Conventional or ‘common sense’ accounts tend to view masculinity and femininity as biological categories characterized by a range of fixed physical and psychological differences in which the supposed attributes of masculinity (for example, rationality and the capacity for physical action) are valued over those of femininity (for example, intuition and the capacity for caring). The feminist cultural theorist Chris Weedon (1999) locates the origins of these ideas (at least in their contemporary form) in nineteenth-century biological theory and in Victorian middle-class values. However, she also points out that they have been reinvigorated in more recent work in the fields of sociobiology and evolutionary psychology (see for example, Thornhill and Palmer, 2000; Wilson, 1978).
The social constructionist position takes issue with this biologically reductive account. Drawing, in particular, on the work of Michel Foucault (1977, 1984), commentators from this perspective have sought to argue that masculinity and femininity cannot be understood as fixed biological categories but are instead produced in and through social meanings and practices. This position is distinct from earlier sociological accounts of ‘sex role’ (see for example, Rossi, 1985). Earlier accounts had tended to view gender as the social elaboration of an underlying biological sex difference. Social constructionist theory, on the other hand, argues that the notion of biological sex difference is itself a social construct. For example, Thomas Lacquer (1990) has demonstrated that the notion of distinct male and female bodies arose in the nineteenth century. Prior to this, maleness and femaleness were seen as variations on a single body. Equally, Judith Butler (1993, 2004) has argued that sex/gender is a ‘performative enactment’. She suggests that, like other categories of the person, maleness and femaleness do not precede social meanings and practices but are brought into existence through an active ‘gendering’, that is the citation of sex/gender ‘norms’ embodied in what, following Foucault, she refers to as discursive practices. Importantly, Butler (1993, p. 238) also argues that gender is systematically (though not inevitably) produced through a ‘heterosexual matrix’ which equates ‘proper forms of masculinity and femininity with heterosexuality and identifies gay masculinities and lesbian femininities as, in some way, ‘failed’ or ‘damaged’.
Bob Connell’s influential work in the sociology of masculinity endorses this critique of biological essentialism but questions whether it risks writing the body out of existence. Connell suggests that forms of masculinity and femininity cannot be reduced to supposed biological differences but argues that bodies have ‘forms of recalcitrance to social symbolism and control’ (see, in particular, Connell, 1995, p. 56). Connell also suggests that Butler’s ‘hard’ social constructionist account risks writing social agency out of existence. Connell argues that there are multiple versions of masculinity (and, by implication, femininity) that are actively produced through relations of similarity to and difference from key social others. For example, forms of ‘laddish’, heterosexual, white working-class masculinity may be defined in opposition to forms of ‘respectable’ middle-class masculinity, to non-white ethnicities, to forms of femininity and to gay masculinities. This argument places a greater emphasis than does Butler’s on the notion of pupils as ‘active makers of their own sex/gender identities’ (Mac an Ghaill, 1994, p. 90). Thus, whereas Butler tends to downplay agency (the active ‘speaking’ of sex/gender) in favour of a notion of performativity (being ‘spoken by’ social meanings and practices), Connell retains a stronger account of it. Drawing on the work of the Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci (1971), Connell also argues that masculinities and femininities can be understood as being engaged in ‘hegemonic struggle’. This refers to an ongoing and potentially shifting process of competition, negotiation, alliance-building and sometimes coercion whereby, under particular conditions, particular versions of masculinity and femininity come to be ‘culturally exalted’ or ‘idealized’ while other versions are marginalized and subordinated (see Connell, 1990, p. 83).
Broadly social constructionist ideas of this kind have informed a body of recent literature on sex/gender and schooling (see for example, Duncan, 1999; Epstein and Johnson, 1998; Kehily, 2002; Mac an Ghaill, 1994; Martino and Meyenn, 2001; Martino and Pallotta-Chiarolli, 2003; Skelton and Francis, 2003; Thorne, 1993). Within this literature, schools are seen as significant sites in which sex/gender is actively produced. This is to say that sex/gender is viewed not as something that is simply brought into the school ready formed but as something actively produced and reproduced in the processes and practices of schooling itself. This active production of sex/gender has a number of dimensions and the following discussion focuses on three of these: the ways in which the content and practices of schooling encode sex/gender; the ways in which pupils actively use sex/gender to negotiate schooling; and the ways in which sex/gender intersects with other social relations. Perhaps the most obvious means by which sex/gender is said to be produced in the social constructionist literature is via the content and practices of schooling itself. For example, Thorne’s (1993) study of two US elementary schools draws attention to the ways in which the categorization of children by gender is threaded through the material and social fabric of the school, such as in teachers’ talk (‘There’s three girls need to get busy’, p. 34) or the organization and management of learning (for instance, dividing pupils into gender-based ‘teams’, p. 67). Similarly, Epstein and Johnson (1994, p. 214) point to the ways in which the regulation of pupils’ clothing (in particular, sanctions against girls’ clothing thought to connote too overt a sexuality) frequently embodies notions of ‘appropriate’ or ‘proper’ forms of gender. While Thorne (1993, pp. 35–6) draws attention to the fact that many aspects of schooling will also play down or contradict gender categorizations, it remains the case that the content and practices of schooling encode sex/gender as a significant category of difference. However, while sex/gender can be said to be encoded in the content and practices of schooling, the literature also suggests that pupils are themselves active agents in its production. Thorne (1993), for example, describes the children in her study as engaging in ‘borderwork’, practices by which they actively produce strengthen and assert sex/gender differences. For instance, she describes a game of team handball which began as a co-operative and informal activity in which gender was not strongly marked but which rapidly accelerated into a more aggressive interaction themed as ‘the boys against the girls’ (p. 65).
In this moment, Thorne suggests, sex/gender was being actively produced (or in Butler’s terms, ‘performatively enacted’) as a significant category of difference. As well as producing sex/gender through friendship group interactions, the literature also suggests that pupils use sex/gender to negotiate and resist schooling. Kehily and Nayak (1996, p. 214) describe an account from a group of secondary school pupils in which one of them (Samantha) was claimed to have pursued a teacher (Mr Smedley) round the classroom with a sprig of mistletoe with the intention of ‘getting some lipstick on the top of his head’. In this instance, a heterosexualized form of femininity is used satirically to undermine the authority of a male teacher (see also Walkerdine, 1981). While heterosexualized forms of sex/gender are clearly deployed to subvert adult authority, it is also possible to argue that sex/gender is used to negotiate schooling in more subtle ways. For instance, Connell has argued that boys use masculinity to negotiate or build a ‘subjective orientation’ to the curriculum and that, in the process, the curriculum is important in producing differentiated forms of masculinity. He writes: the differentiation of masculinities occurs in relation to a school curriculum that organizes knowledge hierarchically, and sorts students into an academic hierarchy. By institutionalizing academic failure via competitive grading and streaming, the school forces differentiation on the boys. . . . Social power in terms of access to higher education, entry to professions, command of communication, is being delivered by the school system to boys who are academic ‘successes’. The reaction of the ‘failed’ is likely to be a claim to other sources of power, even other definitions of masculinity. Sporting prowess, physical aggression, sexual conquest, may do. (Connell, 1993, p. 95)
This general argument informs Máirtín Mac an Ghaill’s (1994) study of a multiethnic English secondary school. Mac an Ghaill identifies a variety of differentiated masculinities – the ‘macho lads’, the ‘academic achievers’, the ‘new enterprisers’, and the ‘real Englishmen’ – through which boys in the school collectively negotiated the curriculum, their home backgrounds and their perceived employment futures. The ‘new enterprisers’ were, perhaps, particularly interesting in that they broke with the conventional distinction (identified by Connell, above) between anti-academic, ‘laddish’ forms of masculinity, and pro-school masculinities validated by academic success. Mac an Ghaill argues that the ‘new enterprisers’ were able to build a pro-school masculine identification out of a newly vocationalized curriculum that offered recognition for academic success in non-traditional subject areas, especially Information and Communication Technologies.
The final area highlighted by the social constructionist literature as a means by which sex/gender is produced in the school concerns the ways in which masculinities and femininities are produced in and through relations of similarity to and difference from social others. As discussed above, Thorne’s (1993) concept of ‘borderwork’ draws our attention to the ways in which sex/gender is used by pupils to produce themselves in gender-differentiated terms. This opposition between forms of masculinity and femininity is perhaps the most central relation underpinning pupils’ sex/gender identifications in the school. However, both Mac an Ghaill (1994) and Epstein and Johnson (1998) underline the extent to which school-based masculinities and femininities are also produced in and through relations of age, class, ethnicity and sexuality, as well as in relation to forms of masculinity and femininity deemed subordinate or otherwise inferior. For instance, Epstein and Johnson cite an exchange between a group of four Muslim girls in a large single-sex comprehensive in which a fifth girl is described in the following terms:
Shamira is not traditional (i.e. she does not occupy a conservative form of Muslim ethnicity). She is a big tart and wears lipstick that doesn’t suit her and she walks around sticking her tits out. (Epstein and Johnson, 1998, p. 117) The girls in this example can be seen to be constructing their own femininity in opposition to Shamira, whose femininity is deemed inappropriately westernized and sexualized. This, then, is an example where sex/gender is spoken through intra-ethnic identifications (traditional versus westernized) and through an opposition to a subordinated femininity (the ‘madonna’ versus the ‘whore’). As Epstein and Johnson also argue, although drawing on wider social relations, such gender constructions occur within and are specific to the dynamics of individual schools.The girls’ appraisal of Shamira in terms of sexuality underlines the centrality of sex and sexuality to the production and policing of gender in pupils’ cultures. Mac an Ghaill (1994, pp. 90–6), for instance, describes the ways in which the secondary school boys in his study worked at producing masculinity through ‘competitive and compulsive’ sexualized talk and practice within their friendship groups. This consisted of the sexual-objectification of girls and women and the homophobic harassment of boys perceived as gay or ‘insufficiently masculine’. Epstein and Johnson (1998, p. 158) suggest that anti-lesbian harassment appears less central to girls’ culture than does anti-gay harassment to boys’ culture. Nevertheless, as the Shamira example demonstrates, they argue that heterosexualized appraisal of other girls is central to the production of femininity within girls’ friendship groups.
The recent social constructionist literature has, therefore, made a systematic case in support of the proposition that schooling is a significant site in which sex/ gender is produced. It argues that the content and practices of schooling encode sex/gender; that pupils actively use gender to negotiate schooling; and that gender is produced within local pupils’ cultures through relations of similarity to and differences from key social others.
Work on the relationship between gender and sexuality in the context of the school has been particularly significant. Such arguments, I would argue, fundamentally undermine biologically determinist readings of sex/gender. Nevertheless, it may be possible to qualify the social constructionist account. In particular, following Connell, it is possible to argue that the theoretical tension between a ‘hard’ social constructionist account (in which social agency is replaced by a notion of performativity) and the emphasis in the literature on pupils as ‘active makers of sex gender identities’ is not fully addressed or resolved. Equally, it may also be possible to argue that the literature does not fully resolve the exact status of the body in the social constructionist account. However, it remains the case that the recent literature on gender and schooling significantly adds to our understanding of the social construction of gender and sexuality.