West and Zimmerman promote the idea that gender is not fixed but results from action; it is processual. They tell us that gender is “a routine accomplishment embedded in everyday interaction.” Their analysis depends on defining and separating the concepts of “sex” and “gender.” In the article, they propose an understanding of gender that is distinctively sociological. Analyzing “gender” in terms of women and men, masculine and feminine, they view “doing gender” in part as expressing “masculine and feminine ‘natures.’”
We contend that the "doing" of gender is undertaken by women and men whose competence as members of society is hostage to its production. Doing gender involves a complex of socially guided perceptual, interactional, and micropolitical activities that cast particular pursuits as expressions of masculine and feminine "natures."
One key point is that earlier sociological attention to “gender roles” and “gender display” are inadequate and even misleading. Instead, they argue for emphasis on interaction: “participants in interaction organize their various and manifold activities to reflect or express gender, and they are disposed to perceive the behavior of others in a similar light.”
Another key idea is that both “sex” and “gender” are meaningful, distinct analytical concepts, and are joined by the concept of “sex category.” “Sex” is partly social even as it primarily relates to biology, as it is determined through applying socially agreed-upon biological criteria for classifying persons as females or males. And while people are placed in a “sex category” through application of the sex criteria, it is the everyday display of identificatory displays that establish categorization and proclaim membership in a given category. “Gender,” the authors state, is active: “the activity of managing situated conduct” in ways that bear normative conceptions of sex category-appropriate attitudes and activities.
A third important point is their departure from the previously held sociological concept of “gender display,” associated with Erwin Goffman. “Display” implies that the gender is fixed and exists separately from the ways it is shown. West and Zimmerman note that Goffman’s concept segregates gender display from interaction, thus obscuring how gender affects a wide range of human activities. Beyond gender display, they emphasize the elements of “doing gender” as ongoing activity, and see that activity as always embedded in everyday interaction.
Written in the 1980s, their analysis moves beyond the idea that sex was biological and gender was cultural and social, which dominated analytical discourses of the 1970s. The article does not analyze multiple genders, androgyny, or transgender identities and processes.