The Influence of Social Structures on Gender Identity

The aim of this essay is to examine the influence of social structures on gender identity. In order to do this, free will and determinism will be explored, along with evolutionary behaviorism, social meaning, and some forms of social structure and their direct influence on gendered behavior. Identity is the combination of how others experience us and how we experience ourselves. It is a sense of identifying and differentiating with certain groups of people, we have multiple roles and identities within society made up of many components such as age, sex, class, ethnicity and intelligence.

More importantly it is the meaning the social world gives to these attributes, which we then internalize as parts of our identity. However the amount of control we have over forming our identities is debatable.

The idea of agency (free will) and structural (determining social influence) is relevant here. Behaviorism as defined by Skinner argues that free will is an illusion, reducing human behavior to reward seeking and punishment avoidance.

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Meaning behaving ‘freely’ is an illusion as it occurs only when no negative reinforcers are present. (Skinner 1974 p.50) So in relation to identity formation it states that we have no autonomy and are simply products of our environment. Other less determining ideas can be found in Humanistic psychology, which states that we are free to make our own choices and shape our own identities. An individual with no sense of self or identity would be unable to function in society.

Schizophrenia is said to be when an individual’s sense of identity becomes confused and fragmented (R.

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D. Laing 1967 p.86). Of the many factors influencing identity, gender is the most important. Gender is said to be characteristics associated with being male or female (masculine or feminine). Turner has developed these characteristics arranging them into ‘universally socially accepted’ ideas of masculine and feminine, such as passive being perceived as feminine, strong masculine and modest neutral. He then states people then see themselves and others as part of these categories, which then become part of their identities (Turner et al p.54). Languages such as German use feminine, masculine and neutral to categories everything including inanimate objects, this shows how ingrained gender stereotyping is in our perception of the world. Gender identity according to Turner is a social construct. However under closer inspection many of the given masculine and feminine characteristics may have a biological basis, suggesting an element of determinism. Hormonal differences in males and females could account for some of the socially different behaviors.

Females normally produce more estrogen and progesterone, while males more testosterone and other androgens. Testosterone has been associated with aggressive behavior; Ehrhardt examined the behavior and development of girls exposed to high levels of male hormones during fetal growth. He found these girls when compared to other females of the same age, IQ and socio-economic status displayed more tomboy’ characteristics e.g. chose males as playmates, more inclined toward outdoor sports and showed little interest in girls toys (Ehrhardt, D.A, 1964 p.522) This shows that hormones play some part in behavior. This physiological difference between male and female and the biological urge to reproduce, must have bearings on gendered behavior even in the present age, where we have more control over our environment. Sociobiology developed by Wilson used ideas of Darwinism and natural selection to explain gendered behavior; he saw the urge to reproduce as humanities main driving force.

He explained female gendered behavior by the fact that females produce only a few eggs and so are limited in the number of offspring they can produce, whereas males produce millions of sperm and can produce many more offspring so can afford to be less cautious and more promiscuous. This could explain differences in gendered behavior in terms of determinism, such as male aggressiveness and domination (Wilson, E.O, 1975 p.525) However Wilson did accept that we can consciously override these urges, but to the disadvantage of passing on our genes. Parsons and his studies of the family unit could be interpreted as defining the above ideas of evolutional behaviourism into his notions of the modern nuclear family. Here he views the mother and father as having clearly defined role based on gender i.e male breadwinner and the female care giver’. He claims the family is the main source of an individuals sense of gender identity, being responsible for the ‘primary socialisation’ of children and stabilization of their adult personalities’. This socialization is gender specific and is done in most part by the mother along with the child’s observation of the roles performed by ‘ mom’ and ‘dad’ (Parsons, T. 1959 P462).

However Parson studies do not take into account diversity in the family such as single and same sexed parents. But the family clearly plays some role in formation in gendered identities. Another social structure, which plays a role in gender identification, is schooling. Even today some schools are single sexed, which would further mark the difference between what is considered male and female. At schools children will have the opportunity to socialize more with peers and so certain attributes associated with gender identities will become further reinforced along with the school system and activities such a physical education. The media and advertising companies could be seen as a social construct that influence gendered behaviour. Films such as ‘Die Hard’ show a stereotypical male role (Bruce Willis is the hero of the film and is strong, in control and aggressive). The fashion industry uses thin, feminine appearing models to advertise its clothes, showing ideal feminine sterotypes. Gender identity is clearly a very complex topic, it is influenced by social structures, which transmit the ‘ideal’ way in which a male or female should conduct themselves. We cannot ignore our basic biological functions; having said that we are also self-conscious and so to some extent can influence our behavior.

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The Influence of Social Structures on Gender Identity. (2022, Sep 18). Retrieved from

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