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Theoretical Analyses of Gender

Theoretical Analyses of Gender
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  • 0:02 Theoretical Analysis of Gender
  • 1:00 Structural Functionalism
  • 2:30 Conflict Theory
  • 4:00 Symbolic Interactionism
  • 6:02 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Jason Nowaczyk
The following lesson discusses the role that gender and expected behavior from men and women play in our society. A short quiz will follow the lesson to check your understanding.

Theoretical Analysis of Gender

As we have discussed in previous lessons, at the heart of a sociologist's work is trying to explain why certain social things happen. Just as a builder has different tools with which to build a house, and just like there may be different ways to build a house, there are also different tools that sociologists use for their explanations. While these tools aren't physical objects, they are instead theories called sociological perspectives. Each perspective explains why things happen in society in a slightly different way. One particular social phenomenon where sociological perspectives are used involves how society treats women versus men.

For example, a sociologist interested in the social positions of men and women in education may study why middle-school girls are more likely than their male counterparts to fall behind grade-level expectations in math and science. To try to give some sort of explanation for these types of events, sociologists may use the specific perspectives of structural functionalism, social conflict theory, and symbolic interactionism.

Structural Functionalism

The basic viewpoint of structural functionalism is that everything in society has a purpose, job, or function. So, when a sociologist uses functionalism to look at the concept of gender, it is to determine how gender roles, or society's concept of how men and women are expected to act and how they should behave, shape society. Functionalists argue that gender roles were established very early on in human history, when men typically took care of responsibilities outside of the home, such as hunting, and women typically took care of the domestic responsibilities in or around the home. These roles were considered functional because women were often limited by the physical restraints of pregnancy and nursing and were unable to leave the home for long periods of time. As a result, these expectations were passed on to later generations and served as an effective system to keeping the basic unit of society - families - strong and prosperous.

This system of women being responsible for jobs in and around the home and men responsible for supporting a family outside the home has not always remained stable. For example, during WWII, men had to take on the job of protecting the security of the United States and so women not only had to take care of their regular family responsibilities, but now also had to become the main income-earners. However, when men returned from war and wanted to reclaim their jobs, society fell into a state of imbalance because many women did not want to forfeit their wage-earning positions, thus challenging the legitimacy of traditional gender roles for years to come.

Conflict Theory

Another way of explaining the effects of gender is through the conflict theory perspective. Just as the name implies, conflict theory states that society is always experiencing a state of tension or conflict. This view sees society as a collection of haves and have-nots, and the difference between the two results from the distribution of power and control among the groups. Thus, when sociologists study gender from this perspective, we can view men as the dominant group and women as the subordinate group, and ask how and why this happens.

Sociologists argue that the conflict between the treatment of men versus women comes from the same system that we mentioned in the structural functionalist perspective. Historically, men have been the wage earners of their households and thus have been given a great deal of power in sustaining the family system. So, just as there is an owner-worker relationship in the workforce, this same type of relationship has entered the family system, where men are the owners and women assume the role of workers. Because women traditionally have had to depend on their spouses for economic support, they in turn have been seen as subordinate, or below, men. However, modern conflict theorists suggest that when women become wage earners themselves, they can gain more power in the family structure and create more equal arrangements in the home. However, they may still carry the majority of the domestic burden, much like we mentioned in the double duty that women had to pull during WWII.

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