This piece is part of the OOPS Series, “Social Interaction.”

The title of Garfinkel’s chapter on gender, “Passing and the managed achievement of sex status in an inter-sexed person,” is a title that already hints at not only how Garfinkel will approach the issue of gender but also the bent of his entire ethnomethodology. The continuous, present-progressive form of the verb ‘to pass’ provides from the beginning a wonderful entrance to this chapter and to the case of Agnes. Like the movement suggested by the progressive verb form, Agnes’ passing is continuously and constantly under development. Every time she faces any sort of interaction (as routine as a trip to the beach, a date or a party with her girlfriends) she is given the opportunity to pass or to fail. Her female condition is challenged on every occasion and she has to build a delicate fabric to pass that challenge.

As Garfinkel suggests, this idea of passing may look similar to Goffman’s, but it differs in one critical point: While in Goffman, to pass or to fail for the stigmatized actor occurs in episodic, more static opportunities, Garfinkel’s Agnes is passing every day, throughout time. Passing is for Garfinkel, “The work of achieving and making secure their rights to live in the elected sex status while providing for the possibility of detection and ruin are out within the socially structured condition.” The possibility of detection is always present in the social context in which this passing is put in practice. The exercise of passing, then, is always in motion and is can collapse at any moment. If she successfully passes, the prize for Agnes is being recognized as a natural, normal female in this micro-social settings in which passing is enacted. But any new interaction and any form of interaction, again, requires Agnes to adapt and re-enact her passing

The nature and normality of sex or gender (as West and Zimmerman accurately point out, Garfinkel does not distinguish much between sex, sex category or gender) is rewarded for several reasons according to Garfinkel. Every society exerts controls over a person’s mobility and capacity to move or transfer from one status to another. For example, a person with a criminal record will find it very hard to overcome the social status imposed by that criminal record even though he or she is no longer involved in unlawful activities. When transfers of sexual statuses are concerned, these controls are particularly restrictive and rigorously enforced. Male and female, masculinity and femininity, are moral entities in the kind of society that Garfinkel describes. These moral entities work as a natural and exhaustive dichotomy by which an individual must belong to one category or the other. In addition to this, the fact that this dichotomy is allegedly based on a natural order, makes it more unquestionable and shielded from critique.

Though Clifford Geertz offers a similar approach, his wider focus can provide some valuable contributions. In The Interpretation of Cultures, he lucidly points out that man is this incomplete animal that cannot understand the world without the symbolic maps given by culture: common sense is the cultural map by which men interpret everyday life. Common sense is for Geertz an organized body of considered thought, but one of its main features is to precisely to deny this condition and to affirm that commonsensical components are immediate deliverances of experience rather than reflections or thoughts upon it. In Geertzian terms, cultural categories become a necessity for men to grasp and participate in the world, and human gender and sexuality does not stand outside this system of categorization.

As Geertz affirms in “Common Sense as a Cultural System,” gender is far from being a purely dichotomous variable, but the biological root on which its supposed dichotomous character rests constructs a moral and practical toolset that hinders commonsensical understanding of gender beyond that dichotomy. To think sex or gender as other than dichotomous becomes a symbolic impossibility. In his own words: “Intersexuality is more than an empirical surprise: it is a cultural challenge” (p 14). By the examples he provides, we can appreciate how three different cultures deal with “cultural challenge” that intersexuality. represents.

Among the Navaho, intersexuality evokes wonder and awe. It is still treated as abnormal, but Navaho common sense places this anomaly as a blessing, which turns intersexed members into communal leaders, responsible of wealth and good fortune. A second way of treating this issue is seen in the Pokot tribe, which does not highly regard intersexuality. Seen rather as an error, Pokot intersexed members tend to be neglected but prosperous, as they thrive economically without kinship or family drains on their wealth. The third and final case explored by Geertz will bring us back to main issue of this piece: American treatment of intersexuality. The American cultural approach to intersexuality requires the intersexed person to pass as a member of one of the two categories, representing one of the two “natural sexes.” The three different societies analyzed by Geertz need to apply a special treatment to their intersexed members, in order to reassert the gender dichotomy even when encountering members that do not conform to such dichotomy. In Geertz’s words, common sense is here “at the end of its tether.” But the main point is already laid out: passing, that is, fitting into the existing social and symbolic order, is a requirement from the community. This is also reinforced by Westbrook and Schilt, when they show that some social groups can even encourage passing and let their intersexed members pass more flexibly to avoid having to deal with that intersexuality.

We have seen so far how common sense works, for Geertz, as this cultural map that order the events of everyday life and how this order deals with intersexed persons and constructs the gender binary. In Garfinkel terms, the social order built around common sense is a moral order. Respecting specifically to sex and gender, the gender binary is perceived as a natural binary, a fundamental characteristic of the moral foundation on which the dichotomy stands. The need of the American culture, described by Geertz, for the intersexed member to pass as one of the two “natural sexes” is so internalized that it is event shared by Agnes, in Garfinkel’s account. It is remarkable how Agnes herself agrees with normally sexed persons on this dichotomous approach to sex life as a matter of objective, institutionalized facts. In this regard, the author underscores another point of contrast with Goffman: Even though she might need to build a performance to be continuously passing as such, Agnes is or feels like a woman, a victim of a natural mistake. She is not choosing or lying. She feels like a woman and she is claiming the reward she deserves according to her own conception of a normally sexed life: to be acknowledged as a woman.

To build and earn her status as a normal female, Agnes worked with detail on actions, looks and manners that were routine, unconscious and unnoticed for other normal sexed persons. Agnes faced a double problematic in her practical circumstances and actions: “routine as a condition for the effective, calculated, and deliberate management of practical circumstances was, for Agnes, specifically and chronologically problematic.” In other words, she needed to rationally calculate in order to follow that routine, whereas normal actors do not need to calculate. Through what West and Zimmerman have called a “secret apprenticeship,” Agnes also learnt about the power that surrounds gender relationships, like “every other woman in our society,” when she was taught not to display herself, not to offer her opinions nor to claim equality with men.

In the end, Agnes found her reward. The ultimate event that legitimated her as a woman was the surgical attainment of the insignia (genitalia) of the sex to which she claimed to belong. It did not only furnish her with the unquestionable insignia, but her placement in the category of “women” was also approved by science. The practical methodology that drove Agnes to this prize says something about the way social life works in general, in Garfinkel’s terms. Agnes worked hard to remain being the self-same person, by making observable her character of real woman through a long period of time.

But what can we say about passing as a contemporary challenge? Fortunately, the gender binary is starting to be undermined in practice. Multiplication of gender identities and loosening of some of the informal mechanisms that were tied in the past to this gender binary (the question about PGPs or the all-gender restrooms to cite a couple), show that at least the discussion about gender dichotomies is already on the table. However, there is still a long way to go.

In this context, though passing is still required, it might have become more elastic. Although this new flexibility or new symbolic possibilities are not yet installed in the common sense, a limited number of friendly environments provide the individual with broader categorical identifications as an alternative to the binary. In this frame, tools such as the Internet and social media offer more options for people to express their gender identity without having to fit into imposed, external, and fixed categories.

Nevertheless, these elements are part of a double-edged sword: means for hostility and harassment have also multiplied and the victims cannot escape the attacks even in the privacy of their homes. A third of LGBT youth has been sexually harassed online, four times as many of their non-LGBT peers. In addition, one in four LGBT youth has been cyber-bullied because of their sexual orientation Taylor Alesena’s tragic fate is one of the most significant examples of this, a transgender youth who documented her struggles on Youtube, and committed suicide last year. Taylor was ever more frequently cyber-bullied as her YouTube channel became an inspiration to others.

About the gender categories, the multiple options are surely well-intentioned, but do they really solve the problem? For example, Facebook offers 50 gender options in the US and 71 in the UK for its users. The sheer number of options suggests that the static blueprint of a classificatory category is too rigid for how dynamic the identities have become. In an attempt to keep up, such proliferation of options is produced, but in the process these recognitions can lose strength, and their existence shows that individuals are still in need of fitting into fixed categories, no matter how many there are. Something we have learnt from Tilly’s Durable Inequality is that categories keep their power as long as extant, despite the good attitudes we might have towards them.

Why do we insist on asking people to report their sex or gender? It might be necessary to know the sex of the patient in the medical field, for example, but why does this question keep appearing in all kinds of social instances? From public restrooms[1] to school applications or passports, a statement about the gender of an individual is required, in options much narrower than the 70 offerings of Facebook or the PGPs. The necessity of the cultural system of common sense to classify individuals in gendered categories is what pushes people outside the gender binary into micro-violent everyday situations. Maybe we should aim at the elimination of categorization, instead of its expansion.

As a final thought, and getting back to Agnes, it is on this matter that the continuous form of passing becomes relevant beyond Agnes’ case to understand how common sense and everyday life is produced and reproduced. Routine provides the basis for rationalization by the members of society, but this rationalization contributes to its taken-for-granted reproduction, continuously, in every form of interaction.


[1] Even all-gender restrooms are concerned about the gender of their users.

Garfinkel, Harold. 1967. Studies in Ethnomethodology. Oxford: Blackwell.

Geertz, Clifford. 1975. “Common Sense as a Cultural System” The Antioch Review Vol. 33, No. 1: 5-26

Geertz, Clifford. 1973. The Interpretation of Cultures. New York: Basic Books

Tilly, Charles. 1998. Durable Inequality. Berkeley: University of California Press

West, Candace and Don H. Zimmerman. 1987. “Doing Gender” Gender & Society Vol. 1, No. 2: 125-151

Westbrook, Laurel and Kristen Schilt. 2014. “Doing Gender, Determining Gender: Transgender People, Gender Panics, and the Maintenance of the Sex/Gender/Sexuality System” Gender & Society Vol. 28 No. 1: 32-57