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West and Zimmerman - Doing Gender - Summary


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									West, Candace and Don H. Zimmerman. “Doing Gender.” Gender and Society. Vol. 1, No.
2 (June 1987).

Summary by Brian Asner


        Contrary to the traditional understandings of biologically-determined “sex” and gender,
West and Zimmerman offer a new framework involving sex, sex category, and gender. Sex is
determined by biological criteria, although the relevant biological criteria vary in different
societies (for instance, genitalia vs. chromosomal type). Sex category is the social category
assigned according to sex criteria. However, since we rarely have knowledge about an
individual’s genitalia or chromosomes, we tend to make sex categorizations based on
characteristics which are not necessarily sex criteria (i.e. having a deep voice). In contrast,
gender refers to our portrayal of attitudes and activities which society associates to a particular
sex category. If gender may be assessed in any situation, and assessments of gender are made in
every interaction, then we are constantly doing gender in every interaction. In the authors’
words, gender is “a routine accomplishment embedded in everyday interaction” (125).
        This framework has significant implications. First, gender structures interaction and is
structured by interaction. Put another way, gender norms provide the “proper” way for members
of a sex category to behave, but abiding by these norms reproduces these regulations. This
reproduction comes to make gender differences seem “natural” and “essential.” Since resources
are allocated differently according to sex category and gender expression, and these are both
seen as “essential,” doing gender ultimately produces and reproduces the social structure. In
order to change this situation, social change must be pursued at both the level of institutional sex
categories and interactional gender norms.


         West and Zimmerman argue that the previous conception of sex and gender as biological
differences vs. “achieved status” (125), based on proper socialization, is inadequate. They
present a new framework that distinguishes between sex, sex category, and gender.
         The authors describe sex as a determination based on biological criteria. These criteria
are decided upon at the institutional / social level, and are not always consistent. For instance,
some societies may consider genitalia to be the relevant criteria, while others may rely on
chromosomal typing.
         Ideally, individuals are placed in sex categories according to the socially determined sex
criteria. In practice, however, this rarely happens, since we do not have access to information
about individuals’ genitalia or chromosomes. Therefore, sex categorization is established by the
individual’s exhibition of socially-required displays, which proclaim membership in one sex
category or another. Categorization decisions are based on the cultural assumption that essential
sex criteria divide people into two “natural” sexes. The authors describe a “guilty until proven
innocent” (my language) mentality for sex categories – in other words, we assume that someone
categorized as a woman is a woman unless we encounter something that makes us think
otherwise. Thus, if we found that this individual had male genitalia, we would reject the female
sex category according to our sex criteria.

                                                                           West and Zimmerman 1
         In contrast, gender is the management of conduct to correspond to norms about the
proper attitudes and activities associated with a particular sex category (i.e. “masculine” or
“feminine”). Note that gender is not simply an extension of an “essential” sex category (i.e.
being a man does not mean one necessarily acts “manly”), but is instead a portrayal in
interactions that reflects what we choose to convey about our sex, according to social
conventions (i.e. a woman may choose to be “womanly” or non-womanly). This portrayal is
“done” (hence the title “doing gender”) with the understanding that we are accountable; in other
words, that others will be evaluating our activities and using them to determine our gender and
our sex category. If we extend this idea, it is evident that any activity can be assessed for its
consistency with gender norms. Therefore, our gender is always vulnerable to assessment in any
situation, and we are “doing gender” demonstrations continuously. Yet, social conceptions of
gender give us a continuous blueprint for how a member of our sex category should behave.
Thus, gender is both structured by interaction (our understanding of gender develops according
to how we behave in interactions) and structures interaction (our interactions follow the
culturally accepted script for how an interaction should take place, according to our gender).
Ultimately, gender is not an aspect of a person’s essential nature; rather, gender “is something
that one does, and does recurrently, in interaction with others” (140, emphasis in original).
         To illustrate this framework, we may say that the male sex is based on an XY or the
presence of a penis. When looking at a particular individual on the street, we don’t have access
to these sex criteria. But, if we see a broad-shouldered individual with a deep voice and facial
hair (all presumably characteristics of the male sex), we will generally assign this individual to
the male sex category. Note that we may be assigning this person to the wrong sex category by
relying on these characteristics. Furthermore, if this individual is aggressive, loud, and crude, we
may see this conduct as “masculine” (a gender assessment), or behavior which is associated with
the male sex category. Again, all of these characteristics could potentially describe someone of
the female sex as well. In general, we look first to superficial gender characteristics (clothing,
hairstyle) to estimate sex, then superficial biological characteristics (deepness of voice, level of
muscularity), but almost never at sex criteria (genitals, chromosomes).
         Note that neither sex category nor gender is describing innate, “natural” characteristics.
Instead, both are continuously managed based on our knowledge that others will judge us in
particular ways. Thus, gender is something that one “does” on a daily basis in interactions, not a
given set of psychological traits. However, as we continue to construct gender according to our
understandings of sex categories, these differences are increasingly seen as “essential” or natural
differences (137). The authors claim that the “essentialness” of gender differences is engrained
from an early age. Quoting Spencer Cahill, the authors argue that gender is not a product of
socialization and maintenance of customs, but rather “recruitment” into established gender
identities. Cahill observed that children were encouraged to be a boy or girl instead of a “baby,”
which was achieved by abiding by the “mandatory” gender activities of each sex category.
Through this recruitment, we learn to participate in a self-regulating process of monitoring our
own conduct and others’ for gender implications. In the process, gender differences become
viewed as objective facts.
         In conclusion, the authors claim that doing gender is unavoidable, especially because of
the social consequences of sex-category membership – namely, that power and resources are
allocated differently according to these assessments. Yet, doing gender also contributes to
making these differences seem concrete and natural. Therefore, “if, in doing gender, men are
also doing dominance and women are doing deference,” (146), then doing gender also produces

                                                                           West and Zimmerman 2
and reproduces the social structure as a whole. The authors summarize this process as such:
“Doing gender furnishes the interactional scaffolding of social structure, along with a built-in
mechanism of social control” (147). In order to enact social change, then, we must pursue
changes at both the institutional level of the sex category and the interactional level of gender.

                                                                            West and Zimmerman 3

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