Barrie Thorne, “Borderwork,” and the Social Space of Schools

If someone had told me that the way to pick a research project was to scan my bookshelf, find my absolute favorite studies, and figure out what they have in common, I’d have done a school ethnography. It was Barrie Thorne’s Gender Play (1993) that made me want to go to graduate school. I just learned that she retired and thought it might be a fitting time to talk about how much her work inspires me.

When sex role theory was the way to talk about gender, scholars and activists interested in discussing gender inequality focused on key socializing institutions (where “sex roles” and their associated expectations were thought to be primarily produced) like the family, education, religion, etc. I have always thought that school ethnographies emerged out of this period – though Parsonsstructural functionalism seems a distant memory to much of this research. Incidentally, Barrie Thorne was among the group of feminist scholars who collectively explained why sex role theory was and is inadequate as a theory.

[SIDE NOTE: Terms like “class roles” and “race roles” were never as popular as “sex roles.” Yet scholars dealing with race and class were certainly navigating similar concerns. Paul WillisLeaning to Labor (1977) is a prime example, illustrating how working-class youth are making a choice to enter working-class jobs. But it’s a choice that is structured by much more than their individual desires.]

Lately, I’ve gone back through a number of my favorite school ethnographies to read more about how scholars discuss the role of space in the structuring of children’s experiences of school, the perpetuation of inequality within schools, and the fostering of performances of self at school.

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On Goffman the Gender Scholar

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.   Continue reading