How this book is organized
Initially the sociology of gender needed to separate bodies from their social fates (Oakley, 1997: 29). Chapter 2 examines why it was crucial to
challenge common sense ideas about sex differences as ‘natural’ because these were used to justify inequalities between women and men. This involved taking on biological determinism and showing that the social environment was the key factor in shaping gender. Indeed ‘sex’ itself was not necessarily a clear demarcation between two types of bodies (male and female). Having established the importance of the social, Chapter 3 looks at how it is important to explicate the ways in which gender operated within social life. Influential in this respect were socialization theories and symbolic interactionism’s attention to ‘doing’ gender.
These efforts to explain gender in sociologically satisfactory ways are best understood in the context of a broader range of theorizing on gender. Chapter 4 thus maps out gender theorizing, identifying major debates around the issues of equality versus difference and key approaches such as liberal, socialist and radical feminism. This map also charts the linguistic or cultural turn as a journey away from structuralism and towards post-structuralism. This turn eventually led many sociologists to feel a need for more materiality, whilst they were wary of returning to economic determinism. Instead there has been a return to other ‘matter’ in the form of bodies. Gender as a form of embodiment is thus extensively re-examined in Chapter 5 for its promise in thinking about both the systems of economics and of meanings as forming gender.
A dual attention to inequalities and meanings has been central to the politics of gender, as Chapter 6 explores. Feminist and masculinity politics have not only addressed material or economic disadvantage, but also put questions of identity and relationship to others onto the political agenda. Yet difficulties in dealing with what women’s interests might be, given the diversity of persons in that category, made a feminist politics based on identity increasingly difficult to maintain. Intellectual attention to differences was productive, but for sociologists it was clear that differences around which social inequality was conducted should be the primary target. Although it might seem best to deal with the full range of social inequalities as they intersect with gender, in practice this would be a highly cumbersome analysis to execute. Therefore, like much of the literature I cover, I have focused my discussion around the relationship of gender to two major categories around which hierarchies operate.
Chapter 7 deals with the category of class and Chapter 8 with ‘race’. Within accounts of the intertwining of class and gender we can most clearly see the cultural turn. From classifying women’s class in economic terms, to adapting more sophisticated materialist analyses of women’s oppression, scholars turned toward understandings of class as reproduced via symbolic meanings. The influence of Bourdieu in this matter is evaluated in terms of what kind of contribution it can make to understanding gender as both structural inequality and an individual practice over which people have some control. Similar debates are considered in
relation to the relationships of gender to ‘race’ and ethnic identity, but there the constituting force of global histories of slavery and colonization are acknowledged. These are histories of both economic processes and of discourses as they produce formations of gender at global and local levels. From this we can see in what situations and how it might be desirable to combine materialist and ‘cultural’ approaches to understanding gender.