"Doing Gender" As Canon or Agenda: by Nancy Jurik

Gender & Society
''Doing Gender'' as Canon or Agenda : A Symposium on West and Zimmerman
Nancy C. Jurik and Cynthia Siemsen
Gender & Society 2009 23: 72 DOI: 10.1177/0891243208326677
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“DOING GENDER” AS CANON OR AGENDA A Symposium on West and Zimmerman
Arizona State University CYNTHIA SIEMSEN
California State University–Chico

Candace West and Don Zimmerman’s article “Doing Gender” (1987) is the most cited article ever published in Gender & Society, a journal that ranks among the top publications in sociology and women’s studies. First presented and submitted for publication in the 1970s, it challenged widely accepted views of gender as a role or attribute of individuals or as a reflection of nat- ural differences rooted in biology. In an extremely important theoretical shift, West and Zimmerman drew attention to the ways in which gender differences are accomplished in routine social interactions. “Doing Gender,” and the elab- oration and expansion in West and Sarah Fenstermaker’s “Doing Difference” (1995) (also in Gender & Society), transformed research on gender and on the dynamic interplay of gender, race, and class in social interaction. It is fitting that over 20 years after its publication we reflect on the implications of “Doing Gender” for future study and practice.
The story of “Doing Gender” is a story of challenging sociological canon. A contributor to this symposium, Raewyn Connell (1997), has writ- ten elsewhere about the history of theories included in the canon. Historical changes that fueled the demise of colonial empires inspired reclassification of sociological theories once perceived as foundational. Although this ret- rospective reinterpretation of sociological history removed some overtly racist and sexist analyses, it also marginalized the study of race and gender. West and Zimmerman’s struggle to publish “Doing Gender” and its contin- ued reinterpretation in ways that make it more consistent with gender role theory reflect the difficulty involved in challenging canon. Simultaneously, the widespread adoption and citation of “Doing Gender” and “Doing Difference” indicate that the study of gender and race has returned to sociology, and that static gender-role and biological-determinist models
GENDER & SOCIETY, Vol. 23 No. 1, February 2009 72-75 DOI: 10.1177/0891243208326677
© 2009 Sociologists for Women in Society

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remain under siege. However, the authors here, including West and Zimmerman themselves, resist attempts to “canonize” the work as theory. All parties argue that there is much work to be done and stress that the doing gender/doing difference approach is itself a call for research.
The idea for this symposium originated with a session at the Sociologists for Women in Society 2007 summer meetings. The session, organized by Cynthia Siemsen, featured presentations by several partici- pants in this symposium (i.e., Jones, Jurik, Messerschmidt, and Risman). The strong presentations and standing-room-only audience encouraged us to propose the symposium to Gender & Society editor, Dana Britton, and the editorial board. We solicited additional comments from Raewyn Connell, Celia Kitzinger, Dorothy Smith, and Salvador Vidal-Ortiz. Our goal was to represent the views of both well-known scholars whose work has made some of the most significant contributions to sociological gen- der studies and newer voices whose work represents significant promise and contemplation. We asked these authors to reflect on the impact of “Doing Gender” on sociology and gender studies, note weaknesses, and suggest productive research questions. We asked West and Zimmerman to respond to comments and recommend an agenda for future research.
The comments address theoretical, methodological, and transformative agendas. Although they vary considerably in their approach and attention to issues, there are several overlapping themes. Several authors call for renewed analysis of agency, intent, or consciousness in the doing gender process. Their comments also suggest a need to bring the body into an understanding of doing gender, and to address the interrelations among biol- ogy, sex-category-assignment processes, and doing gender. The authors argue for a central focus on sexuality and sex work in the study of doing gender, race, and class. Finally, the ability of the doing gender/doing differ- ence approach to handle the simultaneous analysis of gender, race, and class is a continuing source of debate. While all the authors indicate their interest in analyses that promote social equality, they differ in their assessments of the doing gender framework’s capacity to move us in that direction.
Dorothy Smith emphasizes that the “doing gender” approach rightly makes visible methods whereby women are silenced in routine interac- tions with men. But Smith challenges feminism’s emphasis on the cate- gory of gender over sex, and West and Zimmerman’s preference for the term. She criticizes the application to race and class presented in “Doing Difference,” arguing that the differential bases of inequality, (i.e., racial, gender, and class) must be considered separately, at least in an analytic sense. Without such analysis, she concludes that social relations of inequality are likely to be concealed.
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74 GENDER & SOCIETY / February 2009
Barbara Risman takes issue with the ways in which “doing gender” is used in research. She argues that in mainstream sociology it is now often reduced to behavior consistent with expectations about appropriate mas- culine behavior for members of the male sex category and appropriate feminine behavior for members of the female sex category. Given this attribution of femininity to any of the “doings” of biological women (and the similar attribution for men) Risman questions whether any behavior might in fact be seen as not involving doing gender. Drawing on Butler (2004) and Deutsch (2007), Risman asks how individuals might “undo gender,” an agenda that she argues has more potential for transformation.
James Messerschmidt describes “Doing Gender” as part of a paradigm shift that responded to the failures of sex-role, radical-feminist, and socialist-feminist theories to confront issues of power, inequality, and agency. However, he argues that most research on “doing gender” fails to address how “sex category” and the body figure into the process. He sug- gests that future research consider the body as well as individuals’ intent or lack of consciousness about the ways they are doing gender.
Nikki Jones draws from her data on inner-city girls to discuss the dynamic and situated nature of doing gender, as well as race, class, and survival. Jones recommends the integration of social interactionist approaches with the structural analyses she finds in critical race and feminist scholarship. Her dis- cussion of the possibilities for combining these approaches and the story she offers of “Kiara,” a young woman from a neighborhood under threat of rede- velopment, illuminate ways in which concerns about accountability and sur- vival frame the context of doing gender, race, and class.
Despite her praise for West and Zimmerman’s focus on the routine produc- tion of gender, Celia Kitzinger argues that they missed the opportunity to iden- tify conversational analysis (CA) as the best method for uncovering the observable but unnoticed features of gender-producing interactions. With its focus on the systematic analysis of recorded interactions, Kitzinger argues that CA best facilitates the discovery of the embedded presuppositions that under- lie the operation of power. Her own conversational analysis of emergency phone calls to physicians documents the routine ways in which assumptions about sexuality are negotiated in even the most mundane daily interactions.
Salvador Vidal-Ortiz uses the figure of the transwoman of color to encourage consideration of the simultaneous accomplishment of gender, race, and class in the context of transnational politics. The image of the transwoman of color exemplifies the need for further analyses of sexuality and sex work in doing gender research, especially as both contextualize resistance and agency. Vidal-Ortiz wants to move beyond surgical recon- struction studies (like that of Agnes) to elaborate everyday experiences of
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transgender. Doing so, he argues, can inform the reconsideration and fur- ther development of the doing difference/doing gender approach.
Raewyn Connell compliments West and Zimmerman for moving femi- nist analyses beyond the essentialist thinking of earlier feminist theoriz- ing. She stresses that the theoretical move conceptualizing gender as an accomplishment rather than as a fixed attribute is politically useful. Connell provides interesting background and contemplation regarding the case of Agnes, the transsexual woman central to West and Zimmerman’s notion of doing gender. Connell argues that “recognition,” or acceptance as a woman, rather than passing, was Agnes’s central problem. This emphasis demonstrates the implications of recognition for social solidar- ity and collective contestation of the gender hierarchy.
West and Zimmerman respond to the contributors by restating their frame- work and then, as their title, “Accounting for Doing Gender,” indicates, stressing the importance of accountability to the process. Although their con- cept has indeed “taken on a life of its own” and been misread and misused, accountability remains the lynchpin between routine social interaction and sociohistorical continuity. Accountability does not eliminate agency, con- scious intent, or resistance, but it does contextualize it. A focus on “doing” does not conceal deeper social relations, rather it points to the need to “understand how interaction operates to sustain relations of inequality.”
The desire to treat “Doing Gender” and “Doing Difference” as theoret- ical canon is understandable given the guiding significance of these works in sociology and gender studies. The contributors would avoid this can- onization even though several note that “Doing Gender” continues to inspire thoughtful research and an agenda for social transformation. Fenstermaker and West note in their volume Doing Gender, Doing Difference (2002, 214) that “however productive the theoretical dialogue, the answers to most of the important questions lie in the empirical world.”
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