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In this article, I revisit the concept of “doing gender” to query whether the framework as directly articulated by West and Zimmerman is meant to be a description of social life (a social theory) or a testable and potentially falsifiable explanation of the empirical world (a sociological theory). I document how much of the research that uses “doing gender” is a misapplication of the concept as a social, rather than sociological, theory. I conclude by making the case for the role of “doing gender” in, rather than as, sociological theory. Keywords doing gender, gender theory, sociological theory, social theory “Doing Gender” as an article and as a concept is widely mechanisms by which “doing gender” is purported to explain influential in and outside of sociology. Although the original the reproduction of gender inequality. I conclude by making article itself had a difficult time coming to publication (see the case for the role of “doing gender” in, rather than as, West & Zimmerman, 2009, for more details), most sociolo- sociological theory. gists now expect graduate students (and likely undergradu- ates, too) to be familiar with the concept and/or to have read Defining Sociological Theory the original 1987 article. The symposium in Gender & Society on the 20th anniversary of the article’s publication I have been heavily influenced by Janet Chafetz’s (2004a) (Gender & Society, Vol. 23(1)) asked whether “doing gen- article (a symposium presentation subsequently published as der” was part of the sociological canon, a call to research, or an article alongside the symposium discussants’ critiques), something else. Indeed, the authors in the symposium docu- where she critically assesses the state of feminist theory in ment the myriad of ways in which the concept of “doing social science and in sociology as a discipline. Chafetz gender” has informed research projects and theoretical (2004a) argues that the goal of social science explications of social behavior. is to develop explanations (theories)—that is, attempts to answer In this article, I revisit the concept of “doing gender” as questions of why and how—of empirically documentable West and Zimmerman (2009) implore in their response to the phenomena concerning human behavior and the structures and Gender & Society symposium. I ask whether “doing gender” processes they create in the present and have created in other as described in 1987 and rearticulated in 2009 is a social or a times and places. (p. 964) sociological theory. Building on Chafetz’s (2004a) critique of much of feminist theory, I query whether the framework There are, she argues, two key components to the discipline as directly articulated by the authors is meant to be a descrip- of sociology: (a) an emphasis on using systematic approaches tion of social life (a social theory) or a testable and poten- tially falsifiable explanation of the empirical world (a sociological theory). I then show how the critiques that West George Mason University, Fairfax, VA, USA and Zimmerman (2009) bring to bear on much of the research Corresponding Author: that uses “doing gender” are due to researchers’ use of the Shannon N. Davis, Department of Sociology and Anthropology, George concept as a social, rather than sociological, theory. This Mason University, 4400 University Drive, MSN 3G5, Fairfax, VA 22030, misuse has yielded scores of publications providing valuable USA. thick description on social life without direct tests of the Email: firstname.lastname@example.org Creative Commons CC BY: This article is distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 License (http://www.creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0/) which permits any use, reproduction and distribution of the work without further permission provided the original work is attributed as specified on the SAGE and Open Access pages (https://us.sagepub.com/en-us/nam/open-access-at-sage). 2 SAGE Open to learn about the world (methodologies) and (b) theory, or My view of the discipline of sociology is one that is based “the development of at least relatively abstract explanations on the distinction articulated by Chafetz (2004a). Our goal is of empirically testable and documentable phenomena” to better understand the social world through the use of sys- (Chafetz, 2004a, p. 965). tematic data collection and analysis. The creation of better Sociology as a discipline has long fought with itself regard- explanations (theories) is paramount. I also concur with ing our comfort with being called a science. Even Weber Risman (1994), Sprague (2005), and others (Chafetz, 2004a, (1922) famously argued for sociology’s usefulness as a sci- included) who note that a feminist empiricist approach (one ence and in society. Much in the discipline’s history has been that seeks to investigate power relations in a society through written about the extent to which sociology is a science, but the best methods and analysis techniques for the question at much of that discourse has been derived from a “positivist” hand) is not at odds with the notion of the purpose of sociol- version of science. That is, the truth, reality, can be discovered ogy as a discipline nor the feminist epistemological frame- through objectivity, meaning removing the researcher’s sub- work that seeks to eliminate gender (and other forms of) jective bias. Feminists have critiqued this approach to doing inequality. Some feminist sociologists have argued for the science (e.g., DeVault, 1996; Sprague & Zimmerman, 1993; use of “different” methodologies, pointing to the positivist and even Chafetz, 2004a, 2004b), but one key fact remains. If straw man as a part of the problem of the continuation of sociology is a science, we use systematic approaches to study- gender inequality (e.g., DeVault, 1996; Luker, 2008). Like ing the social world, and through those approaches, we both Sprague and her colleagues (Sprague, 2005; Sprague & derive and test relatively abstract explanations for empirical Zimmerman, 1993), I disagree. If the goal of a feminist soci- phenomena. ology is to (a) systematically study the social world and A sociological theory is not one that is philosophically ori- develop explanations for empirical reality which then lead to ented that discusses the nature of social life—that would be (b) the elimination of gender inequality, then the methods what Chafetz (2004a) calls social theory. Sociological theory that we use to collect and analyze the empirical world must would go beyond description and would be focused on be as diverse and responsive as the world itself. Indeed, those explaining how and why the empirical world operates as it feminist critiques of “science” and discomfort with “more does. This includes articulation of mechanisms (Hedström & objective” approaches to studying the social world miss the Swedberg, 1998; Reskin, 2003) such that the premise of the big picture. We cannot eradicate gender inequality by amass- theory itself is testable and falsifiable. Theories are evaluated, ing many thick descriptions of women’s (or men’s) lives therefore, not on their ability to completely explain one spe- based on their standpoint, location in the matrix of domina- cific set of experiences but instead their ability to explain (and tion, or documentation of how their social location reflects predict as Smith-Lovin, 2000, would argue) the “empirically oppression (Chafetz, 2004a; Schrock & Schwalbe, 2009). knowable world” (Chafetz, 2004a, p. 965). Social theory, on These examples of social theory are but one piece of a larger the contrary, provides thick description of social experiences, puzzle. The creation of systematic explanations for aspects often elucidating the mechanisms to be included subsequently of the empirically knowable world (here that aspect of the in sociological theories as they document social life in par- social world is gender inequality) that can be tested and ticular, ultimately leading to the refinement of sociological potentially altered and/or falsified given empirical scrutiny is theory. Both sociological and social theory are important in the goal, and all approaches to understanding the social the doing of our work as social scientists, as can be seen, for world are needed to complete this task. As Walker (2004) example, in the case of Morris’s (2012) examination of gen- rightly argues in her response to Chafetz (2004a), “[c] der and education in a two low-income high schools. ompared with theory developed by so-called objective Highlighting the inadequacy of contemporary sociological observers, acknowledging our own perspectives and asking theories about educational attainment in explaining the edu- how the world looks to others eventually will lead to rich cational gender gap, Morris develops an argument about the theory closely linked to social life” (p. 991). importance of how gender is constructed in a place, how it is That said, theories must imply how they would be empiri- contextualized, as an additional mechanism that explains how cally tested. We must have research methodologies in our sci- young men and women are handicapped in the pursuit of edu- ence that facilitate our testing of our theories. Theories about cation. His ethnographic work yields additional insight into the social world that do not readily lend themselves to empiri- mechanisms through which gender inequality is perpetuated. cal scrutiny and potential falsification, that is, have no meth- In her critique of and response to Chafetz (2004a), Baber odological implications for how researchers would go about (2004) argues that theory should guide scholarship but should collecting and analyzing empirical materials, nor how the simultaneously allow for the building of bridges between theory’s premises, postulates, mechanisms, and processes can scholars and activists in the pursuit of reducing gender be evaluated and potentially falsified are not sociological inequality. Therefore, social theory with its focus on how theories. In this case, the content of the empirical material is inequalities are experienced by individuals may be of more irrelevant. If a theory that purports to describe gender inequal- use and value to practitioners than is sociological theory with ity and its reproduction cannot be potentially falsified, it its focus on prediction and explanation. would not meet the definition of a sociological theory. Davis 3 us to talk about how we can “undo gender,” that is, to high- The Case of “Doing Gender” light “social processes that underlie resistance against con- “Doing Gender,” the 1987 article, is the most cited article in ventional gender relations and on how successful change in the discipline by most metrics (West & Zimmerman, 2009). the power dynamics and inequities between men and women The argument, as restated by West and Zimmerman in 2009, can be accomplished” (Deutsch, 2007, p. 107), there remains is as follows. One’s sex (female or male) is usually deter- a presumption that gender is a thing that exists to maintain mined by the possession of female or male genitalia (see inequality between women and men. The focus is on the West & Zimmerman, 1987, 2009, for more on the fluid gerund—“doing” versus “undoing” rather than the phrase nature of this categorization). Sex categorization, building “doing gender” versus “undoing gender.” West and on Goffman (1956), occurs through “the display and recog- Zimmerman (2009) argue that this semantic difference is one nition of socially regulated external insignia of sex—such as of the crucial points of their theory and the place where the deportment, dress, and bearing” (West & Zimmerman, 2009, usage of their theory has been problematic. p. 113). Sex category and gender are related in that gender is This process of “doing gender,” as described by West about being recognized as someone inhabiting a sex cate- and Zimmerman (1987, 2009), explains how and why peo- gory—and “being accountable to current cultural concep- ple behave as they do. People believe they are being held tions of conduct becoming to—or compatible with the morally accountable to a sex category and behave accord- ‘essential natures’ of—a woman or man” (West & ing to their understanding of contemporary cultural norms Zimmerman, 2009, p. 113). Therefore, gender is conceptual- around that sex category. This explanation for human ized as an ongoing process, a doing rather than a being. behavior fits the definition of a sociological theory on the West and Zimmerman’s (2009) article was the conclusion face of it, in that it is potentially falsifiable. However, what to a symposium on their original piece. In it, they lament that are the testable hypotheses derived from this explanation? authors (including some in the symposium) have misused Is the underlying abstract process falsifiable? Is there ever their concept, so much so that they felt the need to rearticu- a circumstance that humans will not be behaving as they do late its premises. One key critique was the use of “doing gen- at least in part because they believe they will be held mor- der” as an explanation for the reproduction of gender ally accountable for their behavior? For example, Hirschi’s inequality. This usage presumes that “gender” is a thing and (1969) social control theory highlights the centrality of that “doing it” reproduces the status quo. Indeed, they argue being held morally accountable to a particular peer group that because gender is done and that it requires individuals even among deviants. Thus, the use of “sociological the- being held morally accountable to current cultural norms ory” as a descriptor for “doing gender” may not be war- ascribed to a sex category, the performance of gender should ranted. This distinction is more than semantic, as a large and must change over time—but that has little to do (directly) body of scholarship has been published that purports to find with the reproduction of gender inequality. support for this theory. And much of this scholarship, However, many authors, including myself, have invoked including the articles in the 2009 Gender & Society sympo- “doing gender” as a theory for why gender inequality is sium, frames “doing gender” as an explanation for the being reproduced. We have argued that, among other things, reproduction of gender inequality, thus solidifying its posi- the reason men do less housework than do women is because tion in the feminist sociological canon. they believe they are being held morally accountable to the Herein lies the irony. Based on the arguments presented sex category of “male.” Thus, not doing housework is “doing here, “doing gender” does not meet the definition of a socio- gender.” But as we use the language of “doing gender,” we logical theory that explains the reproduction of gender are falling into the trap that West and Zimmerman argue is inequality. But West and Zimmerman never intended it to be. diametrically opposed to how they had conceived of the con- cept. Gender is not a thing that is done, that is, a noun. Instead, “doing gender” is a verb phrase, a process. Resituating “Doing Gender” Into Other authors have noted that “doing gender” as a theory Sociological Theories has been misused. Deutsch (2007) recounts many examples of research that, she argues, utilize “doing gender” as a the- West and Fenstermaker (1995) extend West and Zimmerman’s ory of gender maintenance. Risman (2009) also notes that (1987) argument to other forms of difference (and categori- “doing gender” has been invoked to document multiple mas- cal inequalities; Tilly, 1998) by noting that distinctions culinities and femininities; she encourages researchers to among groups are not essential but must be created and investigate sites where women and men are “undoing gen- maintained. Interestingly, they argue that difference is a der” (Butler, 2004; Deutsch, 2007). However, as West and social doing, a mechanism that helps explain how categori- Zimmerman (2009) note, “an emphasis on ‘undoing gender’ cal inequalities are reproduced. Following this logic, both deflects attention away from the situational character of gen- “doing gender” and “doing difference” are themselves not der accountability, and circumstantial modifications” (p. 118). theories, but are mechanisms through which inequalities are While authors like Risman (2009) and Deutsch (2007) want reproduced. 4 SAGE Open Therefore, “doing gender” (and “doing difference”) is reproduction of gender inequality. Understanding the lives of useful for explaining the reproduction of inequality when men and women as they are lived is important. We cannot incorporated as a mechanism into broader theoretical expla- ignore how social location impacts lives, nor should we min- nations. The notion of “doing gender” is a key explanatory imize scholarship that has documented how oppression and mechanism invoked by Chafetz (1990) in her theory explain- domination, as well as privilege and entitlement, operate in ing the links between macro- and micro-level gender people’s lives. But as Schrock and Schwalbe (2009) argue, inequality as well as by Ridgeway (2011) in her specifica- simply documenting “multiple masculinities” or “multiple tion of status expectations theory as applied to gender femininities” based on interlocking axes of domination inequality. Clearly articulated mechanisms, such as those masks the underlying processes that reproduce gender implied in the “doing gender” approach, provide insight into inequality structurally. For sociologists, both those of us the “black box” of sociological theory. These mechanisms embracing the label of feminist and those who do not, our describe the how and why of a theory. As Gross (2009) goal remains the same. If we want to change the world, we argues, mechanisms must be centered around social action. must first understand it. And true sociological understanding In the case of Chafetz (1990), knowing one will be held is derived from the principles that make sociology the disci- accountable for one’s behavior based on sex category leads pline that it is—rigorous, systematic approaches for the col- women and men to behave in ways that reinforce patriarchal lection and analysis of materials regarding empirically norms at the micro level. Furthermore, these norms of moral known phenomena and “relatively abstract explanations” for accountability are part of the cultural ideology that con- those phenomena that are empirically testable and falsifiable. structs appropriate behaviors for women and men in institu- “Doing gender” as a concept, and research invoking it, has a tional settings. Ridgeway, in some ways building on this place in our science, albeit one more in line with what the idea, notes that gender is like a ghost in all interactions; it is concepts’ originators had intended than how it has regularly there even when it is not being directly invoked. Individuals been used. are being held accountable to culturally constructed norms of behavior tied to sex categories even in situations when Author’s Note gender is irrelevant to the task at hand (Ridgeway, 2011). This article originated in, and benefited from, conversation with Thus, “doing gender” as a concept is one of the mechanisms students in my graduate Gender and Social Structure course in Fall invoked in Ridgeway’s specification of status expectations Semester 2012. This article also benefited from discussion in the theory, as it is one of the explanations for how gender George Mason University Department of Sociology and inequality is reproduced through everyday interactions. Anthropology Colloquium Series. Calls for research focusing on “undoing gender” (Deutsch, 2007), where scholars examine how behaviors reduce Acknowledgment inequality, miss West and Zimmerman’s (1987/2009) point The author gratefully acknowledges Sarah Wagner for her editorial that “doing gender” is not about the maintenance of gender assistance. inequality (although Deutsch (2007) is accurate in her description regarding how the theory is used). Instead, it is a Declaration of Conflicting Interests set of explanations for the origins and maintenance of cul- The author(s) declared no potential conflicts of interest with respect turally constructed norms of behavior tied to sex categories. to the research, authorship, and/or publication of this article. As a mechanism, “doing gender” explains how culturally constructed norms of behavior tied to sex categories are Funding maintained as well as challenged and modified, as people The author(s) disclosed receipt of the following financial support are held accountable to the contemporary norms.As Deutsch for the research, authorship, and/or publication of this article: (2007) demonstrates, norms are modified through interac- Publication of this article was funded in part by the George Mason tion and structural shifts but the processes of holding people University Libraries Open Access Publishing Fund. accountable to those culturally constructed norms of behav- ior tied to sex category remain the same. “Doing gender” is References not intended to explain the maintenance of gender inequal- Baber, K. M. (2004). Building bridges: Feminist research, theory, ity; West and Zimmerman (1987/2009) intend it as a mecha- and practice: A response to Janet Saltzman Chafetz. Journal of nism that can be used to explain the reproduction of, and Family Issues, 25, 978-983. possibly the disruption of, culturally constructed norms of Butler, J. (2004). Undoing gender. New York, NY: Routledge. behavior tied to sex category. Chafetz, J. S. (1990). Gender equity: An integrated theory of stabil- What does this mean, then, for the disposition of research ity and change. Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE. that purports to test or utilize “doing gender” theory? I would Chafetz, J. S. (2004a). Bridging feminist theory and research meth- argue that this voluminous body of scholarship is quite odology. Journal of Family Issues, 25, 963-977. important to our understanding of the social world but as Chafetz, J. S. (2004b). Reply to comments by Walker, Baber, and Allen. Journal of Family Issues, 25, 995-997. examples of “doing gender” as a mechanism for the Davis 5 Deutsch, F. M. (2007). Undoing gender. Gender & Society, 21, Sprague, J. (2005). 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Including mechanisms in our models of ascrip- tive inequality. American Sociological Review, 68, 1-21. Author Biography Ridgeway, C. L. (2011). Framed by gender: How gender inequal- Shannon N. Davis is an associate professor of Sociology at George ity persists in the modern world. New York, NY: Oxford Mason University, where she teaches research methods, sociology University Press. of the family, and sociology of gender. Her research interests are Risman, B. (1994). Methodological implications of feminist schol- focused on understanding the reproduction of gender inequality in arship. American Sociologist, 24, 15-25. institutions, specifically in families and in higher education. She Risman, B. (2009). From doing to undoing: Gender as we know it. has investigated family formation and dissolution, the division of Gender & Society, 23, 81-84. household labor, and cross-national differences in family experi- Schrock, D., & Schwalbe, M. (2009). Men, masculinity, and man- ences. Her research has also documented how undergraduate hood acts. Annual Review of Sociology, 35, 277-295. research is experienced by students and faculty members, including Smith-Lovin, L. (2000). Simplicity, uncertainty, and the power of as an avenue for reducing the leaky pipeline for women and stu- generative theories. Contemporary Sociology, 29, 300-306. dents of color.
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Published: Mar 21, 2017
Keywords: doing gender; gender theory; sociological theory; social theory
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