Gender is a social and cultural categorization defined by the meanings given to biological differences between the sexes. Gender roles are the social skills, abilities, and ways of acting thought appropriate to members of a society depending upon their sex.
Since the 1970s, there has been a growing anthropological interest in the construction of gender relations and the significance attached to gender. Anthropologists compare the similarities and differences found in various societies and look for explanations for them. The way in which gender intersects with other kinds of “difference” has become another focus of the work on gender.
History of the Gender Category in Anthropology
Until the 1970s, few anthropologists had given detailed attention to gender (Margaret Mead was one of the few). But in the 1970s, feminist anthropology started to investigate women’s situations in different social, political, and economic order; the roots of women’s subordination; and the general roles of women in different cultures and economies. In the 1980s, the focus shifted from “women” to “gender.” “Gender” appeared to provide the key for talking about sex/gender differences without relying upon linked dichotomies based on Western ideas, which were seen as culturally specific. As the focus shifted from “women” to “gender,” “men” and “masculinity” also came to be studied in their own right and investigated as cultural constructions. Both were considered as complex and changing categories, with masculinity itself viewed as just as problematic as femininity. Finally, during the 1990s, the distinction between sex and gender itself became murky. Increasingly, studies presented the sexed body itself as historically and culturally constructed.
Traditional Gender Roles
In Western and some non-Western societies, gender roles are traditionally strictly divided into feminine and masculine and are assigned to males and females at latest at the moment of birth. Powerful cultural mechanisms operate to ensure that “boys will be boys and girls will be girls.” The process of training girls to be feminine and boys to be masculine is largely unconscious. Boys are supposed to grow up to be powerful, to hide their weaknesses, to be independent, demanding, and aggressive. Occupations thought appropriate for men are therefore mainly in politics, economics, and sports. Girls are encouraged to be good mothers and expected to become what is needed to fulfill this role, such as being giving, emotional, and intuitive. They are expected to sacrifice their ambitions and personal needs in order to please and care for others. If they do not adhere to these gender roles—if they are, for example, ambitious, demanding, and tough or rough—they are considered unfeminine. Males who do not evince the expected traits of masculinity are called “feminine” or “effeminate.” As the system is a hierarchical one, these men and boys are degraded. Although these roles have diversified, gender roles limit what men and women can feel, think, and do.
Gender and Biology/Nature
Is gender determined by biology/nature, or is it the result of culturally given meanings to biological sex differences? Many cultures have a “natural attitude” with respect to gender. This attitude is made up of the assumptions that (a) gender behavior is the result of sex, not the result of cultural interpretations; (b) that there are only two genders; and (c) that one’s gender is invariant and permanent. The question is not settled, but the data demonstrating that a gendered behavior is unquestionably biologically determined do not exist today.
The simple picture is complicated by the fact that biological sex itself is not set on a simple male/female switch, but may be composed of a variety of chromosomal and morphological “anomalies.” Biological conditions in which a child’s genetic sex (chromosomes) and phenotypical sex (genital appearance) do not match, or are somehow different from the “standard” male or female, are called intersex.
Gender Crossing, Third Genders
There are people who feel that their true gender is at variance with their biological sex. Some have sex change surgery or undergo medical treatment aimed at changing their sexual anatomy. These people are termed transsexual. Others take on opposite gender roles without changing their sex. The best-known case in the ethnographic literature is the so-called berdache, found in a number of societies indigenous to North America. Berdaches are individuals who take on gender roles in opposition to their anatomical sex by adopting the dress and performing the activities of members of the other group. The case of berdache and other cases raise the questions of whether we should think of such phenomena in terms of a basic two-gender system, with the possibility of individuals transferring from one to the other, or whether it is more appropriate to think of them as constituting a distinct third gender. Among the Hijras of northern India, for example, males who dress in women’s clothing and act more like women than men are considered neither male nor female.
Ethnographic evidence supports the notion that gender is a cross-cultural phenomenon, and the vast majority of individuals can easily be differentiated into sex classes on the basis of their genitalia. Nevertheless, in looking at different societies, past and present, anthropology has discovered a wide range of variation in gender construction and gender roles, in the value placed on activities performed by men and women, and in men’s and women’s access to important social resources.
Gender and the Future of Anthropology
There are now few if any areas of anthropological inquiry that have not been subjected to a “gendered” inquiry. Gender is an element in theories of biological, cultural, and linguistic anthropology, and of archaeology. The range covered by gender questions has come to parallel that of anthropology itself. The way in which gender intersects with other kinds of “differences,” such as race, class, ethnicity, sexual preference, and physical ability, has become another focus of the work on gender. Although a woman may not outrank a man of her class, she may outrank men of lower classes. Nevertheless, some go as far as to argue that women and men do not exist anywhere, and therefore the responsible anthropologist will not even assume that there are women and men or third genders in a given culture until it has been shown that these are relevant social categories.
- Mascia-Lees, F. E., & Black, N. J. (2000). Gender and anthropology. Prospect Heights, IL: Waveland Press.
- Nanda, S. (1999). Gender diversity: Cross-cultural variations. Prospect Heights, IL: Waveland Press.
- Robertson, J. (Ed.). (2005). Same-sex cultures and sexualities. An anthropological reader. Oxford: Blackwell.