist scholars have been apprehensive about the move to see gender—and more specifically women—as purely a social construction. Without a fixed category of people about which to theorize and organize, some feminists worry that a focus on structural inequality and sexism will disappear. Many have asked how to study women’s lives and experiences if the very category itself must be deconstructed. Most social scientists rely on modified social constructionist perspectives, which conceptualize gender as the product of both biological difference and social construction.
Current and Future Directions
Social constructionism continues to be a robust area of theorizing and scholarship. Three areas of theoretical development are most active currently. First, scholars in a diverse array of fields have asserted the social construction of sex as well as gender. Conventionally conceived as the biological reality of hormones, genitals, and chromosomes that make people male or female, sex had long been conceded to essentialism as the canvas on which gender was written. Building on the social construction of gender, however, recent scholarship has asserted that sex, too is socially constructed. Anne Fausto-Sterling has argued, for example, that sex is far more complex than the male–female binary. In her book Sexing the Body, Fausto-Sterling charts the myriad ways that the messiness of human bodies are constructed into two opposing sexes through the biomedical and narrative construction of difference. Gender refers to the socially constructed ways of being a man or woman in a given society, but sex is increasingly thought of as the socially constructed norms for male and female bodies. Just as gender is both a personal identity and a socially constructed status, sex is both an experience of embodiment and a socially constructed somatic binary.
Second, transgender advocacy and scholarship have questioned the basic tenet of the social construction of gender, that gender is wholly a social phenomenon. Although social construction dictates how individuals can be masculine or feminine, individuals’ sense of what gender they are is far more complex. Cisgender has come into parlance to describe individuals whose sex and gender align according to social expectations, while trans-gender is used to describe individuals who live in a gender different from that assigned to them at birth on the basis of sex. Transgender individuals and scholars have questioned how to validate individuals’ senses of self as men, women, or otherwise gendered persons, while taking social constructionism to heart. Theorists and scholars have challenged the societal assumption that all males will be men, and all females women, and have reasserted the idea that gender is both a personal sense of self and a social status.
Finally, performativity theories, such as that put forth by Judith Butler, have connected social constructionism with semiotic and post-structural theories to conceptualize the means through which language constitutes reality in general, and gender more specifically. Postmodernism asserts that reality is formed through “language games” and that knowledge regimes discipline human embodiment and subjectivity according to these social constructions. Although postmodern gender theory has taken hold more strongly within humanities and cultural studies disciplines, it has made inroads in the social sciences.
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