Accounting for Doing Gender--West and Zimmerman

Gender and Society 2009

University of California–Santa Cruz

University of California–Santa Barbara

We’re delighted to have “Doing Gender” and its sequelae as the subjects of this symposium. The serious readings of our work by Professors Connell, Jones, Kitzinger, Messerschmidt, Risman, Smith, and Vidal-Ortiz do us honor, and we welcome the chance to address them. We use our response to reflect on, clarify, admit, and expand on what we said originally and what we have said since. As important as the path taken, however, is the theoretical path ahead, and we will comment on that as well.
What Raewyn Connell calls our “classic and beautifully constructed paper” (thank you!) was actually written considerably earlier than it was pub- lished. The initial ideas for “Doing Gender” came in 1975 and 1976, while we were trying to reconcile findings on the use of interruption in conversa- tions between women and men (Zimmerman and West 1975; West and Zimmerman 1977) with prevailing formulations of sex role theory. We pre- sented “Doing Gender” at a meeting of the American Sociological Association in 1977; we spent the next ten years trying to get it into print.
Between 1977 and 1987, this work was rejected by some of the most respected journals in our field (including Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society and Social Problems). In fact, Erving Goffman, one reader of an early draft, passed away in the time it took to get the paper published. During those ten years, we continued to circulate pre-publica- tion versions to friends and colleagues, and we continued to refine and polish the paper in response to their remarks. We were more than gratified to see “Doing Gender” finally published in 1987, but the “responses . . . 

to Stacey and Thorne” (1985) to which Connell refers—and the “para- digm shift” that James Messerschmidt references—had not yet appeared when we wrote it.
In 2008 though, our original idea has taken on a life of its own—a much more lively one than we could have anticipated when it was published. Barbara Risman contends that “the concept has been so integrated into the sociological lexicon that [its] feminist critique sometimes disappears entirely” and Nikki Jones suggests that the use of ideas “in ways that may or may not have originally been intended by their authors” is, in fact, a tribute to them (Risman 2008; Jones 2008). Today, “doing gender” often appears in print without acknowledgment of its source, and some scholars (such as Judith Butler) play on our wording (Undoing Gender, Butler 2004) without ever citing our work. Because our original conception has been deployed in so many different ways,1 we restate it here to provide a platform for what follows.
Our point of departure was, as Connell notes, the story of Agnes, a 19-year-old single white woman who came to the University of California–Los Angeles seeking sexual reassignment surgery in 1958. Harold Garfinkel (1967) employed her story as a methodological device to make observable what, as we phrased it in 1987 (West and Zimmerman 1987, 131), culture has concealed: the accomplishment of what is taken to be one’s “natural” or “essential” nature (cf. Goffman 1977). Prior to her surgical reassignment, Agnes faced a number of challenges: (1) She had to convince the medical/psychiatric establishment that she was “really” female; (2) to do so, she had to present herself as such and live in society as a woman; (3) and, given the requirements of “passing,” she had to preserve the secret of her penis (for a complete list of her challenges before and after surgery see Garfinkel 1967, 135–36).
To tap the lessons of Agnes’s practical circumstances, we analytically distinguished between sex, sex categorization, and gender. A clinician’s initial assignment of a newborn to a sex (female or male) is ordinarily jus- tified2 on the basis of the possession of female or male genitalia— although chromosomal and hormonal criteria may be applied when the “facts” of the matter are equivocal. But sex categorization involves the display and recognition of socially regulated external insignia of sex— such as deportment, dress, and bearing (cf. Goffman 1956). The relation- ship between sex category and gender is the relationship between being a
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114 GENDER & SOCIETY / February 2009
recognizable incumbent of a sex category (which itself takes some doing) and being accountable to current cultural conceptions of conduct becom- ing to—or compatible with the “essential natures” of—a woman or a man. We conceptualized this as an ongoing situated process, a “doing” rather than a “being.”
Following Garfinkel (1967), we thereby transformed an ascribed status into an achieved status,3 moving masculinity and femininity from natural, essential properties of individuals to interactional, that is to say, social, properties of a system of relationships. Moreover, we argued, because accountability is a feature of social relationships, the accomplishment of gender is at once interactional and institutional—with its idiom drawn from the institutional arena where such relationships are enacted (West and Zimmerman 1987, 137). Hence, the political implications: If the gen- der attributes deployed as a basis of maintaining men’s hegemony are social products, they are subject to social change (however challenging such change may be).
With the publication of “Doing Difference,” West and Fenstermaker (1995) extended our ethnomethodological perspective to provide an under- standing of how gender, race and class operate simultaneously with one another. We conceptualized difference as a social doing, a mechanism for organizing “the relations between individual and institutional practice, and among forms of domination” (West and Fenstermaker 1995, 19). In brief, we argued that members of society “do difference” by creating distinctions among themselves—as incumbents of different sex categories, different race categories, and different class categories. Invidious in character, these distinctions are not natural, normal, or essential to the incumbents in ques- tion. But once the distinctions have been created, they are used to affirm dif- ferent category incumbents’ “essentially different natures” and the institutional arrangements based on these. Ultimately, “patriarchy, racism and class oppression are seen as responses to those dispositions—as if the social order were merely a rational accommodation to ‘natural differences’ among social beings” (Fenstermaker and West 2002, 207).
Dorothy Smith disagrees with how we translate the political categories of gender, race, and class into the objects of sociological investigation. In her view, these categories are not adequate to encompass actual “social relations,” which rest on the structural arrangements and resulting inequal- ities that facilitate or constrain people’s lives. Smith’s remedy, following from her reading of Marx, is to transcend such categories and examine the lived experiences of actual people subject to relationships of inequality. While we do not have space for a fully elaborated discussion of her objec- tion, we can outline certain features of it and sketch how we might respond.
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Consider the notion of social relations. Smith touches on the broad cat- egories of history and social structure, including relations of production and technology, “human species being,” and the biological/neurological/ evolutionary factors in our primate heritage (Smith 2008). Our focus on gender, race, and class as social doings does not contradict the develop- ment of a model that integrates these doings into a more comprehensive account.
With regard to the issue of the adequacy of such categories to deal with the actual lives of persons in society, we reiterate our conception of the rela- tionship between categorization and accountability as involving observable practices in interaction. As Jones points out, the young women she studied knew full well that their very survival depended on their accountability as African American inner city girls—they approached men on the street “aggressively” to stop them, but then they behaved “demurely” while advancing their pleas for help. This does not require us to assume that inter- actions are free floating events unconnected to other features of social life (although the empirical specification of such connections is far from a triv- ial matter). But interactional organization remains the primordial scaffold- ing of everyday life, whatever other organizational forces impinge on it. The research challenge is to show how these forces mesh, for example, how history intersects with the interaction order.
Case in point: The meanings people attach to particular gender-, race-, or class-appropriate conduct come from “historically specific institutional and collective practices in the ‘natural’ (and thus, ‘rightful’) allocation of mater- ial and symbolic resources” (Fenstermaker and West 2002, 213). Thus, for as long as members of U.S. society believed that “girls are no good at math” (i.e., it’s not in their nature), schools could counsel white middle-class girls against advanced math classes and counsel working-class girls of color toward vocational training. The former President of Harvard University could then explain the resulting dearth of women in math and the sciences4 as a result of innate differences in ability between the sexes (Dillon 2005). But once the normative conceptions of appropriate conduct for girls changed, so too did opportunities and funds for girls in math and science—and, as we write, U.S. journalists report that “Girls = Boys” when it comes to math (Krieger 2008).5
A more proximate task is to more fully understand how interaction operates to sustain relations of inequality (cf. Kitzinger 2008). To be con- cerned with that question does not deny the relevance of other questions, but it does insist on a careful focus on the interaction order, and resistance to its assimilation into questions appropriate for other domains of inquiry.
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