FROM INDIVIDUALS TO INSTITUTIONS AND BACK AGAIN
By the time children become accomplished members of the grade and middle school social scenes, they know that they are either a boy or a girl, and they expect to remain so. How do gender-aware children ‘‘do gender’’? In her important study, Gender Play: Girls and Boys in School, the sociologist Barrie Thorne builds an essential methodological framework for studying older children. She became increasingly unhappy, she writes, ‘‘with the frameworks of ‘gender socialization’ and ‘gender development’ ’’ in use for work on gender in children’s lives. Thorne complains that traditional ideas about gender so-
gendered play develops. . .
gender stereotypes harden. . .
gender constancy begins to develop. . .
gender schema begins to develop. . .
BIRTH 9 months 1 year 2 years 3 years 4 years. . .
FIGURE 9.3: Stages in the development of gender specificity. (Source: Erica Warp, for the author) cialization presume a one-way interaction from strong (the powerful adult) to weak (the passive, accepting child), and that even when granting some agency to children, social scientists have defined them as recipients, bodies acted upon by adults and the surrounding culture. Adults have ‘‘the status of full social actors,’’ while children are ‘‘incomplete, adults-in-the-making.’’ Thorne argues that social scientists would do better to see ‘‘children not as the next generation’s adults, but as social actors in a range of institutions.’’ Finally, and most important, traditional frameworks of gender socialization focus on the unfolding of individuals. In her work, Thorne chose to begin instead with ‘‘group life—with social relations, the organization and meanings of social situations, the collective practices through which children and adults create and recreate gender in their daily interactions’’—that is, with a system and its process.69
By focusing on how social context and daily practice—of both children and adults—generate meaning, Thorne moves away from the question ‘‘Are girls and boys different?’’ and asks instead how children actively create and challenge gender structures and meanings.70 She urges us to turn gender into a complex of concepts having to do with both individual and social structure. Furthermore, she finds it important to understand that ‘‘gender relations are not fixed. . . but vary by context’’ (including race, class, and ethnicity). As a feminist, Thorne’s goal is to promote equity in education and beyond. Applying her approaches to the study of boys and girls, she feels, can help accomplish such ends. In a similar vein, the psychologist Cynthia Garcia-Coll and her colleagues propose to integrate studies of gender in children with studies of race, ethnicity, and social class.71
Dynamic systems theorists such as Alan Fogel suggest, in principle, how
gender can move from outside to inside the body, while developmental psychologists and sociologists such as Thorne, Fagot, Bem, Garcia-Coll, and others show how institutional gender, as well as attributes such as race and social class, might become part of individual systems of behavior. Indeed, gender is represented both within social institutions and within individuals. The sociologist Judith Lorber provides a European-American roadmap for such distinctions (see table 9.1). The institutional components of gender feed back on individual aspects; individuals interpret sexual physiology in the context of institutional and individual gender. The subjective sexual self always emerges in this complex system of gender. Lorber argues (and I agree), that ‘‘as a social institution, gender is a process of creating distinguishable social statuses for the assignment of rights and responsibilities. … As a process, gender creates the social differences that define ‘woman’ and ‘man.’ . . . Gendered patterns of interaction acquire additional layers of gendered sexuality, parenting, and work behaviors in childhood, adolescence and adulthood.’’72 Thus Lorber, as well as other feminist sociologists and psychologists,73 points out that concern with our subjective selves is not ‘‘merely’’ about human psychology and physiology. Rather, gendered individuals exist in social institutions strongly marked by a variety of power inequities.74
Although Lorber correlates institutional with individual gender, it was not her goal to show how the individual physically imbibes the institutional. But the work of sociologists and historians can provide helpful roadmaps for future work.75 Consider the work of survey sociologists such as Kinsey and others who have followed in his footsteps. Surveying populations to learn more about human sexuality is a tricky business. On the one hand, population surveys provide us with information about gender and sexuality that can be very important in the formulation of policy issues ranging from poverty to public health.76 On the other hand, when we create the categories that enable us to count, we bring into being new types of people.77
Consider the seemingly simple question: How many homosexual men and women are there in the United States? To answer it, we must first decide who is homosexual and who is heterosexual. Do we base our decision on identity? If so, we would count only those who will say, at least to themselves, ‘‘I am a homosexual’’ or ‘‘I am a heterosexual.’’ Or should we count men who consider themselves fully heterosexual, but who once or twice a year get drunk, go to a gay bar, and have sex with several men— later indicating that since their urge to have such sex is so easily satisfied by such irregular encounters, they see no need to tell their wives or to apply the label ‘‘homosexual’’?78 Should we create a separate category for bisexuals, and how shall we define the true bisexual?79 Is a man who in his early adolescence experimented once or twice
TABLE 9.1 Lorber’s Subdivision of Gender
AS A SOCIAL INSTITUTION, FOR AN INDIVIDUAL,
GENDER IS COMPOSED OF: GENDER IS COMPOSED OF:
Source: Adapted from Lorber 1994, pp. 30—31.
with another male but ever since has had sex only with women bisexual? Are people who are homosexual in prison but not on the street bisexual?80
By answering such questions, survey sociologists create the categories by which we organize sexual experience. As sociologists create ‘‘objective’’ information about human sexuality, they provide individually useful categories. The ‘‘Kinsey 6,’’ for example, is now part of the national culture and contributes to the structuring of the psyche of some individuals, while the man who gets drunk and has homosexual sex once a year need not conceptualize himself as a homosexual because he does not have a ‘‘preference’’ or an ‘‘orientation’’ toward men.81 None of this is to suggest that survey sociologists should close up shop. Indeed, the information they create is deeply important. But we should always hold in view the fact that surveys necessarily incorporate past ideas about gender and sexuality while at the same time creating new categories that are bound to carry both institutional and individual weight.
Historians as well as sociologists contribute to both the structure and understanding of institutional and individual gender. The psychologist George Elder, Jr., writes: ‘‘Human lives are socially embedded in specific historical times and places that shape their content, pattern, and direction. . . . Types of historical change are experienced differentially by people of different ages and roles.’’82 The historian Jeffrey Weeks applies this idea to the study of human sexuality by suggesting that we study five aspects of the social production of systems of sexual expression.83 Kinship and family systems and economic and social changes (such as urbanization, the increasing economic independence of women, and the growth of a consumer economy)84 both organize and contribute to changing forms of human sexual expression. So, too, do new types of social regulation, which may be expressed through religion or the law. What Weeks calls the political moment, that is, ‘‘the political context in which decisions are made—to legislate or not, to prosecute or ignore—can be important in promoting shifts in the sexual regime,’’ also profoundly contributes to individual sexual expression.85 Finally, Weeks invokes what he calls cultures of resistance. Stonewall, for example, where the symbolic founding event of the gay rights movement took place, was, after all, a bar where gay men gathered for social rather than political purposes. Although, ultimately, self-identified homosexuals took to conventional political means—voting, lobbying, and political action committees—the prior existence of private spaces in which a gay subculture developed enabled such activities by making visible the potential allies with whom one might join to exact political change, while at the same time modifying individual embodiment of what came to be known as gay sexuality.86
Understanding the history of technology is also key to understanding the individual embodiment of contemporary gender systems. Think, for example, about the category of the transsexual. In the nineteenth century transsexuals did not exist. To be sure, men passed as women, and vice versa.87 But the modern-day transsexual, a person who uses surgery and hormones to transform his or her birth genitals, could not have existed without the necessary medical technology.88 The transsexual emerged as an identity or type of human, when, in exchange for medical recognition and access to hormones and surgery, transsexuals convinced their doctors that they had become the most stereotypical members of their sex-to-be.89 Only then would physicians agree to create a medical category that transsexuals could apply in order to obtain surgical treatment.