“Doing Gender”: The Impact and Future of a Salient Sociological Concept. James W. Messerschmidt

Messerschmidt, J.W. 2009. “‘Doing Gender’: The Impact and Future of a Salient Sociological Concept.” Gender and Society 23: 85-88.

West and Zimmerman wrote DG when a feminist shift in social sciences was occuring – in the late 1980’s.  For a long while, sex roles theory had been a predominant sociological lens of viewing gender, but had received much feminist critique, particularly for sex roles’ small-c conservative viewpoints/lack of critique of gender inequality/essentialism/power relations that supported a capitalistic model as well as patriarchy/inability to connect micro-interactions with larger, macro-structures.

Messerschmidt supports the DG lens, as his work with white, working class, (non)violent teenagers creates three sites of gender interaction: the family, the school, and the peer group – which he argues as cohesive with the DG model in several ways:

1. The studied youth do not possess gender, but rather gender is a product and process of interaction with others, which is a form of accountability to others as well as understanding necessary to interact in particular social situations.

2. Gender performances are evaluated by other interactants in relation to what is considered gender normative in each situation/setting.

3. Sex categories serve as resources (^forms, even?) to intepret conduct of selves and others’, in efforts to remain accountable.

However, Messerschmidt understands that the work done on “doing gender” does have limitations:

1. Curren twork doesn’t fully detail how sex categories are explict facets of doing gender.  We often recognize sex and gender as interchangeable, because we recognize congruence between the two.  (^How is this impacted by the emerging voices of trans* individuals and authors?)  The work that Messerschmidt does investigates how some youth have a recognized sex category, but constructed gender behaviors in ways that seemed incongruent for that category – that is to say, the meaning that was assigned to the gender behavior was interpreted through the lens of the individual’s sex category.  Male and female is considered salient with interpretations of masculine and feminine, as perceptions.

2. Most work on DG ignores the body; Messerschmidt’s work expands on how youth interact with and through their bodies.  Bodies “do gender” as well as “negate gender”.  Some acted or dressed or used bodily displays that intended to obscure femaleness; this was not an attempt to pass as male, but rather to negate femaleness or femininity.  ..”The body is not neutral in ‘doing gender,’ but rather is an agent of social practice. Often the body initially constrained, yet eventually facilitated, social action; it mediated and influenced future social practices.  Given the social context, bodies could do certain things but not others – the bodies of these youth are ‘lived’ in terms of what they can ‘do'” (87).

3. Gendered selves are a product of “reading” and “doing”, which is done mostly non-reflexively.  Though varying in situational practices, the youth studied did not intend their practices to be gendered. Accountability encouraged particular actions in particular sites, but most actions were nonreflexive.

4. Certain forms of DG became central to the organization (“interactional scaffolding” – 88)  of the social structures in each studied site – sex/gender congruence and failure to act upon it warranted policing; practices performed by socially recognized “opposite” bodies became sites for policing.

Messerschmidt suggests five extensions of DG:

1) “the relationship between perceived sex category and the meaning of situationally practiced gender behavior”

2) “how both sex category and gender behavior are socially constructed in and through the body”

3) “whether doing gender may or may not be conciously intended as a masculine or feminine act”

4) “how individuals may both ‘do’ and ‘undo’ gender”

5) “the important relationshiop between social action and social structure” (88)



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