Women, men and the ties that bind

Introduction to Gender

May 25, 2007

This highly readable textbook, written from social science perspectives, is aimed at undergraduates. It is not an introduction to gender studies per se, but an introduction to gender as present in the issues and disciplines discussed in the text. Clearly structured and informative aids to learning are included in each chapter, such as a listing of the key themes to be covered, "Stop and Think" pauses, library searches and exercises to be undertaken to test understanding and recall of what has been read. The further reading recommendations at the end of each chapter include references to relevant publications and websites, and a glossary of terms is a handy reference point.

The book is divided into three parts. In part one, overarching issues are addressed, such as the social construction of gender and theoretical explanations of gender differences. As the authors point out, although gender is usually described as the social construction of masculinity or femininity, based upon the biological differences between men and women, the categorising of human beings as "male" or "female"

cannot be left unquestioned. For example, the presence of ladyboys in Thailand or the transgender community in the US suggests that there is more to biological sex than just being "male" and "female". The second chapter in part one, which explores how gender intersects with method, methodology and epistemology, will appeal to students in a number of disciplines.

Drawing on earlier feminist critiques of male-centred approaches to research, key themes are succinctly raised about the selection of sexist and elitist research topics, biased research that uses male-only respondents, exploitative relationships between researcher and researched, claims to false objectivity, and generalising about findings that relate only to men as applicable to humankind. During this comprehensive survey, important questions are explored: are quantitative approaches inevitably masculine and qualitative approaches inevitably feminine? What are the differential experiences of male and female researchers, and of male and female respondents? Having dealt with the basic tools for a gender analysis, part two focuses on the use of gender as an analytical category of analysis within specific disciplines: history, sociology, social policy, anthropology, psychology, political science, pedagogy and geography.

However, there is no discussion as to why these eight disciplines were selected and others, such as literary, cultural or media studies, omitted.

Although this section of the book is impressive in its coverage, the content of the chapters is somewhat uneven, perhaps inevitable given the social science background of the authors. Thus the strongest chapters are on sociology and social policy, the weakest on history and geography. For example, the chapter on history draws rigid divisions between women's history and gender history. Thus women's history is defined as being about women and rooted in empiricism while in gender history "the subject is not women and men, but power and the way that power is created through discourse and culture". These definitions are highly problematic and the binary categorisation too simplistic, as any reading of Journal of Women's History or Women's History Review will reveal.

Part three claims to offer "interdisciplinary perspectives" on selected issues - the family, health and illness, education, work and leisure, sex and sexuality, violence and resistance, crime and deviance, culture and mass media. These are well-written overviews of the literature that students will find helpful and enjoyable. Little snippets of fascinating information that will whet the appetite are often included in boxed sections that immediately catch the eye.

For example, in the chapter on sex and sexuality there is a box titled "Women's feet and men's foot fetishisms". Apparently, sexologists agree that fetishists are usually men and that women's feet and shoes are the commonest objects of desire. But more than this, some researchers have suggested that the wearing of high heels by women, a common practice in Western societies, arch the feet at a similar angle to that achieved by footbinding in China's past. Footbinding created clear differences between Chinese men and women and made women objects of sexual desire; thus men gained sexual pleasure from playing with the disabled foot, kissing it, sucking it and even placing it around their penis. This can be compared, it is suggested, to the satisfaction that present-day fetishists gain from the health problems associated with wearing high heels, such as hammer toes and bunions!

While the "Sex and sexuality" essay does include an interdisciplinary perspective, this is not evident in all the chapters in section three, especially that on education. Thus there is only limited discussion of the historical past that has helped to shape class and gender, educational provision for boys and girls today and of recent research on the gendered nature of higher education in Britain, surely an area of key interest for our students. This latter omission is odd, given that one of the exercises students are asked to do is to analyse an autobiographical extract for examples of gender differentiation in the official and hidden curricula.

However, comparative data about education in a global context does place the British educational system in a wider context. In the West Indies, for example, men comprise only 30 per cent of university undergraduates. One explanation for this low participation rate is that it is primarily due to the "historical privileging" of men, which has resulted in forms of masculinity that create barriers for boys and reduce their educational aspirations.

Writing an introductory text is a notoriously difficult task and each of us, located within our own particular disciplines, will be more critical of some chapters than of others. But overall, this textbook is an excellent introduction to the field and should be recommended reading on a wide range of courses. Its breadth and scope put it well ahead of any competitors.

Introduction to Gender: Social Science Perspectives. First Edition

Author - Jennifer Marchbank and Gayle Letherby
Publisher - Pearson
Pages - 349
Price - £25.99
ISBN - 9781405858441

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