Gender and Culture

The reproduction of our society’s sex gender system has been a continuing puzzle for sociologists of gender. The history of western writings on gender has long included ruminations on the role of culture in constituting gender difference and privilege (Wollstonecraft 1978; Mill 2003; and especially de Beauvoir 1993). Yet during the last 40 years of the sociology of gender, material characteristics – in particular, women’s position as paid and unpaid laborers – have received more attention than cultural factors (Hartmann 1980; Blum 1991). These findings have revealed large differences in the paid and unpaid work lives of men and women in our society, and they have led to a number of political reform movements and initiatives – Title IX, the comparable worth movement, lawsuits demanding equal pay for equal work – that have resulted in somewhat more equality in the workplace.



There seem to be limits to these efforts toward workplace equality between the genders, both at the highest levels, where the prototypical ‘‘glass ceiling’’ seems to prevent women from achieving the same levels of leadership afforded to men, and at the lower levels, where women continually seem to function as a ‘‘reserve’’ labor force, dropping in and out of full time paid labor according to the demands of their families (Callaghan & Hartmann 1991). Even a cursory examination of the beliefs and plans of current American college student women indicates that they expect to spend varying degrees of time out of the paid labor force caring for their children (Douglas 2004), a plan which demonstrably contributes to their continuing inequality in the workplace. Hays (1996) documents that a large portion of so called ‘‘stay at home moms’’ actually plan to head back into the labor force as soon as they are able.

These limits have led to a cultural turn of sorts in the field of the sociology of gender. Second wave feminism, influenced by Marxist materialist theory, has challenged the necessity and desirability of gendered social arrangements in both family and workplace. Despite the social movements the second wave has inspired, which have challenged these arrangements, and despite the fact that there is some evidence that they may be slowly changing, their overall persistence is indisputable and is one of the paradoxes of modern social science. In fact, some argue that there is a backlash against feminism which is stronger and more persistent than was second wave feminism itself. Sociologists of gender, long rooted in a materialist tradition that privileged phenomena related to occupational statuses and earning levels, have turned to culture to explain the persistence of gendered social arrangements in family and workplace.

This turn to culture is partly a result of the influence of new intellectual currents more generally in the social sciences. Poststructural ism, identified with the works of Derrida, Foucault, Lacan, and others, led many in the social sciences and humanities to reflect deeply on the impact of discourse and categories of thought on our analyses of social life. Feminism has been integrally engaged with poststructuralism at a theoretical level. As Barrett describes it:

Feminist theory has been able to take up a number of issues outside the classically ‘‘materialist’’ perspective . . . Poststructuralist theories, notably Derridian deconstructive readings, Lacanian psychoanalysis, and Foucault’s emphasis on the material body and the discourses of power have proved very important in this. Feminists have appropriated these theories rather than others for good reasons: these theories address the issues of sexuality, subjectivity and textuality that feminists have put at the top of the agenda. (Cited in Brooks 1997: 6)

Postmodernism has extended the critiques of poststructuralism to challenge some of our most fundamental notions, such as the individual self, linear time, and the concept of space. Femin ism’s engagement with postmodernism has also been fundamental and complex. As Brooks notes, ‘‘the relationship between feminism, poststructuralism, and postmodernism has been both dynamic and productive for feminism and social theory more generally’’ (p. 6). Some note the conceptual equivalence between postmodern feminism and postfeminism (McLennan, cited in Brooks 1997: 6). While sociologists have often been slowest among social scientists in acknowledging the importance and influence of both the poststructuralist and postmodernist intellectual movements, it is often through the impact of feminist and cultural sociology, both of which are fundamentally interdisciplinary, that these traditions have entered the field and been accorded full consideration.

In light of these observations, what can the variable of culture offer to the study of gender in sociology? First, like the term gender, the term culture carries with it a long, interdisciplinary, multi perspectival heritage that transcends the limits of the field of sociology. In the discipline of anthropology the concept of culture has long been an organizing term that structures discussion of the object, as well as more recently the ‘‘medium,’’ of analysis for the field (Ortner 1999). In this sense, culture is very broadly conceived in Tylor’s famous definition as a ‘‘way of life’’ (Williams 1981) to be looked at through a series of academic practices that themselves constitute another way of life (Geertz 1973; Clifford 1986). Analysis in the field of anthropology has become extremely self reflexive, while retaining its core interest in the analysis of culture generally as an object of study.

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Sociology of Gender and the Cultural Turn

Where the sociology of culture has been important in gender studies has been in its attempt to define the use of the concept of culture in sociology. Various and competing definitions have been proffered. Some of these display an affinity with anthropological definitions of culture, descending from Tylor (1958), wherein culture is defined as a set of practices and beliefs that characterize particular societies, subgroups, and groups of societies. Other definitions focus more on the analysis of cultural products, their production, meanings, and uses. Sociologists tend to move back and forth quite easily between these different senses of the term culture and so there is no easy way to characterize the sociological consensus on its use, even as the subfield of the sociology of culture has continued to develop and grow.

Sociology as a discipline began in the US by employing a culturalist definition of culture, adapted from the Tylorian definition of culture as a ‘‘complex whole’’ produced by people’s historical experience, including knowledge, belief, art, morals, law, and custom. This concept was challenged by Radcliffe Brown (1958) and his followers, who proposed in contrast a ‘‘structuralist’’ theory asserting the primary importance of social structure in determining the important facets of social life. After an initial series of debates, American anthropology became primarily a culturalist discipline in which the Tylorian definition of culture has been prominent. Nevertheless in American sociology the notion that structural issues are of primary importance has of course been prominent. However, of late we have witnessed a cultural turn throughout the social sciences which has affected many of the primary sub fields of sociology, including the sociology of gender. This has meant that the importance of culture has been widely recognized throughout the discipline.

Nowhere has this been more primary than with the rise of the sociology of culture, which has now risen to be one of the most popular affiliations elected by members of the ASA. In this group the definition of culture includes both those who use the term in its more amorphous, Tylorian sense to mean patterns of life and ways of living, and those who define the study of culture as focused on the artifacts of recorded culture such as books, media, music, museums, photographs, etc. At the same time, the concept of culture has gained relevance in many other areas of the discipline, including the sociology of gender. This can be seen in recent works by Adams et al. (2005), in addition to areas outside the field of sociology altogether, like the rapidly expanding interdisciplinary field of cultural studies (Grossberg et al. 1992).

When cultural categories are applied to thoughts about gender the concept of culture offers a way to conceptualize those dimensions of our gendered beliefs and practices that cannot be reduced to social structural or biological features alone. With regard to the paradox of gender difference, culture has proved to be an important variable. Sociologists have turned to culture to explain a variety of findings about gender that persist even as consciousness about structural discrimination and inequality has been raised and discussed. Indeed, there appears to be a core aspect of gender which is culturally, rather than biologically or structurally, determined.

The issue of mothering serves as a key example of this explanatory dynamic wherein the concepts of gender and culture intertwine. While biological explanations account for the fact that women give birth, sociologists of gender realized early on in the discipline that recourse to the mothering ‘‘instinct’’ was inadequate as an explanation of why women per formed so much more of the labor involved in mothering than did fathers or male caretakers (Hartmann 1980; Rich 1986). Yet an initial turn by gender sociologists to labor market explanations left gaps as well: gender sociologists became adept at explaining what labors women performed in the paid labor force, ways they were inadequately compensated for this work, and how women performed the vast majority of unpaid labor in the home – mothering included. But such discussions fell far short of offering adequate explanations for how this state of affairs came about. That women per form unpaid labor does not explain how this situation came about, nor why it persists. It is to this explanatory level that cultural explanations of mothering are directed. They fall into different categories, depending on the approach to culture which is used.

‘‘Women mother’’ begins one paradigmatic feminist work on mothering (Chodorow 1978). This book posed the question of why it is that women do the work of mothering virtually universally across cultures and throughout history. This question has been answered in many different ways by those who analyze the inter section of gender and culture in the institution of motherhood. Psychoanalysis has long provided a key set of terms used in cultural analysis, although of course psychoanalytic theory employs only one particular set of cultural tools. These focus on the penetration of culture into the reproduction of our personality processes. Chodorow draws on psychoanalytic categories as they are structured by our cultural arrangements. She argues that a nuclear family, in which it is almost exclusively women who do the work of mothering, reproduces the capacity to mother in daughters, but not in sons, who are treated more distantly because of their anatomical difference from the mother. The psychoanalytic theory Chodorow uses is itself dependent on a series of cultural arrangements and conditions for the truth of its insights. While her basic insights revolve around the psychoanalytic preoccupation with the reproduction of psychological relationships between people in the family, these relationships themselves are embedded in a series of culturally determined patterns which structure the family and its interpersonal matrix.

Other gender sociologists have drawn from psychoanalysis as well to explain phenomena as disparate as gender identity in the military (Williams 1989), women’s relationships to their bodies (Martin 1987), and our culture’s patriarchal thrust more generally (Dinnerstein 1976). Newer works by Chodorow (1999) summarize the importance of psychoanalytic theory for gender and other areas of sociology.

While Chodorow and others turn to psycho analytic categories, other sociologists turn to more explicitly historical and ideological – but equally cultural – reasons why women perform the role of mothering. Those examining American society often cite the role of American cultural traditions (Hays 1996) or American mass media culture (Douglas 2004) in maintaining and reproducing the ‘‘custom’’ of female labor in the family and home. These cultural explanations have been important because they fill in where other types of explanations fall short of explaining the persistence and ubiquity of gender inequality.

Cultural explanations account for not only why women consent to perform unpaid labor in the family, but also explain why women resist other types of explanations, and criticisms of their actions – such as those offered by the women’s movement or feminist academics, which label this extra labor as oppressive or exploitative. Women’s own explanations for their lives often reject such accounts, substituting instead the idea that they perform family labors out of love and devotion. Larger cultural factors like their belief in religious ideas about women’s familial role, or their adherence to certain secular notions about the importance of traditional family values, can be invoked to help make sense of why women consent to a gendered division of labor that analysts find oppressive.

Hays (1996) and Douglas (2004) interrogate the history and development of current cultural ideas and policies about motherhood in our society, each in turn exposing the different ways these ideas and policies disadvantage women as a social and cultural group. Douglas relies in part for her evidence of the development and reproduction of social attitudes on a variety of popular media like film and television that indicate how our society makes, and has historically made, contradictory demands on mothers. For example, the vast majority of mothers work, and for an increasing number of hours, yet particularly over the last 10 years the growth of the ideology of ‘‘intensive mothering’’ has demanded that an increasing number of hours be devoted to the tasks of childrearing. Many pages of popular culture lore are devoted to increasing guilt among those mothers who work for their inability to meet the demands of this mothering ‘‘speed up.’’ Her book is a prime example of works which combine cultural analysis with other types of analysis and evidence. Together, these forms of analysis enable one to develop a critical perspective on an aspect of social activity in which women’s work plays the major role. It is an extremely politically informed commentary on many aspects of our ‘‘culture of mother hood’’ in the contemporary US. Douglas supplements her cultural history with a running account of all the policy decisions affecting mothers that have been made by the US government over the last four decades – what she has dubbed the backlash era against feminism. Douglas’s work stands as an interesting methodological example among books discussing the gendered aspects of our culture in that it addresses not only gender and culture, but the political issues and related policy debates that highlight their importance for our everyday lives.

Hays (1996) is similarly cultural in her level of explanation, yet is both more specific and even more historically framed. Hays interrogates our widespread cultural assumption that what she calls intensive mothering is necessary or even beneficial for children. Marshaling historical evidence, Hays examines the historical growth of this assumption and analyzes its relationship to our society’s varying use of women as a reserve labor force, as women are pulled in to work when needed and pushed out with cries of child neglect when they are not. The argument is cultural throughout in that it challenges those who assert that women’s biology accounts for their desire to mother according to the intensive style she describes. The cultural evidence Hays uses, then, is both historical and socioeconomic in nature.

Yet another cultural take on the study of mothering focuses on the representation of mothering as a gendered practice in a series of cultural artifacts like film, television, books, newspapers, etc. There has been much work on the intersection of gender and culture focused on the topic of mothering from this perspective. Kaplan (1992), for example, focuses on the representation of mothers in popular Hollywood film, identifying several prototypes typical of Hollywood’s images and classifying a plethora of Hollywood works according to these prototypes. Many others have commented on various aspects of mother hood’s filmic representation and its potential impact on women viewers, and on our cultural ideas about mothering generally (Geraghty 1991).

Press (1991) and Press and Cole (1999) and others discuss some aspects of the representation of mothering in television, and its impact on the viewers they researched. Press (1991) focuses generally on analyzing the representation of women and families in prime time television, and in particular discusses women’s reactions to and interpretations of these representations. Many women interviewed for the study mentioned their reactions to the mothers and families depicted in the television they had watched. Some even described their own mothering styles, current or planned, in relation to these images. Press and Cole (1999) again discuss issues surrounding motherhood with women, this time in the context of broader dialogues on and off television about abortion. Discussion took place in groups and preceded or followed viewing of various prime time television treatments of the issue. While mothering itself was not the actual focus of the discussions, the topic was central to the abortion opinions expressed by many of the women in the study.

Many works (e.g., Walters 2001) discuss multiple types of cultural artifacts more directly, including films, entertainment, television, books, and news media, all from the perspective of how motherhood is represented in different ways and with what impact on society. These works all support the importance of cultural representations of gender in contributing to the reproduction of our gendered system and the inequalities inherent in it.

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This brief discussion illustrates that the study of gender is intertwined with cultural concepts and factors. The definition of culture itself is difficult to pin down, and ranges from an amorphous notion encompassing many aspects of social existence, to one more specifically based on cultural artifacts and products. The sociology of gender cannot be imagined without a strong notion of the importance of culture and the ubiquity of cultural factors.

As the interdisciplinary study of gender has developed in a distinctive way, it has in turn influenced the sociology of gender to move in a more cultural direction. The recent influx of studies focusing on the gendered aspects of culture is a good example of the impact this has had on the sociology of gender. Press (2000) details three axes for recent work in the field of communication focusing on gender issues: technology, the body, and the public sphere. All of these topics have been taken up in recent work on the sociology of gender. The increasing tendency of the field to assimilate influences from interdisciplinary studies which have transformed the very nature of the field itself is good evidence that the cultural bent in gendered sociology is here to stay.

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