Doing Gender: Alternative Critical Perspectives
The importance of conceptualising the person-in-context is central to critical social psychology and a key tenant of social constructionism. Burr (2003), drawing on Gergen (1985), argues that social constructionists share a critical standpoint towards taken for granted knowledge and an understanding of knowledge as socio-historically located, produced in interaction, and with interactional and material effects, so that knowledge and action go together (see also Burr, this volume). Applying this approach to gender, social constructionists might consider the idea that ‘girls love pink’ as a culturally accepted idea that can be interrogated by looking at the genealogy of where this idea came from, the discursive, institutional and material conditions that allow it to make sense to us now, how these are reproduced in social interaction and to what effect. In doing so, they could show that in Victorian times, pink was considered a boy’s colour (pink being linked to a nexus of meanings around red, the planet Mars, war, and masculinity). Looking at contemporary sense-making, social constructionists might examine gendered marketing including the rise in ‘pinking’ products to develop female markets, so that contemporary children and adults must take up, resist or otherwise negotiate an understanding that genders are coloured (see for example, Amazon customer reviews for the pink biro http://www.amazon.co.uk/product-reviews/ B004FTGJUW).
Social constructionism underpins West and Zimmerman’s (1987) argument that gender is something we do rather than something we are. ‘Doing gender’ is the idea that people are categorised by their sex and learn to act in ways that can be interpreted through cultural understandings of what is appropriate for their sex category. Within Western cultures, people are divided into males and females, and in interaction at any time our behaviour may be held to account in terms of how congruent it is with normative conceptions of masculinity or femininity. These concepts are not natural, essential, or biological but are often treated as if they were, and in most contexts, we are required to be read as congruent with our sex category or if not, to be accountable for our incongruity in an understandable way. For example, wearing a suit with a tie remains normatively masculine; a man in this outfit would be congruent with a certain kind of (perhaps professional/conservative) masculinity—a woman wearing it might be read as subversive, playing with masculinity, perhaps to signify her as sexy, lesbian, or making a claim to authority. Both are ‘doing gender’, engaging in an activity (in this case, their clothing choices) that can be read through the lens of gender.
Gender is not just a behaviour, because to be gendered it needs to be intelligible as a gendered behaviour. Gender is therefore something that we ‘do’ because it is a practice that reflects or expresses gender which also requires another to make sense of it as gendered. Judith Butler gives an example that we can use to help this make more sense: a young man who ‘swished’ when he walked was thrown off a bridge and killed because other young men read this walk through the lenses of gender and sexuality. The hip-swishing walk was interpreted as a sign that the young man was gay, and thus in their eyes failing to do gender appropriately (see Butler talk about this at https://www.youtube. com/watch?v=DLnv322X4tY).
How gender is ‘done’ is socio-historically specific, since it changes over time and is different across cultures. This suggests that our understanding of gender is not necessarily natural or true, but stems from a cultural agreement of what is true. From this perspective, critical social psychologists may ask how some ideas but not others become culturally agreed as true. This is a question of power. And to theorise power we turn to poststructuralism.
Poststructuralism is a theoretical framework for thinking about language, power, and truth. At any one time, there are multiple ways of understanding an issue and these understandings circulate within communities, particularly through language. In the process, some of these understandings are accorded greater veracity than others, so that within a culture, they are understood by most people as representing reality. Power is therefore in the process of ideas about the world being accepted as truths about the world.
At certain socio-historic moments, ways of understanding the world emerge that structure our understanding in relatively coherent ways. These ‘discursive regimes’ produce the ways we understand gender, for example, that femininity is associated with emotion and masculinity with rationality. Discursive regimes are often enabled by institutional support (e.g. medicine holds significant power in how we understand sex; see Foucault, 1978). In turn, these understandings produce ‘subject positions’, concepts of the kinds of people who can exist, such as the nurturing mother or the rational male scientist. People may take up and interpret themselves through subject positions, perhaps turning to experts to facilitate this process, for example, psychologists who write parenting books on how to be more nurturing.
However dominant a discursive regime might appear, there are always other ways of making sense of the world, in part because introducing an idea suggests its alternative. Alternative concepts may run in parallel with or directly contest more dominant understandings (Billig et al., 1988). For example, conceptualising anorexia as symptomatic of out-of-control femininity opens up the possibility of constructing anorexia as an exemplar of female self-discipline and control (Malson, 1998).
How we experience our gendered subjectivities is thus a complex interaction between the multiple discourses of gender available in our milieu (some of which will have greater cultural credibility and/or institutional support) and how these discourses circulate through the communication and interactions that we experience in our day to day lives. Gender may be something that we do in interaction, but it is multiple, fluid, and dynamic as we and others shift between competing discourses of gender. Conceptualising gender in this way offers a more complex and nuanced theoretical framework than the sex/gender distinction of mainstream psychology. In the sections below, we show its application.