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As children grow up they develop a sense of who they are, how they should relate to others, and the role they play in a larger society. The lessons children learn and the processes through which cultural norms are passed from one generation to the next is known as socialization. The focus on gender socialization highlights that there are roles, or cultural expectations and norms, which are associated with each sex category (“male” or “female”). Sociologists make distinctions between sex and gender. While sex is based on biological categories, gender is the result of cultural processes that construct different social roles for men and women. Gender socialization, then, is the process through which boys and girls learn sex appropriate behavior, dress, personality characteristics, and demeanor.
While gender socialization is lifelong, many sociological theories focus on early childhood socialization. Four such perspectives are the psychoanalytical, cognitive development, social learning, and social interaction perspectives.
The most famous psychoanalytical explanation of gender socialization is Sigmund Freud’s identification theory. Freud argued that children pass through a series of stages in their personality development. During the first two stages (the oral and anal stages), boys and girls have similar behavior and experiences. Around age four, however, boys and girls become aware of their own genitals and that members of the opposite sex have different genitalia. It is during this phallic stage that children begin to identify and model their behavior after their same-sex parent, thus learning gender appropriate behavior, although this process differs for boys and girls.
While Freud’s theory has been largely discredited, sociologists have drawn on it to extend psychoanalytical explanations of gender socialization. Nancy Chodorow (1978) drew on Marxist theory and psychoanalytic object-relations theory to argue that gender socialization processes are key for the reproduction of the capitalist economy. She argued that identification is more difficult for boys than for girls because boys need to psychologically separate themselves from their mothers and model their fathers, who are largely absent from the home as a result of the breadwinner-homemaker division of labor. This results in boys being much more emotionally detached than girls, who do not experience this psychological separation.
The second perspective points to cognitive development as a way to explain gender socialization, arguing that socialization occurs as children try to find patterns in the social and physical world. From this perspective, children’s earliest developmental task is to make sense of a seemingly chaotic world. As they observe and interact with their environment, they develop schema, or organizing categories. Because children rely on simple cues to understand the world and because there are clear differences in how women and men look and act, biological sex provides a useful schema.
The social learning perspective posits that gender socialization is learned. This theory draws on the psychological concept of behaviorism to argue that children learn gender by being rewarded for gender appropriate behavior and punished for gender inappropriate behavior.
The social interaction perspective offers a fourth approach to gender socialization. This perspective has deep sociological roots. In 1902, sociologist Charles Cooley argued that individuals develop a sense of self by imagining how they appear to others, interpreting others’ reactions to their actions, and developing a self-concept based on these interpretations. Thus, a person’s sense of self, which he called the looking-glass self,” is an ongoing process embedded in social interaction. From this perspective, interaction forms the basis of gender socialization.
Social institutions are crucial to gender socialization. Parent-child interactions do not occur in isolation, but are embedded in the social institution of the family. Other social institutions important to gender socialization in childhood are school, sports, and mass media.
In sum, sociologists offered a variety of theories to explain gender socialization. The most fruitful to date has been the social interaction perspective because it recognizes that gender is an ongoing process and that gender roles are produced and reproduced in social institutions. A great deal of theoretical and empirical work remains to be done, however. Much of the scholarship on gender socialization has examined middle-class, white heterosexuals. Thus, sociologists need to examine how their theories and data apply across class, race, ethnic, and sexual boundaries.
- Chodorow, N. (1978) The Reproduction of Mothering. University of California Press, Berkeley, CA.
- Thorne, B. (1993) Gender Play: Girls and Boys in School. Rutgers University Press, New Brunswick, NJ.
- West, C. & Zimmerman, D. (1987) Doing gender. Gender & Society 1: 121-51.
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