Gender is not genetically or biologically inherited and there is therefore no ‘natural’ division in gender relation between men who will always be dominant while women are confined to the domestic sphere. Gender relations have been socially and politically constructed over time, and among present-day sociologists are generally considered a social institution. As an institution, it is also related to other institutions such as the family, the economy and the state, as well as to race, region and social class. It is not a fixed and unchanging institution, however, just as masculinity and femininity are not monolithic, but one that has been successfully challenged over the last forty years by the feminist and gay rights movement. Indeed, the changes would seem astonishing to just about any observer in 1960—who would probably not even have been able to remotely predict them. This does not that full equality has been achieved, either for women or gays (far from it) merely that a great deal of progress has been made in forty years.
Starting in the 1970s and 1980s, sociologists came to recognize that that gender differences were not simply givens or biological facts, but politically and culturally constructed. Sociological investigation of masculinity in theory and practice has also arrived at the same conclusion. Negotiation, resistance and domination were the real ‘natural’ facets of gender relations, to those who either supported or opposed the status quo. Throughout history, gender as “a system of social relations” left the public realm in control of men while women were mostly confined to the ‘domestic sphere’ (Gerson and Peiss, 1985, p. 317). Women were not simply passive victims of this system, either, but by accepting (or rejecting) certain cultural and ideological assumptions were “active creators of their own destinies” (Gerson and Peiss, p. 327). Neither sexuality nor gender is determined purely by culture or biology, rather all of these factors interact in complex ways. Gender is key for understanding “the allocation of power”, not only in the economy and political life but also in family and personal relationships (West and Zimmerman, 1987, p. 145). As a way of organizing social and economic existence in this world, gender is not part of some ‘natural’ biological order in which men have power and women must show deference, a point which the feminist movement has made vociferously since the 1960s and 1970s.
No single feminist theory exists in sociology or any other academic field, but they come in many forms, including Marxist, neo-Freudian, status expectations, structuralist, and symbolic interactionist. In spite of these major theoretical differences, “the most fundamental contributions of feminist theories have been to demonstrate the thoroughly sociocultural nature of the gender system” (Chafetz, 1997, p. 116). Social life and institutions have always been gendered, which traditional, male-oriented sociological theories simply failed to recognize or acknowledge until fairly recent times. Many academics still have widely-shared cultural beliefs and attitudes about gender that affect how they approach this subject. In recent decades, sociology has by and large come to accept the concept that gender is not inherited or even culturally determined in a hegemonic fashion, but rather is “an institutionalized system of social practices for constituting people as two significantly different categories”, around which ‘normal’ social and economic relations are constructed (Ridgeway and Correll, 2004, p. 510). Even though there has been considerable progress in gender equality in recent decades, there remain “hegemonic cultural beliefs” that act as a break and a hindrance to the achievement of full legal, social and economic equality (Ridgeway and Correll, p. 527).
Sociologists should study gender as a social institution that has endured over time but also been challenged over the last forty years by the feminist movement. Gender has “profound sociality” in relation to culture, social class, ideology and the distribution of power in society (Martin, 2004, p. 1250). Sociology should also recognize its “complexities and multifacetedness”, especially in the context that institutions are not necessarily rigid and fixed, and that they do not stand alone (Martin, p. 1265). Gender as an institution is related to other institutions like the family, religion, community and economic system, as well as to culture, race, ideology and social class. No institution can be changed through individual efforts alone, however, but through collective and cooperative efforts such as the feminist movement over the past forty years.
Masculinity also began to generate sociological research in the 1980s and 1990s, and as with the concept of femininity came to doubt that a singular or hegemonic type of masculinism existed at all. Maleness and femaleness are not biological absolutes—or even cultural absolutes—based on a single model of genetic or social reproduction. Some forms of masculinity, particularly homosexuality, have also been highly subordinated and repressed until fairly recent times, just as lesbianism was. As with femininity, there was also considerable variety based on locality, region, social class, race and ethnicity, and among both men and women these lead to “multiple hierarchies”, with some dominant and others subordinate (Connell and Messerschmidt, 2005, p. 830). This means that both genders are not homogeneous monolithic but “fluid and contradictory”, depending on a wide variety of factors (Connell and Messerschmidt, p. 836). Not all men are inevitably going to express the same type of masculinity as John Wayne and Mike Tyson, just as all women are not going to model their lives after a Betty Crocker commercial.
Sociological knowledge of gender relations and even the very definitions of masculinity and femininity have all undergone a major upheaval since the 1960s. Much of this change in academic perspectives has been driven by the feminist and gay rights movements, and would not have been possible without them. Few persons living in the 1950s or even the early-1960s would have been able to predict these changes, since at that time the majority of women were still confined to the ‘domestic sphere’ while gay men and lesbians were a suppressed minority. In fact, academic sociological was rather late to the party as far as catching up with the actual changes in society, including the questioning of the stereotypical roles of both men and women. Had these gender and sex roles been fixed in stone or biologically and genetically determined, they could not have been challenged so frequently and successfully, but the reality is that they are and always have been socially, culturally and politically constructed.
Chafetz, J.S. (1997). “Feminist Theory and Sociology: Underutilized Contributions for Mainstream Theory”. Annual Review of Sociology, Vol. 23 (1997), pp. 97-126.
Connell, R.W. and J.W. Messerschmidt (2005). “Hegemonic Masculinity: Rethinking the Concept”. Gender and Society, Vol. 19, No. 6 (December 2005), pp. 829-59.
Gerson, J. and K. Peiss (1985). “Boundaries, Negotiation, Consciousness: Reconceptualizing Gender Relations”. Social Problems, Vol. 32, No. 1 (April 1985), pp. 317-331.
Martin, P. Y. (2004). “Gender and Social Institution”. Social Forces, Vol. 82, No. 4 (June 2004), pp. 1249-73.
Ridgeway, C.L. and S.J. Correll (2004). “Unpacking the Gender System: A Theoretical Perspective on Gender Beliefs and Social Relations”. Gender and Society, Vol. 18, No. 4 (august 2004), pp. 510-31.
West, C. and D.H. Zimmerman (1987). “Doing Gender” Gender and Society, Vol. 1, No. 2 (June 1987), pp. 125-51.