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II. Sociological perspectives on Gender.
Sociology as a social science Sociology may be defined very broadly as ‘the scientific study of human society and social behavior’, or social interactions. The very origin of the word ‘sociology’ comes from Latin word socius (companion) and the Greek ology (study of). Sociology is commonly described as one of the social sciences.
Science has two major goals:
to describe particular things or events and to propose and test general principles that explain those things and events. As a science, sociology shares these goals: like all sciences, sociology is rooted in certain theoretical orientations and uses specific methods for developing and testing its ideas. These theories and methods were formulated in response to the historical climate in which sociology emerged as a distinct discipline.
Classical theorists Although a concern with the nature of society can be found throughout the history of Western thought , Sociology emerged as a separate field of study in Europe during the 19th century. Historically the word ‘sociology’ was first used by Auguste Comte ( ). In Comte’s work , Sociology was to be the highest achievement of science, producing knowledge of the laws of social world equivalent to our knowledge of the laws of nature. Comte identified two major areas that sociology should concentrate on: social statistics – the study of how the various institutions of society are interrelated, focusing on order, stability and harmony, - and social dynamics – the study of complete societies and how they develop and change over time.
During the 19th century sociology developed rapidly under the influence of four scholars of highly different orientations. Despite these differences in aims and theories, however, these men – Karl Marx, Herbert Spencer, Emile Durkheim and Max Weber – were responsible for shaping sociology into a relatively coherent discipline.
Karl Marx ( ) stated that the entire history of human societies may be seen as the history of class conflict: the conflict between those who own and control the means of production and those who work for them. He believed that ownership of the means of production in any society determines the distribution of wealth, power and even the ideas of that society. The power of the wealthy is derived not just from their control of the economy, but from their control of the political, educational, and religious institutions as well. Marx’s interests focused on the stresses and strains of society. His perspective is called conflict theory.
Herbert Spencer ( ) viewed societies as constantly evolving from primitive to industrial and saw society as analogous to a living organism. He was the first who introduced the term evolution into the literature of science – by evolution Spencer meant change from simple to complex forms. He argued that just as the individual organs of a living creature are interdependent and must be understood in terms of their specialized contributions to the living whole, so, too, various component structures of society are interdependent. They serve special functions necessary to ensure society’s survival as an integrated entity. Spencer’s ideas became part of doctrine that came to be known as Social Darvinism. Spencer reasoned from Darwin’s theory of the survival of the fittest – that people who could not successfully compete in the industrial word were poorly adapted to their environment and therefore inferior. These ideas were later used to justify social inequality.
Emile Durkheim ( ) believed that individuals are exclusively the product of their social environment, that society shapes people in every possible way. Because Durkheim was primarily interested how society molds the individual, he focused on the forces that hold society together. The point of view, often called the functionalist theory or perspective remains today one of the dominant approaches to the study of society.
Max Weber ( ). Much of his work is an attempt to clarify, criticize, and modify the works of Max. Weber showed that economic control does not necessarily result in prestige and power. He stated that ideologies sometimes influence the economic system, showing that religion could be a belief system that contributed to the creation of new economic conditions and institutions (‘The protestant ethic and the sprit of capitalism). Most sociology courses still point to the achievements of Marx, Weber and Durkheim in laying the theoretical foundations of the modern discipline.
Scientists need a set of working assumptions to guide them in their work. These assumptions suggest which problems are worth investigating and offer a framework for interpreting the results of studies. Such sets of assumptions are known as paradigms. What is paradigm? It can be defined as ‘a fundamental image of the subject matter within a science. It serves to define what should be studied, what questions should be asked, and what rules should be followed in interpreting the answers obtained’ (Ritzer). In other words, a paradigm guides the scientist in choosing the problems to be studied, in selecting the methods for studying them, and in explaining what is found. Sociology is a multiple-paradigm science; that is, it comprises a number of competing paradigms.
Functionalism, or structural functionalism
Functionalism, or structural functionalism, as it is often called, is rooted in the writings of Spencer and Durkheim and work of American scholars (Talcott Prasons, ; Robert K.Merton, 1910–2003). Functionalists view society as a system of highly interrelated structures or parts that function or operate together rather harmoniously. In other words, society is a stable, orderly system in which the majority of members share a common set of values, beliefs, and behavioral expectations that may be called societal consensus.
Functionalism, or structural functionalism
Change, then, must come about slowly, in an evolutionary way; rapid social change in any element/interrelated part of society would likely to be disruptive and, therefore, dysfunctional for the system as a whole. This theory analyzes society by asking what function is served by each part of society. Functionalism is limited in one regard, however: the preconception that societies normally are in balance or harmony makes it difficult to account for how social changes come about.
Conflict theory Conflict theory views society as being in constant state of social conflict with only temporarily stable periods. Social change pushed forward by social conflict is the normal state of affairs. Social order results from dominant groups making sure that subordinate groups are loyal to the institutions that are the dominant groups’ sources of wealth, power, and prestige. Conflict theorists are concerned with the issue of who benefits from particular social arrangements and how those in power maintain their positions. Rooted in the works of Karl Marx, modern conflict theory has been refined and applied to a wide variety of conflicts that occur in society.
Symbolic Interactionism – a sociological theory that is concerned with the meanings people place on their own and one another’s behavior. Because most human activity takes place in social situations – in the presence of other people – we must fit what we as individuals do with what the other people in the same situation are doing. We go about our lives with the assumptions that most people share our definitions of basic social situations. This agreement on definitions and meanings is the key to human interactions.
Classical tradition and gender
With few exceptions, the best that can be said for classical tradition is that gender issues were peripheral (not important); At worst, some theorists based their ideas on biological determinism to justify gender inequalities. Several early founders of sociology assumed that men and women are innately different and unequal in their intellectual, emotional and moral capacities.
Herbert Spencer, the founder of British sociological theory, began with liberal feminist ideas:
in his book ‘Social Statistics” there was a chapter ‘The rights of Women’, where he argued that men and women deserve equal rights and that there were only trivial mental differences between them. After 4 years he had embarked on Social Darwinism and decided that biology (not culture) produced profound sex differences. Women, whose brains are smaller, are deficient in the sense of justice and reasoning ability required of all life beyond the care of husband and children. Moreover, women naturally prefer to be protected by a powerful man. Permitting women to enter public life would be therefore antithetical to human progress.
The founder of French sociology, Auguste Comte echoed these sentiments:
Because of their emotional and spiritual ‘superiority’ women are perfectly fit for family and domestic life, but their state of ‘perpetual infancy’ and intellectual inferiority to men render them unfit to anything else. Similar stereotypes about the innate natures of women and men, and conclusions about the appropriate roles and status of each, were repeated by founders of German (Ferdinand Tönnies , ) and Italian (Vilfredo Pareto, 1848– 1923 ) sociology.
French sociologist Emile Durkheim also based on biological explanation while recognizing women’s social subordination. In his famous book ‘Suicide’ he argued that women have fewer ‘sociability needs’, are more ‘instinctive’, have less developed ‘mental life’, and , therefore, are more easily satisfied. Men are more ‘complex’, and their psychological balance is more precarious and in need of the constraining protections afforded by existing marital agreements. Durkheim also referred to the topics of Gender in the book ‘The division of labor in society’ where he argued that increasing physical and cultural differentiation have evolved over time between the sexes, allowing for increasing specialization of labour between them and, therefore, ‘conjugal solidarity’. A state of gender similarity and equality is a ‘primitive’ one associated with unstable marital unions.
Proponents of classical Marxist theory were well aware that gender arrangements are both product of social life and inequitable. The most fully developed statement of this approach, Friedrich Engels’ ( ) ‘The origin of the family, private property and the state’, is an evolutionary theory describing three stages, each characterized by a different form of marriage. Gender inequality originated during the third stage, when an inheritable economic surplus first arose due to technological development and the institution of private property. Men overthrew the traditional matrilineal system to ensure that their sons would inherit .
During this stage household work became private service, and women were excluded from social production and became legally subordinated to men. The solution to gender equality is the abolition of capitalism, which would eliminate concerns about inheritance and return women to ‘public industry’. Marxists: Gender inequalities were the byproduct of social inequality and replacement of capitalism with socialism would automatically resolve women’s problems.
Max Weber, under influence of his activist mother and wife, supported the liberal branch of the women’s rights movement. In ‘General economic history’ he refined Engels’ theory in describing the transition from matriarchal tribes to patriarchal agrarian societies, a process by which the gender division of labor within the family increased and the status of women declined. Weber argued that this transition was not simply a function of economic change, but also reflected alterations in the military, religion and magic. He understood that the process of societal rationalization, a central theme in Weber’s work, was a masculine phenomenon. However, Weber’s essay on social inequality ‘Class, status and party’ was ‘silent’ about gender.
The founding ‘fathers’ of Sociology viewed women as mothers and wives, as a part of the family rather as actors in the world of economy and politics. They had accepted that the gender division of labour which they observed in families in a capitalist industrial society was in some way natural and therefore unworthy to study. Even Engels, who incorporated Morgan’s etnografic evidence in his discussion of the emergence of women’s subordination, assumed a natural basis for the division of labour between women and men. Male-dominated social structures/institutions were implicitly defined as if they were gender neutral.
Sociology is a multiple-paradigm science; that is, it comprises a number of competing paradigms.
At any given time, however, one paradigm tends to dominate in the discipline. For much of sociology’s recent past – especially from the 1940s to the 1960s – the dominant paradigm was structural functionalism. The structural functionalist perspective has been particularly influential in the study of gender
In their analysis of gender, structural functionalists begin with the observation that women and men are physically different. Of special significance are the facts that men tend to be bigger and stronger than women and that women bear and nurse children. According to functionalists, these biological differences have led to the emergence of different gender roles. More specifically, a social role, not unlike a theatrical role, includes a set of behavioral requirements or expectations that the person who occupies the role is supposed to play. The concept of gender roles refers to the behaviors that are prescribed for a society’s members depending on their sex.
Functionalists maintain that for much of human history, women’s reproductive role has dictated that their gender role be a domestic one. Given that women bear and nurse children, it makes sense for them to remain at home to rear the. It then follows that if women are at home caring for children, they will assume other domestic duties as well. In contrast, men’s biology better suits them for the role of economic provider and protection of the family.
Functionalists point out that the work women do in the home is functional.
Women in many ways reproduce society - by giving birth to new members, by teaching or socializing them to accept the culture’s agreed upon values and norms, and by providing men and children with affection and physical sustenance. But functionalists devalue traditional women’s work, referring to it as a ‘duty’ and designating men the role of leaders in the family.
Two central themes of functionalism:
Emphasis on gender differences as natural phenomena deriving from human biology. Feminist critique: Portraying masculinity and femininity as natural it does not consider that what constitutes masculinity and femininity varies tremendously throughout history and across cultures. It may be the case that biological factors are responsible for many of personality and behavior differences that we may observe between women and men. However, this does not mean that one sex or gender is better that the other or that members of one sex deserve a disproportionate share of society’s resources and rewards.
2. The conception of gender in terms of roles.
Feminist critique: The notion of role focuses attention more on individuals than on social structure, and implies that ‘female role’ and ‘male role’ are complementary (i.e. separate or different, but equal). These terms neglect question of power and conflict. It is significant that sociologists do not speak of ‘class roles’ or ‘race roles’. A key concept in this critique is power. The most powerful members of a society are usually those who control the largest share of societal resources, such as money, property. In hierarchically structured societies such as our own these resources may be distributed unequally on the basis of characteristics over which individuals have no control, e.g., sex or age. In overlooking the issue of power relations, the structural functionalist perspective neglects significant dimensions of gender; the causes of gender-based inequality and it’s consequences for women and men.
During the 1960s , structural functionalism began to lose its status as dominant sociological paradigm. The 1960s was a period of social protest and activism, the sociologists began to question the accuracy of describing society and harmonious social system. There emerged a number of different paradigms. Particularly important to the sociological study of gender has been development of the feminist paradigm.
Feminist critiques of [malestream, conventional] sociology
Most sociological studies were conducted by men, using male subjects, although findings were generalized to all people [research findings were based on male samples and generalized to the whole of the population]. : ‘Most of what we have formerly known as the study of society is only the male study of male society’. Areas and issues of concern to women are frequently overlooked and seen as unimportant. Women’s roles were seen as natural and therefore not investigated. Sociology’s tools, concepts and theories have been developed to investigate the public world of men.
Feminist critiques of [malestream, conventional] sociology
When women are included in research they are presented in a distorted and sexist way. When women were studied, their behavior and attitudes were analyzed in terms of male standard of normalcy or rightness. Gender was considered an important category of analysis only in a limited number of sociological subfields, such as marriage and family, whereas in all others (e.g., sociology of work, organizations, etc.) it was ignored.
Feminist critiques of [malestream, conventional] sociology
Sociology is seen, at best, sex-blind and at worst sexist: That is, there is, at best, no recognition that women’s structural position and experiences are not the same as men’s and that a sex is therefore and important explanatory variable, and, at worst, women’s experiences are ignored. The ways in which men dominate and subordinate women are either ignored or seen as natural. Anne Oakley ( ) has suggested that there are these explanations for the sexism in sociology: Sociology as a discipline developed in the 19th century, and the sociologists were concerned with understanding political and economic changes, capitalist society and it’s class relationships. Sociologists concentrated on the public sphere and ignored the private sphere of the home. Sociology has ignored not just women, but the whole private sphere.
Historically, sexism in sociology has been in large part a result of the relatively low numbers of women at academic and research institutions - Sociology was predominantly male profession. It also reflects a broader social prejudice against women, which is embodied in the assumption that what women do, or think, or say is unimportant or uninteresting.
A sociology for women How to feel the gaps in existing theory and research in sociology? There have been three broad responses given by feminists: Integration. Separatism. Reconceptualization.
Integration The task to reform existing ideas and practices in sociology, to bring women in and thereby to fill in the existing gaps in knowledge. The major problems: Women are likely to continue to be marginalized. Malestream ideas (e.g., assumptions about the division between the public and domestic, about the primacy of paid work, etc.) will remain unchallenged.
Separatism What is needed is a sociology for women by women (development by women of specific sociological knowledge about women). Gender is seen as the primary division in society; all women share the common position because they are dominated by men. The major problems: By ignoring men, important aspects of women’s social reality would be ignored, including the analysis of women’s oppression. Malestream sociology will continue to ignore women.
Reconceptualization What is needed is a total and radical reformulation of sociology so that it is able to incorporate women adequately. It is necessary to reconceptualize sociological theories - revolution, not reforms, is necessary. The major problems: Many malestream sociologists are resistant to the view that there is a need for a revolution.
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