GENDER: A SOCIAL CONSTRUCTION

What is the origin of the differences between men and women? How is the gender identity formed? How are the identity based social roles performed? There are competing explanations to these questions, which have connections with physical (sex) or social (gender) differences.

Sociologists use the term sex to refer to the anatomical and physiological differences that define male and female bodies. Gender, by contrast, concerns the psychological, social and cultural differences between males and females. Gender is linked to socially constructed notions of masculinity and femininity; it is not necessarily a direct product of an individual’s biological sex. The distinction between sex and gender is a fundamental one, since many differences between males and females are not biological in origin.

Three broad approaches to behavioral difference between men and women:

1. Biological basis.

2. Importance of socialization and the learning of gender roles.

3. Both gender and sex have no biological basis, but are entirely socially constructed.

Gender and biology: natural differences in behavior

How far are the differences in the behavior of men and women the result of sex rather than gender? Some authors hold that aspects of human biology – ranging from hormones to chromosomes to brain size to genetics – are responsible for innate differences in behavior between men and women. Researches to identify the physiological origins of behavioral differences between men and women have been unsuccessful. The role of social interaction in shaping human behavior is vital.

Gender socialization

Through socialization, children gradually internalize the social norms and expectations, which are seen to correspond with their sex, hence differences in their behavior. Therefore it is the society that determines the appropriateness of behavior relevant to male and female. Also, through the process of socialization, the society makes a concerted effort that males and females internalize the culturally appropriate relevant patterns of behavior. Hence gender differences in behavior are not biologically determined, but they are culturally produced.

Social construction of gender and sex

Both sex and gender are socially constructed products. Not only is gender a purely social creation that lacks a fixed ‘essence’, yet the human body itself is subject to social forces, which shape and alter it in various ways. Individuals can choose to construct and reconstruct their bodies as they please- ranging from exercise, dieting, piercing and personal fashion, to plastic surgery and sex change operations. Human body and biology are not ‘givens’, but are subject to human urgency and personal choice within different social contexts. Genetic technology appears to have further facilitated the realization of socially desirable characteristics of males and females.

The theorists who believe in the social construction of sex and gender reject all biological bases for gender differences. Gender identities emerge in relation to perceived sex differences in society and in turn help to shape those differences.

These approaches try to explain the gender difference in the behavior of men and women either in biology or in social construction. In reality it could also be possible that the gender differences in behavior may be placed on a continuum, biological determinists could hold one end of which and the other end could be held by social constructionists.

Biological determinists highlight similarities in male behavior across different environments. They argue that male traits have their roots in chromosomal differences or in hormonal differences or in some other natural characteristic that distinguish men from women. It is a simple causal, reductionist approach that explains human behavior in terms of biological or genetic characteristics.

Social constructionists contend instead that gender differences derive from social and cultural process.

These processes create systems of ideas and practices about gender that vary across time and space.

Through this process ‘natural’, social processes mediate instinctive forms of behavior and the sociologists would argue that most forms of human behavior are socially constructed. It is argued that every society has gender order, composed of a historically specific division of labor, and the structure of power. The gender order generates a variety of masculinities and of femininities.

Masculinities refer to various socially constructed collections of assumptions, expectations and ways of behaving that serve as standards for forms of male behavior. Look at the word ‘mardaangee’. One could find colloquial substitutes in different cultures. The process of indoctrination of the characteristics associated with ‘manliness’ starts right from the childhood. For example take the little boy who got hurt and starts crying. He is told not to do so because crying is not considered an appropriate behavior for men.

Femininities cover various socially constructed collections of assumptions, expectations and ways of behaving that serve as standards for female behavior.

The mere fact that men and women across the societies are not characterized by identical behaviors is suggestive of the fact that these differences are not caused by biology but by socialization. Hence masculinities and femininities are subject to change across cultures and over time.

Global comparisons show that, by and large, societies do not consistently define most tasks as whether feminine or masculine. As societies industrialize, which gives people more choices and decreases the significance of muscle power, gender distinctions become smaller and smaller. Gender, then, is simply a too variable across cultures to be considered a simple expression of biology. Instead, as with many other elements of culture, what it means to be female and male is mostly a creation of society.