Sociology 250

November 30, 1999

Microsociological Approaches to Sex and Gender


These notes have been translated into Swedish by Eric Karlsson

These notes have been translated into Spanish by Laura Mancini

A. Example: the Accomplishment of Gender

West and Fenstermaker argue that conventional approaches to gender, "including its interpretation as an individual attribute and as a role" (p. 151) are mistaken. These approaches result in reducing gender to sex and thus imply that gender roles may be natural ones, or at least ones that are relatively fixed after approximately age five (p. 154). In contrast, West and Fenstermaker argue that gender should be understood in an ethnomethodological manner

as an accomplishment: an emergent feature of social situations that is both an outcome of and a rationale for the most fundamental division of society. (p. 151). ... gender is not merely an individual attribute but something that is accomplished through interaction with others. (p. 155)

In order to begin this analysis, West and Fenstermaker begin with the distinction between sex as biologically determined and ascribed at birth, sex category as the social classification of individuals into men and women, and gender as the conduct that is accountable to normative conceptions of womanly or manly natures. (p. 152). They reject the concept of sex or gender roles because (i) actions appropriate for roles cannot be specified in advance of their occurrence, (ii) almost any action can be regarded as displaying a sex role, (iii) roles imply complementarity of males and females and ignore power differences. (p. 154) Instead, they argue that gender is not a characteristic that is merely attached to individuals, but that it is something accomplished through interactions with others. This makes the focus of investigation the activity, the types of interaction, and the nature of the institutions and structures within which these interactions take place.

Sex category is socially constructed and West and Fenstermaker note that "we treat appearances (e.g. deportment, dress, and bearing) as indicative of underlying states of affairs." (p. 156). Many could pass for members of the other sex, but in our interactions we use visible characteristics as means of identifying the sex of individuals.

West and Fenstermaker attempt to explain how people do gender of how gender is accomplished. One example they discuss is household labour. In the case of couples where both husband and wife are in the labour force, the wife may still do the bulk of household work. This does not indicate a rational or efficient division of household work, or a division based on who is most skilled. "Rather, it is determined by a complex relationship between the structure of work imperatives and the structure of normative conceptions of that work as gendered." (p. 162) That is, "household labor is regarded as women's work, but that for a woman to do it and a man not to do it draws on and affirms what people conceive to be the essential nature of each." (pp. 162-163). This is shown by the actual division of labour and the justifications for it. The wife may say that it is not the job of the husband, or that the husband is not very good at the job. In turn the husband may not become skilled at this work, or may even deskill himself. West and Fenstermaker point out that household work thus is two processes together – the production of household goods and services, and the accomplishment of gender.

Another example they cite is parenting in cases where parenting is shared more equally. In this case, the normal expectation is that the mother is the primary care giver. For those couples where parenting was more or less equally divided as a responsibility, both the mothers and the father argued that each parent could provide emotional closeness to the child. For couples where the women took greater responsibility, what these couples thought were essential sex differences was used as the explanation. In addition, all couples regarded themselves as accountable for the parenting arrangements, that is, accountable to others. One father who took his young children to public places was told that it was so good to see fathers taking on these responsibilities -- thus making him a generic liberated father rather than an individual.

A third example that West and Fenstermaker use is that of conversation. They report conversations between men and women where men unilaterally changed the topic of conversation, especially when women appeared ready to report their point of view on particular topics.

What West and Fenstermaker argue is that "Gender ... is a situated accomplishment: the local management of conduct in relation to normative conceptions of appropriate attitudes and activities for particular sex categories." (West and Fenstermaker, p. 156). Each situation we find ourselves in means we may relate to these norms, or accountable to these norms, but "we cannot determine the relevance of gender to social action apart from the context in which it is accomplished. ... While sex category is potentially omnirelevant to social life, individuals inhabit many different social identities that may be stressed or muted, depending on the situations." (West and Fenstermaker, p. 157).

In this approach, there are no fixed male and female roles, but rather people have the view that "women and men possess essentially different natures, for which they will be held accountable in human affair." (West and Fenstermaker, p. 159).

In light of this, the ethnmethodologist studies particular situations and the activities associated with them. This study is not so concerned with the meanings of the situation, as the interactionist would, but with the activities and work that make meanings possible. The actual set of actions and behaviour that is undertaken is what is important in this approach. (Perspectives p. 192). The ethnmethodologist may thus study conversation, the interactions between individuals, the manner in which people "do walking" (Ritzer, p. 400), generating applause (Ritzer, p. 404), etc. Perspectives (p. 192) points out that the ethnomethodological approach ends at the point where the symbolic interaction approach begins.


B. 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). 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." (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. (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. Through interactional, lived experience cultural meanings may be forced on people. Denzin notes 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." (pp. 211-212).

Also recall that from the symbolic interaction perspective, reflection, interpretation, and meaning are important aspects of each action (or inaction). These both express and create the self. In Denzin's examples, in each case (perhaps with the exception of the first example dealing with children) the individuals in the example carry out this reflection and interpretation quite explicitly. In each case, the previous pattern of action leads to reflection and interpretation, and the individual may have developed a new understanding of his or her situation as a result of this. 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.

iv. Being a battered wife shows the contradictions involved in role and gender identity. In this case reflection led to a different form of reaction.

v. Gay lovers shows the change in meaning associated with certain aspects of sexuality for gay men. Again 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. In these examples, the experiences are exaggerated examples of the mythical beliefs within popular culture. These examples were selected by Denzin to illustrate ways of "uncovering the inner worlds of sexually gendered experience." (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 these 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.


C. Problems with Micro Approaches

1. Neglect of Larger Structures

Most symbolic interaction approaches examine the very micro level, conversation, interaction of two or three people, or small groups. While the description of interaction, and the manner in which meanings are interpreted and choices made can be shown in this setting, this approach may be difficult to move beyond this setting. Larger structures do exist, as shown by legal or educational structures and bureaucracies. We do exist within these, and exactly how these are built and maintained is more or less ignored by this approach.

2. Extent of Structural Constraints

Each of the approaches recognizes structural constraints, but differ concerning the strength of these constraints. For Durkheim, Parsons and perhaps Marx, the structural constraints are very strong, and leave little room for flexibility. An extreme symbolic interaction view might be that since society is composed of the actions of the individuals in it, the society might be almost anything the people in it wish it to be. But there are obviously constraints to this, and the symbolic interaction view may ultimately lead back to a conception of society as formed or fairly regular patterns of action and interaction, that is, structures.

3. Methods

There are few guidelines concerning how to examine social action and interaction, and how to consider meanings in research work. The interactionist approach is very critical of much of conventional sociological analysis, especially quantitative sociology, but lays out few guidelines concerning what to examine.

For example, Blumer argues that too much of sociological analysis is quantitative, attempting to measure concepts that cannot really be measured. He calls this 'variable analysis.' (Perspectives, p. 149). For example, when measuring attitudes, as quantitative sociologists or social researchers, we construct an index of attitudes, but such attitudes may not really exist, or are not well defined in the minds of those surveyed. We assume that the set of attitudes is a well formed set of attitudes associated with the mind of each individual surveyed. In fact, there may be no such attitudes, and interpretation of the situation is quite different depending on the context within which the question is asked. As a result, any attempt to measure attitudes will fail, and will not provide an idea of what people are likely to do when faced with concrete situations. Further, as Perspectives notes, concepts such as alienation or social cohesion are not well formed concepts and are not really measurable. Any view that there is a measurable connection between variables is also misguided. For example, does alienation or exploitation lead to class consciousness or class struggle? In the interactionist view, there is no automatic connection.

For Blumer it is better "to seek to learn about the complexities of social life through careful and detailed studies of particular situations and settings." (Perspectives, p. 150). One difficulty with this though is that might mean that each researcher would have to start anew. Human knowledge is cumulative but the symbolic interaction view does not provide much in the way of guidelines concerning how to do this.

4. Summary.

Sociology has been overly structural in its approach, with the individual being given too few choices and too little autonomy. Just as microeconomics overemphasizes the degree of individual choice, so macro level sociology limits it too much. While the interactionist approach does not provide a overall method for sociological analysis, it would seem useful to attempt to incorporate more aspects of it into an overall theoretical approach to individuals and society. There would seem to be no reason why this could not be carried out if both viewpoints were considered simultaneously, and an integration of the macro and micro approaches attempted. In the discussion of feminist approaches, some of this would seem to be carried out, with the larger structural approaches often being complemented with analyses of small groups in individual interactions.


D. Differences Among Micro Sociological Approaches

Mead. Mind, self and society. Development of self. Conversation with self.

Blumer. Interpretation and meaning. Dialogue with self. Symbols.

Goffman. Interpretation. Emphasis on impression management.

Hochschild. Interpretation with emphasis on emotional aspects.

For all of these approaches, interpretation and meaning are developed through previous interaction and experience, with active interpretation in the situation.

Garfinkel. Acts and assumptions underlying acts. Less emphasis on interpretation and more emphasis on what was developed in previous experiences, so that it becomes taken for granted.



Cuff, E. C., W. W. Sharrock and D. W. Francis. 1992. Perspectives in Sociology, third edition, London, Routledge.

Denzin, Norman Z. “Sexuality and Gender: An Interactionist/Poststructural Reading” in England, 1993, pp. 199-222.

England, Paula, editor. 1993. Theory on Gender / Feminisim on Theory. New York, Aldine de Grutyer.

Ritzer, George. 1992. Sociological Theory, third edition, New York, McGraw-Hill.

West, Candace and Sarah Fenstermaker. “Power, Inequality and the Accomplishment of Gender: An Ethnomethodological View” in England, 1993, pp. 151-174.


Edited on December 3, 1999, April 10, 2020, and September 24, 2020.

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