UCLA Social Interaction Theory Paper

First Paper

The first paper, due in week three of the quarter, will ask you to use our early readings to theorizea social problem or situation, large or small. You can use an example from you your own life or from the news. This paper should be between 800 and 1200 words. Grading will be based on how well you have shown your knowledge of the ideas in question and the plausibility of the application, in addition to standard concerns about style, grammar, and form (see rubric below).

This doesn’t have to be a super intense paper. All I really want you to do is applya theory we read to either something in your own life or something in the news. You’re also entirely free to criticize the thinkers in your papers, talking about what you think they get wrong! Just make sure you turn these into argumentsthat show either their problems of bad reasoning or their problems of datarather than simply statements. First-person pronouns are fine! In fact, if you’re talking about your life, first-person pronouns make the most sense. The primary purpose of this paper is for you to show how theory is applicable to your life or something in the world. That’s it. All I want you to do is show you can apply a theory to a social phenomenon, like your life in school or your experience growing up. This should be a standard essay, which means you’ll have an introduction, body paragraphs, and a conclusion. Be sure that you have a quote from the text in each body paragraph.

Doing Gender
Author(s): Candace West and Don H. Zimmerman
Source: Gender and Society , Jun., 1987, Vol. 1, No. 2 (Jun., 1987), pp. 125-151
Published by: Sage Publications, Inc.
Stable URL: https://www.jstor.org/stable/189945
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Gender and Society
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University of California, Santa Cruz
University of California, Santa Barbara
The purpose of this article is to advance a new understanding of gender as a
accomplishment embedded in everyday interaction. To do so entails a
assessment of existing perspectives on sex and gender and the introduc
important distinctions among sex, sex category, and gender. We argue that rec
of the analytical independence of these concepts is essential for understand
interactional work involved in being a gendered person in society. The thru
remarks is toward theoretical reconceptualization, but we consider fruitful d
for empirical research that are indicated by our formulation.
In the beginning, there was sex and there was gender. Those
who taught courses in the area in the late 1960s and early 1970
careful to distinguish one from the other. Sex, we told studen
what was ascribed by biology: anatomy, hormones, and physi
Gender, we said, was an achieved status: that which is constr
through psychological, cultural, and social means. To introdu
difference between the two, we drew on singular case stu
hermaphrodites (Money 1968, 1974; Money and Ehrhardt 197
anthropological investigations of “strange and exotic tribes”
1963, 1968).
Inevitably (and understandably), in the ensuing weeks of each
term, our students became confused. Sex hardly seemed a “given” in
AUTHORS’ NOTE: This article is based in part on a paper presented at the Annual
Meeting of the American Sociological Association, Chicago, September 1977. For their
helpful suggestions and encouragement, we thank Lynda Ames, Bettina Aptheker,
Steven Clayman, Judith Gerson, the late Erving Goffman, Marilyn Lester, Judith
Lorber, Robin Lloyd, Wayne Mellinger, Beth E. Schneider, Barrie Thorne, Thomas P.
Wilson, and most especially, Sarah Fenstermaker Berk.
GENDER & SOCIETY, Vol. 1 No. 2, June 1987 125-151
0 1987 Sociologists for Women in Society
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126 GENDER & SOCIETY / June 1987
the context of research that illustrated the sometimes ambiguous and
often conflicting criteria for its ascription. And gender seemed much
less an “achievement” in the context of the anthropological, psychological, and social imperatives we studied-the division of labor, the
formation of gender identities, and the social subordination of
women by men. Moreover, the received doctrine of gender socialization
theories conveyed the strong message that while gender may be
“achieved,” by about age five it was certainly fixed, unvarying, and
static-much like sex.
Since about 1975, the confusion has intensified and spread far
beyond our individual classrooms. For one thing, we learned that t
relationship between biological and cultural processes was far mor
complex-and reflexive-than we previously had supposed (Ross
1984, especially pp. 10-14). For another, we discovered that certa
structural arrangements, for example, between work and family
actually produce or enable some capacities, such as to mother, that we
formerly associated with biology (Chodorow 1978 versus Fireston
1970). In the midst of all this, the notion of gender as a recurri
achievement somehow fell by the wayside.
Our purpose in this article is to propose an ethnomethodologicall
informed, and therefore distinctively sociological, understanding o
gender as a routine, methodical, and recurring accomplishment. W
contend that the “doing” of gender is undertaken by women and men
whose competence as members of society is hostage to its productio
Doing gender involves a complex of socially guided perceptual,
interactional, and micropolitical activities that cast particular pursuits as expressions of masculine and feminine “natures.”
When we view gender as an accomplishment, an achieved property
of situated conduct, our attention shifts from matters internal to the
individual and focuses on interactional and, ultimately, institutional
arenas. In one sense, of course, it is individuals who “do” gender. But
it is a situated doing, carried out in the virtual or real presence of
others who are presumed to be oriented to its production. Rather than
as a property of individuals, we conceive of gender as an emergent
feature of social situations: both as an outcome of and a rationale for
various social arrangements and as a means of legitimating one of the
most fundamental divisions of society.
To advance our argument, we undertake a critical examination of
what sociologists have meant by gender, including its treatment as a
role enactment in the conventional sense and as a “display” in
Goffman’s (1976) terminology. Both gender role and gender display
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West, Zimmerman / DOING GENDER 127
focus on behavioral aspects of being a woman or a man (as o
for example, to biological differences between the two). How
contend that the notion of gender as a role obscures the wor
involved in producing gender in everyday activities, while th
of gender as a display relegates it to the periphery of intera
argue instead that participants in interaction organize their
and manifold activities to reflect or express gender, and t
disposed to perceive the behavior of others in a similar ligh
To elaborate our proposal, we suggest at the outset that im
but often overlooked distinctions be observed among sex, sex
category, and gender. Sex is a determination made through the
application of socially agreed upon biological criteria for classifying
persons as females or males.’ The criteria for classification can be
genitalia at birth or chromosomal typing before birth, and they do
not necessarily agree with one another. Placement in a sex category is
achieved through application of the sex criteria, but in everyday life,
categorization is established and sustained by the socially required
identificatory displays that proclaim one’s membership in one or the
other category. In this sense, one’s sex category presumes one’s sex
and stands as proxy for it in many situations, but sex and sex category
can vary independently; that is, it is possible to claim membership in
a sex category even when the sex criteria are lacking. Gender, in
contrast, is the activity of managing situated conduct in light of
normative conceptions of attitudes and activities appropriate for
one’s sex category. Gender activities emerge from and bolster claims
to membership in a sex category.
We contend that recognition of the analytical independence of sex,
sex category, and gender is essential for understanding the relationships among these elements and the interactional work involved in
“being” a gendered person in society. While our primary aim is
theoretical, there will be occasion to discuss fruitful directions for
empirical research following from the formulation of gender that we
We begin with an assessment of the received meaning of gende
particularly in relation to the roots of this notion in presumed
biological differences between women and men.
In Western societies, the accepted cultural perspective
views women and men as naturally and unequivocally
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128 GENDER & SOCIETY / June 1987
categories of being (Garfinkel 1967, pp. 116-18) with distinctive
psychological and behavioral propensities that can be predicted from
their reproductive functions. Competent adult members of these soci-
eties see differences between the two as fundamental and enduringdifferences seemingly supported by the division of labor into women’s
and men’s work and an often elaborate differentiation of feminine
and masculine attitudes and behaviors that are prominent features of
social organization. Things are the way they are by virtue of the fact
that men are men and women are women-a division perceived to be
natural and rooted in biology, producing in turn profound psychological, behavioral, and social consequences. The structural arrangements of a society are presumed to be responsive to these differences.
Analyses of sex and gender in the social sciences, though less likely
to accept uncritically the naive biological determinism of the view
just presented, often retain a conception of sex-linked behaviors and
traits as essential properties of individuals (for good reviews, see
Hochschild 1973; Tresemer 1975; Thorne 1980; Henley 1985). The
“sex differences approach” (Thore 1980) is more commonly attributed to psychologists than to sociologists, but the survey researcher
who determines the “gender” of respondents on the basis of the sound
of their voices over the telephone is also making trait-oriented
assumptions. Reducing gender to a fixed set of psychological traits or
to a unitary “variable” precludes serious consideration of the ways it
is used to structure distinct domains of social experience (Stacey and
Thorne 1985, pp. 307-8).
Taking a different tack, role theory has attended to the social
construction of gender categories, called “sex roles” or, more recently,
“gender roles” and has analyzed how these are learned and enacted.
Beginning with Linton (1936) and continuing through the works of
Parsons (Parsons 1951; Parsons and Bales 1955) and Komarovsky
(1946, 1950), role theory has emphasized the social and dynamic
aspect of role construction and enactment (Thorne 1980; Connell
1983). But at the level of face-to-face interaction, the application of
role theory to gender poses problems of its own (for good reviews and
critiques, see Connell 1983, 1985; Kessler, Ashendon, Connell, and
Dowsett 1985; Lopata and Thorne 1978; Thorne 1980; Stacey and
Thorne 1985). Roles are situated identities-assumed and relinquished as the situation demands-rather than master identities
(Hughes 1945), such as sex category, that cut across situations. Unlike
most roles, such as “nurse,” “doctor,” and “patient” or “professor”
and “student,” gender has no specific site or organizational context.
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West, Zimmerman / DOING GENDER 129
Moreover, many roles are already gender marked, so that sp
qualifiers-such as “female doctor” or “male nurse”-must be ad
to exceptions to the rule. Thorne (1980) observes that conceptua
gender as a role makes it difficult to assess its influence on other r
and reduces its explanatory usefulness in discussions of power
inequality. Drawing on Rubin (1975), Thorne calls for a reconc
alization of women and men as distinct social groups, constitut
“concrete, historically changing-and generally unequal-soc
relationships” (Thorne 1980, p. 11).
We argue that gender is not a set of traits, nor a variable, nor a
but the product of social doings of some sort. What then is the
doing of gender? It is more than the continuous creation o
meaning of gender through human actions (Gerson and Peiss
We claim that gender itself is constituted through interaction
develop the implications of our claim, we turn to Goffman’s
account of “gender display.” Our object here is to explore how g
might be exhibited or portrayed through interaction, and thus be s
as “natural,” while it is being produced as a socially organ
Goffman contends that when human beings interact with o
their environment, they assume that each possesses an ”
nature”-a nature that can be discerned through the “nat
given off or expressed by them” (1976, p. 75). Femin
masculinity are regarded as “prototypes of essential e
something that can be conveyed fleetingly in any social si
yet something that strikes at the most basic characterizat
individual” (1976, p. 75). The means through which we pr
expressions are “perfunctory, conventionalized acts” (197
which convey to others our regard for them, indicate our alig
an encounter, and tentatively establish the terms of conta
social situation. But they are also regarded as expressive
testimony to our “essential natures.”
Goffman (1976, pp. 69-70) sees displays as highly conven
behaviors structured as two-part exchanges of the statem
type, in which the presence or absence of symmetry can
deference or dominance. These rituals are viewed as distinct from but
articulated with more consequential activities, such as performing
tasks or engaging in discourse. Hence, we have what he terms the
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130 GENDER & SOCIETY / June 1987
“scheduling” of displays at junctures in activities, such as the
beginning or end, to avoid interfering with the activities themselves.
Goffman (1976, p. 69) formulates gender display as follows:
If gender be defined as the culturally established correlates of sex
(whether in consequence of biology or learning), then gender display
refers to conventionalized portrayals of these correlates.
These gendered expressions might reveal clues to the underlying,
fundamental dimensions of the female and male, but they are, in
Goffman’s view, optional performances. Masculine courtesies may or
may not be offered and, if offered, may or may not be declined (1976, p.
71). Moreover, human beings “themselves employ the term ‘expression’, and conduct themselves to fit their own notions of expressivity”
(1976, p. 75). Gender depictions are less a consequence of our
“essential sexual natures” than interactional portrayals of what we
would like to convey about sexual natures, using conventionalized
gestures. Our human nature gives us the ability to learn to produce
and recognize masculine and feminine gender displays-“a capacity
[we] have by virtue of being persons, not males and females” (1976, p.
Upon first inspection, it would appear that Goffman’s formulation
offers an engaging sociological corrective to existing formulations of
gender. In his view, gender is a socially scripted dramatization of the
culture’s idealization of feminine and masculine natures, played for
an audience that is well schooled in the presentational idiom. To
continue the metaphor, there are scheduled performances presented
in special locations, and like plays, they constitute introductions to
or time out from more serious activities.
There are fundamental equivocations in this perspective. By
segregating gender display from the serious business of interaction,
Goffman obscures the effects of gender on a wide range of human
activities. Gender is not merely something that happens in the nooks
and crannies of interaction, fitted in here and there and not
interfering with the serious business of life. While it is plausible to
contend that gender displays-construed as conventionalized expressions-are optional, it does not seem plausible to say that we have the
option of being seen by others as female or male.
It is necessary to move beyond the notion of gender display to
consider what is involved in doing gender as an ongoing activity
embedded in everyday interaction. Toward this end, we return to the
distinctions among sex, sex category, and gender introduced earlier.
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West, Zimmerman / DOING GENDER 131
Garfinkel’s (1967, pp. 118-40) case study of Agnes, a transsexua
raised as a boy who adopted a female identity at age 17 and underwent
a sex reassignment operation several years later, demonstrates h
gender is created through interaction and at the same time structu
interaction. Agnes, whom Garfinkel characterized as a “practi
methodologist,” developed a number of procedures for passing as
“normal, natural female” both prior to and after her surgery. She had
the practical task of managing the fact that she possessed m
genitalia and that she lacked the social resources a girl’s biograph
would presumably provide in everyday interaction. In short, s
needed to display herself as a woman, simultaneously learning wh
it was to be a woman. Of necessity, this full-time pursuit took place at
a time when most people’s gender would be well-accredited and
routinized. Agnes had to consciously contrive what the vast majority
of women do without thinking. She was not “faking” what “real”
women do naturally. She was obliged to analyze and figure out how
to act within socially structured circumstances and conceptions of
femininity that women born with appropriate biological credentials
come to take for granted early on. As in the case of others who must
“pass,” such as transvestites, Kabuki actors, or Dustin Hoffman’s
“Tootsie,” Agnes’s case makes visible what culture has made
invisible-the accomplishment of gender.
Garfinkel’s (1967) discussion of Agnes does not explicitly separate
three analytically distinct, although empirically overlapping, concepts-sex, sex category, and gender.
Agnes did not possess the socially agreed upon biological criteria
for classification as a member of the female sex. Still, Agnes regarded
herself as a female, albeit a female with a penis, which a woman ought
not to possess. The penis, she insisted, was a “mistake” in need of
remedy (Garfinkel 1967, pp. 126-27, 131-32). Like other competent
members of our culture, Agnes honored the notion that there are
“essential” biological criteria that unequivocally distinguish females
from males. However, if we move away from the commonsense
viewpoint, we discover that the reliability of these criteria is not
beyond question (Money and Brennan 1968; Money and Erhardt
1972; Money and Ogunro 1974; Money and Tucker 1975). Moreover,
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132 GENDER & SOCIETY / June 1987
other cultures have acknowledged the existence of “cross-genders”
(Blackwood 1984; Williams 1986) and the possibility of more than
two sexes (Hill 1935; Martin and Voorhies 1975, pp. 84-107; but see
also Cucchiari 1981, pp. 32-35).
More central to our argument is Kessler and McKenna’s (1978, pp.
1-6) point that genitalia are conventionally hidden from public
inspection in everyday life; yet we continue through our social rounds
to “observe” a world of two naturally, normally sexed persons. It is
the presumption that essential criteria exist and would or should be
there if looked for that provides the basis for sex categorization.
Drawing on Garfinkel, Kessler and McKenna argue that “female”
and “male” are cultural events-products of what they term the
“gender attribution process”-rather than some collection of traits,
behaviors, or even physical attributes. Illustratively they cite the child
who, viewing a picture of someone clad in a suit and a tie, contends,
“It’s a man, because he has a pee-pee” (Kessler and McKenna 1978, p.
154). Translation: “He must have a pee-pee [an essential characteristic] because I see the insignia of a suit and tie.” Neither initial sex
assignment (pronouncement at birth as a female or male) nor the
actual existence of essential criteria for that assignment (possession of
a clitoris and vagina or penis and testicles) has much-if anythingto do with the identification of sex category in everyday life. There,
Kessler and McKenna note, we operate with a moral certainty of a
world of two sexes. We do not think, “Most persons with penises are
men, but some may not be” or “Most persons who dress as men have
penises.” Rather, we take it for granted that sex and sex category are
congruent-that knowing the latter, we can deduce the rest.
Sex Categorization
Agnes’s claim to the categorical status of female, which she
sustained by appropriate identificatory displays and other characteristics, could be discredited before her transsexual operation if her
possession of a penis became known and after by her surgically
constructed genitalia (see Raymond 1979, pp. 37, 138). In this regard,
Agnes had to be continually alert to actual or potential threats to the
security of her sex category. Her problem was not so much living up
to some prototype of essential femininity but preserving her categorization as female. This task was made easy for her by a very powerful
resource, namely, the process of commonsense categorization in
everyday life.
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West, Zimmerman / DOING GENDER 133
The categorization of members of society into indigenous cate
gories such as “girl” or “boy,” or “woman” or “man,” operates in
distinctively social way. The act of categorization does not involve
positive test, in the sense of a well-defined set of criteria that must b
explicitly satisfied prior to making an identification. Rather, th
application of membership categories relies on an “if-can” test in
everyday interaction (Sacks 1972, pp. 332-35). This test stipulates th
if people can be seen as members of relevant categories, th
categorize them that way. That is, use the category that seem
appropriate, except in the presence of discrepant information or
obvious features that would rule out its use. This procedure is quite
keeping with the attitude of everyday life, which has us ta
appearances at face value unless we have special reason to dou
(Schutz 1943; Garfinkel 1967, pp. 272-77; Bernstein 1986).3 It shou
be added that it is precisely when we have special reason to doubt that
the issue of applying rigorous criteria arises, but it is rare, outs
legal or bureaucratic contexts, to encounter insistence on positiv
tests (Garfinkel 1967, pp. 262-83; Wilson 1970).
Agnes’s initial resource was the predisposition of those she
encountered to take her appearance (her figure, clothing, hair sty
and so on), as the undoubted appearance of a normal female. H
further resource was our cultural perspective on the properties
“natural, normally sexed persons.” Garfinkel (1967, pp. 122-28) no
that in everyday life, we live in a world of two-and only two-sex
This arrangement has a moral status, in that we include ourselves a
others in it as “essentially, originally, in the first place, always h
been, always will be, once and for all, in the final analysis, eithe
‘male’ or ‘female”‘ (Garfinkel 1967, p. 122).
Consider the following case:
This issue reminds me of a visit I made to a computer store a couple of
years ago. The person who answered my questions was truly a
salesperson. I could not categorize him/her as a woman or a man. What
did I look for? (1) Facial hair: She/he was smooth skinned, but some
men have little or no facial hair. (This varies by race, Native Americans
and Blacks often have none.) (2) Breasts: She/he was wearing a loose
shirt that hung from his/her shoulders. And, as many women who
suffered through a 1950s’ adolescence know to their shame, women are
often flat-chested. (3) Shoulders: His/hers were small and round for a
man, broad for a woman. (4) Hands: Long and slender fingers,
knuckles a bit large for a woman, small for a man. (5) Voice: Middle
range, unexpressive for a woman, not at all the exaggerated tones some
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134 GENDER & SOCIETY / June 1987
gay males affect. (6) His/her treatment of me: Gave off no signs that
would let me know if I were of the same or different sex as this person.
There were not even any signs that he/she knew his/her sex would be
difficult to categorize and I wondered about that even as I did my best to
hide these questions so I would not embarrass him/her while we talked
of computer paper. I left still not knowing the sex of my salesperson,
and was disturbed by that unanswered question (child of my culture
that I am). (Diane Margolis, personal communication)
What can this case tell us about situations such as Agnes’s (cf.
Morris 1974; Richards 1983) or the process of sex categorization in
general? First, we infer from this description that the computer
salesclerk’s identificatory display was ambiguous, since she or he was
not dressed or adorned in an unequivocally female or male fashion. It
is when such a display fails to provide grounds for categorization that
factors such.as facial hair or tone of voice are assessed to determine
membership in a sex category. Second, beyond the fact that this
incident could be recalled after “a couple of years,” the customer was
not only “disturbed” by the ambiguity of the salesclerk’s category but
also assumed that to acknowledge this ambiguity would be embarrassing to the salesclerk. Not only do we want to know the sex
category of those around us (to see it at a glance, perhaps), but we
presume that others are displaying it for us, in as decisive a fashion as
they can.
Agnes attempted to be “120 percent female” (Garfinkel 1967, p.
129), that is, unquestionably in all ways and at all times feminine. She
thought she could protect herself from disclosure before and after
surgical intervention by comporting herself in a feminine manner,
but she also could have given herself away by overdoing her
performance. Sex categorization and the accomplishment of gender
are not the same. Agnes’s categorization could be secure or suspect,
but did not depend on whether or not she lived up to some ideal
conception of femininity. Women can be seen as unfemninine, but that
does not make them “unfemale.” Agnes faced an ongoing task of
being a woman-something beyond style of dress (an identificatory
display) or allowing men to light her cigarette (a gender display). Her
problem was to produce configurations of behavior that would be
seen by others as normative gender behavior.
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West, Zimmerman / DOING GENDER 135
Agnes’s strategy of “secret apprenticeship,” through which
learned expected feminine decorum by carefully attending to
fiance’s criticisms of other women, was one means of masking
incompetencies and simultaneously acquiring the needed skills
(Garfinkel 1967, pp. 146-147). It was through her fianc& that Agnes
learned that sunbathing on the lawn in front of her apartment was
“offensive” (because it put her on display to other men). She also
learned from his critiques of other women that she should not insist
on having things her way and that she should not offer her opinions
or claim equality with men (Garfinkel 1967, pp. 147-148). (Like other
women in our society, Agnes learned something about power in the
course of her “education.”)
Popular culture abounds with books and magazines that compile
idealized depictions of relations between women and men. Those
focused on the etiquette of dating or prevailing standards of feminine
comportment are meant to be of practical help in these matters.
However, the use of any such source as a manual of procedure
requires the assumption that doing gender merely involves making
use of discrete, well-defined bundles of behavior that can simply be
plugged into interactional situations to produce recognizable enact-
ments of masculinity and femininity. The man “does” being
masculine by, for example, taking the woman’s arm to guide her
across a street, and she “does” being feminine by consenting to be
guided and not initiating such behavior with a man.
Agnes could perhaps have used such sources as manuals, but, we
contend, doing gender is not so easily regimented (Mithers 1982;
Morris 1974). Such sources may list and describe the sorts of behaviors
that mark or display gender, but they are necessarily incomplete
(Garfinkel 1967, pp. 66-75; Wieder 1974, pp. 183-214; Zimmerman
and Wieder 1970, pp. 285-98). And to be successful, marking or
displaying gender must be finely fitted to situations and modified or
transformed as the occasion demands. Doing gender consists of
managing such occasions so that, whatever the particulars, the
outcome is seen and seeable in context as gender-appropriate or, as
the case may be, gender-inappropriate, that is, accountable.
As Heritage (1984, pp. 136-37) notes, members of society r
engage in “descriptive accountings of states of affairs to one an
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136 GENDER & SOCIETY / June 1987
and such accounts are both serious and consequential. These
descriptions name, characterize, formulate, explain, excuse, excoriate,
or merely take notice of some circumstance or activity and thus place
it within some social framework (locating it relative to other
activities, like and unlike).
Such descriptions are themselves accountable, and societal members orient to the fact that their activities are subject to comment.
Actions are often designed with an eye to their accountability, that is,
how they might look and how they might be characterized. The
notion of accountability also encompasses those actions undertaken
so that they are specifically unremarkable and thus not worthy of
more than a passing remark, because they are seen to be in accord with
culturally approved standards.
Heritage (1984, p. 179) observes that the process of rendering
something accountable is interactional in character:
[This] permits actors to design their actions in relation to their
circumstances so as to permit others, by methodically taking account of
circumstances, to recognize the action for what it is.
The key word here is circumstances. One circumstance that attends
virtually all actions is the sex category of the actor. As Garfinkel
(1967, p. 118) comments:
[T]he work and socially structured occasions of sexual passing were
obstinately unyielding to [Agnes’s] attempts to routinize the grounds
of daily activities. This obstinacy points to the omnirelevance of sexual
status to affairs of daily life as an invariant but unnoticed background
in the texture of relevances that compose the changing actual scenes of
everyday life. (italics added)
If sex category is omnirelevant (or even approaches being so), then a
person engaged in virtually any activity may be held accountable for
performance of that activity as a woman or a man, and their incumbency in one or the other sex category can be used to legitimate or
discredit their other activities (Berger, Cohen, and Zelditch 1972;
Berger, Conner, and Fisek 1974; Berger, Fisek, Norman, and Zelditch
1977; Humphreys and Berger 1981). Accordingly, virtually any
activity can be assessed as to its womanly or manly nature. And note,
to “do” gender is not always to live up to normative conceptions of
femininity or masculinity; it is to engage in behavior at the risk of
gender assessment. While it is individuals who do gender, the
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West, Zimmerman / DOING GENDER 137
enterprise is fundamentally interactional and institutional in
acter, for accountability is a feature of social relationships a
idiom is drawn from the institutional arena in which those relation-
ships are enacted. If this be the case, can we ever not do gender? Insofar
as a society is partitioned by “essential” differences between women
and men and placement in a sex category is both relevant and
enforced, doing gender is unavoidable.
Doing gender means creating differences between girls
and women and men, differences that are not natural, es
biological. Once the differences have been constructed, they
to reinforce the “essentialness”of gender. In a delightful a
the “arrangement between the sexes,” Goffman (1977) ob
creation of a variety of institutionalized frameworks throu
our “natural, normal sexedness” can be enacted. The p
features of social setting provide one obvious resource
expression of our “essential” differences. For example
segregation of North American public bathrooms dist
“ladies” from “gentlemen” in matters held to be funda
biological, even though both “are somewhat similar in the
of waste products and their elimination” (Goffman 1977,
These settings are furnished with dimorphic equipmen
urinals for men or elaborate grooming facilities for wom
though both sexes may achieve the same ends through
means (and apparently do so in the privacy of their own h
be stressed here is the fact that:
The functioning of sex-differentiated organs is involved, but there is
nothing in this functioning that biologically recommends segregation;
that arrangement is a totally cultural matter … toilet segregation is
presented as a natural consequence of the difference between the sexclasses when in fact it is a means of honoring, if not producing, this
difference. (Goffman 1977, p. 316)
Standardized social occasions also provide stages for evocations of
the “essential female and male natures.” Goffman cites organized
sports as one such institutionalized framework for the expression of
manliness. There, those qualities that ought “properly” to be
associated with masculinity, such as endurance, strength, and com-
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138 GENDER & SOCIETY / June 1987
petitive spirit, are celebrated by all parties concerned-participants,
who may be seen to demonstrate such traits, and spectators, who
applaud their demonstrations from the safety of the sidelines (1977, p.
Assortative mating practices among heterosexual couples afford
still further means to create and maintain differences between women
and men. For example, even though size, strength, and age tend to be
normally distributed among females and males (with considerable
overlap between them), selective pairing ensures couples in which
boys and men are visibly bigger, stronger, and older (if not “wiser”)
than the girls and women with whom they are paired. So, should
situations emerge in which greater size, strength, or experience is
called for, boys and men will be ever ready to display it and girls and
women, to appreciate its display (Goffman 1977, p. 321; West and
Iritani 1985).
Gender may be routinely fashioned in a variety of situations that
seem conventionally expressive to begin with, such as those that
present “helpless” women next to heavy objects or flat tires. But, as
Goffman notes, heavy, messy, and precarious concerns can be
constructed from any social situation, “even though by standards set
in other settings, this may involve something that is light, clean, and
safe” (Goffman 1977, p. 324). Given these resources, it is clear that any
interactional situation sets the stage for depictions of “essential”
sexual natures. In sum, these situations “do not so much allow for the
expression of natural differences as for the production of that
difference itself” (Goffman 1977, p. 324).
Many situations are not clearly sex categorized to begin with, nor is
what transpires within them obviously gender relevant. Yet any
social encounter can be pressed into service in the interests of doing
gender. Thus, Fishman’s (1978) research on casual conversations
found an asymmetrical “division of labor” in talk between heterosexual intimates. Women had to ask more questions, fill more
silences, and use more attention-getting beginnings in order to be
heard. Her conclusions are particularly pertinent here:
Since interactional work is related to what constitutes being a woman,
with what a woman is, the idea that it is work is obscured. The work is
not seen as what women do, but as part of what they are. (Fishman
1978, p. 405)
We would argue that it is precisely such labor that helps to constitute
the essential nature of women as women in interactional contexts
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West, Zimmerman / DOING GENDER 139
(West and Zimmerman 1983, pp. 109-11; but see also Kollock,
Blumstein, and Schwartz 1985).
Individuals have many social identities that may be donned or
shed, muted or made more salient, depending on the situation. One
may be a friend, spouse, professional, citizen, and many other things
to many different people-or, to the same person at different times.
But we are always women or men-unless we shift into another sex
category. What this means is that our identificatory displays will
provide an ever-available resource for doing gender under an
infinitely diverse set of circumstances.
Some occasions are organized to routinely display and celebrate
behaviors that are conventionally linked to one or the other sex
category. On such occasions, everyone knows his or her place in the
interactional scheme of things. If an individual identified as a
member of one sex category engages in behavior usually associated
with the other category, this routinization is challenged. Hughes
(1945, p. 356) provides an illustration of such a dilemma:
[A] young woman … became part of that virile profession, engi-
neering. The designer of an airplane is expected to go up on the
maiden flight of the first plane built according to the design. He [sic]
then gives a dinner to the engineers and workmen who worked on the
new plane. The dinner is naturally a stag party. The young woman in
question designed a plane. Her co-workers urged her not to take the
risk-for which, presumably, men only are fit-of the maiden voyage.
They were, in effect, asking her to be a lady instead of an engineer. She
chose to be an engineer. She then gave the party and paid for it like a
man. After food and the first round of toasts, she left like a lady.
On this occasion, parties reached an accommodation that allowed a
woman to engage in presumptively masculine behaviors. However,
we note that in the end, this compromise permitted demonstration of
her “essential” femininity, through accountably “ladylike” behavior.
Hughes (1945, p. 357) suggests that such contradictions may be
countered by managing interactions on a very narrow basis, for
example, “keeping the relationship formal and specific.” But the
heart of the matter is that even-perhaps, especially-if the relationship is a formal one, gender is still something one is accountable for.
Thus a woman physician (notice the special qualifier in her case) may
be accorded respect for her skill and even addressed by an appropriate
title. Nonetheless, she is subject to evaluation in terms of normative
conceptions of appropriate attitudes and activities for her sex
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140 GENDER & SOCIETY / June 1987
category and under pressure to prove that she is an “essentially”
feminine being, despite appearances to the contrary (West 1984, pp.
97-101). Her sex category is used to discredit her participation in
important clinical activities (Lorber 1984, pp. 52-54), while her
involvement in medicine is used to discredit her commitment to her
responsibilities as a wife and mother (Bourne and Wikler 1978, pp.
435-37). Simultaneously, her exclusion from the physician colleague
community is maintained and her accountability as a woman is
In this context, “role conflict” can be viewed as a dynamic aspect of
our current “arrangement between the sexes” (Goffman 1977), an
arrangement that provides for occasions on which persons of a
particular sex category can “see” quite clearly that they are out of
place and that if they were not there, their current troubles would not
exist. What is at stake is, from the standpoint of interaction, the
management of our “essential” natures, and from the standpoint of
the individual, the continuing accomplishment of gender. If, as we
have argued, sex category is omnirelevant, then any occasion,
conflicted or not, offers the resources for doing gender.
We have sought to show that sex category and gender are managed
properties of conduct that are contrived with respect to the fact that
others will judge and respond to us in particular ways. We have
claimed that a person’s gender is not simply an aspect of what one is,
but, more fundamentally, it is something that one does, and does
recurrently, in interaction with others.
What are the consequences of this theoretical formulation? If, for
example, individuals strive to achieve gender in encounters with
others, how does a culture instill the need to achieve it? What is the
relationship between the production of gender at the level of
interaction and such institutional arrangements as the division of
labor in society? And, perhaps most important, how does doing
gender contribute to the subordination of women by men?
To bring the social production of gender under empirical s
we might begin at the beginning, with a reconsideration
process through which societal members acquire the r
categorical apparatus and other skills to become gendered h
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West, Zimmerman / DOING GENDER 141
Recruitment to Gender Identities
The conventional approach to the process of becoming girls and
boys has been sex-role socialization. In recent years, recurring
problems arising from this approach have been linked to inadequacies
inherent in role theory per se-its emphasis on “consensus, stability
and continuity” (Stacey and Thorne 1985, p. 307), its ahistorical and
depoliticizing focus (Thorne 1980, p. 9; Stacey and Thorne 1985, p.
307), and the fact that its “social” dimension relies on “a general
assumption that people choose to maintain existing customs”
(Connell 1985, p. 263).
In contrast, Cahill (1982, 1986a, 1986b) analyzes the experiences of
preschool children using a social model of recruitment into normally
gendered identities. Cahill argues that categorization practices are
fundamental to learning and displaying feminine and masculine
behavior. Initially, he observes, children are primarily concerned
with distinguishing between themselves and others on the basis of
social competence. Categorically, their concern resolves itself into the
opposition of “girl/boy” classification versus “baby” classification
(the latter designating children whose social behavior is problematic
and who must be closely supervised). It is children’s concern with
being seen as socially competent that evokes their initial claims to
gender identities:
During the exploratory stage of children’s socialization … they learn
that only two social identities are routinely available to them, the
identity of “baby,” or, depending on the configuration of their external
genitalia, either “big boy” or “big girl.” Moreover, others subtly
inform them that the identity of “baby” is a discrediting one. When, for
example, children engage in disapproved behavior, they are often told
“You’re a baby” or “Be a big boy.” In effect, these typical verbal
responses to young children’s behavior convey to them that they must
behaviorally choose between the discrediting identity of “baby” and
their anatomically determined sex identity. (Cahill 1986a, p. 175)
Subsequently, little boys appropriate the gender ideal of “effica-
ciousness,” that is, being able to affect the physical and social
environment through the exercise of physical strength or appropriate
skills. In contrast, little girls learn to value “appearance,” that is,
managing themselves as ornamental objects. Both classes of children
learn that the recognition and use of sex categorization in interaction
are not optional, but mandatory (see also Bem 1983).
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142 GENDER & SOCIETY / June 1987
Being a “girl” or a “boy” then, is not only being more competent
than a “baby,” but also being competently female or male, that is,
learning to produce behavioral displays of one’s “essential” female or
male identity. In this respect, the task of four- to five-year-old children
is very similar to Agnes’s:
For example, the following interaction occurred on a preschool
playground A 55-month-old boy (D) was attempting to unfasten the
clasp of a necklace when a preschool aide walked over to him.
A: Do you want to put that on?
D: No. It’s for girls.
A: You don’t have to be a girl to wear things around your neck. Kings
wear things around their necks. You could pretend you’re a king.
D: I’m not a king. I’m a boy. (Cahill 1986a, p. 176)
As Cahill notes of this example, although D may have been unclear as
to the sex status of a king’s identity, he was obviously aware that
necklaces are used to announce the identity “girl.” Having claimed
the identity “boy” and having developed a behavioral commitment to
it, he was leery of any display that might furnish grounds for
questioning his claim.
In this way, new members of society come to be involved in a
self-regulating process as they begin to monitor their own and others’
conduct with regard to its gender implications. The “recruitment”
process involves not only the appropriation of gender ideals (by the
valuation of those ideals as proper ways of being and behaving) but
also gender identities that are important to individuals and that they
strive to maintain. Thus gender differences, or the sociocultural
shaping of “essential female and male natures,” achieve the status of
objective facts. They are rendered normal, natural features of persons
and provide the tacit rationale for differing fates of women and men
within the social order.
Additional studies of children’s play activities as routine occasions
for the expression of gender-appropriate behavior can yield new
insights into how our “essential natures” are constructed. In particular, the transition from what Cahill (1986a) terms “apprentice
participation” in the sex-segregated worlds that are common among
elementary school children to “bona fide participation” in the
heterosocial world so frightening to adolescents is likely to be a
keystone in our understanding of the recruitment process (Thorne
1986; Thore and Luria 1986).
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West, Zimmerman / DOING GENDER 143
Gender and the Division of Labor
Whenever people face issues of allocation-who is to do what, get
what, plan or execute action, direct or be directed, incumbency in
significant social categories such as “female” and “male” seems to
become pointedly relevant. How such issues are resolved condition
the exhibition, dramatization, or celebration of one’s “essential
nature” as a woman or man.
Berk (1985) offers elegant demonstration of this point in h
investigation of the allocation of household labor and the attitudes
married couples toward the division of household tasks. Berk foun
little variation in either the actual distribution of tasks or perceptions
of equity in regard to that distribution. Wives, even when employ
outside the home, do the vast majority of household and child-car
tasks. Moreover, both wives and husbands tend to perceive this as
“fair” arrangement. Noting the failure of conventional sociologic
and economic theories to explain this seeming contradiction, Ber
contends that something more complex is involved than rational
arrangements for the production of household goods and services:
Hardly a question simply of who has more time, or whose time is worth
more, who has more skill or more power, it is clear that a complicated
relationship between the structure of work imperatives and the
structure of normative expectations attached to work as gendered
determines the ultimate allocation of members’ time to work and
home. (Berk 1985, pp. 195-96)
She notes, for example, that the most important factor influencing
wives’ contribution of labor is the total amount of work demanded or
expected by the household; such demands had no bearing on
husbands’ contributions. Wives reported various rationales (their
own and their husbands’) that justified their level of contribution
and, as a general matter, underscored the presumption that wives are
essentially responsible for household production.
Berk (1985, p. 201) contends that it is difficult to see how people
“could rationally establish the arrangements that they do solely for
the production of household goods and services”-much less, how
people could consider them “fair.” She argues that our current
arrangements for the domestic division of labor support two production processes: household goods and services (meals, clean children,
and so on) and, at the same time, gender. As she puts it:
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144 GENDER & SOCIETY / June 1987
Simultaneously, members “do” gender, as they “do” housework and
child care, and what [has] been called the division of labor provides for
the joint production of household labor and gender; it is the mechanism
by which both the material and symbolic products of the household are
realized. (1985, p. 201)
It is not simply that household labor is designated as “women’s
work,” but that for a woman to engage in it and a man not to engage
in it is to draw on and exhibit the “essential nature” of each. What is
produced and reproduced is not merely the activity and artifact of
domestic life, but the material embodiment of wifely and husbandly
roles, and derivatively, of womanly and manly conduct (see Beer 1983,
pp. 70-89). What are also frequently produced and reproduced are the
dominant and subordinate statuses of the sex categories.
How does gender get done in work settings outside the home,
where dominance and subordination are themes of overarching
importance? Hochschild’s (1983) analysis of the work of flight
attendants offers some promising insights. She found that the
occupation of flight attendant consisted of something altogether
different for women than for men:
As the company’s main shock absorbers against “mishandled” passengers, their own feelings are more frequently subjected to rough
treatment. In addition, a day’s exposure to people who resist authority
in a woman is a different experience than it is for a man…. In this
respect, it is a disadvantage to be a woman. And in this case, they are not
simply women in the biological sense. They are also a highly visible
distillation of middle-class American notions of femininity. They
symbolize Woman. Insofar as the category “female” is mentally
associated with having less status and authority, female flight attendants are more readily classified as “really” females than other females
are. (Hochschild 1983, p. 175)
In performing what Hochschild terms the “emotional labor” necessary to maintain airline profits, women flight attendants simultaneously produce enactments of their “essential” femininity.
Sex and Sexuality
What is the relationship between doing gender and a culture’s
prescription of “obligatory heterosexuality” (Rubin 1975; Rich
1980)? As Frye (1983, p. 22) observes, the monitoring of sexual feelings
in relation to other appropriately sexed persons requires the ready
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West, Zimmerman / DOING GENDER 145
recognition of such persons “before one can allow one’s hea
or one’s blood to flow in erotic enjoyment of that pers
appearance of heterosexuality is produced through emp
unambiguous indicators of one’s sex, layered on in eve
conclusive fashion (Frye 1983, p. 24). Thus, lesbians and
concerned with passing as heterosexuals can rely on these i
for camouflage; in contrast, those who would avoid the as
of heterosexuality may foster ambiguous indicators of thei
ical status through their dress, behaviors, and style. But “am
sex indicators are sex indicators nonetheless. If one wishes to be
recognized as a lesbian (or heterosexual woman), one must first
establish a categorical status as female. Even as popular images
portray lesbians as “females who are not feminine” (Frye 1983, p.
129), the accountability of persons for their “normal, natural
sexedness” is preserved.
Nor is accountability threatened by the existence of “sex-change
operations”-presumably, the most radical challenge to our cultural
perspective on sex and gender. Although no one coerces transsexuals
into hormone therapy, electrolysis, or surgery, the alternatives
available to them are undeniably constrained:
When the transsexual experts maintain that they use transsexual
procedures only with people who ask for them, and who prove that
they can “pass,” they obscure the social reality. Given patriarchy’s
prescription that one must be either masculine or feminine, free choice
is conditioned. (Raymond 1979, p. 135, italics added)
The physical reconstruction of sex criteria pays ultimate tribute to the
“essentialness” of our sexual natures-as women or as men.
Let us return to the question: Can we avoid doing gender? Earlie
we proposed that insofar as sex category is used as a fundamenta
criterion for differentiation, doing gender is unavoidable. It
unavoidable because of the social consequences of sex-catego
membership: the allocation of power and resources not only in t
domestic, economic, and political domains but also in the bro
arena of interpersonal relations. In virtually any situation, one’s se
category can be relevant, and one’s performance as an incumbent o
that category (i.e., gender) can be subjected to evaluation. Maintaini
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146 GENDER & SOCIETY / June 1987
such pervasive and faithful assignment of lifetime status requires
But doing gender also renders the social arrangements based on sex
category accountable as normal and natural, that is, legitimate ways
of organizing social life. Differences between women and men that
are created by this process can then be portrayed as fundamental and
enduring dispositions. In this light, the institutional arrangements of
a society can be seen as responsive to the differences-the social order
being merely an accommodation to the natural order. Thus if, in
doing gender, men are also doing dominance and women are doing
deference (cf. Goffman 1967, pp. 47-95), the resultant social order,
which supposedly reflects “natural differences,” is a powerful reinforcer and legitimator of hierarchical arrangements. Frye observes:
For efficient subordination, what’s wanted is that the structure not
appear to be a cultural artifact kept in place by human decision or
custom, but that it appear natural-that it appear to be quite a direct
consequence of facts about the beast which are beyond the scope of
human manipulation … That we are trained to behave so differently
as women and men, and to behave so differently toward women and
men, itself contributes mightily to the appearance of extreme dimorphism, but also, the ways we act as women and men, and the ways we
act toward women and men, mold our bodies and our minds to the
shape of subordination and dominance. We do become what we
practice being. (Frye 1983, p. 34)
If we do gender appropriately, we simultaneously sustain, reproduce,
and render legitimate the institutional arrangements that are based
on sex category. If we fail to do gender appropriately, we as
individuals-not the institutional arrangements-may be called to
account (for our character, motives, and predispositions).
Social movements such as feminism can provide the ideology and
impetus to question existing arrangements, and the social support for
individuals to explore alternatives to them. Legislative changes, such
as that proposed by the Equal Rights Amendment, can also weaken
the accountability of conduct to sex category, thereby affording the
possibility of more widespread loosening of accountability in general.
To be sure, equality under the law does not guarantee equality in
other arenas. As Lorber (1986, p. 577) points out, assurance of
“scrupulous equality of categories of people considered essentially
different needs constant monitoring.” What such proposed changes
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West, Zimmerman / DOING GENDER 147
can do is provide the warrant for asking why, if we wish to
women and men as equals, there needs to be two sex categorie
(see Lorber 1986, p. 577).
The sex category/gender relationship links the institution
interactional levels, a coupling that legitimates social arrang
based on sex category and reproduces their asymmetry in face-to-
interaction. Doing gender furnishes the interactional scaffold
social structure, along with a built-in mechanism of social con
appreciating the institutional forces that maintain distin
between women and men, we must not lose sight of the inter
validation of those distinctions that confers upon them their s
“naturalness” and “rightness.”
Social change, then, must be pursued both at the institution
cultural level of sex category and at the interactional level of g
Such a conclusion is hardly novel. Nevertheless, we suggest th
important to recognize that the analytical distinction bet
institutional and interactional spheres does not pose an eithe
choice when it comes to the question of effecting social c
Reconceptualizing gender not as a simple property of individu
as an integral dynamic of social orders implies a new perspect
the entire network of gender relations:
[T]he social subordination of women, and the cultural practices w
help sustain it; the politics of sexual object-choice, and particularly
oppression of homosexual people; the sexual division of labor, th
formation of character and motive, so far as they are organized
femininity and masculinity; the role of the body in social relatio
especially the politics of childbirth; and the nature of strategies
sexual liberation movements. (Connell 1985, p. 261)
Gender is a powerful ideological device, which produces, re
duces, and legitimates the choices and limits that are predica
sex category. An understanding of how gender is produced in
situations will afford clarification of the interactional scaffold
social structure and the social control processes that sustain it
1. This definition understates many complexities involved in the relati
between biology and culture (Jaggar 1983, pp. 106-13). However, our point is t
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148 GENDER & SOCIETY / June 1987
determination of an individual’s sex classification is a social process through and
2. This is not to say that gender is a singular “thing,” omnipresent in the same
form historically or in every situation. Because normative conceptions of appropriate
attitudes and activities for sex categories can vary across cultures and historical
moments, the management of situated conduct in light of those expectations can take
many different forms.
3. Bernstein (1986) reports an unusual case of espionage in which a man passing as
a woman convinced a lover that he/she had given birth to “their” child, who, the lover,
thought, “looked like” him.
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West, Zimmerman / DOING GENDER 151
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Candace West is Associate Professor of Sociology at the University of California,
Santa Cruz. Her past work includes “Against Our Will: Male Interruptions of
Females in Cross-sex Conversation,” “When the Doctor Is a ‘Lady’: Power,
Status and Gender in Physician-Patient Encounters,” and “Gender, Language
and Discourse” (with Don H. Zimmerman).
Don H. Zimmerman is Professor of Sociology at the University of California,
Santa Barbara. His other work on gender, also coauthored with West, includes
“Sex Roles, Interruption and Silences,” “Women’s Place in Everyday Talk,”
“Small Insults: A Study of Interruptions in Cross-Sex Conversations Between
Unacquainted Persons,” and “Gender, Language and Discourse.”
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