According to Ann Oakley, who introduced the term to sociology, ‘“Sex” refers to the biological division into male and female; “gender” to the parallel and socially unequal division into femininity and masculinity’ (see Sex, Gender and Society, 1972). Gender draws attention, therefore, to the socially constructed aspects of differences between women and men. But the term gender has since become extended to refer not only to individual identity and personality but also, at the symbolic level, to cultural ideals and stereotypes of masculinity and femininity and, at the structural level, to the sexual division of labour in institutions and organizations.
In the 1970s, sociological and psychological interest was focused upon demonstrating that gender exists; that is to say, upon showing that the differences and divisions between men and women cannot be accounted for by biological difference, and that the culturally dominant ideas about masculinity and femininity are stereotypes which correspond only crudely to reality. It was shown that there are huge cross-cultural variations in ideas about gender and in the roles of men and women. There were studies of the ways in which baby boys and girls are turned into adult men and women by the processes of socialization in child-rearing, education, youth culture, employment practices, and family ideology. At the structural level, there were studies of the unequal division of labour in the household, even between women and men who both have full-time jobs outside, and of discrimination in employment, where sex (rather than individual skills and qualifications) plays a large part in determining types of job and chances of promotion. More recently, interest has turned to the changing formations of gender at the cultural level. Much of this work has been interdisciplinary, drawing upon anthropology, history, art, literature, film, and cultural studies to explore issues such as the interconnections between ideas of racial purity, White women's sexual purity, and Black masculinity in the United States; or the myth of motherhood as natural and universal. Much of this literature is reviewed in Sara Delamont's The Sociology of Women (1980).
There have been two major kinds of criticism of the concept of gender. The first is that it is based upon a false dichotomy between the biological and the social. This relates to a general criticism that sociology has tended to see the social as disembodied, with the infant as a tabula rasa upon which socialization may write at will, to produce social consciousness and action (as in the work of Émile Durkheim ). Following the more recent writings of Michel Foucault , sociologists are now less inclined to take the body for granted, and to see it rather as an object of social analysis, recognizing that the social meaning of the body has changed through history. But in a sense this too can be another means by which biology is discounted and biological science dismissed as merely a social discourse. One criticism of the sex versus gender distinction has been Foucauldian, denying that there is a biological difference-sex-that is in any sense outside of the social. On the other hand, there is the criticism that would reassert biological difference as being extra-social, and argue against a view of gender that discounts the true significance of the body. The sex/gender distinction, it is said, is linked to a particular form of feminist politics that seeks the eradication of gender and a move towards androgyny ; it leaves little space, for instance, for other feminist concerns with the biological politics of menstruation, contraception, reproductive technology, abortion, or the management of childbirth.
The second kind of criticism relates to the way in which the concept of gender focuses on differences between women and men at the expense of power and domination. Some writers would prefer to use the term patriarchy as the main organizing concept, in order to keep the question of power to the fore, both analytically and politically. There are many problems with this term, but the important one to note here is that it conflates sex and gender by treating a biological category as a social one: women and men are treated as pre-constituted groups in the description of patriarchy, and the biology of procreation is often used in the explanation of it.
On a lighter note, ‘gender’ has been criticized as a prudish way of avoiding the word ‘sex’. This is clearly not the case when it is used correctly in sociology, but it is true that it has entered everyday speech in this sense, when people talk (for example) about ‘the opposite gender’. Some sociologists, too, are guilty of this when they refer to ‘gender roles’ or ‘gender discrimination’.
The term gender can be used fruitfully with some awareness of these problems. If it is recognized that there is a need to consider biological difference and structures of power in relation to the elaborate social construction of difference, then the concept of gender has the great advantages that it encourages a study of masculinity as well as femininity, the relations between the sexes as well as the social position of women, and a recognition of historical and cultural variety and change rather than a universalizing analysis. See also domestic division of labour ; family, sociology of ; <

Dictionary of sociology. 2013.

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