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Researching how children learn gender                 

Carrie Paechter

Carrie is a Professor at Goldsmiths, University of London

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These resource pages are about how I have researched children's learning of gender. They are designed to show some of the theoretical and empirical resources I have drawn on in my work, and to explain why these are important to me.

The pages are separated into two sections: theoretical and empirical sources. This is because both are extremely significant for this kind of study. The division is not so much between where I get theoretical ideas and how I then apply them to research, as between the kind of writing I access in each. Most of what I do ends up involving the development of theory about gender. I develop this theory, however, from both other people's theories and other people's and my own research findings. The Empirical Sources sections therefore focus on some of the places I look to get access to other people's research findings.

Because space is limited here, I cannot give an exhaustive or even a reasonably full set of sources. What I have chosen to do instead is to concentrate on the two key areas of theory that I have used recently, and on three empirical foci that are relatively unusual in the sociological study of gender and children. This has meant, for example, that I am not going to discuss Foucaultian approaches, although my work is rooted in Foucault, or the empirical methods or sources used by most researchers in this area. I am assuming that these will be covered elsewhere, but that the things I am looking at here will not.

Theoretical sources 1: gender theory

Anyone wanting to study children and their relationship with gender has to have some conception of what gender is. This is easier said than done. Most of us have a common-sense understanding of gender, but such understandings become challenged when we start to unpick the relationship between sex and gender and to investigate more closely how gender as a concept is treated in everyday and academic speech. Many contemporary writers also focus on the idea that gender is something that we ‘do', rather than what we ‘are', following Candace West and Don Zimmerman's foundational paper, ‘Doing Gender' (Gender and Society (1987) 1:2, 125-151).

Many 20 th and 21 st century writers make a distinction between sex and gender, although this is itself now being questioned. An early statement of this distinction is to be found in Robert Stoller's 1968 book Sex and Gender: on the development of masculinity and femininity (New York , Science House). He argues that

Gender is the amount of masculinity or femininity found in a person, and, obviously, while there are mixtures of both in many humans, the normal male has a preponderance of masculinity and the normal female a preponderance of femininity (9-10)

Stoller's clear distinction between sex as pertaining to the body (maleness or femaleness) and gender as related to the mind or to dispositions (masculinity or femininity) had a strong influence until the last decade of the 20 th century, to the extent that, in Gender Trouble: feminism and the subversion of identity (1990, London, Routledge), Judith Butler suggests that gender is more or less arbitrary and endlessly changeable. In subsequent work, however, for example, Bodies That Matter: on the discursive limits of 'sex' (1993, London , Routledge) and Undoing Gender (2004, New York , Routledge) she moved from this position to take a greater account of the body. A spirited critique of Butler 's work by the philosopher Martha Nussbaum can be found at .

Other contemporary researchers, such as Toril Moi , have returned to the work of Simone de Beauvoir , particularly her influential book The Second Sex (1949). In What is a Woman? (1999) Moi points out that, in French and other languages, the distinction between sex and gender does not exist, and that it is in many ways an artefact of the dominance of English-language writing on the field. Such arguments, combined with a concern to take into account the materiality of the body, have led a number of writers to conclude that such a distinction has outlived its usefulness, although an alternative terminology has yet to be established.

Theoretical sources 2: communities of practice

If we are to understand how children learn gender, we have to understand how learning is related to identity. We therefore have to have a theoretical framework that links the two. My own work researching how children understand gender, for example, Being Boys, Being Girls: learning masculinities and femininities (2007, Open University Press) uses an adapted form of the work of Jean Lave and Etienne Wenger for this purpose. This theoretical framework for understanding how people learn in groups was first posited in their short book Situated Learning: legitimate peripheral participation (1991, Cambridge , Cambridge University Press), and more fully developed by Wenger in Communities of Practice: learning, meaning and identity (1998, Cambridge University Press). The fundamental idea is that people learn what it is to be a member of a specific community through legitimate peripheral participation in the practices of that community: this is basically an apprenticeship model of learning. I have adapted this model, mainly by giving more emphasis both to legitimation and to power relations, to give me a way of thinking about how children could learn to be males and females within specific local communities, constructing their identities according to local models of what it is to be a boy or girl, man or woman.

Empirical focus 1: children's bodies

Children's bodies are largely ignored in educational research, including research into gender. This seems to stem from a combination of the theoretical divide between sex and gender and a general invisibility around children's bodies in schooling. Children's bodies are only considered in school when they are in the wrong place or not behaving as they are expected to (running in corridors; pregnant; ‘inappropriately' dressed; obese). Bodies, however, are fundamental to gender identity, so if we want to understand how children learn gender we have to think about children's bodies, including how children understand their own bodies.

Useful sources on gender and bodies generally are: Raewyn Connell 's Gender (2002, Cambridge, Polity Press); Anne Fausto-Sterling 's Sexing the Body: gender politics and the construction of sexuality (2000, New York, Basic Books); Lynda Birke 's Feminism and the biological body (1999, Edinburgh University Press); and Elizabeth Grosz 's Volatile Bodies (1994, Bloomington, Indiana University Press). None of these books deal specifically with children's bodies, however, although some contributions to a recent edited collection in the literature on physical education, John Evans et al's edited collection, Body Knowledge and Control (2004, London, Routledge) is beginning to open this up a bit. I myself also use the literature on children with intersex conditions, as it reminds us how much identity and legitimation are bound up with bodily forms. The best source of this by far is the webpage of the Intersex Society of North America: , which includes guidelines for people writing about intersex issues.

Consequently, researchers studying children's bodies, and how they use them to understand and enact gender, are breaking new ground, both theoretically and methodologically. This involves becoming much more body-aware than has been the case to date, making observations about children's bodies in field notes, examining the ways in which they move, their attitudes to their bodies, and the ways in which they dress. It requires us to think about what it is about those bodies that makes us classify and react to children in different ways, and to be aware of the fundamentally physical nature of children's lives. We may also have to consider new ways of gathering data, including photographic and other visual methods, so that we have good records of how our participants are embodied. Such methods are likely to raise complex ethical questions as well as potentially posing problems with regard to access. This work is, nevertheless, necessary, if we are to understand the lived experience of being a boy or a girl.

Empirical focus 2: children and space

Children's bodies do not exist in a vacuum, and children enact and construct their gender through their bodies in material space. It is therefore important for us to study how children use space, and how this space use is gendered. An example of this is the work I did on children and playgrounds as part of my ESRC-funded Tomboy Identities study, a paper arising from which was presented in the TLRP thematic seminar series: Contexts, Communities and Networks: Mobilising Learners' Resources and Relationships in Different Domains .

One of the most useful writers on children and space is Jan Nespor, particularly his book Tangled Up in School (1997, Mahwah , New Jersey , Lawrence Erlbaum Associates). His detailed analyses of how children interact with school and urban spaces do not concern themselves specifically with gender, however. Tuula Gordon 's work, on the other hand, addresses spatiality and gender directly, particularly in her book with Janet Holland and Elina Lahelma , Making Spaces: Citizenship and Difference in Schools , (2000, London, Macmillan).

Doing spatially-aware research about children means paying direct attention to the spaces in which they are being studied. Methodologically it involves drawing maps and plans of the spaces of the research (classrooms; playgrounds; parks; homes) and noting in particular who uses which spaces, when, and why. It can also involve asking children to draw both mental and physical maps of the spaces they use and asking them where they feel comfortable, which spaces they feel are ‘theirs' and which they enter only with caution or deference to others.

Empirical focus 3: psychological literature

I have chosen to draw attention to this because many people working in the sociology of gender with respect to children don't seem to read psychology. I have no idea why this is. The literature on the psychology of gender development is a really useful source of empirical evidence. Such evidence is crucial to the development of good theory: without it there is a tendency to fall back on one's own experience, which may be highly partial. For example, Judith Butler , in Undoing Gender (2004, New York , Routledge), writes of her emphasis on drag in the last chapter of Gender Trouble :

Why drag? Well, there are biographical reasons, and you might as well know that in the United States the only way to describe me in my younger years was as a bar dyke who spent her days reading Hegel and her evenings, well, at the gay bar, which occasionally became a drag bar. (213)

While Butler 's friendship with drag queens clearly stimulated important theoretical insights, it seems to me that such insights need to be checked out against empirical evidence, painstakingly collected. This can be found, for those interested in young children and gender, in the psychological literature on child development. While particular care has to be taken to examine the data sets for such literature (some researchers, particularly from the USA, have a tendency to study psychology students and ask them retrospective questions about their childhood), they can be invaluable as a basis for constructing theory or underpinning sociological studies.

A key overview text in this area is the substantial chapter on gender development by Diane N. Ruble , Carol Lynn Martin, and Sheri A. Berenbaum , in the 3 rd volume of the Handbook of Child Psychology (2006, New Jersey, John Wiley), edited by William Damon et al. I also find the journal Sex Roles: a journal of research to be a reliable source of good articles.



How to reference this page: Paechter, C. (2007) Researching how children learn gender. London: TLRP. Online at (accessed )

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