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Although the question of gender is not fresh, socialists' interest in it has grown since the early 1970s. Most academics describe it as a characteristic of subjectivity. Devor, for example, describes gender as "a conceptualization and presentation of what it is to be a male or a woman" (424-425). The definition implies that gender roles are not defined but are fractured and built-in society, resulting in a dialogue that allows us to understand various forms of femininities and masculinities that differ from one society to the next.
This article examines the definition of gender to determine whether it is biological or socially constructed. The paper is based Devor’s article “Becoming Members of Society: Learning the Social Meanings of Gender.” The author explores what it is for one to belong to a given gender. That is, how one acquires attributes associated with a particular gender and how people perpetuate such characteristics from their childhood to adulthood. The outcomes will help those interested in the area of study especially upcoming sociologists to understand the basis of the idea of gender. The idea will form the foundation for further research on the topic. The overall consensus among Devor (424), Moscoso-Sánchez (185-186), and Irshad and Banerji (586) is that gender is a set of socially constructed identity associated with one gender or another in any given community and proliferated through practices of gendered activities, roles, and behavior.
Devor provides an insightful idea that the attributes one has to acquire to be categorized as male or female are socially constructed. According to the author, the process begins with one acquiring gendered self or personality and is continued through engagement in gendered activities, roles, behaviors, and attributes (Devor 424). He says gender construction “begin with the establishment of gender identity” (424). That is, people ‘gender’ themselves. From Devor’s point of view, people first learn and then start practicing gendered roles and behaviors appropriate to their statuses or gendered identity (424). The society and individuals continue gender identity in some ways. For example, the society reinforces gender identity by demanding different gender performances from particular gender. The society then rewards people for conformity or punishes for deviation from the set social norms (Devor 424-426).On the other hand, people do their gender to avoid being ignored or even punished. Brickell extends Devor’s perspective by arguing that “if we fail to do our gender appropriately, we are liable to be called into account and ….be physically disciplined” (94). In other words, one has to conform to socially predetermined gender roles and behaviors to fit into a given society. Notably, different cultures offer different social definitions of gender and gender identity. According to Devor, children learn the culture’s social definition of gender as well as gender identity the same time they learn gender behaviors to which they are expected to conform (425). Children first believe that people change gender by changing their hairstyle, clothing, or activity. As a result, they classify people to different genders based on these attributes rather than based on anatomy or sex characteristics. This implies that, although the definition of gender should be based on genitalia children do not understand it in such way. However, they later learn to apply the definition based on anatomy as adults as they discover various physical cues. Construction of gender identity based on sex is important. First thing, it determines the existence of values and behaviors distinctive for both genders which are motivated by the production of different social representations. According to Moscoso-Sánchez, gender identity construction based on sex forms the basis of social stratification (184-185). Indeed, this is why men exercise their dominance or influence over women.
People are also identified by social definitions collectively called masculinity and femininity. According to Devor, masculine traits identify people as males while feminine ones signify femaleness (427). According to the author, the masculine characteristics portray men as egocentric, power-angered, dominant, and aggressive while feminine traits identify female as striving for communion or cooperation (427). Such definitions force different genders to align their behavior to conform to appropriate gender. For example, the definition of the female as always seeking cooperation makes them be perceived as dependent on men. On the other hand, men are perceived as power angered. In these cases, each gender tries to conform to particular social definition by engaging in particular activities and behaviors. Brickell further clarifies Devor’s notion of power as associated with masculinity by asserting that “doing gender might also entail men “doing power, dominance, and women do deference” (94). Nevertheless, any of the activities can be done by “persons of either gender” (Devor 427). This implies that observers sometimes ignore cross-gender behaviors especially if they do not compromise the integrity of an individual’s gender display. Moscoso-Sánchez supports Devor’s assertion in his mountaineering research which found that although men have a greater physical aptitude for mountain climbing, both genders engage in mountaineering activity (184). However, the study further portrays the aspect of power anger among men. According to Moscoso-Sánchez, men demonstrated “a greater involvement in matters related to sports management” (184). In most societies, women are socially expected to care for children and engage in other female-related occupations and behaviors. For example, they are expected to be heterosexual thus dress, speak, move, and act in ways men deem attractive. Moscoso-Sánchez presents a similar case where female mountaineers value family affairs and “seldom involve themselves in the management of sporting clubs and federations” (184). In other words, masculinity is expressed in terms of power, high status in social groups, confidence, toughness, and self-reliance while femininity is expressed through speech, dress, and movement which communicate dependency, weakness, and sensitivity to other people’s needs (Devor 429). Brickell further expands Devor’s view by adding that gender is a socially constructed attitude that demands one to “accomplish either a socially acceptable maleness or femaleness” (94). In other words, gender is an element of social life and the meaning given to it constitutes its most critical features.
People perpetuate social construction of the differentiation between “female” and “male” and buildup of social expectation onto such groups by engaging in gendered roles and behaviors. In turn, children learn membership rules in the community and come to perceive themselves based on what they have learned from those around them. Children understand that they belong to a certain gender group by the age of 8 months to 2 years (Devor 424). From symbolic interactionist perspective, people relate towards other people, activities, institutions, and objects based on the meaning such things have for them. The meaning which results from social interaction facilitates shared conceptualization of social life on which other people conform. Irshad and Banerji concur with this view by supporting Devor’s point that gender is not natural but socially constructed. Irshad and Banerji negate the existence of gender or sex as a natural category or based on anatomy and argue that gender is a “product of discourse constructed by reiterative performance in culture and society” (586).That is, the society determines the acceptable norms based on masculinity and femininity mold. Ideally, gender identity is the total of culture and parents’ notion of activities and behavior appropriate to each gender through character interests, status, and expression. Therefore, every moment of a child’s gives a clue on how h/she should think, act, or behave to meet the expectations gender places on an individual.
In conclusion, gender does not occur naturally but is socially constructed. That is, it comprises of socially constructed identities related to particular gender in any given society and propagated through practices of activities, roles, and behavior associated with one gender or another. The process of gender construction begins with people gendering themselves based on norms and values set by the society. People then conform to gender identity by engaging in gendered activities. Children learn the process from childhood and proliferate it at adulthood thus making social construction of gender a continuous process.
Brickell, Chris. "The Sociological Construction of Gender and Sexuality." The Sociological Review 54.1 (2006): 87-113.
Devor, Holly. "Becoming Members of Society: Learning the Social Meanings of Gender." Gender Blending: Confronting the Limits of Duality (1992): 424-432.
Irshad, Shaista and BanerjiNiroj. "Gender as a Social Construct in Margaret Atwood's Oryx and Crake." Academic Research International 2.2 (2012): 585-594.
Moscoso-Sánchez, David. "The Social Construction of Gender Identity amongst Mountaineers." European Journal of Sport and Society 5.2 (2008): 187-194.
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