When sociologists discuss performance theories of gender, we usually go back to Candace West and Don Zimmerman’s (1987) famous article “Doing Gender.” Some of us date this trend to Judith Butler, but few people bother to discuss some of the scholarship that predates this. West and Zimmerman relied almost exclusively on Harold Garfinkel’s* analysis of Agnes (a transgendered women who he met with as a part of a UCLA study dealing with “deviant” gender identities) to support their conceptualization.
Beyond the use of data, West and Zimmerman’s article was written in conversation with Erving Goffman’s theory of gender, or of “gender display” as Goffman wrote about it. Goffman wrote two pieces exclusively about gender. The first was originally published in Studies in the Anthropology of Visual Communication (1976) and later published as a book–Gender Advertisements (1979)–which included the essay along with a host of advertisements that Goffman codes for different elements of gender display (for a great exploration of this, see Greg Smith’s work here). The second is his better known and cited article in Theory and Society: “The Arrangement between the Sexes” (1977). He wrote elsewhere about gender as well, but these were his two pieces of writing that were really dedicated to theorizing about gender. For instance, the Goffman quote that Michael Kimmel (1994) used to discuss Connell’s conceptualization of “hegemonic masculinity” actually comes from Stigma (1963).**
While we have come to celebrate “Doing Gender” as one of the first pieces to actually break with the biological determinism of sex role theory, along with some notable others (see here and here for two of my favorites), Goffman’s lack of status as a “feminist” makes him an unlikely person to be remembered among this list. Always looking for new ideas, Goffman’s work on gender was initially inspired by a group of feminist graduate students (among them Carol Gardner) and though he does not explicitly frame his work in feminist scholarship, he does present an anti-essentialist critique that presents gender as a collective performance (see Candace West’s discussion of Goffman as a feminist here).
He discusses the ways that social spaces and relations are gendered in ways that produce gendered performances (and not the other way around). Beyond that, Goffman is extremely critical of the view that biological differences between male and female bodies provide the groundwork for social inequalities between men and women. For instance, in Theory and Society, he states: “For these physical facts of life to have no appreciable social consequence would take a little organizing, but, at least by modern standards, not much” (1977: 301). This idea is the same notion that lies behind Connell’s conceptualization of the “reproductive arena.”
Goffman argued that social interactions, spaces, and institutions have been constructed in ways that highlight gender differences. Goffman argued that performances of gender are often framed as though they come from within (as a consequence of gender differences), but he believed that it was through this process that gender differences are produced. It is this same feature of social life that Barrie Thorne later came to discuss as “borderwork.”
To support his idea, Goffman relied on a number of examples to illustrate his understanding of the production of gender in social life. My favorite is his discussion of sex segregation in public bathrooms. He comments on how we’ve actually designed restrooms to have to be sex-segregated. Commenting on the lack of things like urinals in homes, Goffman argues that there is nothing inherent about this. Rather, it reiterates a pattern he finds throughout social life: “a sort of with-then-apart rhythm” that has reverberations throughout social life.
“The functioning of sex-differentiated organs is involved, but there is nothing in this functioning that biologically recommends segregation; that arrangement is totally a cultural matter… [T]oilet segregation is presented as a natural consequence of the difference between the sex-classes, when in fact it is rather a means of honoring, if not producing, this difference” (1977: 316).
I love Goffman’s work and I love the way he writes. His interest in discovering the hidden patterns and rhythms of social life is still relevant. His work on gender focuses on the ways in which gendered norms and a gender binary structure the very social spaces in which we interact. It’s wonderful work, and I’m not yet convinced that West and Zimmerman (1987) got everything of value out of it. “Doing Gender” is still a favorite reading of mine, and it’s a theory that informs my own work a great deal. But just how different their approach is from Goffman’s is still something I’m considering.
–Goffman’s article in Studies in the Anthropology of Visual Communication (1976) is out of print, but I’d be happy to share a copy with anyone interested.
*Sidenote: I love Studies in Ethnomethodology and I think Harold Garfinkel was absolutely brilliant. But the man couldn’t coin a term if his life depended on it.
**”…in an important sense there is only one complete unblushing male in America: a young, married, white, urban, northern, heterosexual Protestant father of college education, fully employed, or good complexion, weight and height, and a recent record in sports.” (Goffman 1963: 128)