Posts Tagged ‘gender’


Nature versus Nurture

April 27, 2010

by Sarah Michele Ford

A few weeks ago my family and I took a weekend trip to Boston.  On the way home, we were assigned seats that had the three of us sitting separately.  My five-year-old daughter had been assigned an exit row seat and the two adults had been seated together at the front of the plane.  Not a problem, we thought – I would just take the exit row seat and The Kid would sit up front with her dad.  When our boarding group was called, we went to get on the plane.  The gate agent (a middle-aged woman) asked “Who is The Kid?”  I indicated that it was, in fact, The Kid but added “But I’m going to take her seat.”

Home Again“Oh,” the gate agent says.  “I’m going to change your seat.”
“Why?” I ask.
“You’re a mother.  If there’s an emergency, your first instinct is going to be to go to your child.”  And she printed up a new boarding pass, still in The Kid’s name, that put me even further away from where The Kid and her dad were sitting.  As she handed it to me she said, “There.  Now you can sit with your baby.”  (I assume that she meant for The Husband to take the distant seat.)  And she tousled The Kid’s hair as we walked by.

When we treat gender and socialization in Introductory Sociology courses, the question of the nature versus nurture debate always comes up.  Which has a stronger influence on our behavior – biology or socialization? Clearly the gate agent and I were coming at this “problem” (which really wasn’t a problem at all) from very different perspectives; she thought that, as a mother, I would be incapable of dealing with the responsibilities of sitting in the exit row when seated apart from my child.  That the “mothering instinct” would win out in an emergency situation.  She was favoring nature over nurture.  I, on the other hand, was simply looking forward to a little extra leg room and and hour and a half of peace and quiet.

When it comes to gender, and in particular to parenting, which do you think is more influential: nature or nurture?


A Girl Like Me

February 4, 2010

Posted by: Chad M. Gesser

Twitter: @profgesser


Socialization is characterized as the life long social experience by which individuals develop their human potential and learn culture.  The socialization process begins soon after birth, as babies are cared for (or not) by their parents or other loved ones from their family.  Of course that experience is as varied as there are cultures in our world.  We begin to learn at a very early age how to love, to hate, to care for, to fight, and to ultimately relate to other people in our society.

We also learn our position in society, particularly in terms of social class, gender, and race.  We are influenced by history and the social norms of society.  Norms aren’t necessarily right or wrong, but we gauge ourselves to the cultural standards in society, and as Mead would characterize, we develop that sense of self.

As an example of how we internalize what we perceive in society, watch the “Girl Like Me” video below

.  Many students question the validity of these girls’ interpretations of what others think about them.  Keep in mind these are the experiences of these girls, right or wrong, and it is the “job” of the Sociologist to ask the critical questions as to why.

What shapes their viewpoints?  What popular messages in society influence their perceptions?  What ideas and/or behaviors have they garnered from their family and peers that influences their sense of self?


Honor Killings

January 26, 2010

by Sarah Michele Ford
e-mail: ford-at-soc-dot-umass-dot-edu

On January 17th, a 21-year old Indian woman was murdered; the alleged killer was her father.

What would drive a father to kill his daughter? In this case, the motivation appears to have been that the daughter had married a man of whom her father did not approve. To those of us who have been raised in Western cultures, this “honor killing” – the murder of a woman by a family member because she has violated social or sexual norms – seems crazy. This practice, however, has a long history in a number of cultures, primarily in the Middle East.

In order to even begin to understand the phenomenon of honor killings, we have to keep a number of things in mind. First and foremost is the concept of “honor”. The honor at stake in these cases is not the woman’s – it is that of her father and other male relatives. In the Turkish context, for example, “A man’s “honour” consists of two main components: His reputation is determined by his own actions in the community (“seref’) and the chastity or virtue of the female members of his family (“names”)” (“They Killed her for Going Out With Boys…”, 35 Hofstra L. Rev. 815 2006-2007). Why, you might ask, is a man’s honor dependent upon the actions of his female family members? This brings to the fore another vast cultural difference between these cultures and the West. In our social context, the individual is the most important social unit. In this particular Middle Eastern context, however, the family is the most important social unit. It is the family’s honor that the young woman in the Indian example has brought into question. And, in that context, it has historically been considered acceptable to restore the family’s honor by eliminating the person who brought it into question.

This social phenomenon raises so many questions for us as sociologists. Is it appropriate for us to take a relativist view and say that these acts are understandable within their cultural context? (Human rights groups condemn the practice – see Stop Honour Killings and reports from Human Rights Watch on Afghanistan and Turkey.) If we conclude that we need to speak out against this practice, what is the best way for us to do so?

Most of all, though, this phenomenon illustrates the ways that all of the questions we ask as sociologists are intertwined. This one topic forces us to think about culture and cultural relativism, gender inequality and family structures, power, human rights, and numerous other issues as well. When we study sociology, we can’t ever boil a question down to one issue, or even to one “type” of sociology. People are so complex, society is so complex, that everything is interrelated.


Teaching Gender Through Vampire Movies

July 14, 2009

There was a movie released at the beginning of 2009 called “Twilight.” The film was based on a series of books that centered around the challenges faced by a 17-year-old girl and boy trying to maintain a developing romance. They struggled with common problems associated with young love—managing their strong attraction for each other, continuing their own processes of self discovery, coming to terms with differences between them, and managing challenges to their relationships from external forces. Oh, did I mention that the teenage boy was also a vampire? Or should I say “is”—there are sequels planned….

Similar to other such films, the boy’s vampiric nature might be viewed as a social metaphor symbolizing the dominant and aggressive aspects of western gender expectations for males—being “macho”. The film might also explore females’ social function of containing and directing male aggression into constructive pursuits—building bridges, protecting society from invaders, washing the driveway, etc…. Or would it be over intellectualizing to read so much into this story?

What do you think? If you would like to respond to this question or one of the discussion topics below, please view the trailer for the film below and then post a comment.

1. Who is being depicted in the film’s trailer as needing physical protection? Who helps that person? What might this tell you about the depiction of gender roles in the trailer?

2. Do you think the film’s trailer reinforces traditional male and female roles in society? Why or why not?

3. What is the boy’s reaction to the girl’s comment that she isn’t afraid of him? How can this be generalized to define how teenage girls should respond to teenage boys? Do you think such a generalization is appropriate?

4. Which is greater—the number of people who see the trailer for the film or the number of people who see the actual film? Why might this be important to the sociological study of film?

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Challanging Gender Expectations

April 30, 2009

12-year-old baseball pitcher Brandon Pilovsky has perfect game 1 (picture taken from:

12-year-old baseball pitcher Brandon Pilovsky has perfect game 1 (picture taken from:

Sociologists make a distinction between sex and gender. Sex is a biological characteristic—it is physical, not social. Gender is a social variable distinguishing between what is masculine and feminine based upon a society’s norms and values. So because society creates it, it is changeable! Gender sets up role expectations for people to follow—it tells us what society expects of men or women in certain social circumstances. But how do social expectations based upon gender (what society expects of women or men) evolve? Some researchers hold they evolve just like any other value or norm: they become outdated based upon the current knowledge and needs of society.

Would you like to voice your sociological imagination on this subject? If so, respond to one the topics below:

1. Recently, a 12-year-old girl threw a perfect game in little league baseball. This means that she struck out everyone—the opposing team didn’t get a single hit! Do you think this might contribute to changes in gender expectations for our society? If so, why? How broad of an effect do you think this might have in the long run? Do you think this might contribute toward allowing mixed sex sport teams? Might it add to arguments for equality in the work place?

2. Do you think treating men and women equally in society is a good or bad thing? If you choose to respond to this question, can you list two progressive things about social equality and two potentially socially disruptive things?

3. How can you use this example of the 12-year-old girl to illustrate how other norms in society change or evolve?

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Women Attacked on the Streets of India

March 30, 2009

Recently, the Times of India reported a rise in street assaults on females in the city of Bangalore. Women have been shoved, punched, and suffered other forms of abuse on public streets. It has been suggested that some of these attacks might be motivated by what the women were wearing. Examples that identified assault provoking clothes included jeans or sleeveless dresses. The underlying sociological interpretation would seem to be that at least some of these reported assaults were a response to gender norm violations. Such explanations would suggest that society prescribed a discouraging response (what sociologists might label a negative sanction) to such dress behavior. Some sociologists have dismissed such an explanation as ridiculous and others suggest such explanations are an attempt to shift blame to the victims and mask more general, underlying, social problems.

Would you like to discuss this issue? If so respond to one of the questions below:

1) Do you think a person’s dress can motivate some people to respond violently (keep in mind, this is not asking if such a response is proper or acceptable—just whether it can motivate a violent reaction)? Can you think of such an example?

2) Look at your or others’ responses to the question above. Do you think all people would react to the same stimulus the same? Why? What insight does your response afford you into the cultural relativity of violence?

3) Do you think the dismissal of that specific society gender dress expectations might reflect a cultural agenda of the researcher and not an empirically based interpretation of the problem? If so, what dangers can masking such phenomena carry to solving the problem?

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What’s in an Advertising Image?

October 30, 2008

Posted by Wes Abercrombie
Advertising images are one form of social communication—explored by sociologists for decades. These images can communicate complex social understandings, such as roles, values, political beliefs, laws, courting rituals, and religious dogma. Sociologists have studied how these pictures are used to reinforce, destroy, and teach social understandings—like the idea of gender—that can unite people or separate them.

Gender isn’t sex. Sex is a biological characteristic. Gender refers to people’s understandings of masculinity and femininity; what society thinks is proper behavior for men or women. These ideas can change from society to society and over time, while being male or female is normally static. For example, look at the classic film poster below and compare it to the recent DVD cover next to it.

The poster for “Gone with the Wind” was produced in 1939. The DVD  “Resident Evil: Extinction” was released in 2007. Both movies, in part, deal with massive, abrupt social change and how “strong” women adapt to those changes. Some sociologists believe the depiction of women in these films offers some insights into gender expectations when the films were made. What do you think?

Look closely at the images and consider these questions:

  • How do the images in these advertisements reflect changing expectations of American women since 1939?
  • Do you think these advertisements reinforce existing understandings or teach new ones?
  • How do you think such ideas affect how people interact with each other in the “real world”—in families or the military, for example?

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