Gendering Sociology: Old and New Questions


The article addresses critical questions about gendered sociology beginning pertinently with the fundamental inquiry as to why sociology has remained blind to gender and how gender-blindness has weakened the discipline of sociology. Drawing from the range of dominant sociological theories and sociological writings on aspects of women’s lives in Indian society, the article explains how society and knowledge shape each other and arguing that the institutions of learning and knowledge creation are tied to networks of power and privilege, in terms of who occupy them, whose work is acknowledged, and what ideas are allowed. While examining the network of power the article comes to a conclusion that all knowledge and disciplines are inherently political‒even though it is only when there is dissent to established frameworks.

An attempt has been made in this article to address a series of questions about gendering sociology based on my years of teaching on the sociology of gender.  I will go back to earlier studies that have enabled current work and I may digress beyond sociology.  I hope, in the process, to make evident, among other things, that gendering knowledge is a constant process, especially when there is a structure and system in place which we are trying to transform rather than merely tinker with.  What I will say is not earth shatteringly new; many of you will have heard or read or written on the ideas I elaborate.  That we can and still need to reiterate them is, however, a commentary in itself­‒of a project that has a long way to go and can never be taken to be completed.  I will indicate why a gendered sociology is necessary and how the gendering of sociology emerged; I will then outline how this issue was made more complex with discussions around the concept of gender and intersectionality; and end with on the need to think of agency in relation to gender, structure and culture, as without a concept of agency, change becomes either impossible or an external gift. 

I           Sociology was always gendered

Before looking at what gendering sociology can and has meant there is a question that has to be asked.  Why bother about the gendering of sociology?  The answer to this question shapes what that a gendered sociology will be and lies first in what not gendering sociology has meant for the discipline and for knowledge construction in general.  To address this, I ask and address four inter-linked questions. 

Why was sociology, and not just sociology but the humanities, the social sciences and the sciences, blind to gender?  What was this gender-blindness?  How did gender-blindness weaken these disciplines and the construction of knowledge?  How did the gendering of sociology emerge?

The kindest critique can be that gender-blindness rested on the ideal of a universal humanity and the assumption that humanity in the ideal was the humanity on the ground.  In fact, as we all know, humanity in the abstract did not and does not exist on the ground.  Peoples were and are differentiated not just by cultures and regions, but by locations, religion, colour, race, nation, caste, class, and sex.  The problem is not differences in themselves, but that many of them are inherently inequalities and social divisions, based on hierarchical difference, unequal resource allocation, and inferiorisation (Anthias 2001) or work to support such divisions.  An analysis that did not take this into account cannot be true.  An ideal that may be treasured­‒universal humanity­‒actually worked to obscure the inequalities and injustices in the world.  Thus, a gender blind sociology was both bad in itself and bad in terms of its effects for society and policy.

Gender-blindness was because of and resulted in bias.  How did gender-blindness and bias translate concretely?  Various feminist sociologists have elaborated on this.  There was a:

  • Lack of knowledge about women in particular, gender differences more broadly
  • Devaluing of such information as unimportant and insignificant
  • Absence of women’s voices and voices representing perspectives other than the dominant perspective
  • Naturalising of social differences

In others words, sociology was always gendered­‒but it was a gendering that was a blind to women and was rooted in male bias.  While these critiques of the discipline were made in the early 1970s, they remain partially true even today. 

Millman and Kanter (1975), among other texts, elaborated on how this bias was epistemological, tied to assumptions and applications of disciplinary ideas and sociological theories (Harding 1987).  Some of their criticisms were: 

  • A single society was assumed with respect to men and women, so that generalizations were taken to be applicable to all.
  • Men were taken as the normal, the standard, and all else as deviance and weakness.
  • In several fields sex was not taken into account as a factor in behaviour, but it may be the most important explanatory variable.
  • Important areas of social inquiry were overlooked in the conventional field-defining models in the discipline.
  • Sociology focused on public, official, visible, and/or dramatic role players and definitions of situations, ignoring unofficial, supportive, less dramatic, private and invisible spheres of social life and organization [to do with behaviouristic, positivist sociologies also]. This also assumed a public-private divide as given­ though it varies over time and between societies. Further, if women were found in public roles, rather than being seen as the exceptions that prove the rule, they were taken as a sign of equality and power. 

One can reiterate the above points in a different language by quoting Dorothy Smith.  ‘Any sociology is a systematically developed consciousness of society and social relations.  So far there has been a singular coincidence between the standpoint of men implicit in the relevancies, interests, and perspectives objectified in sociology, and a standpoint in the relations of ruling with which sociology’s objectified forms of consciousness coordinates.  Established sociology had objectified a consciousness of society and social relations that “knows” them from the standpoint of their ruling and from the standpoint of the men who do that ruling’ (1987: 2).  In asking how and why this took place, it is necessary to gloss Smith’s phrase of ‘men who do that ruling’, for this is not a biological category.  It is a construct of dominant class, caste, region, religion, race, gender and other intersecting and systematic hierarchies and privileges, an aspect I will return to later.

In understanding the roots of gender blindness and how to move out of its grip, we are asking questions in the sociology of knowledge, of how society and knowledge shape each other.  It has long been argued that the institutions of learning and science and knowledge creation are tied to networks of power and privilege, in terms of who sit in them, whose work is acknowledged, and what ideas are allowed.  A range of sociologists highlighted that sociology frequently explained the status quo in a manner in which it provided rationalizations for existing inequalities and power distributions (a la Parsons role and stratification theories).  In other words, gender-blindness and explanations that justified rather than questioned the status quo, worked to maintain it, not only in terms of gender, but in terms of systemic, differential values­‒of class, caste, race, religion, and region. 

Women and other subordinate categories were absent as thinking bodies who would be heard in institutions of learning and knowledge creation and ideas about them were absent or were the ideas about them by those who exercised privilege and power.  This was not always consciously done­‒for the consciousness developed of society and the perspectives objectified hid the absences.  At least three features make the workings of these networks of power and gate-keeping invisible:  Social ideology, the embodied presence and life of the thinker, and the delineations and demarcations in the discipline.  Well known critical thinkers­ (even men!) have theorised this.  To mention some, Marx on dominant ideology and a range of Marxists, including Gramsci on hegemony and Althusser’s idea of ideological state apparatus in which the school and educational system was central; Bourdieu’s analysis of habitus and doxa; Ardener’s elaboration of dominant and subordinate models and, more recently, Foucault’s analyses of the microphysics of power, governmentality, and disciplinary power.

In other words, the bias was institutional, embedded in our very modes of thinking, but also consciously and individually exercised and chosen.  Even when women or members of dominated groups came to be physically present, if the modes of thought and concepts remained as they had been, little would change.  Just because a woman spoke, it did not necessarily mean a break from doxa.  In other words, sociology and our institutions of knowledge creation had to be rethought and remade, social ideology had to taken apart, and the questions we asked had to change.


II         Regendering sociology

So how did the gendering begin and proceed?  If we look at the history of sociology, and I think this is paradigmatic of most disciplines, we see a certain process.  It was first just a question of women, whom it was assumed were already known as a social category.  The steps as outlined by various thinkers included:

  • Fill in the gaps
  • Add women and stir
  • Ask new questions
  • Rethink concepts and frameworks – including our ideas of sex and gender
  • Rethink fundamentals – including ideas of complementarity, of sex and gender, of how power and privilege operate, of objectivity and epistemology.

This is not a chronological listing: sometimes it was new questions or a rethinking of fundamentals that led to the recognition that there are gaps to be filled.  And sometimes it did not.  Even now a “women’s sociology” may not go beyond filling in the gaps.  Some people even find stirring after adding women dangerous.  Sometimes it was a new question not about women or gender but about another field – such as schooling – that could open eyes about the need to relook at women and gender.  Reconceptualizations of power in particular were very important in enabling a recognition of the embeddedness of naturalised genders in thought and institutions.  And of course, the gendering of sociology opened up a very wide range of issues in sociology–divisions of private and public, of socialization and the family, of the valuation of work, of politics and violence, of sexuality and desire.

We still need to ask the question of what gave the push for adding women.  This, too, is a sociology of knowledge question and pertains to social change as well as disciplinary change (Palriwala 2010), but I focus on one aspect here.  From what I have already said, it must be clear that all knowledge and disciplines are inherently political­‒even though it is only when there is dissent to established frameworks and where revisionings are argued that people may see the politics.  The politics of business as usual or of authority or government is often invisible and named as apolitical.  So also with the regendering of sociology­; it emerged through social processes in which gender relations were changing, and with democratic and democratizing processes in the public domain that enabled the right to question, to dissent, to transgress without dire consequences, to demand equality and justice, and of resistance to injustice and inequality. 

Specifically, a range of movements that have a long history going back at least to the nineteenth century and raised the question of women’s rights­‒centrally or on the periphery­‒were significant in foregrounding ‘the women’s question’.  In the more immediate have been the many streams of the women’s and feminist movements that raised the issue of women’s absences, concerns, voices.  Without these movements, it is unlikely that sociology would have been regendered; in turn disciplinary questions enabled the movements.  Demands for equality and justice had to be made on the processes and institutions of knowledge creation. 

Also essential was very rigorous research and disciplinary engagements that may not have focussed on gender, but were sensitive to gender equality.  It was an engagement that meant that the practitioners and critics were in constant debate not only with those who opposed the gendering of knowledge institutions, but with each other and with themselves.  They learnt from each other, refined their ideas, and pushed further­‒much beyond filling in gaps and adding women and stirring­‒and drew on ideas, support, and criticism from movements beyond academia. 

In sum, ideational change drew from a range of ideological questionings­‒not to its detriment.  The varied movements of resistance meant questionings in many disciplines and these movements and disciplines fed into each other, even as they remained distinct.  As a regendered sociology emerged in conversation with other disciplines, varied streams of feminism played a critical role. It must be emphasised that just as there is more than one feminism, feminism and gendered sociology are not the same.  In fact, it is important that they are not, so that they can continue to question each other in productive ways.


 III       Genders are not unitary

Even as the social and even the natural sciences came to recognise the epistemological significance of an explicit recognition of gender, the idea of gender had to be pushed further.  Elaborating on this is necessary to add depth to what I have said so far and to outline how we may move further with conceptualisations of gender and intersectionality.  Significant in the processes I have delineated was a questioning about how we think of sex–the questioning of essentialised and naturalized ideas of sex, womanhood, and manhood.  This has been pursued from a very wide range of perspectives that gave some or no space for biological givens.  Another was the question of the relationship between different systems, ideas, and practices of difference, inequality, hierarchy, and subordination. 

The concept of gender has changed over the last 40 years or so as the gendering of sociology has proceeded.  Among the first arguments made was the distinction between sex and gender–it was argued that biological sex is not the determinant of gender.  Garfinkel, the ethnomethodologist, had spoken of the ‘natural attitude’ (1967) upholding cultural practices, which placed certain things–like sex–in nature and thence beyond question.  Joan Scott (1988), a historian, spoke of gender as a code that legitimises through ‘naturalising’ relations.  This code had to be broken to dissolve this natural attitude.  I cannot go into the various itineraries of thought.  The important point–the seminal idea to use a masculinist metaphor–was that it was not biology that defined relations between men and women and inequalities and power between the ‘sexes’–it was gender.  The social construction of gender then became the organising concept.  Another important step in this discussion was that rather than talk of men and women, we need to think of gender relations (Whitehead 1979)–of the relational aspects of normative definitions, valuations, and practices. 

While sex and gender meant differences, neither the views that took them in a linear relationship or as entirely distinct are accepted by all.  Rather, it has been argued and demonstrated that historical processes and social contexts repeatedly construct gender relations and define genders and reify sex difference.  Work in biology, engendered by feminism, questioned the binary of sexual difference in the biological and social sciences (Fausto-Sterling 2000), while LGBTQ movements questioned the binary of sexuality.  Others questioned the view that biology was entirely an arbitrary social construct, even though the social and political functioning of biology was (Gatens 1983; Butler 1993). (One aside may be pertinent here.  The distinction between sex and gender is difficult in many languages–including in Hindi, most Indian languages, and French–where two words akin to sex and gender do not exist.)  Among the many directions in which we can go from here, I mention two.  One is an argument reasserting biological givens into gender and asserting natural differences between women and men, but questioning associated inequalities and subordinations.  Another is to question the idea of the givenness of biology, while not denying the materiality of bodies and embodiment–leading to the materiality of work, sexuality, and procreation where neither is the biological a given nor is it absent. 

So our struggle with ideas became more and more complex and confounding warns Hawksworth (1997). She outlines (pp. 655-657) the multiple terms that we have to draw on depending on the area of study, with no one term covering all aspects.  Roughly, the summation she gave of these terms are:  Sex (biological features of chromosomes, hormones, internal and external sexual and reproductive organs; physiological characteristics); Sexuality (behaviour, emotions, practices centred on the erotic); Sexual identity (hetero/homo/gay/bisexual/ascetic/asexual); gender (social construction and social organisation of the relations of the sexes); gender identity (psychological sense of oneself as a man, woman, hermaphrodite, etc.), and gender relations.  She also points us to the many ways in which scholars have drawn on these terms and while I will not elaborate on that, it is important to emphasise a couple of aspects which this string of terms directs us to.  While gender cannot be divorced from sexuality, sexuality cannot be taken as all that there is or necessarily the most central in gender difference, identity, and relations.  Procreation and reproductive biology are linked to, but more than, sexuality and gender relations are linked to more than sexuality and procreation.  The materialities of work, livelihood, class, caste, race critically shape gender and gender relations and are shaped by gender relations.

Today, we recognise that rather than homogeneity difference is valuable.  However, it is also important to show that difference does not necessarily mean a complementarity of equals or a condition of separate but equal; it can in fact become a justification of inequality.  Complementarity may be put forward to argue against the need for change, sometimes with sociological sophistication and sometimes with obvious hopes to save even limited privilege.  Examples abound. The sexual division of labour in the domestic sphere is said to be one of complementarity (not least in Parsons) and we are told that women can get what they want if they accept, adjust, and work through informal power lines.  This is not unlike the Brahmanical idea that the caste system is one of complementarity­‒of work and function.  There is a history of critique of caste from bhakti movements, Phule, Ambedkar, and contemporary Dalit movements that have systematically denied this and emphasised that this is a complementarity of unequal and graded value, opportunity, respect, power, and privilege.  Rethinking sex and rethinking power and structural complementarity go together. 

By the early 1970s, there was a range of sociological writings on aspects of women’s lives in Indian society, but largely on upper caste and class women, covering honour and seclusion, dowry, marriage and widowhood, and education.  Subsequently, there has been a huge growth or retrieval of gendered analyses in a range of disciplines, in particular history, and of institutions and processes that have been at the centre of a sociology of India (Palriwala 2019).  One can mention kinship, marriage and family (Dube 1997; Kaur and Palriwala 2013; Palriwala 1991, 1993), caste (Ambedkar 1916, 1944; Rao 2003), labour and class (Kapadia 1995; Sharma 1980), and socialisation (Dube 1988).  Unfortunately, the gendered analyses of these institutions are often viewed as about women or gender and not a sociological reframing of the institutions‒old and new‒themselves.  Most work now will include disaggregated data even if no more use is made of that disaggregation.  The sociological awareness of the sexing and gendering of the social (in its broadest sense) world may be present even without woman/gender as a significant theme.  Or, it may be absent, even though women and gender find explicit mention, narratives of both female and male informants and tables of disaggregated data are presented, and gendered references are listed. 

In this plethora of work are worrisome tendencies in the usage of gender–in earlier and current scholarship, public and policy discourse, and common sense–both in India and globally (some outlined by scholars such as Scott 1988).  I have already expressed my disagreement with the implicit or explicit subsumption of gender in sexuality or taking gender to rest on female reproductive physiology and procreation, though these are undoubtedly significant.  Such an orientation reduces the multiple dimensions of gender and can even return us to a framework of a universal and unchanging structure, though gender emerged as a critique of naturalisations and essentialisations of sex.  It became the term to be used, but gender is often taken as a synonym for women.  Even while it may be argued that women must be a focus, this cannot be by naturalising all other genders. Nor can it be by looking at women in isolation, at the cost of a framework of gender relations or without questioning gender identification as obvious, fixed, and/or coherent.  The attempt to turn gender into an “objective” or “neutral” term–i.e. to depoliticise it by returning to conventional and positivist, behavioural models–empties it of its critical content.  Analyses that insist on remaining internal to what has been designated the gender system and not link it to other inequalities or structures also diminish its conceptual depth.  The critical elements of social construction–of change and of power relations–get left aside.

The above highlights that the politics and the micro-techniques of power, resistance, and movements for change are a continuing factor in gendering knowledge or in stopping it.  The last points above bring an increasingly recognised and central concern in gendering sociology and in various streams of feminism: the issue of intersectionality (Crenshaw 1993).  Critiques of both gender blind and feminist scholarships by working class women, Dalits, women of colour, and women in colonised contexts argued that the shift from sex to gender was insufficient if women and women’s subordination were taken to be singular and homogenous (Collins 2000; Mohanty 2003; Rege, 1998).  Largely, middle class or elite and upper caste, white women’s experiences had been taken as the model. 

In the Indian context, it was argued that Brahmanical patriarchy (Chakravarti 1993) deriving from material relations and ideologies that continued to give strength to the caste system not only controlled all women, but subordinated Dalits and Dalit women in specific ways.  Class structures confined and oppressed all women, but exploited the poorest in specific ways.  Hill Collins and Crenshaw (a legal scholar) spoke of how the life and experiences of white middle class women had formed the basis for feminist analysis or action, that assuming the oneness of women as liberal feminism did, added to the discriminations faced by women of colour and poor women as their life experiences and structures of class and race were obscured.  It also undermined the struggle of white middle class women as it limited the analysis of gender, assuming a gender system made and functioning in itself.

Just as it was insufficient to add women and stir, it is argued that you cannot add the specific experiences of different classes, castes, races of women as a simple cumulative exercise.  The framework has to shift.  Not only are the specific structures that make the experiences of working class, poor, Dalit, black, colonised women to be analysed from their perspective, their vantage point, the attempt has to be to bring together the structural relations of these apparently different systems as making and reproducing each other. The matrices and clusterings of power and privilege have to be analysed not as givens or as essentialised, fixed categories, but as relational hierarchies, differential values, and power relations.  Crenshaw emphasises the idea of shifting and contingent coalitions of the collective agencies through which change is made possible.  Within Indian movements and scholarships, the idea of intersectionality and alliances had long been present as the women’s movements and feminisms here drew on more radical traditions than that of liberalism and the abstract idea of humanity.  Yet the specificities of Dalit women, working class women, of religious and cultural difference had tended to be little analysed or drawn on to conceptualise gender relations and research questions or to design reform programmes or policy. 


IV        Gender and agency

This brings me to the last issue I wish to raise–a central issue, but which I touch on very briefly–that of agency.  The concept of gender meant a break from biological determinism and enabled the idea that existing structures of gender relations, inequality, and oppression can be transformed.  There is much debate and difference as to how this will be done, but whatever the approach the conceptualisation of agency is critical.  One approach is that women are oppressed victims and need an outside saviour to come and transform their lives–the colonial man, the upper caste reformer, the great leader, the middle class intellectual.  And women who had been saved–through education and benefactors–could then save other women.  In other words, women were not only the victims of culture and of structural oppression, the only women who had agency were educated, middle class women, who would tell others how they were live their lives.  At the same time, the same voices were heard saying women were their own oppressors and enemies.  Dominant sociological theories also suggested this.  Various critiques of this reasoning have arisen, from within sociology, philosophy, and movement theorists.  I mention a few.

Bourdieu’s critique of structural determination that turned people into ciphers was one of many critiques of structuralism.  His argument, in part, was that official norms did not completely determine people’s actions and relations, because–if nothing else–they could not account for all the contingencies of everyday life and the dynamics of economics and politics.  People had to and could make choices, seen in practices that worked through norms and rules and deviated from them in meaningful actions, even as the deviance may be consciously obscured to uphold structures.

Butler’s critique of cultural determinism and her argument that gender was continually performed also suggested agency.  Some argued that in her framework women were themselves reiterating the very identities and relations that oppressed them, others that she was imputing choice where there was constraint.  However, Butler came back to argue that gender norms were compelling and not wilfully chosen; the ‘ritualized repetition by which such norms produce and stabilize not only the effects of gender but the materiality of sex’ (1993: x).  This is a sedimentation, reiterative process in which there is also a reworking of apparently constitutive gender norms and primary and irrefutable experiences.   Yet, even when stabilised, since gender relations and gender identity required constant performance, instabilities are both produced and foreclosed–allowing for ‘disidentification’ and ‘the re-articulation of democratic contestation’.

Margaret Archer–a sociologist little known in India despite a large oevre on agency and culture–is very valuable here, though gender is not her primary focus.  She critiques Bourdieu as not going far enough and not really having a theory of agency even if has loosened structural determination.  She questions the idea of an integrated cultural system and focuses on the contradictions within it, contradictions that may or may not be resolved at the level of the socio-cultural system, which is also not fully integrated.  ‘Independence, inconsistency and pluralism … characterize the “ruling ideas”’ (1996: 59).  In order to live in such a context, people, including the oppressed and the repressed, must exercise agency.  She emphasises that even as some internal contradictions in the cultural system may be resolved within the socio-cultural system or the cultural system, others will emerge; and there are contradictions between the cultural and the socio-cultural system.  These contradictions are sources of awareness of repression and domination; this awareness in itself does not mean elimination of domination, but can be a source of agency exercised for change.


This brings us to the sorts of contestation we hear from working class or Dalit women who perform gender wrongly as far as middle class, elite and upper caste women are concerned.  Rege has written of it as have some historians; this is our challenge in doing and writing sociology.  Women (and some men too), in the exercise of agencies for survival, in material and embodied ways experience the contradictions of the cultural system, disidentification, and the difficulties of resolving them within the socio-cultural system.  It is not just a question of discrepancy between theory and empirical reality, but of theoretical models that see the contradictions integral to all we live with and think with and value.  Middle class women, too, may through their life experiences confront contradictions that require ingenuity on their part, but still are not resolved.  They exercise individual agency, including in upholding hegemonic norms, hierarchies, and oppressions.  Yet, they and we can all become part of collective agencies and coalitions for transformation, for change towards a better sociology and a better society, moving towards the elimination of justifications and practices of inequalities and oppressions. 


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Article by Rajni Palriwala
An attempt has been made in this article to address a series of questions about gendering sociology based on my years of teaching on the sociology of gender. 

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