Androgyny53, 2015 © RAZ Zarate | Flickr
Androgyny53, 2015 © RAZ Zarate | Flickr

There was a time, not so long ago, when men were men and women were women, when hetero-normativity prevailed, with the alternatives relegated to the margins, in closets, and in the shadows of lesbian and homosexual hidden locales, which were constantly under attack. Under such conditions, two sociologists explored the constitution of sex and gender: Harold Garfinkel, in his illuminating ethnomethodological study of sexuality, a case study of “Agnes,” and Erving Goffman, in his nuanced analysis of gender advertisements. Neither had a normative or political agenda. Both were careful observers of social life, and came to their specific insights as part of their overall intellectual projects: Garfinkel in his studies of the active way common sense is constituted and sustained, and Goffman in his studies of the drama in social order. I have been thinking about these great sociologists of the 20th century and the old unquestioned hetero-normative regime as I read an interview of Judith Butler on her evolving thoughts on her Gender Trouble. Together, Butler, Garfinkel and Goffman lead me to think more about the social condition of gender and sexuality, about the dilemmas of gender and sexuality as they are both constructed and very real in their consequences.

 Butler remarks:

“If ‘queer’ means that we are generally people whose gender and sexuality is ‘unfixed’ then what room is there in a queer movement for those who understand themselves as requiring – and wanting – a clear gender category within a binary frame? Or what room is there for people who require a gender designation that is more or less unequivocal in order to function well and to be relieved of certain forms of social ostracism? Many people with intersexed conditions want to be categorized within a binary system and do not want to be romanticized as existing ‘beyond all categories’.”

And further:

“At issue as well is a question of autonomy, conceptualized not through individualism, but as an emergent social phenomenon: how do I name myself, how can I establish my status within the law or within medical institutions, and to what extent will my desire to live as a particular gender or within an established gender category be honoured by those who claim to ally with me but who position themselves against my desire to be named and recognized a certain way? This question makes sense to me, which is why it is really important for us to rethink questions of autonomy and embodiment within a social field saturated with power.”

Butler is highlighting a simple challenge, summarized by the title of this post. In Gender Trouble, she deconstructed gender. She unfixed and made more fluid our understanding of gender categories, liberating those of us who do not easily fit in, creating new possibilities for private and public actions. She taught that because gender binaries are socially constructed, so too may they be socially challenged. Yet now she is paying special attention to how such challenges create problems for those of us who find meaningful identity in binary gender distinctions. Here her heart is with the intersexed, but I wonder also about more conventional folks who find meaning in their lives in a traditional order of things, whether sanctified by religion or not. It turns out that gender troubles beset us all, especially once the previously existing norms are unsettled. (I will return to the “especially.”)

From my perspective, Butler is pointing to the ways in which “gender trouble” is built into “the social condition.” This, too, was the gesture of Garfinkel and Goffman’s work.

Agnes was a transsexual, who presented herself to Garfinkel as a biological mistake, a true woman in every biological and hormonal way, but with a penis. She depended on a clear binary, and Garfinkel reported and lent support to her account. It was through conversation that she and Garfinkel together confirmed her self-presentation as a woman. Thus, there were feminist critiques of the study because of the firmness of her gender categorization (see for example, Rogers, 1992). After Garfinkel’s study was first published, Agnes revealed that she had in fact taken hormonal treatments and deceived him and her physicians. For Garfinkel, however, the biological story was of less interest than the social one, as his concern was primarily with the social and interpersonal behaviors through which Agnes established and maintained her gender and sexuality as a woman.

On the other hand, Goffman’s investigation of gender advertisements shows how much work has to be done to create and confirm gender categories themselves. Female subjectivity and femininity, along with women’s work and play are depicted in advertisements. In these, women as well as men are instructed on what it means to be a woman, or to interact with one. Such lessons are to be found from birth to death, in conjunction with all sorts of different roles that women and men play, as they present themselves to each other in everyday life and sustain the frames and definitions that help them get through their days, making solid in their performances that which can be melted and remolded. While Goffman focuses on the making of the solidity, Butler and other feminist and queer theorists focus on the remolding.

The solidity of gender categories fortified by centuries of definition and framing has been melted down by LGBT theory and practice. Dilemmas that have always been with us are now clearly revealed. Gender identification, categorization and practice have always been the source of both security and discomfort. As the traditional means to enforce a specific normative order have weakened, this has become increasingly apparent, though it has always been so. There is no easy way to resolve the problem, no philosophy or theory that can overcome the dilemma. Cultural variations can be found comparatively and historically, even as ideas about normality have shifted in many of our social worlds.

It is the great sociological contribution of Goffman and Garfinkel that they empirically analyzed the social construction of gender and sexuality before it was on the political agenda. They saw such construction as emerging from everyday social practices. It is the great contribution of Butler and many other feminist and queer theorists and activists to put such prevailing social practices on the agenda, to question them, showing how the prevailing way of doing things is not the only way of doing them, and how the prevailing ways of doing things yield suffering that can be addressed. They have made consciously problematic the way we do gender and sexuality. While they have not settled the matter, they have opened a basic social problem to critical examination and action. They have made it possible to act upon an enduring dilemma in social life so that in our times men can be men and women can be women, and anyone in between can opt out and create new sensibilities and conventions, as we try to live with the complexity for better and for worse, from Judith Butler to Ted Cruz.

5 thoughts on “Social Constructs: Can’t Live With Them, Can’t Live Without Them

  1. If you’ll permit a bit of name-dropping, while I haven’t looked into it for more than a decade myself, of possibly not unrelated interest, I’d recommend looking into the work of Melvin Pollner [Mundane Reason (1987) , and “Left of Ethnomethodology” (1991)] for whatever further distinctions might be discovered there.

  2. If I understand what you’re getting at, I think you’ll also find some work by Anna Korteweg interesting – on the choice of the headscarf by Muslim women as an act of agency. Effectively, if the only adequately agentic action is to break traditional norms, that can’t reasonably be understood as agency. So it must be possible for people to choose constraint as agency. Similarly, queer theory must include the possibility of selecting into constraints that are normative in order to allow for social construction.

    To reach further back than Butler, I see this as in a sense the distinction between Freud and Lacan. Freud introduces the idea that identity of all sorts is socially constructed — but maintains the idea that there is a right way to have it be constructed. Lacan insists that reinforcing the ego is the wrong way to approach psychoanalysis. Lacan is right intellectually; Freud may be useful for many subjects, for whom ego-reinforcement is actually a good choice.

    1. Thanks, Andrew for the suggestion of Korteweg’s work. Seems like she is indeed investigated a case of the social condition as I understand it. The Freud v Lacan point illuminates the position as well.

      1. I wonder how much the links between social conditions and identity vary with cultural times and places. Rather than well-etched boundaries and categories, not a few Europeans, Arabs, Australians, and more seem to place a high value on ambiguity. The relation of ambiguity to freedom, and to power, is something in need of exploration. (And consult Joseph Massad, “Desiring Arabs.”)

        1. Doug, our idea about “the social condition” has exactly to do with varying cultural and even interpersonal ways we confront the dilemmas posed by the tensions in social life, here tensions concern gender and sexuality, Iddo Tavory and I are trying to focus on the tensions, not the resolution of the tensions, in a wide range of experiences that are built into the social, including its perceived boundaries and categories and appear as dilemmas for actors. We seek to focus on the social situation, “between past and future,” drawing on Arendt. In doing this we are very interested in the ambiguity and ambivalence as crucial aspects of the social experience that have been overlooked by much of social research and theory. Merton and especially Don Levine are crucial to our inquiry. As far as you comment, you are highlighting the point that ambiguity is much more common in social life, I would say even definitive of the social condition, than social theory generally has recognized.

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