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Conceptualization Of Gender

The categorization of people on the basis of their biological sex ultimately leads to questions of difference. Theorists debate whether the differences between men and women are extensive enough to merit the common label of opposite sex. Maximalists believe that the differences between men and women are large and deeply rooted. Minimalists, in contrast, maintain that differences among men and among women are larger than the differences between men and women (Anselmi and Law 1998).

Another topic of debate is the location of gender. Specifically, are we gendered beings, or do we live in a gendered society? The essentialist stance contends that we are gendered beings; that is, gender is located within the individual. Essentialists argue that the behavioral differences between men and women are fundamental and rooted in biological sex differences. Accordingly, research based on an essentialist stance focuses on finding neurological, hormonal, and evolutionary differences between men and women. Because they emphasize the biological, essentialists often do not differentiate between the terms sex and gender. Cross-cultural similarities are used to support the essentialist perspective (Anselmi and Law 1998).

Social constructionists offer the contrasting view that gender is located within social arrangements. Specifically, as people relate to one another in a cultural and social context, gender differences arise that are sometimes related to biological sex differences, but are more often viewed as arising from cultural expectations for what are appropriate behavior and characteristics for females and males. Accordingly, research based on a social constructionist stance focuses on identifying conditions that are associated with similarities or differences across gender. From this perspective, sex is treated as a biological category, and gender is treated as a social category. Cross-cultural differences are used to support the social constructionist perspective (Anselmi and Law 1998).

Janice Bohan (1997) offers a useful analogy in understanding the difference between essentialism and social constructionism. After having a conversation with a person, one might either label the individual as friendly or, alternately, label the conversation as friendly. Labeling the person as friendly is analogous to essentialism, as friendly is viewed as a quality of the person. In another view, labeling the conversation as friendly is analogous with social constructionism, as friendly is viewed as a quality of the social interaction,

A third possibility is that gender is located both within individuals and within cultural and societal arrangements. A few biological differences, such as women's ability to bear children, shape social arrangements and influence social interactions. From this perspective, individuals internalize sociocultural expectations for their assigned gender and then behave accordingly. This view integrates essentialism and social constructionism to form an interactionist conceptualization of gender.

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Marriage and Family EncyclopediaRelationshipsGender - Conceptualization Of Gender, Gender Roles And Stereotypes, Interaction Between Gender And Power, Interaction Between Gender And Other Social Categories