Doing Gender Essay

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Candace West and Don Zimmerman introduced the concept ”doing gender in an article of the same title in 1987. They were the first to articulate an ethnomethodological perspective on the creation and affirmation of gender inequality between males and females in western society. The purview of ethnomethodology includes the study of the socially managed accomplishments of all aspects of life that are treated as objective, unchanging, and transsituational. West and Zimmerman s treatment of gender began by making problematic the prevailing cultural perspective: (1) female and male represent naturally defined categories of being that are derived from mutually exclusive (and easily distinguished) reproductive functions, and which result in distinctively different psychological and behavioral proclivities; (2) such divisions are rooted in that biological nature, which makes them both fundamental and enduring; (3) these essential differences between masculine and feminine are adequately reflected in the myriad differences observed between women and men and the social arrangements that solidify around them.

In clear contradiction to these notions, West and Zimmerman asserted that sex is founded on the socially agreed-upon biological criteria for initial assignment to sex category, but that classification typically has little to do with the everyday and commonsense sex categorization engaged in by members of a social group. They argued that it is not a rigid set of criteria that is applied to establish confidence that someone is male or female, but a seamless application of an ”if—can” test. If someone can be seen as a member of an appropriate category, then he or she should be categorized accordingly. Following this assertion, West and Zimmerman were obliged to describe the process by which sex categorization is construed, created, and reaffirmed. They did this through the concept of ”doing gender.

This concept challenged the current thinking about gender as an attribute, an individual set of performative displays (largely separate from the ongoing affairs of social life), or a response to vaguely defined role expectations. They completed what Dorothy Smith (2002: x) deemed ”a ruthless but invaluable surgery by distinguishing among sex, sex category, and gender. Under this new formulation, gender could no longer be seen as a social ”variable or individual ”characteristic but as a socially situated accomplishment. West and Zimmerman argued that the implication of such ubiquity is that the design and interpretation of social conduct can at any time be made subject to concerns about sex category. Thus individuals and their behavior — in virtually any course of action — can be evaluated in relation to a womanly or manly nature and character.

Following the initial formulation in Gender and Society, Candace West and Sarah Fenstermaker clarified and extended the concept of ”doing gender. Their interest widened to focus on the implications of the concept for explicating practices of inequality and on the application of the concept to empirical work. The subsequent theoretical commentary of West and Fenstermaker focused primarily on the relevance of gender to various forms of interpersonal and institutional inequality and to the extension of the concept to include race and class. They were motivated by an interest in the social mechanisms by which the various outcomes of social inequality (e.g., job discrimination, sexual harassment, violence against women, hate crime, differential treatment by gender in school, church, and government) are created and legitimated.

In their article ”Doing difference (1995), West and Fenstermaker posed a theoretical problem that took them well beyond their earlier preoccupation with gender. At the time, feminist sociological theory was beginning to pose questions about the categorical ”intersectionality of social life. West and Fenstermaker observed that there was little in the existing literature on gender that provided for an understanding of how race, class, and gender could operate simultaneously to shape and ultimately determine the outcomes of inequality. If such ”intersections or ”interlocking categories could go beyond metaphor, what was needed was a conceptual mechanism that illuminated ”the relations between individual and institutional practice and among forms of domination (West & Fenstermaker 1995: 19).

To adapt the argument offered in ”Doing gender, West and Fenstermaker asserted that while the resulting manifestations of sexism, class oppression, and racism are certainly different, the mechanism by which such inequalities unfold are the same. That is, ”difference is done (invidious distinctions justified on grounds of race, class, or gender) within individual and institutional domains to produce social inequalities. These practices are influenced by existing social structure, but also serve to reinscribe the rightness of such practices over time.


  1. Fenstermaker, S. & West, C. (2002) Doing Gender, Doing Difference: Inequality, Power, and Institutional Change. Routledge, New York.
  2. Smith, D. (2002) Foreword. In: Fenstermaker, S. & West, C. (eds.), Doing Difference, Doing Gender. Routledge, New York, pp. ix—xii.
  3. West, C. & Fenstermaker, S. (1995) Doing difference. Gender and Society 9 (1): 8—37.
  4. West, C. & Zimmerman, D. (1987) Doing gender. Gender and Society 1 (2): 125—51.

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