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What is gender? Are we passively being masculine or feminine or rather achieving a social status that has been given to us?

Written by Jahiem Jones

Edited by Skye Patton

Social interactions have always had significance in the development of social norms. Even in cases where one may not necessarily be subject to these social norms and constructs, people often fall victim to these preconceived expectations from society. These expectations and the roles they play in social order and norms are the foundations of Harold Garfinkel’s ethnomethodology.

Ethnomethodology examines social order as a product of social interactions and these social meanings are critical in socialization (Garfinkel, 1963, in Everyday Activities). An example of these ideas would be gender and engaging in how gender structures ideas of masculinity and femininity. Gender is a social achievement and therefore is something that is being actively done rather than passively doing, by creating such emphasis, people are accountable for upholding gender norms (West and Zimmerman, 1987, in Grazian, 2012).

We can see such accountability by examining the masculine culture in men by breaching social norms and observing their responses which then can be applied to the broader phenomenon of ethnomethodology. With such breaching experiments and emasculate violations of social norms, we can expect quite a few sanctions, but also interpret how one might go about actualizing within the socialization of individuals.

Within the lenses of ethnomethodology, Garfinkel suggests that society creates social meaning and because of that is flexible within its expectations and the social stratifications of such social norms (Garfinkel, 1963, in Everyday Activities). As Garfinkel elaborates on his breaching of social norms, we can achieve this understanding of gender and masculine culture by breaching the social norm of being affectionate and vulnerable. An idea that ravishes the modern identity of masculinity where men may not be too affectionate or vulnerable to another man or will be met with some type of penalty. Because we do live in a society where violence and heterosexism are still present in men today, I decided to experiment with a group of men I trust, my own friend group. My friend group is your typical group of both cisgender and heterosexual men who I believe will not exert any penalty as a result to these violations. However, many people’s reactions are involuntary and sometimes very minute. In conducting my breaching experiment, I was careful in evaluating settings and decided to perform various of different emotional and affectionate actions across a myriad of settings such as a party full of intoxicated men, weekend activities, or just in the commons during the midterm season.

This is appropriate because social interactions are all dependent on the setting which will affect the response of individuals. I also decided to keep my breach verbal as I value the consent and personal space of my friends. Lastly, I made sure that my actions did not seem out of the ordinary, I wanted my breach to look nearly natural to them as if I had randomly thought to be affectionate or vulnerable with them. These considerations allow for a more developed and consistent observation and ultimately can be applied directly to ethnomethodology without any error.

During my breaching experiment, I was expecting a lot of negative responses, but most responses consisted of “okay” and utter silence. While there were unique responses, they seemed like outliers to the more consistent and now expected responses. Every time I spoke of or about vulnerability or affection most of my friends would just look away or just stare, other times I was met with “I love you man” and other affectionate phrases. Not to say that these phrases are out of the ordinary (they are my friends after all), but some responses seem to be heavily exaggerated or even sarcastic.

What mostly caught my attention were the responses that seemed to be hiding other responses as if the first one was an impression of some sort. What confirmed these thoughts were the subtle but random comments of “you’re amazing” or “dude, you’re so caring” which was a bit of a shocker, but it seems as if affection or vulnerability are allowed in privacy. To which the social breach or violation is disturbing the confidentiality of affection and vulnerability that is then shared with the public. This is a sociological example of Impression Management, where an individual influences their definitions of self and behavior whilst participating in social interactions (Goffman, 1956, in Presentation of Self). Doing so enforces individuals to uphold social meaning and in this case, masculinity. Other observations consisted of topic switching, questioning the intent of my statement, and even ignoring me together in which all of which are subsidiaries that can be applied to ethnomethodology and impression management.

So, what does this breaching experiment have to say about men and how one might actualize into socialization? Well to actualize socialization, one must first understand its language, rules, and beliefs. Without such understanding, culture will either fall or the individual is exiled completely from the social order. With ethnomethodology, society categorizes its people by ways of socioeconomic status which is rather given than what you are (Garfinkel, 1963, in Everyday Activities. This is the entire argument of West and Zimmerman where gender is determined by actions both social and interpersonal. Within my breach it was stated that most of the responses seemed to be a product of managing impression but to manage impression, one cannot achieve said imprisoned identity. If one is not actively doing gender or masculinity, then how might one be actively a man?

Gender is not just stationary; it is rather our attitudes and practices that influence the social meaning of doing gender (West and Zimmerman, 1987, in Grazian, 2012). Again, by the law of ethnomethodology social meaning is flexible thus doing gender allows for great negotiation and interpretation. This may affect one’s perception of themselves, the idea behind the social self, whereas identity comes from social interactions. Men are “men” because society categorizes such actions (private or not) as masculine therefore individuals who participate in those actions are men. However, this is different from sex category, where society is stricter with its categorization of a binary between men and women, and such categorizations are clear and defined (West and Zimmerman, 1987, in Grazian, 2012).

Ultimately, my breach experiment confirms Garfinkel’s ideas of ethnomethodology through West and Zimmerman’s ideas of doing gender, finally, we see how impression management can be used to closely interpret one’s social interactions and apply them to the wider scopes of microsociology. In closing, gender is a vast and complex topic with many different directions to explore. My breaching experiment just scratches much of what is still a development in society.


David Grazian. 2007. “The Girl Hunt: Urban Nightlife and the Performance of Masculinity as Collective Activity.” Symbolic Interaction 30: 221-243.

Erving Goffman. 1959. “The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life.” Excerpt pp. 1 – 6.

Harold Garfinkel, 1963. “The Routine Grounds of Everyday Activities” Excerpt p 225-250

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