In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Doing Gender

  • Introduction
  • General Overview
  • Critiques of Doing Gender
  • Textbooks
  • Anthologies
  • Journals
  • Websites

Sociology Doing Gender
Alexandra Macht
  • LAST MODIFIED: 25 September 2019
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199756384-0229


Theoretically, the term “doing gender” first appeared in Harold Garfinkel’s case study of the intersexual Agnes in 1967, as an appendix to Garfinkel 1967 (cited under General Overview). The term was then discussed in Kessler and McKenna 1978 (cited under General Overview). The authors drew from Erving Goffman’s social constructionist theory of performance in establishing, first, the difference between sex and gender, and second, how gender was something people actively constructed in their daily lives. The provocation was therefore that if people were responsible for “doing” gender then they could also be held accountable for “undoing” gender. The book, however, was obscured by the proliferation of research regarding sex roles, rather than gender constructions. So, the concept of “doing gender” remained underground for a while, until it resurfaced in 1987 in the well-known paper of the same name written by American sociologists Candace West and Don H. Zimmerman (West and Zimmerman 1987, cited under General Overview). According to these authors, “doing” gender is defined as involving the everyday performance of “a complex of socially guided perceptual, interactional, and micropolitical activities that cast particular pursuits as expressions of masculine and feminine ‘natures.’ When we view gender as an accomplishment, an achieved property of situated conduct, our attention shifts from matters internal to the individual and focuses on interactional and, ultimately, institutional arenas” (p. 126). West and Zimmerman were primarily focused on understanding how people created gender differences, rather than merely “gender.” Unlike Kessler and McKenna, who discussed the applicability of doing gender in transsexualism, West and Zimmerman finely combed the differences between “sex,” “sex category,” and “gender.” Following on from this, Deutsch 2007 together with Connell 2010 (both cited under Critiques of Doing Gender) critiqued this concept and proposed the “redoing of gender.” For example, Connell’s research uncovered that for transpeople, doing gender entailed “experiences that fit better under either the rubric of undoing gender or of redoing gender,” that transpeople “often attempted to meld together masculine and feminine gender performances” (p. 39), and that “many resisted these pressures by adapting a hybrid gender style of interacting with others. These acts constitute moments of ‘chipping away’ at the established gender order” (pp. 42–43). In addition, Judith Butler (see Butler 2004, cited under Critiques of Doing Gender) was more interested in exploring how gender could be undone, and defines this undoing as escaping “gender as a kind of a doing, an incessant activity performed . . . an improvisation within a scene of constraint” (p. 3) by underlining the “paradox of autonomy, a paradox that is heightened when gender regulations work to paralyze gendered agency at various levels” (p. 101). From this perspective, there are limits to how much agency individuals can have in performing gender. As such and inadvertently, social actors also undo gender when they relate to each other: “Despite one’s best efforts, one is undone, in the face of the other, by the touch, by the scent, by the feel, by the prospect of the touch, by the memory of the feel. And so, when we speak about my sexuality or my gender, as we do (and as we must) we mean something complicated by it” (p. 19). Butler’s focus on embodiment definitively pushed the debate further by critically assessing the usefulness of considering gender as an activity and asking sociologists to consider the ontological implication of the performativity of gender in relation to its mere performance. Her work is important because it clearly underlined the neglect of feminist studies to focus more on transgender identities, thereby sparking the growth of a specific area of knowledge known today as “queer theory.” In response to these developments, “doing gender” was further developed by West and Zimmerman 2009 (cited under General Overview), a celebratory symposium published twenty-two years after West and Zimmerman 1987 to assess the more recent applicability of this term in the field of gender studies. Methodologically, searching for resources on the theme of “doing gender” has focused on the performance of gender and on the domains of research to which it has been applied so far, as indicated by the specific headings in this article, while considering as well the “undoing of gender” and its performativity. Not all experts in the field would agree with this organization. However, it is important to specify the many ways in which the influential concept has branched out and deeply affected the field of gender studies. Therefore, the reader will notice a running consideration in the papers selected for this entry, with both the doing and the undoing of gender across a variety of areas: in education and at work, across cultures and intersectionally, in relation to emotions and in personal life (where a distinction was made again between parenting and romantic coupling and partnership), for youth health, and beyond the binary. This way of organizing the material falls in line with the most recent developments in the field. A simple search on the Web of Science database of the words “doing gender” within the publications category and in the topics of “Sociology” and “Women’s studies” between 1987 (when West and Zimmerman first published their paper) and 2019 reveals a total of 866 resources. Therefore, as not all resources could be included, the ones that appear in this entry were selected based on relevance, recency of publication, number of citations, prominence in the field, and methodological innovation (such as doing gender in visual sociology, or anthologies that focus on diverse cultural examples). The scope was meant to be relevant, versatile, approachable, and useful to teachers, researchers, and interested students. Nonetheless, there is the limitation that only English-language resources are included. The General Overview section is focused on the development of the term “doing gender” in theory and research, including the original paper discussed in this section and others published in a symposium, while the section on Critiques of Doing Gender presents a series on ongoing critiques to the concept of “doing gender.”

General Overview

Garfinkel 1967 introduces the term “doing gender,” which is picked up by Kessler and McKenna 1978 in an extensive analysis of the distinction between sex and gender. Crawford 2000 introduces a special issue dedicated to Kessler and McKenna’s contributions to knowledge. The authors of West and Zimmerman 1987 then popularized the concept and were invited by the authors of Jurik and Siemsen 2009 to reassess it: the result, West and Zimmerman 2009, focused on the accountability of performing gender. Doing gender is then assessed in relation to conversation analysis (CA) as per Kitzinger 2009, deconstructed in relation to language as per Pilcher 2017, or tested in a school environment as per Messerschmidt 2009, while Nentwich and Kelan 2014 provides a review of the empirical applications of doing gender.

  • Crawford, Mary. 2000. Editor’s introduction: How to make sex and do gender. In Special issue: A reappraisal of gender: An ethnomethodological approach. Edited by Mary Crawford. Feminism & Psychology 10.1: 7–10.

    DOI: 10.1177/0959353500010001002

    Crawford edited a special issue on reappraising the doing of gender, by selectively focusing on the previous work of Kessler and McKenna and their contributions almost thirty years since their initial publication. Her paper details the legacy of the two authors.

  • Garfinkel, Harold. 1967. Studies in ethnomethodology. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall.

    Garfinkel discusses the status of intersex people in the everyday applications of ethnomethodology. Included as an appendix to chapter 5, the case study of Agnes inspired the work of Kessler and McKenna and reappeared in West and Zimmerman’s analysis.

  • Jurik, Nancy C., and Cynthia Siemsen. 2009. “Doing gender” as canon or agenda: A symposium on West and Zimmerman. Gender & Society 23.1: 72–75.

    DOI: 10.1177/0891243208326677

    The editors of the symposium propose the agenda for discussion. Significant editorial in discussing why doing gender continues to be relevant; presents the work of the authors that were invited to discuss their work in relation to this.

  • Kessler, Suzanne J., and Wendy McKenna. 1978. Gender: An ethnomethodological approach. New York: John Wiley.

    Kessler and McKenna argue that gender is not a reflection of biological reality but rather a social construct that varies across cultures. Valuable for its insights into gender as a belief, its extensive treatment of transsexualism, and its ethnomethodological approach. Reprinted in 1985 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press).

  • Kitzinger, Celia. 2009. Doing gender: A conversation analytic perspective. Gender & Society 23.1: 94–98.

    DOI: 10.1177/0891243208326730

    Kitzinger links the “doing of gender” to the methodology of CA and argues that CA should develop an interest in sexualities, ethnicities, power, and oppression. Consequently, researchers might consider comparing CA to Foucauldian discourse analysis in studying gender.

  • Messerschmidt, James W. 2009. Doing gender: The impact and future of a salient sociological concept. Gender & Society 23.1: 85–88.

    DOI: 10.1177/0891243208326253

    Messerschmidt examines the salience of doing gender by assessing masculinity and femininity constructions in the school environment. Employs life-story interviews to uncover the reproduction of hegemonic masculinity in how young people perform gender through their bodies and discourses.

  • Nentwich, Julia C., and Elisabeth K. Kelan. 2014. Towards a topology of “doing gender”: An analysis of empirical research and its challenges. Gender, Work and Organization 21.2: 121–134.

    DOI: 10.1111/gwao.12025

    Nentwich and Kelan systematically present empirical approaches to “doing gender.” They identify five themes: structures, hierarchies, identity, flexibility/context specificity, and gradual relevance/subversion. To unfold the theoretical potential of the concept, each theme relates to a different facet of “doing gender.”

  • Pilcher, Jane. 2017. Names and “doing gender”: How forenames and surnames contribute to gender identities, difference, and inequalities. Sex Roles 77.11–12: 812–822.

    DOI: 10.1007/s11199-017-0805-4

    Pilcher focuses on the role of forenames and surnames as gender “doing” words. Comparing evidence from the United States and the United Kingdom, the paper examines the consequences of sexed and gendered naming across the life course. Significant discussion on embodiment.

  • West, Candace, and Don H. Zimmerman. 1987. Doing gender. Gender & Society 1.2: 125–157.

    DOI: 10.1177/0891243287001002002

    West and Zimmerman’s now-classical paper defining gender as “a routine accomplishment embedded in everyday interaction” and focused on “doing difference.” A paradigm shift for understanding the dynamics of how gender is naturalized according to social norms in daily interactions.

  • West, Candace, and Don H. Zimmerman. 2009. Accounting for doing gender. Gender & Society 23.1: 112–122.

    DOI: 10.1177/0891243208326529

    West and Zimmerman’s follow-up article, published twenty-two years after West and Zimmerman 1987, develops gender as an ongoing situated process. Innovatively, the authors discuss the accountability of gender as it politically supports men’s hegemony, concluding that it can change.

back to top

Users without a subscription are not able to see the full content on this page. Please subscribe or login.

How to Subscribe

Oxford Bibliographies Online is available by subscription and perpetual access to institutions. For more information or to contact an Oxford Sales Representative click here.