Social Research Glossary


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Citation reference: Harvey, L., 2012-17, Social Research Glossary, Quality Research International,

This is a dynamic glossary and the author would welcome any e-mail suggestions for additions or amendments. Page updated 2 January, 2017 , © Lee Harvey 2012–2017.


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core definition

Gender refers to the sex of a person (male or female) but includes cutlural and social differences rather than just biological distinctions.

explanatory context

The socio-cultural element of gender also permits the inclusion of transgener/transexual as a category, irrespective of any biological status.


Gender is also a grammatical category that operates in many languages by which all nouns are ascribed a gender (male, female, neuter, common) that requires different grammatical forms to be applied when the different gendered nouns are used.

analytical review

Curthoys (2005, p. 140) in New Keywords writes:

Gender operates as an analytic concept in a wider field of study denoted by related concepts such as women and men, male and female, masculinity and femininity, sex and sexuality. It usually denotes the social, cultural, and historical distinctions between men and women, and is sometimes described as the study of masculinity and femininity.

The concept of gender is often attributed to second wave feminism. It had an older meaning, of ‘‘kind,’’ ‘‘sort,’’ or ‘‘class,’’ and was most frequently used in discussions of grammar. In the 1960s, its meaning shifted when it was used in sexology and psychoanalysis to describe male and female social roles, as when Alex Comfort (1964) wrote of gender roles being learned at an early age. Four years later, Robert Stoller (1968) argued that while sex is determined biologically, gender identity is the product of psychological and social influences; indeed, gender identity and biological sex can conflict, as in the case of transsexuals. Following Stoller, sex came to be regarded as the biological foundation of male–female differences, while gender was a social and cultural construction. This separating of biology and culture ran contrary to the common-sense beliefs of the time, which assumed that the social and cultural differences between men and women had a sure and necessary biological foundation.

When Women’s Liberation emerged at the end of the 1960s, this distinction between biological sex and socially constituted gender provided an intellectual basis for repudiating biological determinism, and envisioning a future different from the past and the present, where men and women had equal opportunities and cultural value. Where ‘‘sex’’ was inescapable, gender was malleable; sex was destiny, gender was free will. Thus gender took on radical political and intellectual connotations, which it retains today (Connell, 2002).

For feminists gender was not only socially constructed, but also organized in all societies in a systematically unequal way. All societies valued and treated the two sexes differently, creating, in Gayle Rubin’s (1975) term, a sex/gender system. The task for those studying gender came to be first to describe and explain women, so far largely invisible in the social sciences, and second to explain the origins and universality of gender inequality. Following American feminist Kate Millett (1970), the systematic unequal organization of gender was often dubbed patriarchy, and the theoretical problem, especially in British feminist thought, came to be how to reconcile a notion of patriarchy with that of social systems defined in other ways: capitalism, for example. By the early 1980s, the notion of patriarchy was coming under critique, seen as taking unequal power relations between men and women for granted, rather than as something to be investigated. The concept of gender, however, survived this critique, valued as more permeable and open, less tied to particular feminist approaches or political positions.

During the 1980s, several developments transformed understandings of sex and gender. One was the overturning of earlier feminist suspicions of psychoanalytic theory as inherently masculinist, and the development of a specifically feminist psychoanalytic body of theory. Approaches derived from Sigmund Freud and later Jacques Lacan became popular, providing tools for theorizing male–female difference as at once an individual and a cultural phenomenon. Another was an increased concern with race and ethnicity. Gender scholarship came to be increasingly challenged by women identifying as coming from ‘‘outsider’’ ethnic and racial groups. The emphasis on race and ethnicity increasingly questioned the importance of gender, an examination performed in the name of class a decade earlier. Furthermore, it was not enough to add together the social and cultural effects of race and gender; the task was to see how each was constituted by the other.

A further source of change was the influence of poststructuralist theory, derived especially from French theorists such as Michel Foucault, Jacques Derrida, Julia Kristeva, Jacques Lacan, and Luce Irigaray, and reworked in the Anglophone world. Poststructuralist emphases on the discursive constructions of the body meant the end, or at least the weakening, of the sex–gender distinction. It is not inevitable, poststructuralist theorists argued, that we think of the male and the female body as separate and opposite entities; this dualism is discursively constructed. We can, that is to say, recognize biological differences without seeing them in a binary fashion. Yet if poststructuralism threatened the sex–gender distinction it also, through the work of Judith Butler (1990), revitalized the concept of gender. Gender, Butler argued, is not a noun but rather is ‘‘performative,’’ ‘‘always a doing, though not a doing by a subject who might be said to pre-exist the deed’’ (pp. 24–5). Gendered subjectivity is produced in a series of competing discourses, rather than by a single patriarchal ideology, and gender relations are a process involving strategies and counter-strategies of power. Butler’s work led to a growing fashion for speaking of gendering and engendering, and of engendered social processes.

In keeping with this interest in identity and performativity came a growing interest in masculinity (Connell, 1995). Not only were women engendered, but men were too. Both masculinity and femininity are continually constructed and negotiated on an everyday basis, their taken-for-grantedness demonstrating just how successful gendering processes have been. Today, ‘‘gender’’ remains a widely accepted and popular term in public discourse and academic scholarship alike. As feminism declined as an identifiable social movement in many Western countries, many of the women’s studies courses established in the 1970s changed their names in the 1990s to gender studies (W. Brown, 1997). This signified both a lesser attachment to feminist politics, and the greater attention being given to men and masculinity. Compared to ‘‘women,’’ ‘‘gender’’ was seen as less threatening, more inclusive, and more theoretically defensible.

In right-wing discourse, gender has become one of the trio of concepts (along with class and race) that constitute the core of ‘‘political correctness,’’ and it remains in some quarters a concept to be ridiculed. Nevertheless, because the differences between male and female still have profound meanings in societies around the world – at work, in family, sexual, and emotional life, and in politics and religion – and because ‘‘gender’’ has proved durable and flexible in characterizing and analyzing those differences, it remains a key term in public debate today.


The McGraw-Hill (2004) Sociological Theory site Glossary defines gender as:

Socially constructed male and female roles, relations, and identities.


Elwell's Glossary of Sociology (undated) defines gender as:

Socially defined behavior regarded as appropriate for the members of each sex.

associated issues


related areas

See also



Curthoys, A., 2005, 'Gender' in Bennett, T. Grossberg, L and Morris, M. (eds.) New Keywords: A Revised Vocabulary of Culture
and Society
, Oxford, Blackwell.

Elwell's Glossary of Sociology, undated, available at, page not available 20 December 2016.

McGraw-Hill, 2004, Sociological Theory: Glossary , available at, accessed 14 May 2013, page not available 22 December 2016.

copyright Lee Harvey 2012–2017

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