Examine the Extent to Which Gender Is Socially Constructed

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Gender differences are biologically constructed. We are born either as male or female. Without going any further these statements appear normal and one can take the view that this is the general assumption. What then is sex? Is there a difference between sex and gender? Distinctions between sex and gender have been made by social scientists from the feminist movement of 1970’s, when feminists argued that the traditional views of masculinity and femininity often led to the disempowerment of women. Ann Oakley (1972) in particular, set the stage for the socialization explorations of gender identity (Abbott 2005).

Since this latter part of the 19th century, the common distinction made by sociologists is that sex is derived from the biological differences between men and women - chromosome make up, internal and external genitals and reproductive organs amongst others. Gender, however, refers to the socially constructed characteristics of masculinity and femininity, characteristics that are defined by different societies and cultures in different ways. In contrast, there are arguments proposing that gender differences are based on biological sex and result from biological factors – we naturally show characteristics of masculinity and femininity. These different views are often referred to as the nature v nurture debate (Marsh et al 2009, Lippa 2005 and Abbott 2005)

Here we will look at some of the biological explanations in support of the assumption that gender differences are biologically determined before moving on to the sociological explorations of the social construction of gender, and the limitations of both views. We will also look at the gender differences across cultures and the influence of the mass media in shaping our society.

Biological sex differences have often been used to explain the ‘natural’ differences in roles employed by men and women - men are naturally the breadwinners and the women nurture and take care of the family. The different arguments for the biological explanations of gender roles are often referred to as ‘essentialism’ and ‘biological determinism’ (Marsh et al 2009). Talcott Parsons (Parsons and Bales 1955 as cited in Marsh et al 2009) argued that the natural differences between men and women suit them to specific roles within society. This is referred to as the ‘sex-role’ theory. This theory relies on the premise that there are two distinct categories of men and women throughout the world. It therefore follows that heterosexuality is viewed as the norm. This immediately excludes those persons who feel that their gender identity does not correspond with their biological sex, for example transsexuals and homosexuals.

Since the first wave of feminism in the 1970’s the focus has shifted towards the now dominant socialization explanations of gender identity, however we still see new biological theories and studies appearing. For example, biological determinists have looked to the differences in male and female brains. In their book Brain Sex (1989), Anne Moir and David Jessel talk of the ‘prenatal hormone’ theory, whereby testosterone has an influence on thought process and emotions leading to the brain being wired differently between men and women (Marsh et al 2009). Simon Baron-Cohen also has similar views – “the female brain is predominantly hard-wired for empathy, and the male brain is predominantly hard-wired for understanding and building systems”. (Simon Baron-Cohen 2003 as cited in Marsh et al 2009:220).

In contrast, the various socialization explanations of gender argue that our gender identities are created by society, by interactions from early childhood with parents, siblings and peers (social learning theory) and by external influences such as the mass media, continually developing through our social interactions and experiences into adulthood. The differences across cultures in what is considered as masculine and feminine are also studied in...
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