So, I had to write an analysis of “gender” based on concepts from the past four chapters in my sociology textbook. I tried to show that, really, “gender” is a product of scientific inquiry and impossibly so. I also raised the question as to whether sociology tells us anything about society as such.
The sociological concept of “gender” can be analyzed in many ways. As a construct operative as a given element in the experience of every person, according to sociology, it is an important indicator of who it is people think they are. This is very vague, but any introduction as such remains vague. And in a similar fashion “gender” has many different skeletal structures, all ultimately different from each other, yet similar in the sense that they all, at least in western society, draw a basic contrast between “man” and “woman.”
Gender is a theory, “a statement of how and why specific facts are related” (34). Gender is a theory about how men and women differ socially and culturally. The fact that the previous sentence is a tautology shows the inherent circuitous position sociology puts itself in when studying gender differences: the theory about how facts are related is not necessarily an articulated possibility in a person’s presentation of self. Perhaps in this sense gender can be described as a latent social function of being biologically different, but I doubt it can be the entire story. It seems reasonable to say that culture has replaced natural selection in at least a few ways, and as a determiner of values, perceptions, etc., culture has created gender as much as people (especially men) have chosen to have a perspective on biological differences (a position generally used to ground patriarchal positions that appeal to “science”). Any feminist post on the Internet will show this: most men refer to historical facts about the subjugation of women (by them perceived to be facts of “nature”) which are used to warrant traditional arguments about the role of women in society. My very observation that certain historical facts are facts about subjugation (especially facts about traditional roles of women in western society) is a cultural byproduct of the work of many women throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries (no doubt, I imagine, even earlier than that).
Whether gender is an operative notion in interactions between people is an entirely different question than whether it is a valid sociological concept. As a theory, it connects observations to answer a “why” question—a very important tool for establishing an intellectual system that can pervade society itself (a latent function of science, no doubt). According to the lens of social-conflict approach, then, sociology can be viewed as a propaganda machine, inserting concepts as “natural” to a culture or society that are in fact fabricated: especially in a scientifically oriented society. But this is what gives gender meaning and gravitas for westerners: it is a scientific theory.
Is my position inherently sexist? Does it, in fact, ignore and trivialize the oppression of females by saying, really, gender is only meaningful because science has contrived the concept to connect certain observations and then entered it as a candidate for truth in public dialogue? Certainly—but that is why it creates the possibility for feminism, and has the notion of “gender” operative in it. As a construct, it can be reconstructed. By connecting certain observations, feminism has been able to bring to light the oppression of “women.” Women, a theory, are those people who have been paid seventy percent the wages of men, denied basic rights to their own body, are subjugated to the authority of lesser intellects because of the influence of political policies and social norms, the list goes on. By making “gender” a concept, feminists are able to manipulate it to bring about change that was not possible before.
“Gender” is a linguistic symbol—an arbitrary relationship between a signifier and signified that is made rational when in relationship to other symbols. Although one may change an element in the relationship between signifier and signified, it does not change the symbol: because the symbol still holds its place in relationship to other symbols. This is why simply naming “women” something else will not change sexism or patriarchy. According to the symbolic-interaction approach, symbols change only as actions change—and, as a result, the relationships of differences that defined the symbols are changed. This is one of the latent functions of science, as was previously stated.
With the concept “gender” comes certain recognizable norms. Such norms are composed of patterns of relationships (how else would one talk about “norms?”) and are therefore candidates for science to include into creating a theory: the observation that women apologize more than men, that women use more tact when correcting others, that women are on average paid less than their other-gendered counterparts, etc. But a question that sociology, perhaps, cannot answer is whether gender constructs an idea of the self in females in societies (“women” is a concept saturated with gender overtones, I am using the biological term at this point to avoid already assuming the answer to my question—yet I also know that “females” and “women” are not synonymous terms, but I am working with a language that gives me only two possibilities for naming a person without assuming a gender) that do not have knowledge of the sciences or do not pay attention to science (here it suffices for my question to assume simply that the female does not pay attention to science—like my younger sister: she has no conception of feminism, just her rights as a person: “You’re not the boss of me;” “I can make my own decisions.”).
At this point it may be obvious that the social construction of reality, whereby people create reality given their background, collides with language: theories are always questionable as to their political and social alliances, since meaning is not an empirically observable phenomena. Naming and making connections between relations is one thing, saying that such relations are necessarily connected is another. Statistics can answer this question only if it assumes an identity between events that cannot be shown to exist but only taken for granted. The notion that there is a cause-effect relationship between what people say and do and the context in which they act and speak is already assuming the paradigm of identity.
This paradigm is most obviously seen at work in the concepts of socialization and personality. Consistency is key—and the fact that a person’s actions can be “predicted” based on their biography seems to reveal the validity of these notions. Gender relations, then, are seen as what they are and called into question as to whether such relations are relations of domination or otherwise. But scientists are realists and assume a distinction which delegitimize theory as such: there is a distinction between what we perceive and what is actually real. This, they say, is the foundation of truth: and we verify the veracity of a claim by making certain that the connections between the claim, on the one hand, and reality, on the other, exists. But such an understanding assumes that “objects” exist without “concepts.” Concept: “a mental construct that represents [emphasis mine] some aspect of the world in a simplified form” (35). There is a world, and then there is a concept that represents some thing in the world.
The position is fundamentally positivistic and renders every concept unintelligible: is love, therefore, not a concept? I cannot find that in the world. I cannot, either, find “table” or “cat.” The formulation is anachronistic at this point in history—projecting on the present a perception that comes from the past. Concepts are only meaningful when they are put to use in a language-game or context. Imagine, for instance, trying to teach a child that a “ball” is a ball by pointing to it. How does the child know what “pointing” means? What if the child took the elbow, for instance, to be the point of departure for examining the world and not the finger? People are trained to use concepts just like we are trained to write, and trained to recognize the function of pointing. Meaning is a function of use—the child who does not know where to look when a person points (just like a cat does not know where to look) does not know what pointing means. Similarly, a child who has yet to put to use the concept of “truth” has yet to learn how to “lie.” Nothing is re-presented by truth; but truth is a question of intentionality and belief—a political move; not a question of what is and is not in the “world.” The question of truth is about the relationships between symbols.
“World” itself, from the positivistic perspective, must be “an aspect of the world” in order to be a concept.
“Gender” can be analyzed in many ways. I have tried, at this point, to show a few avenues in which the construct can be examined, tried to show the possibility of such an examination and what it would mean, and have myself tried to come to a few conclusions about the concept. As to the difference between the ways connections are drawn and the possibility of “knowing” whether the presentation of self of females who live in nonscientific societies or who simply ignore sociology are influence by gender is another question. Statistics will not resolve this disparity because at the outset it already assumes a positive answer, being based on a cause-effect perception of reality which, fundamentally relying on the positivistic notion of “concept”, is unintelligible outside the scientific language-game. There is no question in my mind, however, that women have been subjected to patriarchy and that the prospects of feminism promote greater liberty and justice for all and, if only the future can be better than the present, will include more liberative conceptions of the generalized other.