Gender is a Social ConstructionWhat does it mean to say “gender is a social construction”? Too much ink and internet time has already been spilled on such questions, but definitional issues and conceptual difficulties remain entrenched, even in academia where people should know better.

A first issue is ongoing confusion around shorthand phrases like “gender is a social construction” or “race is a social construction.” I avoid such shorthands because they so quickly lead to an assumption that by “social construction” there is a denial of reality, or an implication that–as one biologist put it–people “generate their own truths based on their own experiences and imaginations.”

For more on human biology, evolution, and race see my Kindle e-Book:

What “Gender is a Social Construction” Does Not Mean

When social scientists use shorthand phrases like “gender is a social construction” they are

  1. in no way denying that humans vary biologically in many different ways, or claiming that biology is irrelevant;
  2. not trying to say that these social effects are somehow not real or important; and
  3. not saying that they are necessarily subject to extensive individual manipulation.

Those shorthands simply indicate that many observed behavioral characteristics and life experiences are heavily influenced by social expectations, norms, and roles. But that doesn’t mean they aren’t real–they are quite real and can become biologically real as well.

The reality of social constructions is something anthropologist Jeremy Trombley succinctly tackled:

We have to get past the idea that things that are socially constructed are somehow not real. I encountered it again today in something I was reading. “X is socially constructed” or “X are social constructs” as if to say they are only or just social constructs–as if to say X is not real. But social constructs are real–that’s what makes them so powerful. Race, Class, Gender–these are all social constructs, but it is because they are socially constructed that they have tremendous effects on the lives of people who live in a particular society.

Trombley has also recommended a recently-published book The Reality of Social Construction. From the book-jacket:

‘Social construction’ is a central metaphor in contemporary social science, yet it is used and understood in widely divergent and indeed conflicting ways by different thinkers. Most commonly, it is seen as radically opposed to realist social theory. Dave Elder-Vass argues that social scientists should be both realists and social constructionists, and that coherent versions of these ways of thinking are entirely compatible with each other.

I agree with Trombley on the need to emphasize the reality of social constructions, but Elder-Vass’s book would never have needed to be written if the idea hadn’t been misinterpreted from the beginning. Social construction and realism never should have been opposed.

A related example: Money is obviously a social construction. We all choose to believe that pieces of paper with pictures of people on them (or electronic bits without any visible reality) have value and can be used to purchase real things in the world. We trust that when we exchange something for those bits of paper or computer bytes, it is because the next person in the chain will also accept that as real currency.

We could also do an anthropological tour through different times and places and marvel at all the different kinds of objects pressed into the service of currency–that’s one part of an answer to What is Anthropology? We can readily agree that money is a social construction. But that doesn’t make it not real! It has a direct influence on life chances, experiences, ability to do things. It can have very real biological effects, like hunger and even starvation–the bodies and motor habits of the poor and rich can turn them into quite biologically different creatures. Moreover, simply imagining or believing that I have more money does not make it so. I may be able to use my imagination to do something to “make money,” but my efforts are far from guaranteed.

Clarifying Sex, Gender, and Sexuality

With that in mind, we can return to the issue of sex and gender. Initially, social scientists sought to distinguish sex from gender. As my introductory anthropology textbook defines sex: “observable physical characteristics that distinguish two kinds of humans, females and males, needed for biological reproduction” (Lavenda and Schultz 2012:365). As is clear in this definition, sex is mostly experienced as dimorphic, although the textbook does talk about various ways “genetic or hormonal factors produce ambiguous external genitalia.” So there are some ways biologically in which we might talk about a male-female continuum, or even contemplate other-sex categorizations. It is useful to recognize that the human primate seems to be something of an outlier in comparison to the standard measures of sexual dimorphism in non-human primates, and there is still a lot of evolutionary explanation needed for why human primates are unlike other primates in this way (see Adam Van Arsdale’s The complexity of human sexual dimorphism for an interesting contemporary take; Greg Downey on The long, slow sexual revolution; and The Phallus Fallacy by Agustín Fuentes for more on the range of variation in genitalia and the cultural dimensions of phallus-focus).

But understanding human sex difference would be frighteningly incomplete without considering gender, or “the cultural construction of beliefs and behaviors considered appropriate for each sex” (Lavenda and Schultz 2012:365). Social scientists introduced the term gender as a way of talking about all those expectations and beliefs we load onto people with certain physical characteristics. And we could do a tour through history and different cultures to find out how very different those expectations and beliefs can be, which is why we say they are “socially constructed.” However, that does not mean there is no biological variation, nor does it mean those beliefs and expectations don’t have very real effects, nor does it mean a particular individual can “generate their own truth” about gender. In fact, our beliefs and expectations can have quite dramatic biological effects, in terms of how boys and girls are differently fed and the spaces and activities they are assigned. And in some cases, most notably with eunuchs, there is the deliberate fashioning of a third-sex role (we are hardly the first or only society to engage in sex operations).

Gender roles and identity have often come as a duality, but there are a number of societies where “supernumerary gender roles developed that apparently had nothing to do with morphological sex anomalies” (Lavenda and Schultz 2012:368). Many of these cases are from the peoples indigenous to the Americas, which very often had a third-gender (or even fourth-gender) roles for “Two-Spirit Peoples” (which the French denigrated as berdache). These people typically took on tasks appropriate to the other gender; they often but did not always “cross-dress,” and many had special ceremonial roles in their communities. While some have glossed this as “homosexual,” it really does not correspond to such designation, and many contemporary Native Americans have rejected this gloss. (For an elaboration on Two-Spirit peoples, see Two Spirits: A Map of Gender Diverse Cultures: “Hundreds of distinct societies around the globe have their own long-established traditions for third, fourth, fifth, or more genders.”)

Update 2013: Debates around marriage equality have revived interest in the idea that dichotomous sex and reproduction is rooted in nature. See Nature’s Case for Same-Sex Marriage by David George Haskell: “The facts of biology plainly falsify the oft-repeated notion that homosexuality is unnatural. Every species has evolved its own sexual ecology, and so nature resists generalizations. . . . A wide, living rainbow arcs across the natural world. Diversity rules in sexuality, just as it does in the rest of biology.

See also the articles in Marriage and Other Arrangements, the inaugural issue of Open Anthropology, a public journal of the American Anthropological Association. Also note Where a Gender Spectrum May Be Taking Us by Rosemary Joyce, who writes of how students have become incredibly attuned to these issues.

Of course given this biological sex variation and gender role variation, the question of sexual identity and sexual practices gets really tricky. We have typically thought of heterosexuality as both normal practice and identity. More recently there has been an idea that both homosexuality and heterosexuality are normal variants, and surely there are biologists searching for that “gene for homosexuality.” Others have talked about homosexuality and heterosexuality as a continuum. However, none of that gets at the even crazier range of human variation. For example, sex with a “Two-Spirit Person” would be considered neither strictly homosexual or heterosexual. There are also societies in which male homosexual practices are considered vital in order for men to later engage in heterosexual intercourse. Other societies gauge homosexual or heterosexual activity not by the biological sex of the partners but by their role in the sex act–a man can be perfectly “heterosexual” and have sex with other men, depending on the type of sexual practice involved. Hopefully we’ll soon be finding the genes to explain all that stuff…

Note: That last line was supposed to be a joke, based on the idea that it would be silly to search for genetic causation for that sexual diversity. However, I may have to be more circumspect, as the idea of faster genetic evolution combined with ethnicity–what I’m calling ethnobiogeny–may indeed result in such claims. See the end of Race Redux for more on ethnobiogeny.

As useful as it has been to think about the social aspects of gender and sexual identity as related to but potentially quite different from biology, there has been some frustration with these approaches. First, gender was almost immediately used as a euphemism for sex. After the 20-week ultrasound, many people ask “what is the gender of the baby?” I was tempted to joke: “The sex is female, but we haven’t decided on gender yet” (note however that parents play an important but only auxiliary role in fashioning gender expectations). Second, people immediately misinterpreted the “social construction” argument in the ways described above, as a denial of biological variation or difference.

Many analysts therefore wanted to push the point further, showing how our gendered social expectations actually become embodied, incorporated into our developing motor habits, musculature, and bodies, so that it was not just gender that was socially constructed, but sex too. In other words, the bodies we see as male and female are in part due to social environments. For example, many societies actively discourage females from participating in sports or other activities that would build muscle mass, as this would be unfeminine. While there are some who believe such differential expectations have lessened or disappeared in the industrialized world, I note the irony that technologies like the ultrasound now enable people to frontload gender expectations in ways that would have been impossible in the past–many people have their nurseries appropriately decorated and buy gender-coded baby clothes months before the baby is born!

Gender is a Social Construction–and Beyond

In the context of people who were already familiar with many of these assumptions, a philosopher colleague recommended a chapter from Georgia Warnke’s After Identity: Rethinking Race, Sex, and Gender. Warnke is precisely attempting to push some of these boundaries in order to critique assumptions that males are evolutionarily programmed to be bread-winning but promiscuous whereas females are similarly programmed to be at-home and choosy about mates. Warnke reviews much of the ethnographic and historical record I have referenced above–and is really drawing on a lot of anthropology–to conclude that these roles are hardly anchored in our genes or evolution, but are more a product of relatively recent gender expectations. What we see as science is influenced by what we already believe to be true about males and females.

When anthropology talks about human sex, gender, and sexuality, we insist that we must take account of what humans say, think, and believe about their activities. To do otherwise is arrogant, presumptuous, and a root cause for why people become suspicious of the people who call themselves scientists.

To say this is not to deny evolution, to deny science, to deny that humans are animals, or to claim some sort of ethereal special place for the non-material. It is simply to ask that a role for human activity and imagination be included as part of our understandings. And of all the products of the human imagination, the idea that organisms are ruled or determined by genes is surely one of the most bizarre–but apparently also one of the most far-reaching and pernicious.

My last sentence is borrowed from Tim Ingold’s The Perception of the Environment: Essays on Livelihood, Dwelling and Skill:

And of all the historical products of the human imagination, perhaps the most decisive and far-reaching has been the idea that there exists such a thing as an “intelligence”, installed in the heads of each and every one of us, and that is ultimately responsible for our activities. (2000:419)

Update January 2014: See Barbara J. King, Why We Need More Than Three Genders: “We can do better. We can be unafraid to move not only beyond male-female dichotomies, but also beyond an insistence on any hard-and-fast fixed categories. What, after all, is there to fear? We are all human; we all live and love.”

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  • Helga Vierich

    I am always tempted to remind people, in a class on sex and gender, that there are a number of possible ways this could go in any individual. You may be anatomically female, but still carry a Y chromosome (see in cases of industrial pollution), you could be anatomically female, but have been subjected to high level of androgens in fetal life due to stress on your mother, and have a tendency to be a tomboy, but still fall in love with me, or be a tomboy and tend to fall in love with other girls (more extreme androgen expose?), as male, XY, who could have been exposed to higher levels of androgens that starved you of the extra estrogen you required in fetal life to convert within your body into testosterone to masculinize your brain, and depending on when this shortfall happened, you could wind up with a female gender identity, although you still shall in love with the opposite sex, or and a feminine gender identity AND tendency to fall in love with other guys. Meanwhile, it is even more possible to have a perfectly normal male gender identity, but have the sexual attraction and “in-love” programming affected, so that you are a a very masculine guy who desires only other guys. Just based on the times when these systems are formed in the fetal brian. That final possibility is the most lucky and I’ll bet it is the most common. I’m leaving the evidence of genetic stuff out for the moment because it only established vulnerability, and in a complex way that takes a long time to explain. And you probably know it all already.

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  • Jason Antrosio

    Hi Helga, thank you for the comment and detailing some of the genetic and hormonal possibilities. In addition to everything that happens during fetal and infant development, we can add in what happens to those people born into societies where becoming a “Two-Spirit Person” is not just a possibility but potentially an honor. Thank you again for drawing attention to the enormous complexity of human life!

  • http://blogs.wellesley.edu/vanarsdale Adam

    Following up on Helga’s comment, leaving aside the issue of gender, it is actually interesting to look at the variability associated with biological sex. One way of getting at it is looking at how, state by state, sex is legally determined. There ends up being significant disparities between states, which, in the context of post-operative transexuals and controversies around same-sex marriage become points of unsettled legal case law and jurisdictional conflict. Some states determine sex on the basis of a doctor’s statement of sex at birth (generally based on visual inspection of external genitalia), some states base it on the Y chromosome, some take other routes. As Helga points out, the biological development of individuals as male or female is then affected by a host of downstream elements such as hormonal levels and hormonal response, complicating the question of what is meant by sex in cases of hormonal abnormalities like androgen insensitivity (the condition present in Casper Semenya and Maria Patino before her).

    • Jason Antrosio

      Thanks, Adam, and thank you for the earlier write-up on sexual dimorphism which helped inspire parts of this. This is interesting stuff on the state-by-state legal issues. It reminds me when I was working in 2000 as a census taker–of all the questions on the form, census takers had to get a verbal answer on each one, except the male/female. That is, there were of course two boxes, and census takers were allowed to fill in male or female based on observation alone. They may have changed that in 2010, but it was telling that the census assumed sex was always evident.

      I believe that is what Georgia Warnke is getting at when she writes:

      In contrast to identifications and identities of individuals in racial terms, identifications and identities of individuals in sex and gender terms would seem to be non-historical, non-perspectival, and non-incidental to who we are. We are sexes and genders in a global and non-contextual way that we are not races. (2007:121)

      I’m not sure I entirely agree with Warnke, but judging by U.S. Census 2000, she is onto something.

  • http://info.hartwick.edu/biology/def_frogs/ Stan Sessions

    It seems like it might be helpful to consider this issue (sex and gender, or biology and “social constructs”) in the general terms of quantitative genetics. In this way, gender (including biological sex and social sex roles, etc.) is treated as phenotype, which (like most other phenotypic characteristics) results from the interaction of genetics and environment. We now know that having XX or XY sex chromosomes has huge genetic consequences, not only the development of gonads and secondary sexual characteristics (including behavior), but also on the structure of the brain before the gonads differentiate and independent of steroid hormones. The Y-linked SRY gene, for example, has an effect on neurotransmitter (dopamine) synthesis in embryos. And we know that the SRY gene alone can turn any individual, regardless of any other genes, into a male. This was shown by making transgenic female (XX) mice who develop into mice that look and act exactly like males. So we have this profound genetic framework that then interacts in different environments that include not only extrinsic factors such as society and culture (e.g. training, indoctrination, expectations, diet, etc.), but also intrinsic factors such as interacting hormones, cells, and genes during development as well as ongoing changes as adults after acheiving sexual maturity. The interaction of these genetic factors and environmental factors generate the detectable phenotype (structure and function, including behavior). I think this kind of approach is better than trying to deal with the concept of “social construct” which is ambiguous to many people and controversial to boot.

    • Jason Antrosio

      Hi Stan, thank you for the comment. I would not deny the potentially profound effects of genes as regulators of developmental processes. However, we have to be very careful with specifying what genes interact with–they are components of a cell; they do not interact with a general environment. Phenotype is actually not an interaction of genetics and environment, it is an outcome of a developmental process. As you know from your beautiful work with deformed frogs, whole different life-cycle interactions, like parasites, can play a crucial role in development processes, producing dramatically different phenotype without any genetic change. Those third-legs and other strange limbs would look very much to us like genetic mutations, but as you and your students have shown, the causes are quite otherwise.

      Certainly we can put Y-linked genes into mice and see that their behavior and appearance becomes equivalent to male mice. However, what mice do not do–as far as we know–is to reflect on what it means to be male, female, or neither, and raise their young differently according to those expectations. We know that humans do those things, and so we cannot remove the aspect of “social construction,” anymore than we can remove the role of money and wealth as playing a role in human outcomes.

      We may not disagree, but I would argue that by retaining the idea of a “profound genetic framework” that is differently realized in various environments, we would basically be retaining the old-fashioned nature/nurture dichotomy. Instead, we need new approaches, concepts, and languages to describe complex processes. And I would be wary of taking onboard too much genetic determinism as we search for the terms and concepts of this new language.

    • Rebecca Hodges

      Stan, can you give a short reading list for this perspective? As a political anthropologist, I haven’t been well-prepared in quantitative genetics but I would like to include this perspective in my courses.

      • https://twitter.com/#!/JasonAntrosio Jason Antrosio

        Hi Rebecca, thank you for this, although I doubt Stan is tuned into this comment thread from one year ago! I’m sure you can find readings along this line, but I am still quite suspicious of the idea that gender can be “treated as phenotype.”

      • amharreld

        Rebecca, you may have found what you are looking for since it has been eight months, but I heavily recommend giving “Race, Monogamy, and Other Lies They Told You” by A. Fuentes a read. He does a good job of summarizing a lot of the current ideas floating around about the role of genetics on humans. He recommends a biocultural perspective rather than nature vs nurture. As well, it is an excellent jumping off point, giving a lot of material that you can go read on your own. It is aimed at the uninitiated, so keep that in mind if it seems like a review of things you already know.

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  • A.M. Harreld

    First, I feel this blog ignores something very important: Agency. Individuals do invent new roles (gendered, sexual, and etc) all the time. The thought of a stable homosexual relationship would have been unthinkable 20-30 years ago. Yet we now have same sex marriage on the chop block of our societal discussions.

    It is in the societal discourse of these roles that they are accepted, rejected, turned inside out, or silenced. We are not dealing with some static system that force feeds everyone the same ideals. Instead, it is people’s interactions with social systems that make them work the way they do. We, in essence, choose the social symbols to portray ourselves, others, and the different roles we play.

    Personally, I think Sabine Lang’s Men as Women, Women as Men has the best discussion on gender role that I’ve come across. As well there’s an article by Cavanaugh which gets into the gendering of language in a small community in Italy (Bergamasque I think). Both of which I feel expand on some of the ideas presented here.

    Outside of ignoring agency, all-in-all pretty awesome post.

  • A.M. Harreld

    First, I feel this blog ignores something very important: Agency. Individuals do invent new roles (gendered, sexual, and etc) all the time. The thought of a stable homosexual relationship would have been unthinkable 20-30 years ago. Yet we now have same sex marriage on the chop block of our societal discussions.

    It is in the societal discourse of these roles that they are accepted, rejected, turned inside out, or silenced. We are not dealing with some static system that force feeds everyone the same ideals. Instead, it is people’s interactions with social systems that make them work the way they do. We, in essence, choose the social symbols to portray ourselves, others, and the different roles we play.

    Personally, I think Sabine Lang’s Men as Women, Women as Men has the best discussion on gender role that I’ve come across. As well there’s an article by Cavanaugh which gets into the gendering of language in a small community in Italy (Bergamasque I think). Both of which I feel expand on some of the ideas presented here.

    Outside of ignoring agency, all-in-all pretty awesome post.

    • https://twitter.com/#!/JasonAntrosio Jason Antrosio

      Hi A.M. Harreld, thank you for the comments and suggestions for additional reading. I was not at all trying to ignore agency here, although it may not have been phrased exactly that way and comes up more toward the end of the post, when I “ask that a role for human activity and imagination be included as part of our understandings.” So I would completely agree, but also we need to recognize that often people’s agency or room for maneuver can be quite limited.

      Interestingly on a different issue, I’ve been accused of over-playing agency. For me, I really do think this is an empirical issue–of taking into account to what extent people are able, at any given point, to make their own history under conditions they did not entirely choose.

    • https://twitter.com/#!/JasonAntrosio Jason Antrosio

      Hi A.M. Harreld, thank you for the comments and suggestions for additional reading. I was not at all trying to ignore agency here, although it may not have been phrased exactly that way and comes up more toward the end of the post, when I “ask that a role for human activity and imagination be included as part of our understandings.” So I would completely agree, but also we need to recognize that often people’s agency or room for maneuver can be quite limited.

      Interestingly on a different issue, I’ve been accused of over-playing agency. For me, I really do think this is an empirical issue–of taking into account to what extent people are able, at any given point, to make their own history under conditions they did not entirely choose.

      • A. M. Harreld

        It has nearly been a year since I rediscovered this blog post, lol.

        I do agree that empirical evidence is key here, but we ultimately deal with something so complicated it is hard to get at how much of what we deal with is structure and how much is actual agency. I’ve read few ethnographies that seem to highlight agency as a core concept of how things get done. Veiled Sentiments by Lila Abu-Lughod immediately comes to mind (a long with several other ethnographies that I cannot remember the author or titles from . . . I’ll have to refind them later).

        However, perhaps that is the wrong frame of reference. Cultural structures and their narratives are tools that we utilize in our everyday lives. I think (like MWI in Quantum Mechanics) this simplifies the issue of structure vs agency. Each person is an independent agent in that they utilize cultural constructs in their daily lives: To get food, to find mates, to supply resources to our networks, to rationalize why things happen, etc. However, at the same time these massive imposing structures, these narratives of culture, also impact how we think and do things. Making certain possibilities impossibilities. So, ultimately, the question is how much do our tools impact us and to what degree? As well, I think it can be argued that different tools can have a deeper, more enduring impact than others (public education vs totems for instance)? Getting at these questions gets at answers.

        As for West’s response, he obviously has missed the boat and is upset about it. Agency and free will are not necessarily the same thing and his blog post reveals his own ignorance. I think anthropologists real problem with Diamond reside in the fact that he is a plagiarist and someone willing to manipulate data, which pretty much comes down to our existence as scientists and people who create original works (rather than our role as anthropologists).

  • Dennis Eckhardt

    This does not really work. Get an idea of constructivism and linkages by reading Maturana/Varela, Glasersfeld, Foerster. We have even to consider the construction of the concept “social” and then see the construction of “social construction”:The point is: When you want to get an idea of the virtual sense of gender, you have to consider the way of thinking of human beings.

    • https://twitter.com/#!/JasonAntrosio Jason Antrosio

      Hi Dennis, thank you for the comment. I would agree that one of the issues with “social construction” is that it takes us into the construction of the social in the first place. As I comment to A.M. Harreld below, I am trying to ask for consideration of the way of thinking of human beings. This post was written for people who were claiming an almost complete biological sex = gender identification and a need to sort out some of the most basic issues. Thanks!

    • https://twitter.com/#!/JasonAntrosio Jason Antrosio

      Hi Dennis, thank you for the comment. I would agree that one of the issues with “social construction” is that it takes us into the construction of the social in the first place. As I comment to A.M. Harreld below, I am trying to ask for consideration of the way of thinking of human beings. This post was written for people who were claiming an almost complete biological sex = gender identification and a need to sort out some of the most basic issues. Thanks!

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  • Simon

    I enjoyed this. I will probably go over it more carefully in a bit, once I’ve put in enough work on my proposal to assuage both my committee and my own guilt. However, I do want to mention one thing: I noticed that you cited Elder-Vass’s book. It’s important to note that Elder-Vass is a critical realist, and as such is approaching the concept of a social structure with a set of ontological presuppositions that many other social scientists do not share. The reality of a social structure in CR terms is cashed out in causal powers, whereas pragmatists such as myself (though there are of course other positions in the general category of non-realist) think of social construction as a set of transactional processes constitutive of experience. We all see ‘socially’ constructed things as having a non-arbitrary and causally efficacious presence in our theories and descriptions, but what this means for us varies widely per philosophical starting point.

    • https://twitter.com/#!/JasonAntrosio Jason Antrosio

      Hi Simon, many thanks for this clarification. I’ll confess to not being terribly familiar with the intricacies of Elder-Vass and critical realism, but liked the general idea. Your comment seems especially interesting in light of the recent ontological turn in anthropology. Thanks!

      • Simon

        I have that open in a tab, and have been meaning to get to it. Elder-Vass’s book ‘The Causal Powers of Social Structures’ is one of the most accessible introductions to critical realism I am aware of, though if you are interested in a more cursory overview, Daniel Little’s excellent blog on the philosophy of social science has several posts on the topic.

        • https://twitter.com/#!/JasonAntrosio Jason Antrosio

          Excellent, thank you for the resources!

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  • Discuss White Privilege

    I thought about this post after reading the comments in response to this Vitae post (https://chroniclevitae.com/news/421-introducing-sexism-ed), as well as Dustin’s recent post over at Savage Minds on librarians as erotic ideals–and (non)responses to it. I was struck by how clearly the subject positions of the commenters affected, all too predictably, what they posted. With the Vitae comments all the males (who I am also going to guess are White) complained to say they don’t see gender inequality in the academy and instead see women ‘whining’ and ‘taking over’. Similarly, with the SM comments, there seemed to be serious blindness to White/racial privilege by White commenters and the White author of the post, refusing to acknowledge that gender and sexuality are co-produced through race/racism/colorism. I think both examples pose interesting questions about ‘gender as a social construct’ (as well as ‘race as a social construct’) however problematic such terms may be for the reasons you outline above, Jason. The experiential bifurcation of the comments raises interesting questions about how to get people–including and especially anthropologists–to (truly) acknowledge their privilege and oppressive power so as to think about how gender and sexuality are socially produced. How do you think critically about and honestly acknowledge and work against structural inequalities/power asymmetries like gender/sexuality and race that are experienced at the most embodied level such that it is easy to be in denial about gendered experiences which you are not personally experiencing or disadvantaged by?

    Ultimately, this is both a political/ethical/moral question, and an academic one insofar as blindness to one’s own privilege, and refusal to acknowledge it once pointed out by subalterns not benefitting from it, produces less accurate and insightful anthropological analysis, such as the myopia of the ‘librarian’s bun’ raised in the SM comment stream. What does it take to get the male commenters on the Vitae piece to understand and acknowledge their (White) male privilege, or to get anthropologists to acknowledge how often White privilege informs their gender/sexuality analysis? Because anthropologists often like to tell others to think more critically about how gender/sexuality are socially produced without doing a good job of taking their own advice. (Obviously not directing this comment at you, Jason.)

    • https://twitter.com/#!/JasonAntrosio Jason Antrosio

      Thanks! Indeed, some of my recent experiences confirm that academics are equally prone to exactly the same race-gender habits they sometimes claim to be fighting. I had seen that Vitae post–thank you for the link–but read it before some of the additional comments rolled in. Interestingly, as you put it here, some of the harshest claims of what we might call “but that’s reverse-sexism!” come from an anthropology professor. Yikes.