Gender research: five examples
Often a complex problem is best approached through specifics, and the results of research are best understood by looking at the actual research projects. In this chapter we discuss five notable studies of gender issues published in recent decades. They come from five continents. Three focus on everyday life in local settings - a school, a workplace, a community, a personal life. One deals with gender change in a great historical transition, and another with gender issues in the environment. Though they deal with very different questions, they reveal some of the main concerns of gender research in general.
Case 1: The play of gender in school life
One of the most difficult tasks in social research is to take a situation that everyone thinks they understand, and illuminate it in new ways. This is what the US ethnographer Barrie Thorne achieves in her subtly observed and highly readable book about school life, Gender Play (1993).
At the time Thorne started her work, children were not much discussed in gender research. When they were mentioned, the usual assumption was that they were being 'socialized' into gender roles, in a top-down transmission from the adult world. It was assumed that there are two sex roles, a male one and a female one, with boys and girls getting separately inducted into the norms and expectations of the appropriate role. This idea was based on a certain amount of research using paper-and-pencil questionnaires, but not on much actual observation of children's lives.
Thorne did that observation. Her book is based on fieldwork in two elementary (primary) schools in different parts of the United States. She spent eight months in one, three months in another, hanging about in classrooms, hallways and playgrounds, talking to everyone and watching the way the children interacted with each other and with their teachers in work and play.
Ethnography as a method sounds easy, but in practice is hard to do well. Part of the problem is the mass of information an observer can get from just a single day 'in the field'. You need to know what you are looking for. But you also need to be open to new experiences and new information, able to see things that you did not expect to see.
As an observer, Thorne was certainly interested in transmission from older people, in the ways children pick up the details of how to do gender. Her funniest (and perhaps also saddest) chapter is called 'Lip Gloss and "Goin' With"', about how pre-adolescent children learn the techniques of teenage flirting and dating. She was also interested in the differences between the girls' and the boys' informal interactions - the games they played, spaces they used, words they spoke, and so on.
But Thorne was able to see beyond the patterns described in conventional gender models. She became aware of how much these models predisposed an observer to look for difference. She began to pay attention not only to the moments in school life when the boys and girls separated, but also to the moments when they came together. She began to think of gender difference as situational , as created in some situations and ignored or overridden in others. Even in recess-time games, where the girls and boys were usually clustered in separate parts of the playground, they sometimes moved into mixed activities without any emphasis on difference. There were many 'relaxed cross-sex interactions' in the school's daily routine. Clearly, the boys and girls were not permanently in separate spheres, nor permanently enacting opposite 'sex roles'.
Recognizing this fact opened up a number of other issues. What were the situations where gender was emphasized or de-emphasized? Thorne noticed that, though teachers sometimes emphasized gender - for instance, arranging a classroom learning game with the girls competing against the boys - most te