The sociological imagination (Mills, 1959) is a way of thinking that is very useful in understanding all sorts of social phenomena, including the social construction of differences between women and men (Jackson, 1998a).This entire book is about the social construction of those differ­ences, so what I say here will provide a framework to aid in placing and making sense of what follows in this and the following chapters. The book uses the sociological imagination as a way of thinking that seeks to make connections between the life of the individual and a wider historical and social context. According to Mills, imagining something sociologically involves striving to understand at what point private troubles are in fact public issues. For example, if one woman fails to become a politician this might be due to personal factors, but if hardly any political candidates are women then we begin to wonder if this is a public issue of discrimination. If one woman does not drive, that may be a personal choice; but if a law is passed forbidding women to drive, as in Saudi Arabia, that becomes a public issue. From a sociological viewpoint differences between women and men are largely the product of social forces.

Understanding the life of a woman or man involves understanding the history of the society in which they live (Mills, 1959). Changes in ideas about sex differences over time help illustrate the centrality of the social in determining what it means to be a woman or a man, as I discuss below. But by ‘history’ Mills means not just what happened in the past (although that is part of it), but the wider social context in which individuals live.

In locating the life of individuals in relation to wider social circumstances sociologists also often use cultural comparisons (Giddens, 1986: 13) because they help demonstrate that being born a woman (or man) can mean very different things depending on the social environment. Having a female body does not necessarily make you behave in a particular way. Cultural comparisons are usually drawn from anthropology. Information from different cultures helps sociologists question the importance of any physical or psychological differences between women and men and can be used to establish the extent to which those differences are socially constructed. The classic anthropological study of differences between women and men is Margaret Mead’s (1962/1950) Male and Female, where she argued that whatever males do in a particular culture is always valued more than what the women do. Her early work on Sex and Temperament in Three Primitive Societies (Mead 1963/1935) argued that there was a range of different meanings

of femininity and masculinity in different cultures. Some examples illustrate the variation of behaviours thought to be ‘feminine’ or ‘masculine’.The Tchambuli tribe in New Guinea consider ‘masculine’ what most westerners regard as ‘feminine’. In that tribe Mead observed that it is the men who adorn themselves. Tchambuli women are the dominant partners and men are emotionally dependent on them. In addition, not all peoples expect women and men to behave differently. Mead noted that the Arapesh of New Guinea regard both women and men as ‘inherently gentle, responsive and co-operative’ and that both women and men of the tribe take responsibility for child care (Mead, 1963/1935: 134).These are all traits that North Americans, Europeans and Australasians tend to see as ‘feminine’ characteristics. There is some debate within anthropology about the accuracy of Mead’s findings on these particular cultures; some critics suggest she rather too conve­niently found what she was looking for, while others suggest that her work is valuable in giving voice to women’s as well as men’s accounts of their culture (Lipset, 2003). Whilst many studies have gathered evidence of different meanings being associated with femininity and masculinity in different cultures (for example, see Oakley, 1972), this may slightly miss the point. It is important to recognize that the very tendency to categorize femininity and masculinity as opposite and mutually exclusive categories might be a western way of thinking. There are indeed cultures where there are more than two categories of sex/gender (Herdt, 1994). However, most cultures are not isolated from one another and many ideas about femininity and masculinity circulate around the globe via processes of colonization and globalization and the movement of peoples and ideas through, for example, religions and mass media. Therefore what is crucial is to examine patterns in the kinds of ideas that appear dominant, while also appreciating that there are alternatives and variations in these meanings, not only between cultures but within the same culture.

An appreciation of how differences between women and men are seen in varying ways can be part of an overall critical approach to gen­der (Giddens, 1986: 13). Being critical about the extent and signifi­cance of differences means not taking anything for granted. A critical approach means looking at the familiar world around you in a new way (Berger, 1963).This means always examining afresh why things are done the way they are, in your own society as well as in others. It is important to question ways of doing things, especially those that are taken for granted, such as practices of femininity and masculinity and what they reveal about the social character of differences between women and men. A crucial framework for this has been ideas about heteronormativity.