Sociology 319

February 7, 2003


Symbolic Interaction Examples Concerning Sexuality and Gender

These examples come from an article by Norman Denzin on sexuality and gender in everyday “postmodern” life (see Denzin, “Sexuality and Gender: an Interactionist / Poststructural Reading,” in P. England, ed., Theory on Gender / Feminism on Theory, pp. 199-221).  Denzin attempts to combine several approaches, and argues that the symbolic interaction approach is useful for examining what sex and gender mean, how they are defined, and how the gendered identity is an interactional production.  For Denzin, there are material practices related to sex and gender relations in the home, at work, in the family, etc. that give meaning to ordinary experiences.  These produce “gendered sexual versions of the human being” (Denzin, p. 201).  Ideology, or the beliefs about the way the world is and ought to be, is an important aspect of this, creating myths, beliefs, desires, etc. in people's heads.  These operate at the material level though the interactional structures and cast people in gendered identities.  Denzin argues that all this is a product of history and culture, and

the sexually gendered human being in late twentieth-century America is a social, economic, and historic construction, built up out of the patriarchal cultural myths that have been articulated in American popular culture for the last two hundred years.  (Denzin, p. 201).

While there are various ideological and cultural beliefs of myths, it is at the level of lived experience that the gender identities are produced and reproduced as actors are involved in social interaction with other actors.  Through interactional, lived experience cultural meanings may be forced on people.  But there are times when people question or reflect on their situation, social relationships, and habitual forms of interaction.  Denzin labels these epiphanies or turning-point experiences, “moments of existential crisis when a person’s sexuality and gender identity are forcefully and dramatically called into question.  … in these epiphanic moments the gender order is revealed in ways that are normally not seen” (Denzin, p. 206).  Such moments may be similar to Dewey’s periods of reflection or to the fateful or pivotal moments of Giddens.  At these times, reflection can lead to a continuation of previous forms of social interaction or changes in these forms.  Denzin argues that “a given epiphanic moment ... can deepen the person's internalized oppression to a gendered sexual identity, lead to open rebellion, or produce a deeper commitment to it.” (Denzin, pp. 211-212).  From the symbolic interaction perspective, reflection, interpretation, and meaning are important aspects of each action (or inaction).  These are means that individuals, in social interaction with others, both express and create the self. 

In Denzin's examples, in each case (perhaps with the exception of the first example dealing with children) individuals explicitly and consciously carry out this reflection and interpretation.  Previous patterns of action lead to reflection and interpretation, and the individual may develop a new understanding of his or her situation. The five examples illustrate Denzin's argument and some aspects of interaction.

i. A young boy being a woman illustrates the manner in which an "incorrect" gender identity is criticized and the boy enacts a culturally approved masculine sexual identity.

ii. Gazing on the male body illustrates confusion over identities, with no action appearing to have occurred, so that the longer term effects cannot be determined here.  Note the explicit mention of reflection, interpretation and the resulting confusion.

iii. Doing sex for pay leads to a decision on the part of the prostitute to continue, but obtain a more adequate exchange on the market.  Here the action of being a prostitute is continued, so action appears to be repetitive and regular – in fact, considerable reflection went on before the prostitute decided to continue, but at the same time increasing the exchange value of her sexual acts.

iv. Being a battered wife shows the contradictions involved in role and gender identity. In this case reflection led to a positive change in the woman’s life and social relationships, although not without negative consequences with respect to memories and evaluation of self.

v. Gay lovers shows the change in meaning associated with certain aspects of sexuality for gay men.  In this case, reflection resulted in a change in what the gay man regarded as sexually erotic, and associated with this was also a change in behaviour.

Each of these illustrates how gender and sexual identity is maintained through ordinary day to day activities and experiences.  These examples provide exaggerated examples of experiences associated with mythical beliefs and ideologies within popular culture.  These examples were selected by Denzin to illustrate ways of “uncovering the inner worlds of sexually gendered experience” (Denzin, p. 215).

From the symbolic interaction point of view, what is important is not only that gender identities exist in our culture, but that these are maintained through the forms of interaction that are part of daily life.  Each of these interactions reinforces or casts doubt on these identities, with these examples highlighting points where major changes either took place or could have taken place.  In order to understand sexual and gender identities, it is necessary to look at the variety of lived experiences, and examine (read and analyse) these.  From this, it may be possible to see the ways in which the myths are maintained, and if change in these is to be accomplished, understanding each aspect of these daily interactions is necessary.

 Last edited February 7, 2003


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