Language, Gender, & Reality
In the field of sociology, gender has been defined as a socially constructed identity category. As a socially defined category, researchers say that the roles and expectations that one associates with gender are determined through processes of socialization. Because language and language use are important factors in socialization, researchers have sought to understand how language contributes to the construction of gender and perceptions of reality. This article explores the complex interplay between gender, language, and reality from the perspective of social constructionism.
Keywords Conversational Style; Cultural Product; Feminist Social Constructionists; Gender; Interactional Styles; Intersexual; Linguistic Strategies; Male-Female Relationships; Marked Words; Perception; Reality; Social Constructionism; Stereotypes; Transgender
Every day in the media, articles abound describing the unique characteristics that make women women and men men. In magazines and on the Internet, the "dating beat" produces stories that provide insight into what men really want or what women really need. The underlying message is that there is something essentially different about women and men. That difference creates a mysteriousness about members of the opposite sex that must be uncovered in order for relationships between the sexes to become deeper and more satisfying. But are these differences inevitable? Does the physical reality of having different genitalia necessarily equate to having psychological, emotional, and behavioral differences? Many sociologists, linguists, anthropologists and other researchers in fields related to the topic of language, gender, and reality believe the answer is no. There is no one absolute, biologically-driven set of behavioral characteristics that define gender. Rather, they say, gender is a socially constructed concept. This means that our understanding of what gender is and what it means to behave as a member of a specific gender develops through our social interactions in a particular culture. Throughout time, different cultures have conceived of gender in various ways, providing evidence that gender is not biologically, but rather socially defined (Boswell, 2003; Lorber, 2003).
For instance, take the case of the introduction to this article in which it is proposed that there are two and only two genders that exist in our society. Quite likely, many will read this and agree without second thought that this is indeed the case. Possibly, having already recognized your gender category, you are interested in learning more about how you differ from your gender opposite. This is almost certainly the case, unless, of course, you are one of the individuals who was not born fully male or female (Fausto-Sterling, 2003). If you are one of these intersexual people, born with both female and male genitalia, and perhaps told of how you were surgically modified of this somewhat rare but perfectly natural biological/medical condition, you might have a different perspective. Perhaps you are more open to a definition of gender that includes more than two polar opposites. Maybe you readily agree that men and women can exhibit similar behaviors. Theoretically, you might be prone to accept the idea that whatever is socially constructed can be changed. This may also be the case if you are transgender, or identify with a different gender than the one you were assigned at birth. Transgender people may identify with and may also present as the opposite gender to the male or female one assigned at birth, or they may identify with both or neither genders.
Social constructionism is a theory that describes social realities as a product of human interaction. In other words, much of what we take for granted as being real was originally created by humans and only acquired the status of being "real" because individuals taught one another to see and accept it as such.
3 Stages of Construction
Researchers have defined three stages of the construction of social realities. The first stage is externalization. In this stage, cultural products are produced through human interaction. These products might be values or beliefs about a specific group, a social institution, or cultural artifacts. For instance, gender as a cultural product is defined by a set of culturally-appropriate beliefs about what gender is and how members of a gender behave and must consequently be treated. Once these products are created, they exist external to their original creators; they are available to other members of the group.
The second stage is objectivism. In this stage, the products take on an objective reality that is separate from the people who created them. In other words, individuals lose sight of the fact that they created the product and begin to see the product as existing independently in the world regardless of human interactions.
The third stage is internalization. In this stage, members of the cultural group learn the "objective facts" about the cultural products in their society. These facts are passed down from generation to generation and between members of the group through a process called socialization. This is the process by which individuals learn the roles, rules, and expectations that a society attaches to particular social positions (Ore, 2003). Because of socialization, members of the same cultural group learn to perceive the world in the same way and are not likely to question their beliefs unless they are challenged by a cultural/social system that has defined the world differently (Lorber, 2003).
The argument for gender as a social construction states that gender is just one category of identity that society creates, defines, and makes real through socialization processes. People are not born knowing how to act as members of a particular gender. Rather, they learn how to act through their interactions with other members of the culture. This learning process begins at birth when babies, who in a diaper alone might otherwise look genderless, are adorned in pink or blue to denote their sex. Dressed in their gender-marked color, others respond to them with language and actions they deem appropriate for girls or boys: "She's so pretty; look at her eyes!" or "Hey, little fellah, are you an ornery one?" As children grow, they continue to learn the rules and expectations that society creates for them, essentially learning to "do gender." (Lorber, 2003; West & Zimmerman, 2002).
The Role of Language
Language plays an important role in these socialization processes. Language is the medium of interaction, and as such, it is the means through which social norms are transmitted. Through language, individuals are able to describe their perceptions of reality, and in doing so, they shape how others perceive and respond to them and the world. While language is certainly not the only social factor shaping reality—society's social institutions such as the family, education, economy, media, etc. all play their part—it is an extremely important one (Ore, 2003; Tannen, 1994).
How does language create gender? Such a question naturally entails a complex interplay of interactants, contexts, cultures, discourses, languages, and power relationships, so there is no one easy answer. First, language allows us to name and categorize things. Once something is named, it can be investigated and facts and/or status can be associated with it. Consider the "invention of heterosexuality." Katz (2003) writes that prior to the late 1800s, heterosexuality was not the common sense way of perceiving relations between the sexes. Instead, couched in terms of the Victorian age, men and women aspired to be free from carnal lust, and sex was seen only as a means to reproduction, not pleasure. In the 1880s, however, new changes in the economy promoted a pleasure ethic that encouraged an exploration of human sexuality. The medical profession redefined sexual norms, "Doctors, who had earlier named and judged the...
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