Social Construction of Gender | UPSC Important Notes & Study Material

Notes By-
Sachin Gupta
Cleared UPSC 2017 with AIR-3



Gender is a commonly used word that becomes complex when we use it as a
theoretical tool. The word gender came to replace the term sex as a biologically
given category. Gender implies that we are dealing with a concept that is not
fixed and not naturally given like sexual organs, but something that arises because
humans live in a constructed world of meanings. We live in this world as gendered
persons, which have a social and not merely a biological relevance. Such
gendering is partly an integral aspect of our subjective constitution, mostly through
enculturation/socialisation and partly individual. It is as individuals that we may
sometime question a given gender identity or at least its stereotypical

Most of gender theory has looked upon gender as a constituted category in which
culture is seen as playing an important role and also as a performance when our
actions in real life situated in specific social situations mark our identity. We not
only learn to behave as men and women we also reestablish this identity at every
point of time by our social actions. The body is seen as playing a central role in
gender analysis as the gendered identity is embodied. Thus clothes, body language,
ornaments and all that is part of the very aesthetics of the body are significant in
how it is perceived and accepted. To negotiate a particular gendered identity,
people play around with the body and establish either a normative or an innovative
image of how they want their identity to be perceived. For example most women
politicians prefer the conventional image while artists and performers may play
around with it. How one presents one body is closely linked to how one wants to
or needs to use it?

Thus gender is both a given as well as a negotiable category. It provides people
with a given identity but its very cultural stereotyping leaves open a scope for
reenactment. For example if there were already given standards for a gendered
image there would be no necessity to establish an alternative image. Moreover
gender often breaks through the barriers of hetero-normativity or the bisexual
model. Although many societies accept the binary model but it is certainly not
universal; many have more than two gender models and even where it does not
exists, many persons may want to live outside of it, like transsexuals and

Apart from its representative value, gender also provides every social actor with
a societal resource base and situates them in a power hierarchy. Just like the
bodily image, power is also a negotiable category and intersects with other social
dimensions like race, class and caste. It is also modified and is also used to
emphasise the transitions that a social person makes in the course of a life. In the
lessons inside this block you will understand some of these aspects in a more
detailed manner and most importantly understand that the social reality is not a
monolithic construction but constituted from multiple sites, of which gender is


Social Construction of Gender

Socialisation and Gender UNIT 1 SOCIALISATION AND GENDER Roles
1.1 Introduction
1.2 Socialisation: Definition and Basic Terms and Concepts
1.2.1 Gender Socialisation
1.3 Theoretical Approaches
1.3.1 Feminist Contribution to Socialisation Theories
1.3.2 Countering Socialisation
1.4 Agents of Socialisation
1.5 Parents and Family
1.5.1 Role of Father
1.5.2 Kinship and Cultural Repertoire
1.5.3 Children’s Literature: Story Books and Text Books
1.5.4 Toys and Games
1.6 Peers
1.7 School
1.8 Media
1.8.1 New Media and Self-socialisation
1.9 Summary

Studies with Experimental and Original Data
Suggested Reading
Sample Questions
Learning Objectives

After going through this unit, you will be able to:
Ø understand the process of socialisation in a theoretical context;
Ø critically evaluate the specific nature of socialisation for gender roles, i.e.,
masculine and feminine roles as defined by a given society and culture ;
Ø identify and describe the functions and agents of socialisation and the
mechanisms and materials deployed; and
Ø analyse the ways in which socialisation can be resisted and subverted.


This unit defines and describes the process of socialisation and analyses the
specific nature of socialisation for gender roles. It then discusses various
theoretical approaches and how far they are able to explain gender socialisation.
This includes approaches that conceive of socialisation as a dynamic two- way
process in which those who are socialised may reinterpret, resist or subvert it.

Social Construction of Gender

Next, the agencies of socialisation, including gender socialisation are described.
The main agencies are parents and family, peer group, school and media. The
mechanisms of socialisation including learning by reward and punishment,
observation and imitation, and by being immersed in a culture are discussed.
Illustrations are given of materials that are deployed for socialisation like
children’s literature, toys and games, rituals and ceremonies and linguistic devices.


The structure and content of the gender division in society is not arbitrary or
random, but reflects a fundamental systemic feature, termed as ‘patriarchy’ in
feminist discourses. Gender socialisation is a key process in maintaining and
reproducing it efficiently.

Socialisation is the process by which members of a group or collectivity– family,
school, caste, religion , nation and so on – are taught to subscribe to the shared
beliefs, norms, values, culture and ethos of that group (collectively referred to as
‘norms’ in this lesson), translate them appropriately in their behaviour and transmit
them to others. Gender socialisation is specifically oriented towards differences,
hierarchies and identities based on gender, i.e. what it is means be masculine or
feminine in a given society and culture.

The success of socialisation leads to norms being internalised; i.e., they are not
merely learnt and reproduced consciously but are absorbed and become part of
the structure of the individual personality. The appropriate behaviour is thus
expressed automatically, as though it is part of the natural order. Agents are
those people and institutions that function as conduits of socialisation. They
influence our attitudes, preferences and world views by imparting norms which
go to build our personality and affect our behaviour. Devices and mechanisms
used in socialisation are many including touch, language, play, rituals, ceremonies,

Primary socialisation is the term used to describe the process of socialisation
during childhood. The agents of primary socialisation are mainly the family, and
also community, school, and peer group. Secondary socialisation is the term
used for the later phases of life. Religion, media, workplace are conventionally
identified as secondary agents.

Childhood is considered to be the most important life phase for socialisation
since the child’s personality is relatively unformed, and amenable to moulding.
The impact in this stage goes deep and is enduring. But socialisation happens in
later phases too. The ‘life course approach’ takes cognisance of the different
phases of life – childhood, adolescence, adulthood and old age – and also specific
arenas like occupation, religion, sports, etc., and examines the nature, agents,
mechanisms , devices and effects of socialisation in all of these.

1.2.1 Gender Socialisation

Gender is a fundamental category of human cognition, based seemingly on
physical-biological features to which social and cultural characteristics are
attributed. The process of categorising in terms of gender is both habitual and
Socialisation and Gender Roles.

apparently automatic and conveys a sense of being based on a natural and dual
division. Such categorisation, which is the basis for gendered identity, is associated
with compartmentalisation of physical spaces, spheres of activity as well as
psychological, personality-related and cultural arenas, even in cultures which
relatively free of gender discrimination. Its transmission is mainly through the
process of socialisation. Within given conditions of patriarchy, gender difference
is framed hierarchically with differential powers and privileges given to men
and women that pervade virtually every aspect of life and living also transmitted
through socialisation. Thus gender socialisation encompasses both these
dimensions: difference and hierarchy. Gender socialisation begins the moment
we are born, from the simple question “is it a boy or a girl?” as Gleitman et al
(2000: 499-500) put it, while citing the classic example of the experiment done
with babies that were introduced as males to half of the study subjects and as
females to the other half. The participants behaved differently according to the
sex they had been told, offering a rattle or hammer to the ‘boys’ and doll to the

Before we elaborate on the agencies, we will briefly discuss theoretical approaches
to socialisation in general as well specifically to gender socialisation.

Socialisation as a field of inquiry is interdisciplinary, drawing on the disciplines
of psychology, anthropology and sociology. Pedagogical science or Education
has also engaged intensively with the topic. Questions pertaining to socialisation
also arise in the ‘nature v/s nurture’ dialogue between natural and social sciences.
Broadly, one can say that the social sciences have taken an interactionist approach
stressing on ‘nurture’ in contrast to evolutionary biologists who espouse the
‘nature’ approach to development of human personality.

Dominant approaches in psychology have been characterised by a conflation of
ideas from both the ‘nature’ and ‘nurture’ camps. Psychoanalytical theories as
well as cognitive developmental theories do stress on early childhood experiences
as crucial for personality formation, thus acknowledging the significance of
socialisation. But the former emphasises on instinctual drives and the latter on
the innate unfolding and maturation of human reasoning through the different
stages of childhood and thus both these approaches within psychology tend to
universalise early human personality formation rather than see it as contingent
on social context.

Social/cultural anthropologists and sociologists do not subscribe to biological
determinism. Nor do they accept that all future actions are determined by early
socialisation and are more attentive to various other social factors that can
influence a person’s actions in later life. Social learning theory – best exemplified
by Albert Bandura’s landmark book of the same name- goes into actual
mechanisms of transmission. It has been the dominant socialisation paradigm in
sociology/social anthropology as well as non-Freudian psychology , but in contrast
to the latter, the former stresses on macro forces that affect the content and form
of socialisation: such as ecological, economic, political and moral structures.
Elaborating further on the implications of the above theoretical positions, in the
Freudian view, identification with the same sex parent is the psychological
Social Construction of Gender.

mechanism by which children incorporate their parents’ gender role behaviours
into their own identity system. Over the last seven decades, this basic Freudian
postulate has undergone some modifications, primarily on the precise
psychodynamic processes that motivate identification.

In contrast, social learning theorists question the need for a global construct like
identification and argue that role appropriate behaviours are learnt by
reinforcements like reward and punishment, praise and blame. In addition, early
reinforcements also include messages that lead children to modify behaviour in
anticipation of reward and punishment. Observation and modelling one’s
behaviour on a person are also important ways of learning. But individuals do
not imitate all the behaviours that they observe, rather they are likely to imitate
another person of the same sex.

Social cognitive developmentalists argue that children are not passive observers
but play an active role in their own socialisation. Specifically with reference to
gender, a child’s knowledge of his or her own gender and its implications is
termed as ‘gender identity’; As they observe the world, children look for structure
and are driven by an internal need to fit into this structure. They start organising
available information according to gender as a social category, create a model of
what it is to be a good girl or good boy in that society and strive to reach that
ideal — not just in anticipation of rewards and fear of punishment but because
they want to become ‘good’ members of society. Developmentalists further argue
that the rigidity of gendered identity is greater in young children, until they develop
the cognitive capacity to imagine a different schema and opportunity to observe
gender role transcendence. Once again in early adolescence, physical changes
and social norms force children to move from sex-segregated to heterosexual
worlds with a pressure to conform and it is only after crossing that stage can
individuals resist socialisation based on stereotypical gender models.

Anthropology’s emphasis on cultural transmissions between parent and child
and between culture and the individual has been an important contribution to
our understanding of socialisation. Anthropologists like Ruth Benedict and
Margaret Mead demonstrated the influence of the whole culture on the individual
personality through their ethnographies. Studies of child rearing are a popular
genre in anthropology, and Peggy Froerer’s article gives a good overview of the
rich documentation of the learnt and acquired nature of the human personality in
its formative stage.

Early questions in sociology and anthropology were: how is the self made by
internalising the impressions of others? How are social roles acquired? Early
scholars C.H.Cooley and G.H. Mead have made fundamental contributions to
this question. Cooley famously gave the analogy of the ‘looking glass’ self i.e.
the self developed through social interaction. Mead’s proposition was that the
individual self is a social creation. There are two parts to the self: ‘I’ and ‘me’.
The former is the primordial part, dominant in children, initially unaffected by
socialisation. The latter emerges through social interaction, and internalises and
assumes the attitudes of others.

Functionalism was for many decades the dominant theoretical paradigm in both
sociology and social/cultural anthropology and the Parsonian framework is its
best representative. It has been centrally preoccupied with the problem of social

Socialisation and Gender Roles.

order for survival and stability of social systems with shared norms as the basis.
These are maintained through the process of socialisation by internalisation by
the individual and transmission from one generation to another. The emphasis is
on the faithful reproduction of norms without deviation. Functionalism did not
engage with individual interpretation and choices. Unlike Freudians, who
conceived of society as imposing its will against the instinctual drive, for
functionalists, there is no struggle between the individual’s desires and the
requirements of the social order. This position has been critiqued, and subsequent
approaches have included the reception of socialisation – interpretation, resistance,
subversion as part of the problematique.

The proponents of theories of identification, social learning and cognitive
development, even when discussing gender socialisation, make no specific
reference to the patriarchal structures of society that provide both context and
content of socialisation. While sociology and social anthropology are sensitive
to external factors in moulding personality, they too were largely silent about
structural patriarchy until feminist theorisation raised it.

1.3.1 Feminist Contribution to Socialisation Theories

Feminist engagement with the distinction between sex and gender was the first
step towards understanding the specificity and pervasiveness of gender
socialisation. After all, gender socialisation aims not only at transmitting gender
differences but also at making gender hierarchy accepted as natural and normal
by both men and women. The elaboration of this principle into concrete practices
of discrimination towards women is part of its project. In contrast to other
approaches, feminism starts with the assumption of virtually universal patriarchy,
documents its varied expressions and proceeds to take a social constructionist
view of gendered socialisation.

In common sense thinking, sex and gender were and to some extent, continue to
be coextensive. Until the 1960s, ‘gender’ was used solely to refer to masculine
and feminine words. However, in order to explain why some people felt that
they were ‘trapped in the wrong bodies’, the psychologist Robert Stoller in his
book Sex and Gender: On the Development of Masculinity and Femininity began
using the terms ‘sex’ to pick out biological traits and ‘gender’ to pick out the
amount of femininity and masculinity a person exhibited. The distinction enabled
‘second wave’ feminists to argue that many differences between women and
men were socially produced and, therefore, changeable. In this approach, which
is a counter to biological determinism, sex denotes biological femaleness and
maleness; ‘gender’ denotes socially accepted roles, positions, behaviours and
identities associated with femaleness and maleness. Ann Oakley was among the
earliest feminists to present data from ethnographic, psychological and neuromedical
fields to argue systematically for the cultural construction of gender. Of
course, much earlier, in 1935 itself, Margaret Mead had presented ethnographic
data in Sex and Temperament in Three Primitive Societies that showed that
conventional definitions of femininity and masculinity were not borne out in the
Pacific Islands. In two of the three cultures she examined, there was no sharp
polarity between masculinities and femininities, and in the third, they were. Mead
was implicitly building a case for the feminist distinction between sex and gender,
although she herself saw these cases primarily in terms of the impact of cultural
diversities on the human personality.


Social Construction of Gender

The sex – gender distinction, which amplifies Simone de Beauvoir’s assertion in
The Second Sex that one is not born but rather becomes a woman, immediately
suggests the role of gender socialisation: females become women through a
process in which they acquire feminine traits and learn feminine behaviour. Other
feminists have elaborated on the distinction, using the concept of patriarchy, and
its discriminations. Gayle Rubin uses the phrase ‘sex/gender system’ in order to
describe a set of arrangements by which the biological raw material of human
sex and procreation is shaped by human, social intervention, arrangements which
are the locus of the oppression of women (Rubin, 1975: 159 – 179). However,
since gender is social, it is mutable and alterable by political and social reform
that would ultimately bring an end to women’s subordination. Distinguishing
sex from gender also enables the two to come apart: in that one can be sexed
male and yet be gendered a woman, or vice versa and this has provided a fruitful
take-off point for the articulation of LGBT (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and
Transgender) issues. This is nowadays denoted by the phrase ‘social and cultural
construction of gender’. But which social practices construct gender, what social
construction is and what being of a certain gender amounts to are major feminist
controversies, without a consensus as yet.

Some feminists have interacted with and critiqued but also adapted Freudian
and social learning theories, which deal with the mechanisms of social
construction. For e.g., Nancy Chodorow in her 1978 work Reproducing Mothering
has criticised social learning theory as too simplistic to explain gender differences.
Instead, she holds that gender is a matter of having feminine and masculine
personalities that develop in early infancy as responses to prevalent parenting
practices, specifically ‘mothering’, since mothers or other prominent women
tend to be the primary caretakers of young children. Chodorow differs from the
classic Freudian approach, in that she espouses a position that both gender and
mothering are socially learnt. She sees the child’s gender identity emerging
through the process of breaking away from the mother to form a unique identity.

For a boy, the mutual perception of difference leads to a violent breakaway, and
to well defined and rigid ego boundaries. For a girl, the process is more fluid
because of the identification with the mother, leading to flexible and blurry ego
boundaries. Rather than penis envy in girls, it is masculinity experiencing loss of
the maternal bond that is the key to differential personality development in males
and females. Childhood gender socialisation further reinforces these
unconsciously developed ego boundaries finally producing feminine and
masculine persons.


1.3.2 Countering Socialisation

A critique of conventional approaches from feminists as well as cognitive
developmentalists is the formers’ inability to accommodate resistance to and
subversion of gender socialisation. The traditional social learning theories for
example emphasise childhood processes and micro level factors making the
messages received appear uncontested; further, they do not take cognizance of
the complex relationship among micro, meso and macro variables. Gender
socialisation should be defined in a more complex way to refer to “ongoing,
multi level processes of social expectations, control, and struggle that sustain
and subvert gender systems” (Ferree & Hall, 1996: 935). In this conceptualisation,
gender is not a characteristic of individuals but of societies. Multiple institutions
impact on gender formation. As renowned social scientists like Pierre Bourdieu
Socialisation and Gender Roles
and Anthony Giddens have repeatedly averred, institutions simultaneously shape
and are shaped by individual agency. Thus, the process is both dynamic and
subject to change. Socialisation is not a unidirectional process whereby the
socialisation agents are all-powerful in moulding and shaping the individual as a
passive recipient. It is instead a dialectical process in which agents transmit
dominant information in the ongoing process of defining our social identities,
and we, as members of society, conform to or resist the process and the agents,
as we engage in critical analyses of the messages.

The content of socialisation can change with larger changes in society. Sue
Sharpe’s work in 1976 on a group of mainly working class girls in London found
that concerns of girls like ‘love, marriage, husbands, children, jobs, and careers
in that order, were unlikely to encourage them to attach great importance to
education. Almost three decades later Sharpe’s repeat research found that girls’
priorities had changed, due to the women’s movement, equal opportunities
programmes and improved job market.


Socialisation is a lifelong process and agents for socialisation in general are also
agents for gendered socialisation. Early childhood socialisation or primary
socialisation, including moral socialisation, is mainly by parents who transmit
the basic norms of the culture, religion, as also class, gender, racial and ethnic
identities. Sociologist Andre Beteille has noted that in contemporary India, where
caste as a system is on the wane, family plays a role in socialising children to
reproduce caste values. Socialisation literature in the west holds that community
and neighbourhood are particularly prominent as agents among poorer inner city
groups. In kinship and community oriented societies like India, the role of
extended family, caste, ethnic and religious groups is also strong, drawing from
a ritual, linguistic and cultural repertoire. Early childhood socialisation is largely
anticipatory socialisation: preparing the child for future gendered roles. When
the child is older, the role of peers, teachers, and the school environment itself
become significant. The role of the peer group is especially important for
adolescents, influencing behaviour – both conforming and deviant – in a wide
variety of arenas including life style, educational and career path, performance
at school, sexual behaviour. Schools are formal agents of primary socialisation.
Emile Durkheim, saw the school as the main transmitter of social norms, a task
that he thought was too overwhelming for the family unity. The variety,

pervasiveness and power of media and its nexus with the market in contemporary
society render it into a significant agent of socialisation in all the life phases.
Gendered adolescent socialisation and adult socialisation are also noteworthy as
during these phases the individual has to actually enact specific gendered roles
that she/he has only learnt in theory. All agents do not inevitably or necessarily
reinforce each other, as experiments show that there is room for ‘differential
socialisation’, which allows the individual some choice of selection and
interpretation. Materials like clothing, picture books, text books, toys and games,
films, etc. aid the process. Mechanisms refer to specific micro processes that get
deployed consciously or unconsciously by agents and include social learning
through reward and punishment, observation, imitation of role models, absorbing
a culture’s gender stereotypes by being immersed in its everyday ethos and so
Social Construction of Gender.

on. ‘Agents’ i.e., those with agency to act, draw on these materials and mechanisms
for socialisation. Thus even though films are ‘materials’ they are also part of the
institution of media which in its totality is an ‘agent’. What follows in this section
is a discussion of agents of socialisation along with the materials and mechanisms
they deploy, citing studies and experimental data. Also included is a discussion
of studies that suggest that socialisation is not a rigid and fixed process. Its content
may change over time due to larger societal changes. Gender stereotyping may
also be resisted or overcome through conscious action.


Parents have an overriding influence beginning with how they interact with sons
versus daughters. When parents have been asked to describe their 24-hour old
infants, they have done so using gender-stereotypic language: boys are described
as strong, alert and coordinated and girls as tiny, soft and delicate. Parents’
treatment of their infants further reflects these descriptions whether they are
aware of this or not. Some socialisation is more overt: children are often dressed
in gender stereotypical clothes and colours. For instance, in the West boys are
dressed in blue, girls in pink. Parents tend to buy their children gender stereotypical
toys. They also, intentionally or otherwise, tend to reinforce certain ‘appropriate’
behaviours. While the precise form of gender socialisation has changed since
the onset of second-wave feminism, even today girls are discouraged from playing
sports like football or from playing ‘rough and tumble’ games. Division of
household work between male and female adults are both a powerful model and
when sex-specific tasks are allotted to children, it becomes socialisation through

Ann Oakley in her 1972 book Sex, Gender and Society identifies four central
mechanisms in early gender socialisation: manipulation, canalisation, verbal
appellation and activity exposure. Through manipulation of the child’s body,
parents encourage sex-specific behaviour in their children. For example, mothers
fuss over the hair and skin of baby girls much more and spend energy on dressing
them elaborately in feminine clothes. Canalisation or directing the child’s
attention and interests towards appropriate games and toys is another non-verbal
method. For girls, dolls, soft toys, miniature domestic appliances are popular
and for boys, bricks, guns and trains. Verbal appellation refers to the use of
language to label children in a way that reinforces appropriate gender
identification. For example, pet names like ‘Guddi’ or ‘Dolly’ for girls do not
seem to have male equivalents. Another example is how certain adjectives are
applied differentially ‘my brave little boy’ versus ‘my beautiful princess’
highlighting qualities desirable in boys and girls. Different activity exposure
happens as children grow a little older and can help out in the house. Girls are
often allotted domestic chores like serving or looking after the younger sibling,
and boys are encouraged to participate in outdoor activities like running errands
to the shop.

1.5.1 Role of Father

The role of mother (or a woman who plays mother-surrogate) in early childhood
socialisation is universally recognised and been subjected to scholarly scrutiny.
But several theories of sex-role development emphasise the importance of fathers
as well. For example, social learning theorists assert that one primary component

Socialisation and Gender Roles
of sex-role socialisation is reward for children’s sex-appropriate behaviour and
punishment for sex-inappropriate behaviour. A study by McCandless et al (1976)
demonstrates that the patterns of differential treatment among fathers, mothers,
and peers suggest that socialisation pressure for sex-typed behaviours may come
most consistently and effectively from fathers. Further, it suggests that a finely
tuned system of socialisation exists in which fathers, mothers, and peers each
make unique yet complementary contributions. The interactive nature of the
socialisation process may mean that a single social agent’s impact may vary as a
function of the presence and influence of other social agents, and thus the impact
of differential socialisation on children’s subsequent sex-typed behaviours needs
to be recognised.

1.5.2 Kinship and Cultural Repertoire

Even in highly advanced industrial societies, the historical legacy of patrilineal
kinship and patriarchal ideology persists as an undercurrent, surfacing now and
then in the form of folk wisdom about male and female nature. In many societies
including India, the link with history and tradition is more active and live, and
the deep seated patriarchal structures of society find contemporary expression in
a host of ways – through beliefs, rituals, ceremonies, customs, proverbs, as also
through kinship practices, creating a pervasive ambience that socialises children,
adolescents and adults for gender roles at a sub liminal level.

Writing on the linguistic metaphor of seed and earth to represent human
reproduction, Leela Dube documents vividly how in virtually all regions, castes
and communities in India, ethno-reproductive beliefs compare mother’s role in
reproduction with the soil or earth or land and that of the father with the seed.
Just as the crop carries the identity of the seed, and belongs to the owner of the
seed, so too children belong to the father’s line, and the mother’s role is that of
the patient, nurturant earth, not transmitting her own identity to her children and
not claiming any rights over them. This message negating a woman’s rights and
claims on her children has deep seated acceptance among people as reflecting
the natural order.

In another article “Socialisation of Hindu Girls in Patrilineal India”, Leela Dube
chronicles in detail, proverbs and sayings, rituals and ceremonies that highlight
son-preference, devaluation of daughters, the temporary nature of a girl’s residence
in her natal home, her eventual and inevitable destiny of marrying and moving
into another household, and the need for her to know how to be flexible and how
to please. In particular, many wedding ceremonies including the highly emotional
‘Bidai’ ceremony as the bride leaves for her marital home, emphasise her
disconnecting from natal responsibilities and assumption of new role in another
household. With their colour, grandeur and emotion, they are also performing
anticipatory socialisation of the young unmarried girls who attend the wedding
and re-socialising adult married women into accepting their destiny.

Kamala Ganesh’s article on “Patrilineal Structure and Agency of Women: Issue
in Gendered Socialisation” also highlights the other side of gendered socialisation,
which involves training not to be just a victim, but to use the patrilineal structure
to one’s own advantage, and make a space for oneself within it by ‘adjusting’,
playing the right cards, and stooping to conquer (248 – 49).
Social Construction of Gender.

Highlighting the role of kinship systems in creating gendered personalities is a
comparative study of competitiveness among women of two communities – the
patrilineal Maasai of Tanzania and matrilineal Khasi of Northeast India – by a
group of economists (Gneezy 2009). The study uses an experimental task to
explore whether there are gender differences in competitiveness across these
societies. The innovatively and rigorously designed experiment consisted of a
simple, gender neutral activity (throwing a tennis ball 10 times into a bucket set
three metres away) with a first option of monetary incentive for success in the
task and a second option of a higher monetary incentive for outperforming an
anonymous partner in the same task. Competitiveness was evaluated on the basis
of which of the two options was exercised.

The Maasai represent a textbook example of a patriarchal society whereas the
Khasi are matrilineal. In the experiment, Maasai men opted to compete at roughly
twice the rate as Maasai women. This result was reversed amongst the Khasi,
where women chose the competitive option considerably more often than Khasi
men, and were slightly more competitive than Maasai men too. The interpretation
is that competitiveness as a quality is socially inculcated rather than innate, and
that matrilineal societies socialise women to be more competitive than men. The
conventional attribution of weak competitive personality to women comes from
their being socialised in patrilineal societies, which encourage submissiveness
in women, as the case of the Maasai demonstrates.

1.5.3 Children’s Literature: Story Books and Text Books

Children’s literature has a role in inculcating gender identity and self esteem.
Story books are especially powerful materials for gender socialisation, since the
messages are transmitted through a highly enjoyable activity. Children’s stories
and fairy tales are replete with use of sexist violence and imagery of female
subordination. Illustrated books, in particular, tend to significantly affect gender
development at a very early age. The development of preschoolers’ sexual
identities often occurs concurrently with their desire to repeatedly view their
favourite picture books. Picture books also encourage young children to learn
about the lives of those who may be quite different from themselves. The message
in these primers is rather clear: Boys live exciting and independent lives, whereas
girls are primarily auxiliaries to boys. Glenys Lobban (1974) has analysed the
content of stories for children and found that girls and women as heroines are
less in no. than heroes, and that they are almost exclusively portrayed in domestic
roles, and that joint activities are portrayed with males taking the lead, she says:

this reinforces the already learnt lesson of male superiority and dominance and
damages girls’ self-esteem. This has not changed substantially over the decades,
with a few exceptions. Text books prescribed by the school curriculum also have
a role in reinforcing gender stereotypes. For example, John Abraham’s research
into maths text books in 1986 demonstrated that they were extremely male
dominated. Moreover male and female agency was extremely stereotyped. There
were many more males represented in active roles. Women tended to be shopping
for food or buying washing machines, whilst men tended to be running businesses
or investing” (1995: 113).
While content studies cumulatively do indicate the gender bias in children’s
literature, they do not tell us what effects to such books have on children. As
Socialisation and Gender
several analysts have noted, children are not simply passive recipients but are
actively involved in shaping their own conceptions of what it is to be masculine
or feminine.
One way to address gender stereotyping in children’s books has been to portray
females in independent roles and males as non-aggressive and nurturing (Renzetti
and Curran 1992: 35). Some publishers have attempted an alternative approach
by making their characters, for instance, gender-neutral animals or genderless
imaginary creatures. However, parents often undermine the publishers’ efforts
by reading them to their children in ways that depict the characters as either
feminine or masculine. Fairy tale fracturing is also an approach used to alleviate
those biased images. Set in contemporary text, this often involves changing the
gender of characters in well-known fairy tales.
1.5.4 Toys and Games
Toys and games are important materials for gender socialisation, in which the
cumulative perceptions and ideas of parents, other adults, schools and market
collaborate. As Renzetti and Curran (1992: 66) point out, “Toys not only entertain
children, but they also teach them particular skills and encourage them to explore
through play a variety of roles they may one day occupy as adults” The example
of dolls and miniature kitchen sets as gifts for little girls and trains sets and
mechano and other building oriented toys for little boys have been discussed
extensively in the literature on gendered socialisation. Not only do dolls encourage
little girls to express nurturing qualities and see a future for themselves exclusively
as mothers, but dolls like ‘Barbie’ also present models of how to be attractively
feminine, resulting in sexualising girl children precociously and setting impossible
standards of body proportions. Several researches, for example by Dittmar et al
(2006) have noted that Barbie’s impact on little girls include damaging their
body image and causing eating disorders and weight cycling. Research into relative
performance of girls and boys at school finds that conditioning and sex
stereotyping begin before school, through games and toys. Different sets of
aptitudes and attitudes can be developed. The kind of toys girls are gifted could
result in their coming to attach less value to education than boys.
Not only toys, but games – both indoor and outdoor, including board games help
transmit race, class and gender identities, argue Glasbergand and others but these
can also be reinterpreted and resisted by children. They conducted an experiment
by asking sociology students to actually play board games, and that process itself
helped the students to identify certain biases on race, class and gender. “We
found it useful to conclude the exercise by reminding students that toys, games,
and recreational activities do not so much cause or result in our unquestioning
internalisation of conventional gender, race, class, and political identities. Rather,
toys and games are one of several agents that together reinforce conventional or
dominant norms and values concerning those social identities…..we are not
passive recipients of such information in the socialisation process, such that we
become transformed into clones of one another. Instead, how we interpret the
rules of the games, and how well we notice the dominant images in the
construction of the game pieces facilitates resistance and reinterpretation of our
social identities.”(1998: 138)
Social Construction of
Gender 1.6 PEERS
Peer groups are an important socialisation agent throughout the life course because
people in the same generational cohort see each other as benchmarks or reference
points for their own social standing , professional achievement, personal qualities,
etc. From consumer taste to political and ideological orientations to socialisation
into old age, they function as guides and influencers. Peer groups are especially
important for adolescents, as, in this age group the influence of family and parents
starts decreasing. Vigilant and Williamson enumerate the common features of
the peer group including (1) similar age cohort or social position (2) members
with different levels of power and influence within the peer group and (3) social
concerns that are unique to its members. They exercise power by techniques of
inclusion and exclusion. Exclusion can be through out-group subjugation by
bullying and harassing outsiders, and in-group subjugation by picking harassing
lower ranked members; by compliance or not challenging the behaviour of more
powerful group members; stigmatising through labels and derisive comments;
and by expulsion from the group. Peer group influence among adolescents can
cause deviance from or resistance to the norms acquired through family or school;
and control theorists see such deviance as resulting only if the latter’s’ social
control weakens. On the whole, the connection with deviance is still not
established unequivocally, also because the relative influence of peer socialisation
is hard to gauge.
For girls and women, the female only peer group exerts tremendous pressure on
markers of conventional femininity such as dress, romantic and sexual behaviour,
skills in home-making, hospitality and entertainment, choice of career, etc. The
mixed sex peer group exerts pressure too, where male ideas of what being an
attractive girl/woman is, plays a role in socialising for gender roles and vice
The concept of sisterhood used extensively in second wave feminism was, in
effect, a peer group creation. The technique of sharing personal experiences and
political ideas in intimate sessions (termed conscientisation) played an important
role in creating a feminist consciousness and building resistance to traditional
notions of femininity.
Gender studies and gender sensitive policy have focussed considerably on the
arena of education, including primary education, in terms of gender disparities
in literacy levels, admissions, dropout rates, choice of subjects, academic
performance, etc. Even though these trends have to do substantially with factors
outside of the school itself, some prior to entry into school, do suggest that schools
have yet to become major engines of gender transformation. This has led to
some re-thinking on schools themselves as agencies of gender socialisation.
Research focused on the micro social processes that take place daily in classrooms
and schools, dynamics commonly understood to be in the realm of socialisation
suggest that the school is a major agent in teaching and reinforcing cultural
expectations for males and females. A multi country study by Nelly Stromquist
for UNESCO identifies five dimensions of the gender socialisation process in
schools: (1) Teachers’ attitudes and expectations and their interactions with
Socialisation and Gender
students in the classroom exhibit different patterns toward boys and girls, generally
to the disadvantage of girls. (2) Within the formal curriculum, sex education
continues to miss important aspects of sexuality affecting adolescent students,
despite changes in social mores and thus perpetuates some gender stereotypes
on sexuality. (3) The school environment contains aspects of gendered violence
that contribute to polarised conceptions of femininity and masculinity. Singlesex
education is found to play a positive role if designed with explicit gender
transformational objectives. (4) Peer influences play a significant but not easily
visible gate-keeping role in reproducing gender ideologies. (5) Teachers—key
actors in the everyday life of schools—do not have access to training in gender
issues and, consequently, tend not to foster gender equity in their classrooms.
Yet, despite its role in reinforcing gender stereotypes, school is also seen as a site
with considerable degrees of autonomy to produce new and progressive identities.
How pupils interpret the socialisation is another question. Abraham’s ethnographic
study of a mixed sex comprehensive school Divide and School shows that despite
teachers communicating gender stereotypes, pupils were actively creating their
own subcultures that did not always conform to expected notions of masculinity
and femininity.
Although media is conventionally considered to be a secondary agent by theorists
of socialisation, in contemporary times its variety, technological sophistication,
global spread and reach and its connection to the market, renders it a significant
agency that supports and reinforces gender stereotypes and sometimes creates
new ones. Even young children have access to media. Upwardly mobile middle
class homes with disposable incomes possess many innovative gadgets for
accessing media. Public space is also saturated with media products. Further the
socialising agents: parents, community members, teachers and so on are
themselves highly influenced by media images and stereotypes which are passed
on to children. Sometimes children are directly impacted upon, without adult
The range of media – television, movies, video games, music, magazines,
hoardings and posters, internet, comic strips, books and so on – are especially
important to adolescents as parental influence begins to diminish.
There is considerable research on the gender role stereotypes and violence against
women that are perpetrated in the mass media , more intensive and concerted
now than ever before – a result of what some feminist scholars have called
‘feminist backlash’. From internet games, to commercials for alcohol, cars, and
other products used largely by male consumers, to feature films and magazines ,
women are portrayed in one of two contrasting and stereotypical roles: selfsacrificing
wives, mothers and home-makers or as sex-objects.
But whether there is a unidirectional link between violence and sexism in the
media and actual behaviour is still a contested issue .There are studies that indicate
that people are not only affected by the media but also actively select and affect
the media they encounter. Research on media socialisation therefore has to observe
both sides, the mediated messages as well as how they are perceived and acquired
by the user, a position that is also favoured by British cultural studies.
Social Construction of
1.8.1 New Media and Self-socialisation
New media which are internet based are highly interactive, allowing the viewer/
reader flexibility in using, giving feedback and reshaping information and images
received. In some ways, these media also allow for self-socialisation. Johannes
Fromme’s writing on this topic are prescient. Our present socio-cultural world is
characterised by plurality. Media have contributed to this pluralisation, and the
world of media itself has become immense. Fromme argues that so-called new
media have not substituted the old ones, but have been added to the existing
media collection. Its size exceeds the processing abilities of any individual. This
forces the user to make choices and this in turn renders the concept of socialisation
too narrow to adequately capture the phenomenon of learning outside educational
settings (2006). This is why there is so much interest currently in so-called
informal and self-directed learning, which in a way can be placed between the
spheres of socialisation and education. Therefore, the growing up of children
today may no longer be described as a predominantly original process of
socialisation. Especially in the leisure domain, children are not only allowed,
but also expected to make their own choices. A different approach is necessary
in addition to socialisation research concentrating on the more casual and
involuntary aspects of acquiring social norms and values with and through media.
Such research should also study processes of informal and self-directed learning
with and through media. The existence of gender stereotypes as well as ways
and means to combat them is both part of the socialisation process, be it through
media or other agencies.
Socialisation for gender roles is the process by which the biological distinction
between male and female is converted into social and cultural constructions of
masculinity and femininity and internalised and enacted by men and women
who treat it as part of the natural order. Identification theories inspired by Freud
and social learning theories are used by socialisation theorists , the former by
psychologists and the latter by both psychologists and sociologists/social and
cultural anthropologists. In addition, anthropology, which is antithetical to
biological determinism, emphasises the fundamental role of culture – through
language, rituals and ceremonies and ethos – in moulding the individual’s
personality. Feminist interventions bring in structural patriarchy as the macro
framework within which various socialising agents and mechanisms operate.
They along with cognitive developmentalists and others question the notion that
gender socialisation is always successful in its intentions, and argue instead for a
more dialectical understanding of the process whereby those who are being
socialised find ways of reinterpreting or resisting.
The agencies of socialisation in general are also involved in socialising for gender
roles. In general they create and reinforce sexual and gender stereotypes. Parents
and family are primary agents, as also peer group and school. Media although
classified as a secondary agent, is powerful and pervasive today, affecting all age
groups. Here too, the receiver is not passive and plays a role in shaping the
received information and messages. In particular, the new media, i.e., internet
based media are inherently interactive and hold tremendous possibilities for the
individual to make informed choices and thus indulge in self-socialisation.
Socialisation and Gender
Ferree, M. & Hall, E. 1996. ‘Rethinking Stratification from a Feminist Perspective:
Gender, Race, and Class in Mainstream Textbooks’. American Sociological
Review, 61(6): 929-950.
Froerer, Peggy. 2009. ‘Ethnographies of Childhood and Childrearing’. Reviews
in Anthropology. 38(1):3-27.
Fromme, Johannes. 2006. Socialisation in the Age of New Media. Accessed on 10.1.2012
Ganesh, Kamala. 1999. ‘Patrilineal Structure and Agency of Women: Issues in
Gendered Socialisation’. T. S. Saraswathi (ed.). Culture, Socialisation and Human
Development. New Delhi: Sage Publications.
Gleitman, H., Fridlund, A. J. &Reisberg, D. 2000. Basic Psychology. New York:
W. W. Norton & Company, Inc.
Renzetti, Claire M. and Daniel J. Curran. 1992. Women, Men, and Society. Boston,
MA: Allyn and Bacon.
Rubin, G. 1975. ‘The Traffic in Women: Notes on the Political Economy of Sex’
in R. Reiter (ed.), Toward an Anthropology of Women. New York: Monthly Review
Stromquist, Nelly P. 2007. The Gender Socialisation Process in Schools: A CrossNational
Comparison. Background paper prepared for the Education for All
Global Monitoring Report, 2008 ‘Education for All by 2015: will we make
Studies with Experimental and Original Data
Glasberg, DavitaSilfen , Barbara Nangle, Florence Maatita, Tracy Schauer
(eds.).1998. ‘Games Children Play: An Exercise Illustrating Agents of
Socialisation’. Teaching Sociology, Vol. 26, No. 2.130-139.
Dittmar, Helga, Emma Halliwell and Suzanne Ive. 2006. ‘Does Barbie Make
Girls Want to Be Thin? The Effect of Experimental Exposure to Images of Dolls
on the Body Image of 5- to 8-Year-Old Girls’. Developmental Psychology , Vol.
42, No. 2, 283–292.
Dube, Leela. 2001. ‘On the Construction of Gender: Socialisation of Hindu Girls
in Patrilineal India’ and ‘Seed and Earth: The Symbolism of Biological
Reproduction and Sexual Relations of Production’. Leela Dube (ed),
Anthropological Explorations in Gender: Intersecting Fields. New Delhi:Sage
Publications, 87 – 118 and 119 – 153.
Glenys, Lobban. 1974. ‘Presentation of Sex Roles in British Reading Schemes’.
Forum Magazine. Vol 16, Number 2.
Gneezy, Uri, Kenneth Leonard and Johan List. 2009. ‘Gender Differences in
Competition: Evidence from a Matrilineal and a Patriarchal Society’.
Econometrica. Vol. 77 no. 5.
McCandless, B. R., Busch, C. and Carden, A. I. 1976. ‘Reinforcing Contingencies
for Sex Role Behaviors in Preschool Children’. Contemporary Educational
Psychology. 1, 241-246.
Sharpe, S. 1976. Just Like a Girl: How Girls Learn to Be Women. Harmondsworth:
Social Construction of
Suggested Reading
Haralambos and Holborn. 2000. Sociology: Themes and Perspectives. London:
Harper Collins.
Kazdin, Alan. (ed.) 2000. Encyclopedia of Psychology. Vol. III. New York: Oxford
University Press.
Vigilant, Lee Garth and John Williamson 2007. ‘The Sociology of Socialisation’
in Clifton D. Bryant and Dennis L. Peck (ed.) 21st Century Sociology: A Reference
Handbook. Vol.1. Thousand Oaks: Sage.
Oakley, Ann. 1972. Sex, Gender and Society. London: Temple Smith.
Sample Questions
1) What are the main agents for socialisation? Analyse the new media in terms
of its role in gender socialisation.
2) How is gender stereotypes transmitted in early childhood?
3) What are the main features of the anthropological approach to socialisation?
Socialisation and Gender UNIT 2 EMBODIMENT AND GENDER Roles
2.1 Introduction
2.2 Gender and Embodiment
2.3 Embodiment and Feminist Theory
2.4 Living the Female Body
2.4.1 Creating Gendered Bodies in Childhood
2.4.2 Emergence of Sexual Bodies in Adolescence
2.4.3 Sexuality and Beautifying the Body
2.4.4 Bodies after Menopause
2.5 Disabled Bodies
2.6 Transsexual Bodies
2.7 Summary
Suggested Reading
Sample Questions
Learning Objectives
After going through the unit, you will be able to:
Ø comprehend about the concept of gender and embodiment;
Ø explain feminist approach to embodiment; and
Ø understand about living the female body through different stages of life.
This unit deals with the discourse relating to gender and embodiment and
examines how bodies bear the imprint of gender inequalities and efforts to control
or contain bodies to reflect gender politics. In trying to explore these themes in
this lesson, a wide range of substantive topics have been covered including
gendering of bodies in childbirth, menarche, menstruation and menopause,
disabled bodies, notion of beautifying the bodies, transsexual bodies etc.
Once the province of medical science and certain schools of philosophy, “the
body” emerged in the late 1970s as a central site from which scholars across the
humanities and social sciences questioned the ontological and epistemological
basis of almost all form of inquiry. In anthropology, “the body” became such a
central concept and significant object of study that by mid- 1980s, the study of
“the body” blossomed into a fully formed subfield: “the anthropology of the
body”. For many anthropologists at the time, it was clear that the question of
power and oppression that were on the agendas of many scholars could not be
addressed without first challenging ideologies that naturalised sex, gender and
racial difference through discourses and representations of the body. At the same
time, medical anthropologists, revealed how conceptions of the body were central
to understanding both epidemiology and other health related issues and the body
Social Construction of
was not a given but a constructed reality. Anthropological works have shown
that there is something like ethno-physiology in which different cultures have
different perceptions of the body. The body could be used as a metaphor or a
symbol. The works of Mary Douglas has shown that the body forms the most
basic of all symbolic systems; Right, left, up and down are all symbols drawn
from the body as are also enclosures and openings.
The body has proved a fertile site from which anthropologists have mounted
their criticism of abstract, universalising models and ideologies and instead
discussed the various ways in which power has been inscribed into the body and
how various marginalised groups have questioned and contested the stigma placed
upon their bodies like impurity, primitiveness and colour. Bodies cannot be
divorced from their lived experiences, requiring a focus on embodiment that can
be defined as a way of inhabiting the world as well as being the source of
personhood, self and subjectivity, and laying down the preconditions of
intersubjectivity (Mascia-Lees , 2011) .
Ortner (1974) talked of universal subordination of women’s body in “Is Female
to Male as Nature is to Culture” where she argues that a woman’s body and its
functions keep her closer to nature more than a man’s physiology, allowing him
more freedom to work in culture. The purpose of culture, in one sense, is to rise
above nature; therefore, if women are more aligned with nature then they fall
socially below cultural men. Ultimately, both a woman’s body and her social
position create a different psychic structure for her. She takes a structuralist
approach to the question of gender inequality taking the relative positions occupied
by men and women understood as a dialectical opposition.
She was one of the early proponents of feminist anthropology who constructed
an explanatory model for gender asymmetry based on the premise that the
subordination of women is a universal, that is, a cross-cultural phenomenon.
Her notion reflected Levi-Strauss’ influence on her work. The binary opposition
of nature and culture originated with Levi-Strauss, and Ortner borrowed them in
her structural analysis of male dominance. In the late 1970s many feminist
anthropologists were beginning to question the concept of universal female
subordination and the usefulness of models based on dichotomies. Some
anthropologists argued that there existed societies where males and females held
roles that were complementary.
To understand how patriarchy is naturalised and perpetuated through various
institutions, there is a need to understand the basic construct of a person’s being:
her sexuality as it is laid down in creation of gender. This brings in the concept
of masculinity and femininity. While masculinity is always deemed as a powerful,
demanding, aggressive and assertive, femininity is constructed as functionally
complimentary to it and submissive, yielding and compliant.
Embodiment in its most simple understanding means the lived experience of
human beings, an experience which bridges” the natural” and “the cultural”. By
the close of the twentieth century the body had become a key site of political,
social, cultural and economic intervention in relation, for example, to medicine,
disability, work, consumption, old age and ethics. The body has emerged in recent
years as a key challenge in the social sciences, for example, new social movements Embodiment and Gender
struggle for citizenship and emancipation in the name of excluded bodies
(Nicholson and Seidman, 1995). These particular developments, which spell
out the presence of the body in social, moral and political life, have had a profound
impact on sociology and social theory.
Embodiment may be defined as the ways in which cultural ideals of gender in a
given society create expectations for and influence the form of our bodies. There
is a bidirectional relationship between biology and culture; by embodying
societally determined gender roles we reinforce cultural ideals and simultaneously
shape, both temporarily and permanently, our bodies, which then perpetuates
the cultural ideal (Connel, 2002). While there is actually more variation in body
type within the male and female sexes than there is between the two sexes,
embodiment exaggerates the perceived bodily differences between gender
categories (Kimmel, 2011). Social embodiment, for both men and women, is
variable across cultures and over time. Examples of women embodying gender
norms across cultures include foot binding practices in Chinese culture, neck
rings in African and Asian cultures, and corsets in Western cultures. Another
interesting phenomenon has been the practice of wearing high heels, which shifted
from a masculine fashion to a feminine fashion over time.
In the United States, the ideal body image and dimensions have changed for
both women and men, with the body ideal female body shape becoming
progressively slimmer and the body ideal for men becoming progressively larger
(Bordo, 1999).These differences are epitomised in the example of children’s
toys; G.I. Joe dolls depict the physical ideals for boys and Barbie dolls embody
the ideals for girls. Beauty myth, as discussed in Naomi Wolf’s book The Beauty
Myth: How Images of Beauty are used Against Women, refers to the unattainable
standard of beauty for women, which sustains consumer culture. In contrast,
men’s bodies are also “dictated” by cultural ideals of gender, as is evident in
consumer culture—especially beer commercials—in which men are portrayed
as outdoorsy, tough, strong, and “manly” (Buysse, 2004)
Bodies may be our friends or enemies, a source of pain or pleasure, a place of
liberation or domination, but they are also the material with which we experience
and create gender. During the past decades, feminist sociologists and
anthropologists have increasingly explored the relation between bodies, culture,
and subjectivity (Dellinger and Williams 1997; Gagné and McGaughey 2002;
Lorber and Martin 1998; McCaughey 1998). Scholars appear to be coming to
terms with how people “embody gender,” which refers not only to how people
use or mould the body to signify gender but also to how such bodywork is
intertwined with subjectivity (i.e., cognition and feelings).
Every society has different ‘scripts’ for male and female members to follow.
Thus members learn to carry out their feminine or masculine role, much in the
way as every society has its own language. From the time of infancy till old age
one learns about and practices the particular ways of being masculine and feminine
that the family and society prescribes. However, these roles can change and do
change over time, place, region, class, caste and geographical location. Our gender
defines us and pre-exists us, we are born into it just as we are born into our
families, and it operates at a level beyond our individual intentions. What kind
of men and women we are required to be are already prescribed in the culture
Social Construction of
into which we are born. For this we experience our gender roles as true, natural
and good (Mosse, 1995).
People are born male or female, but learn to be boys and girls who grow into
men and women. They are taught what the appropriate behaviour and attitudes,
roles and activities are for them and how they relate to other people. Their learned
behaviour is what makes up gender identity, and determines gender roles.
Body has always figured in one way or another in the field of feminist theory;
from discussions of motherhood, pregnancy and abortion, of pleasure and sex,
of eating disorders, masculinity and femininity, and the incorporation of
disciplinary regimes to theoretical discussions of embodiment and individuation
of bodies, feminist thinkers have played a key role in forming different ideas and
understanding of the body in a multidimensional manner.
Feminist theorists have focused on the female body as the site where
representations of difference and identity are inscribed. Conboy, Medina, Stanbury,
(1997) explored the tensions between women’s lived bodily experiences and the
cultural meanings inscribed on the female body which included rape, pornography,
eroticism, anorexia, body building, menstruation and maternity.
Feminism has been critical in forcing social sciences to engage with the body as
a social and cultural reality. Since the late 1980s, the dominant voices in the
feminist theorisation of the body have been post-structuralist. Such theorists
(e.g, Butler, 1993; Bordo, 1987) seek to understand how gender as a discursive
and also as a performative reality shapes the actual political and social implications
of being gendered.
Theorists of embodiment’ such as Elizabeth Grosz, Judith Butler, Sara Ahmed,
Margrit Shildrick, Raia Prokhovnik, Moira Gatens and Rosi Braidotti employ
diverse theoretical approaches. However, they may be linked by the view that
bodies are not simply ‘pre-given’ in biology, nature, or culture but are continually
produced and differentiated through complex historical, social and political
relations of power. Interrogating the sex/gender distinction has been of particular
theoretical importance to many of these thinkers, who have perceived it to be
intimately intertwined with a host of other oppressive dualisms (i.e. mind/body,
nature/culture, male/female and heterosexual/homosexual).
In underscoring an overarching patriarchal, hetero-normative system, the sex/
gender distinction obscures recognition of how bodies (as opposed to being purely
a product of nature) are constituted dichotomously as ‘sexed’ and/or gendered’
through power-imbued grids of intelligibility (Prokhovnik, 2002; Gatens, 1996;
Butler, 1999/1990, 1993). Rejecting the notion of a pre-given biologically ‘sexed’
body upon which gender is deterministically inscribed, they have emphasised
the impossibility of ever having ‘direct, unmediated access to some “pure”
corporeal state’ (Shildrick, 1997:14). As Moira Gatens (1996) asserts, one of the
key questions feminists need to be asking is ‘how does culture construct the
body so that it is understood as a biological given?’ Sex/gender is of course not
the only paradigm through which relations of power function to produce particular
forms of embodiment. Critical feminist theorists of embodiment are also
concerned with how bodies are constituted dif Embodiment and Gender ferentially through the heterosexual
matrix of power (Butler, 1999/1990, 1993, 2004a) and through processes of racial
and cultural `othering’ (Butler, 1993; Ahmed, 2000, 2004a).
While Butler rejects theory grounded in ontology of the body, she still finds
something fundamental about bodies: bodies, for Butler, are vulnerable. A body
is both dependent upon others and subject to violation by another. Through our
bodies we always remain exposed to others and our very vulnerability ties us to
others (Chambers, 2006).
With the publication of The Second Sex by Simone De Beauvoir, feminist
theorising about the relation between the body and the self took center stage.
Along with other phenomenologists, particularly Merleau-Ponty, and, of course
Sartre, Beauvoir recognises that “to be present in the world implies strictly that
there exists a body which is at once a material thing in the world and a point of
view towards the world” (Beauvoir, 1953). What was central to her account was
that such bodily existence and the point of view was lived differently for men
and women. Beauvoir’s attitude to embodiment has been the subject of much
controversy for later feminists. She seemingly asserts the lack of significance of
biological facts and rehearses such ‘facts’ in a problematic way. She also presents
an account of the phenomenology of female embodiment which has shocked
later writers by its almost unmitigated negativity. Nonetheless her account still
provides the starting point for contemporary work on the relation between bodies
and selves. Here she is explicitly offering her narrative as an account of lived
experience, the body in situation, and not as part of the data of biology.
Contemporary theory and research on embodying gender echo Beauvoir’s (1961)
classic notion that the body is a situation. Beauvoir’s position is that subjectivity
is always embodied, the body is always part of one’s lived experience, and personal
experience is shaped not only by biographical, historical, cultural, and interactional
contexts but also by how one uses his or her freedom or agency. Writing before
the invention of the sex/gender distinction, Beauvoir critiqued both biological
determinism and the scientistic view of the body as detached from subjectivity.
Moi (1999) argued that Beauvoir’s view of gender as embodied avoids problems
that arise from conceptualising gender as distinct from sex as well as
postmodernist attempts to collapse the sex/gender distinction.
2.4.1 Creating Gendered Bodies in Childhood
In childhood the young girl’s body is experienced in a different way from that of
the young boy. He is encouraged to climb trees and play rough games. She is
encouraged to treat her whole person as a doll, “a passive object… an inert given
object” (Beauvoir, 1953), and learns the need to please others. Here is the
beginning of her account of the way in which women live their bodies as objects
for another’s gaze, something which has its origin not in anatomy but in “education
and surroundings” (ibid). The consequence of living a body as an object of
another’s gaze is an inhibited intentionality, her spontaneous movements inhibited,
“the exuberance of life… restrained”, “lack of physical power” leading to a
“general timidity” (ibid). Beauvoir’s descriptions of the way in which women
live their bodies in such an objectified way, internalising the gaze of the other
Social Construction of
and producing their bodies as objects for others, has been one of her most
important contributions to a phenomenology of female embodiment, and
anticipated the work of later feminists such as Bartky and Marion Young. Sha
has also described the following phases of life including puberty, sexual initiation,
marriage and motherhood.
2.4.2 Emergence of Sexual Bodies in Adolescence
Anthropological literature documents the social significance of menarche as a
girl’s social transition into emergent womanhood and sexual majority (Ram 1992;
Dhuruvarajan 1989; Kapadia 1996). This is a time when gender roles seem to be
strongly emphasised as physical changes occur dramatically on the bodies of
girls and boys. These physical changes are used to emphasise what society is
going to expect in the sexual behaviour and practices between young women
and young men.
As the girl enters puberty Beauvoir describes the way in which her body becomes
to her a source of horror and shame. “This new growth in her armpits transforms
her into a kind of animal or algae” (333), her menstrual blood a source of disgust.
These negative descriptions are continued in her account of sexual initiation,
marriage, and motherhood. Her description of the maternal body has been
especially controversial. “ensnared by nature the pregnant women is plant and
animal … an incubator, a conscious and free individual who has become life’s
passive instrument … not so much mothers… as fertile organisms, like fowls
with high egg production”. These descriptions have been a source of criticism,
particularly when later feminists sought to celebrate the female body as a source
of pleasure, fertility, and empowerment (see below) as well as the fact that it
represents only one point of view not necessarily endorsed in every culture. .
However it is important to recognise that what she was offering was a descriptive
phenomenology of female bodies as lived in specific situations namely of Europe
in the twentieth century. It is these situations which her writings hoped to highlight
and change; in other words she faught her own social battle. In complete contrast
to what Beauvior says, Margaret Mead in Coming of Age in Samoa (1973 {1928}),
exhibits that girls who have attained puberty in Samoa are free from mental
stress (unlike their American counterparts) in the absence of conflicting values,
expectations and shameful taboos. Attainment of puberty is represented by many
rituals however life after that is not filled with much stress due to sex and marriage
being down played. The view towards premarital sex in Samoa is more acceptable
which reduces societal pressures after one attains puberty.
According to Kapadia (1996) based on her work on an untouchable community
in South Inida, the perception from the point of view of the Pallars, an untouchable
caste group in South India, is that a girl who does not menstruate does not reach
“full” womanhood but continues to be perceived as “unfinished” and ungendered
whereas the gendering of men as well as their sexual potency is considered
automatic. Moreover, a girl’s first menstruation marks the beginnings of a state
of openness and, thus, her readiness for marriage, sexual relations, and childbirth
(Lamb 2000). It illustrates the female generative power, feminine energy, i.e.,
sakti which is both sacred and dangerous and should be therefore controlled
(Kapadia 1996). Some cultures view women as unclean and shameful during
Embodiment and Gender their periods. Accordingly, women are restricted from entering the temple, going
to the religious place, performing religious rites or entering the kitchen. In addition
to the secrecy this imposes, it frequently means that it is difficult for women to
express their need for rest or treatment when experiencing premenstrual tension
or during a difficult period. In some communities certain ceremonies take place
when girls have menstruation like in Assam and many parts of the South of
India. In south Indian communities girls begin tying half saree. The puberty
ceremony is a prevalent custom in South India. Usually it includes seclusion for
seven days, feeding special food by kinswomen, a ritual bath after the seclusion
and finally a function where a girl is dressed in jewellery and in an expensive
sari for the first time and given special gifts by kins (Ram 1991). According to
Ram’s (1992) study on Mukkuvar women in Tamil Nadu, puberty ceremony is
highly auspicious and celebratory: maturation in a woman – her enhanced status
and her potential availability in marriage – is a pleasurable and important event.
However, it also marks the containment of female body which is replayed over
and over in metaphors and social practices of cooling, binding and secluding
female body (ibid). After the puberty ceremony, the adult woman binds her hair
in tightly coiled cone-shaped knot and transits her free containment of girlhood
to the binding garment of womanhood, a sari – stress on binding hair and covering
sexual parts of body can be interpreted as key points of transition to womanhood
(Ram 1992). The sari signifies the girl’s new identity of a sexually mature woman
(Kapadia 1996). It is also a way of controlling symbolically her sexuality.
There are taboos related to menstruation as in tribal communities too. The Kharia
women, cannot touch a plough nor can they participate in roofing of a house.
The Oraon women are also prevented from touching a plough. The Todas of
Nilgiri Hills do not touch a menstruating women for fear of destruction of harvest.
In certain tribes only the males can participate in ancestor worship (Satyanarayana
and Behera, 1986). The Toda and Kota women in southern India cannot cross
the threshold of a temple. The Santal women cannot attend communal worship.
Marriage and Child birth
Gendered transformation of wifehood results from marriage. The women’s
‘fluidity’ and ‘permeable’ quality (Busby 1997a; Daniel 1984; Fruzzetti et al.
1992; Trawick 1990, 133; Säävälä 2001, 105) facilitate the transformation of
their personhood which is necessary in order to incorporate them into their
husband’s families and to become full personalities of first, auspicious wives
and later, blessed mothers (Fruzzetti 1982, 31). Moreover, it is also a step towards
adulthood – a necessary requirement of the mature adult status of both a woman
and a man (Osellas 2000, 81) but it is even more urgent and absolutely essential
for a woman, in order to achieve her social identity as a “full woman” (Kapadia
1996, 17). The female body has been the site of contest since the very beginning
as the social and moral norms never allowed her any freedom or agency to
experience her sexuality purely as a human body. Her body has been further
negated and put under strict vigilance under the institution of marriage. Marriage
still is the vital juncture of a women’s life. In most cultures the status of the
woman’s body transforms after marriage. Among Hindus a wife is seen as
ardhangini, half her husband’s body and among the Christians the wife’s body
and husband’s body are seen as merged, they “become one”. Thus a symbolic
transformation of the body as now’ belonging to someone else’ takes place. For
this she is kept under constant watch lest she should explore her sexuality and
realise her own body.
Social Construction of
Among Hindus the woman’s regenerative power sakti is seen as powerful and
dangerous and marriage is the only way to keep it in check, through regular
sexual intercourse (Kapadia: 105). Thus a young widow has a large amount of
taboos heaped on her as she no longer has a husband to tame in her energies. The
very recognition of the power of the feminine is one of the reasons that Hindus
both married girls early and also regarded widows as dangerous especially if
they were in the reproductive age.
In most societies across the world marriage is seen as the means towards
reproducing the society with legitimately produced children who then fill in the
various roles vacated by older people as they die. Thus marriage is not simply
the union of two persons but a means towards an end, namely social reproduction.
A married woman’s body becomes a vehicle for producing the progeny that will
replenish her group. Thus pregnancy and childbirth are seen natural processes
that should transform the married woman’s body. The theories that specify the
birth of children also determine or are predetermined by the gender inequalities.
Kapadia points to the differences in this respect between North India and South
India. In South India, it is the mother’s blood that is seen as the primary component
of a child’s body and the link between it and its mother’s brother is viewed as
stronger than that between it and its paternal side. This strong matrilateral bias is
less in North India where the paternal influence on the child is stronger. Yet even
in North India a lot of emphasis is placed on the ‘mother’s milk’ and all, who
have drank the milk of the same woman are seen as closely tied to each other.
Also the transfer of masculinity through the mother’s milk is strongly emphasised
in this culture.
Yet patriarchy often denies the women the right over their own reproductive
power. It is only among relatively egalitarian societies like that of hunters and
food gatherers that women can decide upon their own offspring.
2.4.3 Sexuality and Beautifying the Body
Gender is not about women alone, but about women and men and their
relationship in society. We usually think that sexuality is only “natural” or
“normal” in which we cope with our biological needs. In fact, sexuality really
tells us what our society regards as normal rather than biologically normal.
Sexuality involves the way in which the mind and body interact. In the case of
women, many ideas about sexuality teach them that their bodies are objects to
please or satisfy. A lot more pressure is put on women especially in urban areas
to spend a great deal of time and money making their bodies and faces acceptable
and attractive.
Research on how women embody gender focuses on how they experience
changing demeanour, fashioning appearance, or modifying the physical body.
McCaughey (1998) showed how women who learn to subvert feminine
demeanour in self-defense classes redefine womanhood and feel more assertive
and confident in their everyday lives. Dellinger and Williams (1997) showed
that makeup provides women opportunities for bonding and that women can
experience makeup as both empowering and constraining. Gagné and McGaughey
(2002) showed how women who undergo cosmetic surgery view themselves
through the male gaze and feel more confident and liberated as their bodies
become more palatable to the patriarchal imagination.
Embodiment and Gender 2.4.4 Bodies after Menopause
In most societies, menopause marks major disruption. Research has shown that
menopause is subject to a wide degree of interpretation on the part of women
who experience it. For example, Kaufert (1988) interviewed Canadian women
and found that they tended to define themselves as menopausal if there had been
a change in their accustomed pattern of menstruation. For these women,
menopause was not an event but a process based on perception and interpretation.
Some of these women even went as far as calling themselves menopausal,
regardless of the status of their cycle.
A group of women living in a small village in South Wales believes that
menopause is a threat to their feminine identity and is seen as a disadvantage
because they are aging and losing control over their bodily processes (Skultan,
1970). Kaulagekar (2010) conducted a study to explore the experiences of
postmenopausal women with specific reference to perceived effect of menopause
on femininity and subjective description of feeling about attaining menopause.
This was a cross-sectional study based on in depth interviews of the purposively
selected 52 postmenopausal urban women from four different sites from the city
of Pune, Maharashtra, India. Average age of the women at menopause was 47.6
years. Findings revealed that majority of them had a traumatic menopausal phase
hence final relief was appreciated positively. Sixteen respondents thought their
femininity was affected because of menopause. Opinions expressed about loss
of femininity were all part of individual’s perceptions, changing notions about
social role and own circumstances but majority urban women viewed menopausal
transition from socio-cultural perspective and dissociate reproduction from
In a study in rural North India, 558 women aged 35-55 were enlisted for research
on menopause. Of the women in the study, 27 percent had attained menopause,
7 percent were in the transition phase, and 4 percent had a hysterectomy (Singh
& Arora, 2005). The study showed that the majority of the women welcomed the
attainment of menopause and considered it a rite of passage into a new found
stage of womanhood. They considered themselves “cleaner” after menopause,
as they felt themselves relieved of the “filth” associated with menstruation.
Importantly, among many Indian women who embrace menopause; most of them
considered menopause socially advantageous because they had highly structured
rules of conduct and rituals associated with it (Singh & Arora, 2005).
Addlakha (2007) highlighted that historically in India as elsewhere in the world,
there has been a deep-rooted cultural antipathy to persons with disabilities.
Sexuality at core is about acceptance of self and acceptance by others. Disabled
persons are expected to reject their bodies as asexual. Throughout the ages the
disabled have been looked down upon with disdain, almost as if they were subhuman.
They have been portrayed as medical anomalies, helpless victims and a
lifelong burden for family and society. While today there is a general recognition
of the need to enhance educational and employment opportunities for persons
with disabilities in order to promote economic self-reliance and independent
living, their sexual needs, dreams and aspirations are more or less rendered
Social Construction of
Sexual and reproductive rights are considered irrelevant for persons with
disabilities in India. Gender emerges as a key analytical category in perceptions
of sexuality among young men and women with visual and locomotor disabilities.
While able-bodied persons may legitimately claim aspirations for the body
beautiful and an exhilarating sex life, too many people think that disability
automatically excludes those so afflicted from any hope of love and sex. The
social construction of the disabled identity is more often than not that of an
asexual being precariously perched on the margins of society. Indeed, many
disabled persons and their parents are convinced that sexual experience does not
lie in their destiny. The situation is more complicated in societies like India where
sex is a highly tabooed subject. Even under normal circumstances, sexuality is
considered socially threatening more in need of control than encouragement and
While both men and women with disabilities are disqualified from performance
of conventional adult roles, there is reinforcement between traditional notions
of disability and womanhood as both are characterised by innocence, vulnerability,
powerlessness and sexual passivity (Fine and Asch 1988). So while dependency
needs in males are extremely stigmatising, the same tendencies may to some
extent be endearing in a female. This disjunction between traditional notions of
what it means to be a man- aggressive, strong, self-reliant and providing financial
security and social status to the family – and being a man with a disability in need
of assistance – has led some researchers to opine that the fate of men with
disabilities is worse than that of women with disabilities (Shakespeare 1999 and
Tepper 1999a and 1999b).
A woman with a disability is considered incapable of fulfilling the normative
feminine roles of homemaker, wife and mother. Then, she also does not fit the
stereotype of the normal woman in terms of physical appearance. Since women
embody family honour in the Indian context, disabled girls are more often than
not kept hidden at home by families and denied basic rights to mobility, education
and employment. Parents become more protective and restrictive, especially after
the adolescent girl reaches puberty Being nurturing and caring are core
components of normative constructions of femininity, but women with disabilities
are themselves in need of care. This inversion reduces them to the status of being
lesser than women (Addlakha, 2007). Absence of a sense self-assurance and
confidence in the functioning and attractiveness of the body is one of the major
stumbling blocks in the lives of persons with disabilities. Disabled bodies do not
fit the cultural ideal of the healthy, strong, independent and beautiful body. The
disabled body is not valued as a source of pleasure or value (it cannot work,
reproduce or be attractive).
Body image not only influences overall self assessment of a person but is definitive
in determining a person’s sexual self-esteem. Sexual self-esteem is an individual’s
sense of self as a sexual being and may be rated as appealing and unappealing,
competent and incompetent. It describes a person’s sexual identity and perception
of sexual acceptability. When persons have a positive body image, they are likely
to have high levels of sexual self-esteem as well. But factors like abuse and
disability are injurious to sexual self- esteem. When sexual self-esteem is
damaged, it can lead to mental ill health; since it results in a damaged view of
oneself, diminished satisfaction with life and capacity to experience pleasure,
willingness to interact with others and develop intimate relationships. As social
attitudes towards physical dif Embodiment and Gender ferences are largely negative, body image and
associated sexual self-esteem are a problem area for persons with disabilities.
When we talk of gender and embodiment, it is important to discuss it in the
context of transsexuals. Since most of society is based on a dual or
heteronormative model of gender anybody that straddles the divide causes cultural
dissonance and faces rejection. Schrock et al (2005) after having in-depth
interviews with nine white, middle-classes, male-to-female transsexuals examined
how they produce and experience bodily transformation. Interviewees’ bodywork
entailed retraining, redecorating, and reshaping the physical body, which shaped
their feelings, role-taking, and self-monitoring. The authors conclude by exploring
how viewing gender as embodied could influence medical discourse on
transsexualism and have personal and political consequences for transsexuals.
Studies have focused on various dimensions of transsexuality, looking upon how
the body is viewed and also reconstructed to fit in with a redefined view of
gender construction.
Recent research by Rubin (2003) and Namaste (2000) moves transgender
scholarship toward understanding the link between bodies and subjectivities.
Namaste analysed how transsexuals cope with violations of and threats to their
bodies from police and discriminatory health care providers. Rubin examined
female-to-male transsexuals’ experiences of feeling betrayed by their birthed
bodies and growing into their desired bodies. For example, Rubin’s interviewees
said that using hormone therapy and mastectomies to masculinise their bodies
affirmed their identities as men, which evoked feelings of authenticity. Schrock
et al (2005)shows how transsexuals’ bodywork shapes feelings of authenticity,
but our interviewees expressed more contradictory feelings and also indicated
that their bodywork shaped role-taking, self-monitoring, and practical
consciousness (which refers to be taken for granted knowledge about how to do
things; Giddens 1984, 41-45).
Transsexuals are accepted in some societies that stretch the model of gender
construction to include more than two models of gender. The classic
anthropological work on the Comanche have shown how the berdache is an
accepted gender category among these warring tribes that describes a man who
does not want to be masculine but dresses up in women’s clothes and performs
women’s tasks. Such a man is not treated as a social outcaste but has a perfectly
socially acceptable position as a transsexual. Thus in many societies the stigma
of ‘not being born into the right kind of body’ is taken care of culturally.
Embodiment in its most simple understanding means the lived experience of
human beings, an experience which bridges “the natural” and “the cultural”.
Embodiment may be defined as the ways in which cultural ideals of gender in a
given society create expectations for and influence the form of our bodies. It
shows how bodies bear the imprint of gender inequalities. In the present unit,
wide range of substantive topics that span the life course were covered , including
Social Construction of
gendered bodies in childbirth, menarche , menstruation, menopause, notion of
beautifying the bodies, disabled bodies etc. During the past decades, feminist
socio-cultural anthropologists and sociologists have increasingly explored the
relation between bodies, culture, and subjectivity. They appear to be coming to
terms with how people “embody gender,” which refers not only to how people
use or mould the body to signify gender but also to how such bodywork is
intertwined with subjectivity (i.e., cognition and feelings). Feminist theorists
have focused on the female body as the site where representations of difference
and identity are inscribed. Conboy, Medina, Stanbury, (1997) explored the tensions
between women’s lived bodily experiences and the cultural meanings inscribed
on the female body which included rape , pornography, eroticism, anorexia, body
building, menstruation and maternity.
Addlakha, Renu. 2007. Gender, Subjectivity and Sexual Identity: How Young
People with Disabilities Conceptualise the Body, Sex and Marriage in Urban
India. New Delhi: Centre for Women’s Development Studies.
Ahmed, Sara. 2000. Strange Encounters: Embodied Others in Post-Coloniality.
London: Routledge.
Bordo, Susan. 1999. “Never Just Pictures”. Twilight Zones: The Hidden Life of
Cultural Images from Plato to O.J. University of California Press, pp. 107-138.
Busby, Cecilia. 1997. “Of Marriage and Marriageability: Gender and Dravidian
Kinship”. Journal of Royal Anthropological Institute (N.S.) 3 (1): 21-42.
Butler, Judith. 2004a. Undoing Gender. New York: Routledge.
Butler, Judith. 2004b. Precarious Life. The Powers of Mourning and Violence.
Butler, Judith. 1999/1990. Gender Trouble. Feminism and the Subversion of
Identity. London: Routledge.
Butler, Judith. 1997a. Excitable Speech. A Politics of the Performative. London:
Butler, Judith. 1997b. The Psychic Life of Power: Theories in Subjection.
Stanford: Stanford University Press.
Butler, Judith (1995) “For a Careful Reading”. Feminist Contentions: A
Philosophical Exchange. London: Routledge.
Butler, Judith. 1993. Bodies that Matter: On the Discursive Limits of ‘Sex’.
London: Routledge.
Butler, Judith. 1992. ‘Contingent Foundations: Feminism and the Question of
“Postmodernism”’. Butler J. and Scott J. (eds.) Feminists Theorize the Political.
New York: Routledge.
Buysse, J.A.M. and Embser-Herbert, M.S. 2004. “Construction of Gender in
Sport: An Analysis of Intercollegiate Media Guide Cover Photographs.” Gender
and Society, 18 (1) pp. 66-81.
Chambers, Samuel. 2006. “The Body: Reconstructing Judith Butler Embodiment and Gender ’s Theory of
Sex/ Gender”. Paper Presented at the Annual Meeting of the American Political
Association, Marriott, Loews Philadelphia, and the Pennsylvania Convention
Center, Philadelphia, PA, Aug 31.
Conboy, Medina and Stanbury. 1997. Writing on the Body: Female, Embodiment
and Feminist Approach. New York: Columbia University Press.
Connel, R.W. 2002. Gender: Short Introductions. Malden: Blackwell Publishers,
Daniel, E. Valentine. 1984. Fluid Signs: Being a Person the Tamil Way. Berkeley:
University of California Press.
Dellinger, Kirsten, and Christine L.Williams. 1997. “Makeup at Work:
Negotiating Appearance Rules in the Workplace”. Gender & Society 11:151-77.
De Beauvoir, Simone.1953. The Second Sex. London: Jonathan Cape.
Dhruvarajan, Vanaja. 1989. Hindu Women and the Power of Ideology. Delhi:
Vistaar Publications.
Fine, M. and A. Asch (eds.). 1988. Women with Disabilities: Essays in Psychology,
Culture and Politics. Philadelphia: Temple University Press.
Fruzzetti, Lina. 1982. The Gift of Virgin. Delhi: Oxford University Press.
Fruzzetti, Lina, Akos Östör and Steve Barnett. 1992 (1982). “The Cultural
Construction of the Person in Bengal and Tamilnadu”. Akos Östör, Lina Fruzzetti
and Steve Barnett (eds.). Concepts of Person. Kinship, Caste and Marriage in
India. Delhi: Oxford University Press. 8-30.
Gagné, Patricia, and Deanna McGaughey. 2002. “Designing Women: Cultural
Hegemony and the Exercise of Power among Women who have Undergone
Elective Mammoplasty”. Gender & Society. 16:814-38.
Gatens, Moira. 1996. Imaginary Bodies. Ethics, Power and Corporeality. London:
Ghosh, Arijeet. 2011. “Witchcraft”. Journal of Gender Equality and Sensitivity.
Vol.6, No.2.
Kaufert, P. A. 1996. “The Social and Cultural Context of Menopause”. Maturitas,
Kapadia, Karin .1996. Siva and her Sisters. Gender, Caste, and Class in Rural
South India. Delhi: Oxford University Press.
Kaulagekar. 2010. “Menopause and Femininity: Qualitative Enquiry into
Menopause of Urban Women from Pune, Maharashtra.” Anthropologist, 12(1):
23-26 (2010).
Kimmel, Michael S. 2011. The Gendered Society. New York: Oxford University
Social Construction of
Lamb, Sarah 2000. White Saris and Sweet Mangos. Ageing, Gender, and Body
inNorth India. Berkeley, Los Angeles and London: University of California Press.
Lorber, Judith, and Patricia Yancey Martin. 1998. “The Socially Constructed
Body: Insights from Feminist Theory”. Illuminating Social Life, edited by Peter
Kivisto, 183-206. Thousand Oaks, CA: Pine Forge Press.
Mascia-Lees Frances E. 2011. A Companion to the Anthropology of the Body
and Embodiment. U.K: Blackwell Publishing Ltd.
McCaughey, Martha. 1998. “The Fighting Spirit: Women’s Self-defense Training
and the Discourse of Sexed Embodiment”. Gender & Society. 12:277-300.
Moi, Toril. 1999. What is a Woman? New York: Oxford University Press.
Mosse. 1995. The Image of Man:. The Creation of Modern Masculinity. New
York: Oxford University Press
Nicholson and Seidman. 1995. Social Postmodernism: Beyond Identity Politics.
Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Ortner, Sherry B. 1974. “Is Female to Male as Nature is to Culture?” Michelle
Zimbalist Rosaldo and Louise Lamphere, (eds) Woman, Culture, and Society.
Stanford: Stanford University Press.
Prokhovnik, Raia. 2002. Rational Woman: A Feminist Critique of Dichotomy.
Second Edition. Manchester: Manchester University Press.
Ram, Kalpana. 1992. Mukkuvar Women. Gender, Hegemony and Capitalist
Transformation in a South Indian Fishing Community. Delhi: Kali for Women.
Satyanarayana, R. & Behera, D.K. 1986. “Socio-economic Responsibility of
Tribal Women: A Micro-study of the Kissan of Western Orissa”, Tribal Women
and Development. Agenda Papers, Theme I, P.15.
Shakespeare, T. 1999. “The Sexual Politics of Disabled Masculinity”, Sexuality
and Disability 17(1): 53-65.
Schrock et al. 2005. “Transsexual Embodiment of Womanhood”. Gender and
Society. Vol. XX No. X, Month 2005 1-19.
Shildrick, Margrit. 2002. Embodying the Monster: Encounters with the Vulnerable
Self. London: Sage Publications.
Singh, A. & Arora, A.K. 2005. “Profile of Menopausal Women in Rural North
India”. Climacteric. 8, 177-184.
Skultan, V. 1970. “The Symbolic Significance of Menstruation and the
Menopause”. Man. 5,639-551.
Säävälä, Minna 2001. “Fertility and Familial Power Relations: Procreation in
South India”. Nordic Institute of Asian Studies Monograph Series, No. 87.
Richmond, Surrey: Curzon Press.
Trawick, Margaret. 1996 (1990). Notes on Love in a Tamil Family. Berkeley:
University of California Press.
Suggested Reading Embodiment and Gender
Butler, Judith. 2004. Undoing Gender. New York: Routledge.
Hollander, Jocelyn A. 2001. “Vulnerability and Dangerousness: The Construction
of Gender through Conversation about Violence.” Gender & Society 15:83-109.
Kapadia, Karin .1996. Siva and her Sisters. Gender, Caste, and Class in Rural
South India. Delhi: Oxford University Press.
Lee, Janet. 1994. “Menarche and the (Hetero) Sexualisation of the Female Body.”
Gender &Society 8:343-362.
Martin, K.A. 1998. “Becoming a Gendered Body: Practices of Preschools.”
American Sociological Review 63:494-511.
McGuffey, C. Shawn and B. Lindsay Rich. 1999. “Playing in the Gender
Transgression Zone: Race, Class, and Hegemonic Masculinity in Middle
Childhood.” Gender & Society 13:608-627.
Tepper, M.S. 1999. “Letting go of Restrictions: Notions of Manhood, Male
Sexuality, Disability and Chronic Illness”. Sexuality and Disability. 17(1): 37-
Twigg, Julia. 2004. “The Body, Gender, and Age: Feminist Insights in Social
Gerontology.” Journal of Aging Studies. 18: 59-73.
Sample Questions
1) What do you understand by the term embodiment?
2) Describe embodiment and gender.
3) “Living the female body”-explain this with examples.
Social Construction of
3.1 Introduction
3.2 Life Course Approach
3.2.1 Life Course and Life Cycle
3.3 Gender and the Life Course
3.4 Different Life Courses and their Implications
3.4.1 Girl Child
3.4.2 Menarche: Beginning of the Reproductive Life Course
3.4.3 Married Status
3.4.4 Motherhood
3.4.5 Widowed Women
3.5 Empowerment and Life Course
3.6 Changing Scenario Affecting Life Courses
3.7 Summary
Suggested Reading
Sample Questions
Learning Objectives
After going through this unit, you will be able to:
Ø comprehend about the life course approach;
Ø understand gender and the life course perspective;
Ø know about the different life courses and its implications from gender
perspective; and
Ø learn about the changing scenario affecting life courses.
The unit discusses the gender and life course perspective. Clarity of the concept
of gender is very important to understand the life course in a gendered perspective.
Gender is often defined as the socio-cultural meanings attributed to the physical
and biological differences between the sexes, and how those meanings are
manifested both symbolically and materially in societies (Mascia-Lees and Black,
2000). Gender is a relational concept that anthropologists have found to be useful
for elucidating the dynamics of socio-cultural systems that invest meanings, role
expectations, and positionalities in female and male as well as alternatively
gendered persons. Gender as a concept refers to differences, hierarchies, rankings,
etc., which exist between two sexes. It explains cultural constructions of
femininity and masculinity that inform various roles that are played by women
and men in the society. Gender constructs have significant influence on physical,
social and psychological growth and development. As individuals grow from
infancy to childhood and then to adulthood their gender and age along with a
host of other factors influence their personality and behaviour Gender and the Life Course . From the moment
of birth a child is conditioned by the cultural constructs that inform the manner
in which it is handled by early care givers, and later grows up learning its gender
specific mannerisms and fulfills gender specific role play. In most instances the
systematic, unfavorable denial of opportunities, rights and resources is based on
gender although these vary from one society to another. These may also change
over time, sometimes quickly and sometimes slowly. Throughout the world men
and women live in different worlds in terms of the ways in which they experience
various life situations during the journey from womb to old age.
The concept of life course was first developed in sociology in the 1960s. Glen
Elder Jr., a sociologist, was one of the early authors to write about a life course
perspective, and he continues to be one of the driving forces behind its
development. Elder Jr., defined life course as “a multilevel phenomenon changing,
ranging from structural pathways through social institutions and organisations
to the social trajectories of individuals and their developmental pathways”. The
life course perspective is a theoretical model that has been emerging over the
last five decades, across several disciplines. Sociologists, anthropologists, social
historians, demographers, and psychologists—working independently and, more
recently, collaboratively—have all helped to give it shape. The ‘life course’ has
made it possible to analyse the way in which personal life interacts with social
institutions such as education, family, marriage, and labour market and also the
other way around. Van Gennep (2004[1909]) delineated a structure for
transformative ritual practices he considered universal and common to all cultures.
Although they vary greatly in intensity, specific form, and social meaning, rites
of passage are ceremonial devices used by societies to mark the passage or
transition of an individual or a group from one social status or situation to another.
Rites of passage resolve life-crises; they provide a mechanism to deal with the
tension experienced by both individuals and social groups during ambiguous
occasions including, but not limited to, birth, puberty, marriage, and death. By
adopting a comparative approach to develop his taxonomy of social rites, Van
Gennep noted that these social customs are used to mark specific moments of
the life course. Many societies use these ceremonies to articulate events that
hold significance not only for individuals and families but the larger society as
well. Associated with each life stage is a specific social status and a definitive
set of obligations and responsibilities that the incumbent is expected to fulfill as
the individual advances the normative, sequential stages of the life course—
generally from infant, adolescent, spouse, parent, elder, to deceased—taking on
a new social role at each phase. Rites of passage function to accomplish status
transitions; they provide a mechanism for individuals and their societies to
recognise those who negotiate the rites as intrinsically different beings.
Life course perspective looks at how chronological age, relationships, common
life transitions, and social change that shape people’s lives from birth to death.
Of course, time is only one dimension of human behaviour; characteristics of
the person and the environment in which the person lives also play a part.
The life course approach focuses on the relationship between the ‘self’ and
‘society’ and acknowledges the temporal framework of the changes and
movements which have and will continue to shape the context of particular
Social Construction of
cultures and historical periods (Hockey and James, 2003; Dewilde, 2003). For
instance, ageing as a social phenomenon can only be comprehended through
contextualising physiological ageing within cultural and historical contexts
(Pilcher, 1995). It is multifaceted, composed of interdependent biological,
psychological and social processes.
The life course paradigm set out by Giele and Elder (1998) provides an appropriate
explanatory framework within which to locate the analysis. Giele and Elder
(1998:10) define three key elements: location in time and place, that includes
the cultural background experienced by individuals; linked lives, referring to
family norms and cultural expectations, for example with respect to women’s
roles concerning employment and child-care; and individual agency – the decisions
that an individual makes and the priority that they give to different aspects of the
lives, for example decisions concerning education, employment and family
formation. All these are intimately linked. Social science scholars who apply the
life course perspective in their work rely on a handful of staple concepts: cohorts,
transitions, trajectories, life events, and turning points.
Cohort: Group of persons who were born at the same historical time and who
experience particular social changes within a given culture in the same sequence
and at the same age.
Transition: Change in roles and statuses that represent a distinct departure from
prior roles and statuses.
Trajectory: Long-term pattern of stability and change, which usually involves
multiple transitions.
Life Event: Significant occurrence involving a relatively abrupt change that
may produce serious and long-lasting effects.
Turning Point: Life event that produces a lasting shift in the life course trajectory.
3.2.1 Life Course and Life Cycle
The concept of life course has also been used in relation to different stages in
human life. However, the concept of ‘ life course’ has gained popularity over
‘life cycle’ since the concept of ‘life cycle’ is perceived to imply multiple turns
and a relatively fixed or inevitable series of biological stages and ages( Hapke
and Ayyankeril, 2004).
Rather than viewing any stage of life, such as childhood, youth and older age, or
any group in isolation the life course is concerned with an understanding of the
place of that stage in an entire life continuum (Riley, 1983). An individual’s
social, economic and political situation is both the outcome of previous actions
and the contingent result of a historical process.
The life course approach provides a framework for analysing individuals’
experiences, at particular stages of their lives. Unlike the term life cycle, which
implies fixed categories in the individual and assumes a stable system it
emphasises the inter-linkage between phases of the life course rather than seeing
each phase in isolation (Katz and Monk, 1993; Hockey and James,1993). It
permits a more dynamic approach to relations between the individual, the family,
work and others (Featherstone and Hepworth, 1989).The life course approach
provides an alternative framework for analysing the various influences, which
contribute to the life experience of individuals at particular stages of their lives. Gender and the Life Course
It indicates more flexible biographical patterns within a continually changing
social system (Arber and Evandrou, 1993; Katz and Monk, 1993).
In many studies life course approach is used as a framework for analysing the
life experience of individuals at particular stages of their lives. The perspective
has theoretical relevance also for the structure –agency- debate since tracking
multiple dimensions of life course development over an extended period of time
makes it “very clear that structure and personal action determine the life course”
(Kruger and Baldus, 1999, 356-359).
The early studies of life course were life cycle models that concentrated on single
role sequence. For example, the life cycle of individuals was portrayed as ‘children
mature, marry and have children who then grow up and start a family as the
cycle continues into another generation’ (Elder et al. 2003: 7). In recent times
life course studies concentrate on bridging the gap between social dispositions
and individual preferences for a particular behaviour (Settersten 2003, Giele
2004). Moen (1992) and Hakim (2000, 2003, 2004) study the link between
multiple roles of women – family and work – in relation to marriage and family
formation in the individual life course. This reflects the changing role of women
in the society from that of a traditional homemaker to that of a contributor to the
household income. It is also an indication of changes in individual behaviour in
order to cope with these changes.
Here the gender and life course perspective has been explained from both
anthropological and development perspectives to understand the complex
phenomenon of differential allocation of tasks and resources based on sex and
its relation with and impact on the life course of men and women like marriage,
motherhood/fatherhood, work, power and ageing across societies.
The circumstances during the entire life course influence the situation of
individuals as they advance in age. ‘Gender relations cannot be assumed to be
static over the life course, since life transitions, age-based norms and physiological
changes all impact on the way gender roles are constructed and gender identity
experienced’ (Arber and Ginn, 1996:13). Therefore, a life course perspective
has the potential to direct attention to the situation of women and men at various
times in their lives.
In the context of India, a life course perspective has been adopted, for example
in studies of women’s health and reproduction (Das Gupta 1996). Anthropologists
like Susan C. Seymour (1999) have focused on the lives of women in detail. Her
work on “Women, Family and Child Care in India: A World in Transition” is an
in-depth study of twenty four Hindu families of different caste and class groups
in an urbanised part of Orissa. She focused on socialisation of girls and
significance of women’s role through the life cycle in a society where the patrifocal
extended family is predominant. The longitudinal study also examines the impact
of recent urbanisation and modernisation on groups of contemporary Indian
women. Most studies exploring life courses in India focus exclusively, or mostly,
on girls and women. Alice S. Rossi explored the people’s lives especially women
Social Construction of
as they move from youth to age in her edited book Gender and the Life Course
(1985) and Sexuality across the Life Course (1994).
Despite the gradually increasing interest in men as gendered subjects and in
men’s lives in South Asia within gender studies, the range has so far been limited
to topics such as male sexuality and violence. Compared to the multiplicities of
femininities in South Asian Studies, men appear in fewer studies and often in
two- dimensional range, either as house-holders (patrons) or as landless labourers
(clients). One of the significant works on masculinity is by Joseph Alter.
While acknowledging the regional and other diversities in the lives of men and
women across South Asia, some features emerge in most studies on the life
cycle of women, encapsulated by Mines and Lamb (2002, 81) as follows: In
general, a woman can expect to progress over her life from being a daughter in
her natal home, to a wife and daughter-in-law in her husband’s and in-law’s
home, to a mother of young children, to a mother-in-law, and finally to an older
woman and frequently, widow.
In spite of girls’ structurally weaker position compared to boys (Das Gupta, 1996,
217), girls enjoy more personal freedom and autonomy in their natal homes than
they do after getting married (Mines and Lamb, 2002, 81). While a daughter- inlaw
is at the bottom of the household hierarchy and controlled by both women
and men in the groom’s house, a young married woman is still cherished as a
potential child- bearer (Mines and Lamb 2002; Saavala 2004, 151).
Women gain freedom upon getting older, the mother-in-law generation has more
freedom in life, is less dominated by males, and has more authority than in earlier
life phases (Das Gupta 1996, 217; Saavala 2006, 149; Lamb,2002).
It has been argued that men, by contrast, do not experience as many marked
transformation in their lives as women, although they too are expected to marry,
to have children, to be economically productive, and finally, as the senior male
in a household, to assume the role of central authority. Thus the argument that
men experience fewer transformations may reflect the lack of research on male
life courses rather than the actual situation. Since there is a tendency to approach
different phases of life in the Indian context as static, it is important to take into
account the notion that division based on the position in the life cycle are subject
to change and transformation (Saavala 2006, 149). The age categories, meanings
and relations are always shaped both institutionally and through everyday
interactions. For example, the transition from ‘child’ to ‘teen’ is negotiated through
both institutions and everyday interactions (Thorne 2004, 404 ).
Different phases and institutions of life such as marriage or parenthood have a
central influence on other aspects of life like working life. Among the few who
combined analyses of work and life course, Hapke and Ayyankeril (2004) explored
the gendered livelihood strategies of fishermen and women in South India through
their lives. They introduced the concept of ‘work life course’ which they define
as “patterns of engagement of men and women in remunerative work throughout
their life course”. In another contribution to the discussion on work and life
course, the life cycle approach is central, namely Arjan de Haan’s (2003) analysis
of gendered experiences of male and female labour migrants in Kolkata. He
showed how young men have a relatively long period when they can move around
without (adult) supervision (ghumma Gender and the Life Course ) and try out jobs here and there. But no
such option exist for young women, whose experience are confined to the
household. (Mattila, 2011).
Kapadia (1998) examined the two subordinated groups—“untouchables” and
women—in a village in Tamilnadu, South India. The lives and work of
“untouchable” women in the village provided a unique analytical focus that
clarifies the ways in which three axes of identity—gender, caste, and class—are
constructed in South India. The author proves that the non-Brahmin custom of
close kin marriages gives women greater protection and independence. The
involvement of maternal relatives in every important stage of women’s life and
the general distance maintained from paternal kin has been observed by her while
describing the puberty ritual in great detail. This is quite distant from the partilineal
preferences of Brahmins, who encouraged pre-puberty marriage and accorded a
far lower status to women. With urbanisations, however, these protections are
being withdrawn and the rights and obligations of matrilineal kin eroded. NonBrahmin
households are moving away from the traditional system of pledging
girls the male members of the maternal uncle’s family and substituting the
traditional bride price with the pernicious practice of dowry. There is a tendency
for upwardly mobile non-brahmins to adopt the patriarchal practices of Brahmins
for class mobility. The adoption of urban systems and ideas does not necessary
improve the lot of women; instead it reduces the importance of women’s labour,
withdraws them from economically remunerative occupations and dissolves the
community within which woman’s role was respected and conceded.
According to Banerji, “The life of a woman according to the Dharmasastras,
has three stages, that of an unmarried girl, a married girl, and as a widow” (quoted
in Puri, 1999, p. 6). Interestingly, all three stages of a woman’s life are defined in
relation to her status to men, that is, pre-married, married, and post-married.
Different life course have been discussed here which have a influence and
implication on this other aspect of life especially in the context of women. The
phase of girl child discusses the processes of a girl growing into a woman in the
patrilineal and patriarchal societies like India. It will reflect on the issue of
constraints that a girl faces in the process of socialising herself as a female
followed by other life courses.
3.4.1 Girl Child
Evidence of the preference for and dominance of males in Indian society is found
early in the life cycle. From conception, female children are regarded and treated
differently than male children. For instance, if through amniocentesis the gender
of the foetus is determined to be female, she may be aborted because of the
preference for male children In contrast, male children are highly valued. Males
do not require dowry, they will be able to support their parents in their old age,
and they are the only ones who can perform the death rituals. Males are also
favoured and viewed as an investment because they receive dowry from the
bride’s family. The female child receives less or poorer quality food and may
experience unequal access to health care (Van Willigen &Channa, 1991).
Discrimination at the early age with the girl child also affects various other aspects
Social Construction of
of her life like education, marriage etc. As female children are not as highly
valued as male children, they are often viewed as economic and social burdens
which is reflected in the declining sex ratio in India and increased cases of female
foeticide in many parts of India. The popular image and perception of the tribal
women is that of being better off than their non-tribal counterparts. A higher
social status of women was reported by Furer – Haimendorf (1943), Hutton (1921),
Hunter (1973) and Firth (1946) among Tharus of Uttar Pradesh and Nagas and
Garos of the North East. Rivers (1973), Dalton (1872) and Grigson (1938)
however have reported low status of women among Todas, Kharies and Mariya
Gonds with reference to certain taboos during certain periods and ceremonies.
Majumdar (1973) has reported a higher status of tribal women on some indicators
while lower on others, while Shashi (1978) has concluded that the status of
tribal women varies from tribe to tribe. They are considered as an asset due to
roles played by them in the society. The practice of bride price during marriages
is quite common among them. In recent years as the capitalist economy is setting
in, tribal women are being deprived of their traditional roles, due to which their
economic value is decreasing and the practice of ‘bride-price’ is giving way to
the system of dowry as generally witnessed in non-tribal society.
A study by Sutapa Agarwal (2005) highlights the discrimination as an active and
passive elimination of girl child in different socio-economic conditions as a life
course approach by exploring data from 329 ever married women in a communitybased
survey conducted in five villages of Haryana, India in 2003. The broad
objective of the study is to investigate into the inter linkages between the different
aspects of women’s life course with sex selective discrimination. Active
elimination of girl child has been seen in terms of abortion according to sex of
the surviving children, pregnancy order, mother’s childhood experience,
autonomy status and marital instability. The finding suggests that autonomy,
education and exposure to mass media have negative impact whereas co-residence
with in-laws and no male child has significant positive impact for active
elimination. In-laws play an important role in abortion under the umbrella of son
preference. This present study examined the sex selective discrimination by active
elimination of female foetus and passive elimination of female child leading to
their death and the role of different background characteristics like women’s
childhood experience, autonomy, married life and sex preference and family
size preference of women in it. Therefore, it can be said that there exists women’s
life course impact on the discrimination against girl child. Women who themselves
had the worst childhood experience (in terms of discrimination in all spheres
including childhood status, food, education, mobility etc.), had less autonomy in
various dimensions (such as decision-making, monetary, mobility, fertility etc),
felt high instability in her married life or perceived a sad married life, are more
responsible for the discrimination against girl child from conception through her
childhood leading to a vicious cycle of gender deprivation and gender
3.4.2 Menarche: Beginning of the Reproductive Life Course
The onset of the first menstrual cycle is the sign that the girl has entered puberty.
The first menstruation is known as menarche. Menarche also marks the beginning
of the fertile years in a woman’s life signifying her reproductive potential as she
becomes biologically capable of bearing children. The event is often preceded
by signs such as enlargement of the breasts and the uterus and the growth of
pubic hair Gender and the Life Course . Hence it is related with rapid physical growth and hormonal changes
which influence the behaviour pattern of pubescent girls. Menarche usually occurs
between ages 11 and 13 but it may begin sooner and in others it may be delayed,
but very rarely beyond 16 years of age. The onset of menarche varies with the
activity level of the girls and the nutritional status of girls.
In the cultural context of India, attainment of menarche by girls is considered a
biological indicator that the girl is ready for the commencement of sexual relations.
This is evident from the traditional practice of Gauna that was commonly followed
in the olden days. In this system, girls used to be married off at an early age but
continued staying in the parental home without the consummation of marriage.
However, when a girl attained menarche, the ceremony of Gauna would be
performed and then the girl went to live at her husband’s house where she would
begin her married life. The event of menarche is also a social indicator signifying
the eligibility of the girl for marriage and the initiation of the search for a suitable
marriage partner (Caldwell et al. 1983). Research findings by Padmadas et al.,
(1999) illustrate that the two events of menarche and marriage follow each other
very closely in the rural areas. Menarche initiates the beginning of the reproductive
life course followed by the events of marriage and birth of the first child. In
addition to this, menarche as an event has a social relevance. In many cases it is
marked by the change in role of girls in their family from girlhood to adulthood
like taking up responsibilities in the house, exhibiting matured behaviour, taking
on womanly duties like cooking, learning to do the pooja and helping the mother
in the kitchen.
3.4.3 Married Status
Because of the way in which society is organised, in most societies, parents and
family members start talking about marriage of girls from a young age. In many
cases, they do not welcome the girls from birth, mainly as they think that they
shall have to spend a fortune on their marriage and subsequent events. Girls are
seen as property of another house. Though the official age for marriage for boys
and girls is 21 and 18 years, respectively, in many traditional societies in our
country many boys and girls are married at a much younger age. For e.g., in
Rajasthan, in some tribal communities, it is considered auspicious to marry
children on Akshey Tej day and mass marriages take place on this occasion. From
a young age women think that for them marriage is natural and logical. Many
women find that they are expected to become wives and that wives are expected
to become mothers. Susan’s C. Seymour’s (1999) long term study in Orissa on
changing family organisation, child rearing practices and gender roles in India
reveals a socio-cultural system where early marriages are not only considered
normal for many women but also resulted in satisfying lives for them. In her
study she introduces to a system of family and gender that is based upon cultural
assumption and structural principles that are very different from those
characteristics of most contemporary western societies.
Raval (2009) pointed out that a substantial body of literature in psychological
anthropology has challenged the stereotypical depiction of South Asian women
as passive subordinates in patriarchial families, and has provided accounts of
these women as actors in their social world focusing specifically on situations of
inter personal conflict. She analysed the narratives of Gujarati women from two
cohorts, daughters-in-law in Gujarat, India and mothers-in-law in Gujarati
Social Construction of
immigrant in Canada, to argue that these women actively engage in negotiating
the conflicts between their wishes and others expectations. The mode of agency
that they exercise is less egocentric and more relational. The decision making
and negotiations occur within the parameter of their familial roles rather than
rebellion against family structures, and their actions are driven by motivations
involving the welfare of their children and grand children rather than
“individualistic” desires. These narratives along with ethnographic works
exploring South Asian personhood, call for the need to broaden the
conceptualisation of agency and challenge the appropriateness of traditional
individualistic feminism in understanding the lives of women globally.
In most societies girls and boys are prepared differently for marriage. Although
the situation is changing, but in many cases it is found that boys are usually
brought up to acquire working skills to be used outside home, which will bring
in money. On the other hand women are more likely to be legally and financially
dependent on their spouses. Therefore even if women are emotionally or
physically ill-treated within marriage, they may still be better off remaining with
their husbands for financial support as the society may not treat a divorced woman
sympathetically. But in the changing scenario, it has been found that women
with jobs prefer to get married at a later age and also prefer to have few children.
The trend is fast changing especially in urban areas.
Even after marriage, women who cannot give birth to children or do not want
them due to their careers, face considerable difficulties. Women who do not
produce children may be divorced and face humiliation as well as economic
insecurity. These social pressures affect the way infertile women are treated and
add to the difficulty. This is also true for mothers who want to be professionals,
sportswomen or simply enjoy life as individuals in their own right.
Marriage is an event that often brings about a marked change in the lives of most
women. Marriage in all cases brings about a change in place of residence when
a woman leaves the parental home to begin residing with the husband and his
family. The marital status confers on women the position of a wife. Simultaneously
she takes on the roles of a daughter-in-law, sister-in-law etc. Thus marriage brings
about a new network of relationship, which is built around the woman in which
she often has to adjust and compromise the control of women and the potential
for violence are especially great when a woman leaves her natal home to become
a part of her husband’s family. On moving in, the status of the daughter-in-law is
often very low compared with the men and even with any older women in the
household. If there are dowry related problems, it is at this stage that the likelihood
of fatal violence is elevated. The abuse begins when the husband and/or his
family harass the wife for more money and more goods from her family (Van
Willigen & Channa, 1991). If the wife and her family do not comply, a staged
accident— dowry burning—may occur. . This may not be true in all cases as
Susan C. Seymour (1999) based on her study on lives of women in Orissa pointed
out that in a family system that keeps sets of related men together in
multigenerational house, known as “Joint Families”, by sending daughters away
and bringing in outside women as wives and daughters-in-law through a complex
system of arranged marriage, women are the moving pieces in an exchange system
that creates extensive webs of kinship. She raised a question in the study that is
this hardship for them? Yes, for they must leave the security of their own family
and join a different family. Do they find it oppressive? Sometimes but not
generally as Indian women are socialised to expect a dramatic transition at the Gender and the Life Course
time of marriage and to assume new responsibilities in their husband’s household.
It emerges from a much broader socio-cultural system in which women though
structurally disadvantaged are expected to fill critical family roles associated
with power, authority and respect. Furthermore, this is enmeshed within a cultural
system in which feminine powers are writ large: within Hindu theology and
practice females are believed to possess great power( Shakti). Male deities cannot
act without their female counterparts-their source of creative power and female
deities are widely worshipped in their own right.
The patriarchal nature of Indian society is seen quite clearly when one examines
the role of women. For the most part, women are viewed and treated as inferior
to men (Frankl, 1986; Gangrade & Chander, 1991; Narasimhan, 1994 in Johnson
and Johnson, 2001). As a result of this domination by men, women are
economically dependent on men and have fewer choices in terms of occupation,
education, and life course.
Part of the reason they are considered a burden is because of the dowry system.
Marriage is the only socially acceptable life course option. Thus, if a woman
does not marry, she and her parents will suffer socially. If a woman does marry
and finds herself in an abusive situation, she probably will not return to her
parents’ home or divorce her husband because she and her family will be ostracised
from their community. Although marriage is the only acceptable status for adult
women, this constraint does not apply to men (Puri, 1999).
The earlier concept of Stree dhan (a woman’s property) has now become distorted
as dowry and underlies much of the tensions that marriage creates in India.
3.4.4 Motherhood
The event of first birth marks the transition to ‘motherhood’, which brings about
with it a myriad of changes in a woman’s life. The event usually interrupts her
educational career, her participation in the labour market, personal and
professional aspirations for success, imposes limitations on her physical mobility
and is an invasion to the personal space of a woman. Hence the event of first
birth has significant social and cultural connotations attached to it. The social
connotation attributes to women the social role of mother while the cultural
connotation acts both as a constraining and facilitating factor leading to her status
enhancement in the society. Highly educated women have better access to
information and hence have greater control over their fertility career.
In most Indian homes, it is not just the birth of a child but the birth of a son that
bestows real motherhood upon a woman. In many parts of Northern India, people
count the ‘number of children’ as ‘number of boys’. Girl children are not even
counted as part of the family. Thus motherhood brings its own anxieties and
many women face problems in their marital home if they are unable to conceive
or fail to conceive a boy child.
In the course of life also the mother of a son has the privilege of assuming the
coveted role of a mother-in-law, when she becomes powerful within the family
and wields considerable clout over sons and daughters-in-law. Such a position
of power is never attained by parents of daughters as they remain lower in rank
to the bride receivers.
Social Construction of
Even in old age it is taken for granted that sons will take care of their parents and
parents with grown up sons can hope to pass a comfortable old age. However in
the modern times things may not turn out quite as ideally and often educated and
earning women are capable of taking care of their parents although even today in
Northern India at least, this is looked down upon.
3.4.5 Widowed Women
Thus even as a widow a woman is better off if she is the mother of sons than of
daughters. In traditional times widows were subjected to many restrictions and
sometimes women of the upper castes were forced to commit ‘sati’ or to lead a
miserable life in places of worship like Benaras or Puri.
As a widow, a woman is no longer under the control and care of her husband and
must either reside with her sons or in-laws. Either of these living arrangements
may translate into very poor treatment, abuse, or even abandonment, as the woman
is yet again transformed into a social and financial burden (Johnson and Johnson,
2001). Furthermore, mistreatment of the woman by her husband’s family arises,
especially when the widowed woman is without male children. Once again, the
patriarchal notion of male supremacy prevails.
However menopause as such is not a stigma, rather a woman gains in status after
her periods cease as her body is now considered pure. Older women are allowed
such participation in rituals as are not normally allowed to women who still
menstruate. But as a widow a woman becomes inauspicious and is shunned at
many rituals especially those that have to do with fertility, like marriage.
The status of a widow also varies with caste. Among the lower castes there was
never any restriction on widow remarriage but among the upper castes , especially
Brahmins, even a child widow was not allowed to marry again.
Empowerment is 1) a process from a state of disempowerment to greater
empowerment and 2) women’s agency is central to the process of empowerment.
Empowerment is not static, but varies by location, time, and stage of life cycle
(Dyson and Moore 1983; Mason 1986; Gage 2000; Malhotra, Schuler et al. 2002).
For example, in South Asia, the relative disempowerment of young, recentlymarried
women is contrasted with the relative empowerment of mothers-in-law
in cross-sectional analyses (Mason 1986; Kabeer 2001). Selected studies indicate
empowerment varies by age, marital and employment status (Standing 1991;
Das Gupta 1996; Gage 2000; Hindin 2002). Some researchers have theorised
that women’s empowerment is responsive to demographic events, with
empowerment increasing over the life course as women bear children, and, in
many countries, male children in particular, an idea generally—but not
universally—supported by the limited research on the issue.
Women’s initial empowerment affects family formation pressures following
marriage, the strength of which may depend, in part, on the presence of coresiding
in-laws (also affected by women’s initial characteristics), with more
empowered women being more capable of resisting pressures to bear children.
Women’s initial empowerment and family formation pressures each lead to the
Gender and the Life Course size and composition of the families women form and also their work life outside
the home. More empowered women and women with fewer pressures are more
likely to achieve a smaller family and desired family composition while less
empowered women will more likely have a more normative family formation.
Because life course theory suggests that individual’s outcomes are influenced by
their accumulated experiences and resources, women’s later empowerment is, in
turn, influenced both by their earlier empowerment and by intermediary events
like again the size or composition of the families they form.
In nearly all societies, motherhood and domestic duties are regarded as important
feminine roles. On this account girls from a young age help mothers in household
duties and child care and are married at young age. To become a mother and bear
children is considered as an important feminine role. They may also be made to
discontinue education to get married. Men are considered as breadwinners for
the family. Their role is to be employed and to support the family.
Every society in contemporary times is facing the onslaught of ongoing rapid
social and cultural transformations. The consequences of such changes are visible
in the behavioural and ideational changes of individuals in the society. Some
aspects of sweeping social change have directly affected women’s lives and what
had been considered restrictive for women is no longer perceived to be so, both
by women themselves as well as the social and the cultural context in which they
Women and higher education as well as women and paid work command the
central stage in the changing lives of women through a re-structuring of their life
course. Enabling women to pursue higher education and their participation in
the labour force also illustrate the role of changing societal institutions in recent
times. Family set-up, religious and cultural prescriptions have become more
accommodative in the passage of time, which earlier spearheaded the traditional
role of women as ‘homemakers’. Educational, occupational and family careers
no longer follow the stable, continuous and predictable course. Their respective
influence on the life course is observable in the timing and sequencing of events
in women’s life. Hence the changing structuration of the life course indicates
women’s new position in today’s society.
As more and more women are acquiring educational skills they are seeking jobs
and getting employment in the market place. This changed situation is affecting
roles of both women and men and bringing change in their lives.
Times and situations are changing fast on account of forces of modernisation,
urbanisation, liberalisation and globalisation. Accordingly, the societies are
acquiring different values and under going change. In modern societies, women
and men are facing a situation of conflict and encountering conflicting situation
about their roles and expectations both within and outside the home. Today girls
are expected to receive higher education, marry, have a family, maintain a
professional career and yet attend to numerous traditional household duties and
chores. Therefore married women often experience role conflict and feel guilty
Social Construction of
of not spending sufficient time in being good housewives and mothers. At the
same time women’s access to employment leads to higher mobility, outside the
four walls of the house and neighborhood, greater participation in decision
making, contribution to the family income, savings etc. All, this constitutes crucial
means of becoming less dependent on male members and also exercising control
and assertiveness.
Discrimination and inequality faced by women on the account of sex has a
profound impact on the life course of women like marriage, motherhood, work,
old age etc across the societies. Therefore, a life course perspective has the
potential to direct attention to the situation of women at various times in their
lives. The world of men and women are different in terms of work, mobility,
status, condition, position, work, wealth, education, nutrition, marriage, relations
and practically everything. Understanding the concept of gender and life course
is essential to our understanding of how various events, activities and processes
affect lives of boys and girls, men and women, in different ways in different
societies on account of which they learn masculine and feminine behaviour. In
spite of girls’ socially weaker position compared to boys, girls enjoy more personal
freedom and autonomy in their natal homes than they do after getting married.
While a daughter- in- law is at the bottom of the household hierarchy and
controlled by both women and men in the groom’s house, a young married woman
is still valued as a potential child- bearer.
Women gain freedom upon getting older, like the mother-in law generation has
more freedom in life, is less dominated by males, and has more authority than in
earlier life phases. Menarche, marriage, motherhood are events that often brings
about a marked change in the lives of most women. Every society in contemporary
times faces the onslaught of ongoing rapid social and cultural transformations
affecting women’s lives and life courses
Arber, S. and Evandrou, M. 1993. Aging, Independence and the Life Course.
London: Kingsley Publications Ltd.
Arber, S. and Ginn, J. (eds) .1996. Connecting Gender and Ageing – A
Sociological Approach. Buckingham: Open University Press.
Agrawal, Sutapa. 2005. “Discrimination against Girl Child in Rural Haryana,
India: From Conception through Childhood” Paper for the Poster Presentation
in the IUSSP XXV International Population Conference Tours. France.
Bosch, A .2005. “Adolescents’ Reproductive Health in Rural Bangladesh: The
Impact of Early Childhood Nutritional Anthropometry”. Population Studies.
Amsterdam: Dutch University Press, Doctoral dissertation Groningen.
Caldwell, J.C., P.H.Reddy and P.Caldwell. 1983. “The Causes of Marriage Change
in South India”. Population Studies, Vol. 37, No. 3, pp. 343-361.
Dalton, E.T. 1872. Descriptive Ethnology of Bengal. Calcutta: Govt. Printing
Das Gupta, M. 1996. “Life Course Perspectives on Women’ Gender and the Life Course s Autonomy and
Health Outcomes.” Health Transition Review 6 (Suppl) (213-231).
Dewilde, C. 2003. “A Life Course Perspective on Social Exclusion and Poverty”.
British Journal of Sociology, 54(1), 109-128.
Dyson, T. and M. Moore. 1983. “On Kinship Structure, Female Autonomy, and
Demographic Behavior in India”. Population and Development Review, 9: 35-
Elder, G.H., Jr., M.K. Johnson, and R.Crosnoe. 2003. “The Emergence and
Development of the Life Course”. Handbook of the Life Course, by J.T.
Featherstone, M. and Hepworth, M. 1989. “Ageing and Old Age: Reflections on
the Postmodern Life Course”. Bytheway, B. et al. (eds) Rethinking The Life
Cycle. London: Sage Publications.
Firth, R. 1946. Human Types. London: Nelson.
Furer-Haimendorf, Von.C. 1943. The Chenchus: Jungle Folk of Deccan. London:
Macmillan and Company.
Gage, A. 2000. Female Empowerment and Adolescent Demographic Behaviour.
Women’s Empowerment and Demographic Processes: Moving beyond Cairo.
Oxford: Oxford UP: 186-203.
Gennep Van. 2004 [1909]. The Rites of Passage. Routledge: London.
Giele, J. and Elder, G. 1998. Methods of Life Course Research. Thousand Oaks:
Grigson, W.V.1938. The Maria Gonds of Bastar. Oxford: Oxford University
Hakim, C. 2000. Work-lifestyle Choices in the 21st century: Preference Theory.
Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Hakim, C. 2003. “Preference Theory: A New Approach to Explaining Fertility
Patterns”. Population and Development Review. 29 (3): 349-374.
Hakim, C. 2004. “Lifestyle Preferences vs. Patriarchal Values: Causal and Noncausal
Attitudes”. J.Z.Giele and E. Holst (eds.). Advances in Life-course Research:
Changing Life Patterns in Western Industrial Societies (Vol. 8, p. 69-91). London:
Hindin, M. J. 2002. “For Better or for Worse? Women’s Autonomy and Marital
Status in Zimbabwe.” Social Science Research . 31: 151-172.
Hockey, J. and James, A. 1993. Growing Up and Growing Old: Ageing and
Dependency in the Life Course. London: Sage Publications.
Hunter, W.W. 1973. Orissa. London: Smith Elder.
Hutton, J.H. 1921. The Sema Naga. London: Macmillan.
Hutter, I. and B.M. Ramesh. 2003.”The Role of Cultural Schemas and Cultural
Meaning Systems Regarding Demographic and Reproductive Health Behavior
in South India”. Paper presented to the Population Association of America. Annual
Meeting. May 1-3. Minneapolis: USA.
Social Construction of
Kapadia Karin. 1998. Siva and Her Sisters: Gender, Caste and Class in Rural
South India. Boulder, San Francisco: Westview Press.
Krüger, H., & Baldus, B. 1999. “Work, Gender and the Life Course: Social
Construction and Individual Experience”. Canadian Journal of Sociology. 24(3),
Johnson and Johnson. 2001. Violence Against Women. Vol. 7 No. 9. September
2001 1051-1068. Sage Publications.
Kabeer, N. 2001. Resources, Agency, Achievements: Reflections on the
Measurement of Women’s Empowerment. Discussing Women’s Empowerment:
Theory and Practice. Stockholm: Swedish International Development Agency.
Katz, L. and Monk, J. 1993. Full Circles – Geographies of Women over the Life
Course. London: Routledge.
Lamb, Sarah. 2002. “Love and Aging in Bengali Families”. Diane P. Mines &
Sarah Lamb (eds.). Everyday Life in South Asia. Bloomington: Indiana University
Press, 56–68.
Majumdar, D.N. 1973. A Glimpse of Garo Politics in North Eastern Affairs.
London: Longman.
Malhotra, A., S. R. Schuler, et al. 2002. Measuring Women’s Empowerment as a
Variable in International Development. Washington D.C. ICRW.
Mascia-Lees, Frances E. and Nancy Johnson Black. 2000. Gender and
Anthropology. Long Grove, Illinois: Waveland Press.
Mason, K. O. 1986. “The Status of Women: Conceptual and Methodological
Issues in Demographic Studies.” Sociological Forum 1(2): 284-300.
Mattila Paivi . 2011. Vulnerability and Gendered Life Courses in Jaipur. Helsinki:
Intercontinental Books.
Moen, P. 1994. “Women, Work and Family: A Sociological Perspective on
Changing Roles”. Riley, M. et al. (eds). Age and Structural Lag: Society’s Failure
to Provide Meaningful Opportunities in Work, Family and Leisure. Canada: John
Wiley and Sons Inc.
Padmadas, SS., F. Zavier and T.R. Dilip .1999. “Age at Menarche among Indian
Women: Observations from NFHS, 1992-93”. The Journal of Family Welfare,
45(2), pp. 71-79.
Pilcher, J. 1995. Age and Generation in Modern Britain. Oxford: Oxford
University Press.
Puri, D. 1999. Gift of a Daughter: Change and Continuity in Marriage Patterns
among Two Generations of North Indians in Toronto and Delhi. Unpublished
doctoral dissertation. University of Toronto.
Raval, V. V. 2009. “Negotiating Conflict between Personal Desires and other
Expectations in Lives of Gujarati Women”. Ethos, 37 (4).
Riley, M.W. et al. 1994. Age and Structural Lag – Society’s Failure to Provide
Meaningful Opportunities in Work, Family and Leisure. Chichester: John Wiley
and Sons Inc
Riley Gender and the Life Course , A.P., M. Weinstein, J. Mormino and T. Gorrindo.2001. “Menarchal Age
and Subsequent Patterns of Family Formation”. Social Biology. Vol.47, No.1-2.
Rivers, H.H. 1973. The Todas. London: Macmillan.
Säävälä, Minna. 2006. “Sterilized Mothers: Women’s Personhood and Family
Planning in Rural South India“. Lina Fruzzetti and Sirpa Tenhunen (eds.). Culture,
Power, and Agency. Gender in Indian Ethnography. Kolkata: Stree.
Settersten, R. A., Jr. 2003. Invitation to the Life Course: Toward New
Understandings of Later Life (ed.). Amityville, New York: Baywood Publishing
Seymour, Susan C. 1999. Women, Family, and Child Care in India: A World in
Transition. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press
Shashi, S.S. 1978. The Tribal Women of India. Delhi: Sandeep Prakashan
Standing, H. 1991. Dependence and Autonomy: Women’s Employment and the
Family in Calcutta. New York: Routledge.
Thorne, Barrie. 2004. “Theorizing Age and other Differences”. Childhood. Vol
VanWilligen, J., & Channa,V. C. 1991. “Law, Custom and Crimes against Women:
The Problem of Dowry Death in India”. Human Organisation, 50, 369-377.
Suggested Reading
Arber, S. and Ginn, J. (eds). 1996. Connecting Gender and Ageing – A
Sociological Approach. Buckingham: Open University Press
Das Gupta, M. 1996. “Life Course Perspectives on Women’s Autonomy and
Health Outcomes.” Health Transition Review 6 (Suppl) (213-231).
Giele, J. and Elder, G. 1998. Methods of Life Course Research. Thousand Oaks:
Lamb, Sarah. 2000. White Saris and Sweet Mangoes: Aging, Gender, and Body
in North India. Berkeley: University of California Press.
Rossi. 1985. Gender and the Life Course. New York: Adline Pub. Ltd
Susan C. Seymour. 1999. Women, Family, and Child Care in India: A World in
Transition. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press
Sample Questions
1) What is life course approach? Explain concepts related to life course
2) Explain gender and the life course perspective in detail.
3) What are the implications of the different life courses? Explain from gender
perspective with examples.