Candace West and Don Zimmerman introduced the concept ‘‘doing gender’’ in an article of the same title in 1987. They were the first to articulate an ethnomethodological perspective on the creation and affirmation of gender inequality between males and females in western society. The purview of ethnomethodology includes the study of the socially managed accomplishments of all aspects of life that are treated as objective, unchanging, and transsituational. West and Zimmerman’s treatment of gender began by making problematic the prevailing cultural perspective: (1) female and male represent naturally defined categories of being that are derived from mutually exclusive (and easily distinguished) reproductive functions, and which result in distinctively different psychological and behavioral proclivities; (2) such divisions are rooted in that biological nature, which makes them both fundamental and enduring; (3) these essential differences between masculine and feminine are adequately reflected in the myriad differences observed between women and men and the social arrangements that solidify around them.
In clear contradiction to these notions, West and Zimmerman asserted that sex is founded on the socially agreed upon biological criteria for initial assignment to sex category, but that classification typically has little to do with the everyday and commonsense sex categorization engaged in by members of a social group. They argued that it is not a rigid set of criteria that is applied to establish confidence that someone is male or female, but a seamless application of an ‘‘if–can’’ test. If someone can be seen as a member of an appropriate category, then he or she should be categorized accordingly. Following this assertion, West and Zimmerman were obliged to describe the process by which sex categorization is construed, created, and reaffirmed. They did this through the concept of ‘‘doing gender.’’
This concept challenged the current thinking about gender as an attribute, an individual set of performative displays (largely separate from the ongoing affairs of social life), or a response to vaguely defined role expectations. They completed what Dorothy Smith (2002: x) deemed ‘‘a ruthless but invaluable surgery’’ by distinguishing among sex, sex category, and gender. Under this new formulation, gender could no longer be seen as a social ‘‘variable’’ or individual ‘‘characteristic’’ but as a socially situated accomplishment. West and Zimmerman argued that the implication of such ubiquity is that the design and interpretation of social conduct can at any time be made subject to concerns about sex category. Thus individuals and their behavior – in virtually any course of action – can be evaluated in relation to a womanly or manly nature and character. This dynamic, situated rendering of gender points to all aspects of social life – behavioral, emotional, discursive – that mark, note, remind, create, affirm, and reaffirm the social conviction that there is something essentially male or female that resides within and justifies sex categorization. The powerful gender ideals that abound in popular culture, advertising, and the media certainly serve as resources to guide normative understanding of doing gender, but the actual doing of gender requires much more than a regimented list of ‘‘appropriate’’ behaviors. As West and Zimmer man (1987: 135) explain, ‘‘Doing gender consists of managing such occasions so that, whatever the particulars, the outcome is seen and seeable in context as gender appropriate, or, as the case may be, gender inappropriate, that is, accountable.’’ West and Zimmerman maintained that humans might be classified as males or females, but to be treated as competent group members they must learn to feel, behave as if they possessed, and thus demonstrate, their essential womanly and manly qualities. By this the authors do not imply necessarily hypermasculineress or deportment, but myriad craftings – according to every conceivable characteristic and expectation of particular settings and situations – that communicate competence as a person accountably feminine or masculine. Moreover, while they allow that it is individuals who ‘‘do’’ gender, ‘‘the idiom of accountability [derives] from those institutional arenas in which social relationships are enacted’’ (Fenstermaker et al. 1991: 294). Categorical attributions like gender (and later, it was argued, race and class) are granted meaning by particular social conditions and are given concrete expression by the specific social and historical context in which they are embedded.
The notion of gender as an accomplishment in response to the ubiquitous dictates of account ability leads away from the notion of static normative ideals, and necessarily focuses attention on gender’s situated, fluid character. That women and men believe themselves to be different by nature is a cultural constant; how and in what ways those differences are observed, granted social meaning, and rendered consequential varies by the situated particulars of social setting, time, and place. This is not to say that the accomplishment of gender need be confined to interpersonal, so called ‘‘micro’’ level interactions. Indeed, this conceptualization does not narrow gender’s purview only to individuals, but enlarges it to address the myriad dynamics of any social order, at whatever level they operate.
Following the initial formulation in Gender and Society, Candace West and Sarah Fenstermaker clarified and extended the concept of ‘‘doing gender.’’ Their interest widened to focus on the implications of the concept for explicating practices of inequality and on the application of the concept to empirical work. The subsequent theoretical commentary of West and Fenster maker focused primarily on the relevance of gender to various forms of interpersonal and institutional inequality and to the extension of the concept to include race and class (see below). They were motivated by an interest in the social mechanisms by which the various outcomes of social inequality (e.g., job discrimination, sexual harassment, violence against women, hate crime, differential treatment by gender in school, church, and government) are created and legitimated.
In that spirit, West and Fenstermaker asserted that the accomplishment of gender manifests itself at every level of social arrangement: discursive, interpersonal, organizational, and institutional. West and Fenstermaker argued that as representations of collective action, institutions are subject to gendering in the presentation of their ‘‘essential’’ characters, and are thus assessed (and behave as if they are assessable) in relation to gender. We need only look as far as the various recent peregrinations heard on ‘‘pre serving family values,’’ the United States as a ‘‘world cop,’’ or the ‘‘immorality’’ of big corporations like Enron to get a sense of how institutions take on gendered characters that inform expectations of their actions. The broad sweep of the concept poses myriad possibilities for applications to the empirical world, particularly evident in the extension of ‘‘doing gender’’ to the concept of ‘‘doing difference.’’
In their article ‘‘Doing Difference’’ (1995), West and Fenstermaker posed a theoretical problem that took them well beyond their earlier preoccupation with gender. At the time, feminist sociological theory was beginning to pose questions about the categorical ‘‘intersectionality’’ of social life. West and Fenstermaker observed that there was little in the existing literature on gender that provided for an understanding of how race, class, and gender could operate simultaneously to shape and ultimately determine the outcomes of inequality. If such ‘‘intersections’’ or ‘‘interlocking categories’’ could go beyond metaphor, what was needed was a conceptual mechanism that illuminated ‘‘the relations between individual and institutional practice and among forms of domination’’ (West & Fenstermaker 1995: 19).
To adapt the argument offered in ‘‘Doing Gender,’’ West and Fenstermaker asserted that while the resulting manifestations of sexism, class oppression, and racism are certainly different, the mechanism by which such inequalities unfold are the same. That is, ‘‘difference’’ is done (invidious distinctions justified on grounds of race, class, or gender) within individual and institutional domains to produce social inequalities. These practices are influenced by existing social structure, but also serve to reinscribe the rightness of such practices over time.
The attempt to develop this unitary model of the workings of inequality garnered heated criticism (Gender and Society 1995) that captured some of the problematic features of the formulation as well as the ways an ethnomethodological focus on the production of inequality can be misconstrued. First, critics were wary of any formulation that seemed to conflate the distinctive features of class, race, and gender inequality. The implication for some was that this conflation erased the very real differences among class, gender, and racial inequalities. Second, critics worried that insofar as the approach rested on analysis of face to face interactions, it might be ahistorical as well as astructural, and thus neglectful of the workings of power. Finally, critics charged that in its focus on the constructedness of social life, both stable institutional inequality and the possibility of ongoing resistance to it might be missed.
In response, Fenstermaker and West reiterated that by requiring the locus of production of inequality to be interaction (broadly defined), one is directed to the center of the creation of raced, classed, and gendered social divisions. However situated, such divisions are hardly ephemeral; indeed, they bear the weight of history, past and ongoing institutional practices, and the day to day workings of social structure. Finally, they argue that this is also the way in which social change is made, where resistance has meaning and institutional power can be challenged.
The ethnomethodological insistence on placing interaction at the center of social life was seen by critics as problematic theoretically, but was greeted by empirical researchers as an invitation to productively recast the study of gender, race, and class. Since the 1987 publication of ‘‘Doing Gender,’’ scores of empirical studies have demonstrated the empirical usefulness of a concept that directs researchers to the actual production of social life. Studies of the creation of class, race, and gender in high schools (Bettie 2003), the construction of culture and patriarchy among Asian Americans (Pike & Johnson 2002), Dana Britton’s (2003) study of prison guards, and Barbara Perry’s (2001) study of the construction of hate crime serve as only a few exemplars of the valuable work that begins from an interest in the situated dynamics of inequality.
Toward an Integrated Framework
The useful theoretical tensions that now surround the concept ‘‘doing gender’’ speak to the multiple directions of feminist theory in sociology. First, there remains a continued interest in articulating the simultaneous management of categorical identities, where for example accountability to gender, race, class, and sexuality are together understood as ever available for social evaluation and social consequence. How those operate together or vary in individual salience in any given moment of interaction is a question for empirical study. Second are the recent calls to integration where gender is recast as a social structure or an institution. Here, the accomplishment of gender, race, class, and sexuality is acknowledged to be multidimensional, sometimes interpersonal, and sometimes organizational in character, and consciously builds in the likelihood of social change. It remains to be seen whether such integration can sufficiently direct empirical focus to the actual workings of accountability at all levels of social life. Third, a fruitful area of new study resides in the ‘‘destabilization’’ of social categories (e.g., ‘‘trans’’ gender, ‘‘multi’’ racial) that forces a reordering of both categorical definition and expectations surrounding accountability to them.
- Bettie, (2003) Women Without Class: Girls, Race, and Identity. University of California Press, Berkeley.
- Britton, (2003) At Work in the Iron Cage: The Prison as Gendered Organization. New York University Press, New York.
- Fenstermaker Berk, (1985) The Gender Factory: The Apportionment of Work in American Households. Plenum, New York.
- Fenstermaker, & West, C. (2002) Doing Gender, Doing Difference: Inequality, Power, and Institu tional Change. Routledge, New York.
- Fenstermaker, , West, C., & Zimmerman, D. (1991) Gender Inequality: New Conceptual Terrain. In: Blumberg, R. L. (Ed.), Gender, Family, and Economy: The Triple Overlap. Sage, London, pp. 289 307.
- Gender and Society (1995) Symposium on ‘‘Doing Difference’’ (9, 1). Sage, London, 419 506.
- Perry, (2001) In the Name of Hate: Understanding Hate Crime. Routledge, New York.
- Pike, K. & Johnson, D. (2002) Asian American Women and Racialized Gender and Society 17: 33 53.
- Smith, (2002) Foreword. In: Fenstermaker, S. & West, C., Doing Gender, Doing Difference: Inequality, Power, and Institutional Change. Routledge, New York, pp. ix xii.
- West, & Fenstermaker, S. (1993) Power, Inequality, and the Accomplishment of Gender: An Ethnomethodological View. In: England, P. (Ed.), Theory on Gender: Feminism on Theory. Walter de Gruyter, New York, pp. 131 58.
- West, & Fenstermaker, S. (1995) Doing Difference. Gender and Society 9(1): 8 37.
- West, & Zimmerman, D. (1987) Doing Gender. Gender and Society 1(2): 125 51.
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