Is It Possible To Come To A Consensus On The Definition And Application Of Gender As A Concept In Social And Political Studies?

The aim of this title is to understand whether it is possible or not to come to a consensus on the definition and application of the concept of gender, specifically in social and political studies. With a wide range of applications for the concept of gender it is not surprising that the concept itself has many definitions and adaptations when in use. The variations that surround gender and the forms in which it is used makes the case for impossibility for consensus. When discussing its applications it will become clearer why this paper argues that consensus is not only impossible but perhaps a hindrance to the ultimate goal of gender equality. I will use the development of the concept as a lens in which to understand the literature and will focus my timescale from the early 1950s to the present evaluation of the concept that can be loosely defined as gender.

Throughout this paper I will make reference to the changing status of identity norms, these norms encompass the concept of gender and surround the understanding and therefore, subsequent application of the concept. Using feminist literature and academic works alike, I will build upon and sometimes criticise the works of Simone de Beauvoir, Professor Ann Oakley, Gayle Rubin, Robert Stoller and John Money throughout this paper to better understand the concept of gender. What I also seek to make clear throughout this paper is that there are benefits to both the formation of a consensus and the maintenance of a lack of consensus on the concept of gender. In order to answer the overall question effectively, the following questions will guide this papers discussion. What is gender? How far have the norms that surround gender come and are they still relevant? What are the applications of gender as a concept and would consensus benefit its application? And why would a consensus perhaps hinder the progression of gender equality and understanding?

If we solely analyse the concept of gender on linguistic grounds, the variations and lack of complete consensus is typical of a social concept. This is because a term’s social use tends to relate to each individual or group in a different way. In very basic terms, gender remains the socially constructed parallel of the biological concept of sex. Further to, the use of gender as a concept in the present day can be associated with the term that is most prominently used when discussing gender, and gender identity. Once historically associated with the social relations of the biological terms, of men and women, the previously binary gender groups have been replaced with additional genders and groups within gender identity that can change gender identity (know as gender fluidity) and those who entirely do not identify. It is therefore most useful to redefine the perhaps now redundant broader concept of gender with the newly, more widely understood term of gender identity.

What is gender?

Despite developments of the concept and the formation of new identities that the concept of gender now encompasses there remains a variation in classification when it comes to gender itself. Some still define gender “as a complex process that involves the social construction of men’s and women’s identities in relation to each other”, whereas others have come to broaden its classification to a ‘mass noun’, to be “the fact or condition of belonging to or identifying with a particular gender” (Mazur and Goertz, 2008:1; Oxford Dictionary, 2018:1).

Collectively the term gender has been developed from a biological term to become a concept to represent the socially constructed separation of the then two sexes, male and female. Until recently scarcely little had changed, since the early 1920s, when it comes to the concept of gender.

If we refer to the work John Money (1957), his formation of the concept of ‘gender role’ is better known as ‘gender identity’ in the present day. Money (1957:46) makes observation that while the biological classification of sex remains intrinsically linked to either the possession of a female or a male biology, omitting medical phenomenon of the possession of both female and male biology, the classification of a gender role is primarily linked to the expression of “mannerisms, deportment and demeanour”. While Money remains within the remit of the binary conception of gender, his findings are important when discussing the present day classification and utility of gender and gender identity as he focuses on behaviour as a representation of gender rather than the purely biological understanding. Although the case studies that Money relied on were largely discredited, it is important not to dismiss his findings, as his definition of the concept of ‘gender role’ is not dissimilar from what we define as gender identity in the present day. Money’s findings are not dissimilar from Robert Stoller’s (1984:16) later published work on what he defined as “core gender identity”. Stoller (1984:16-17) goes on to categorise “an innate sense of being male or female” which is determined in the early years of infancy. Putting great weight on the importance of nurture in the defining of gender identity, his findings while decades earlier, mirror our present day understanding of what we define as gender or gender identity.

In my opinion, the only singularity of understanding when it comes to gender is its transition from its historically binary status. This transference of a binary norm to a multilateral framework has meant that the concept of gender no longer defines the structurally binary divisions of the sexes, i.e. men and women but a much wide variation of gender identities. The social and political applications of gender has also historically on one hand been the promotion of one gender and the subjugation of the other, and on the other to end these negative social and political inequalities.

How far have the norms that surround gender come and are they still relevant? 

When first the works of Simone de Beauvoir like The Second Sex were published in 1949, the French lacked the linguistic separation between what was known in English as ‘sex’ and ‘gender’. Even then with this linguistic lacking, de Beauvoir did not fail to distinguish between the social conception and the biological conception of gender. As time went on the developments of a definition of gender saw direct correlation between the development of gender medicine and the adoption of the concept into social science.

The critique of concepts within feminist literature has been central since its inception (Mary Hawkesworth, 2006). However, the development of the concept of gender in recent years has failed to draw consensus within feminist literature in general. The changing of norms that surround the concept of gender, along with the formation of newly adopted gender identities have failed to improve this lack of consensus. After studying a range of feminist literature it has become clear that even throughout the texts of early second-wave feminists the concept of gender was still predominantly a term used in academia. The distinction between biology, what is largely expressed as ‘sex’ and culture, expressed as ‘gender’ did however, feature but through the use of other terms. Examples include, Shulamith Firestone’s (1970:34) “the sex distinction” and Gayle Rubin’s (1975:23) “socially-imposed division of the sexes”. These writers, however, like most focus on the concept of binary gender. I would argue that while the development of gender identities does not undermine the goal of equality as the concept of gender equality should seek to give all genders equality, it is however, possible that these developments would make these feminist arguments that remain based on binary gender, at least less useful both socially and politically, if not redundant.

Through the study of a range of feminist literature, it is perhaps clearer that the concept of gender has featured, but has been previously expressed using different terms. The difficulty in consensus may have occurred more recently, especially with the rapid developments that gender, identity and social sectors have faced in recent years.

The studies of Stoller and Money, although focused on the previous understanding of binary gender, should not be thrown out. The understanding that these psychological studies provided gives great evidence to the concept of present day gender and gender identity. It is therefore, the current social and political sectors that should seek to take up these previous notions of identity psychiatry and psychology into the concept of present day gender and gender identity, especially if we are to come to a consensus on them as concepts.

What are the applications of gender as a concept and would consensus benefit its application?

The application of the concept of gender is primarily based on studies of inequality and feminist literature. A prominent example of this is the work of Professor Ann Oakley, who uses the concept of binary gender, as it was, as a comparative lens when it comes to social and political equality. The concept of more recent binary gender also focuses on the distinction between male and female child development. Focusing on the teaching of violence in childhood, Professor Ann Oakley (2015) uses (binary) gender as a lens when discussing the production of toys. The distinction between the production of nurturing, caring and soft toys for female children and the violent, destructive, hard toys produced for male children links back to the work of Money and Stoller when discussing the nurture aspect of reflective gender behaviours (Professor Ann Oakley, 2015).

The application of gender as a concept is however, important in many sectors of society, as this paper seeks to focus primarily on social and political studies, the following evidence will follow this focus. The use of a concept like gender not only affects those seeks equality when it comes to gender treatment but the institutions or norms where gender features (Professor Ann Oakley, 2015). Political representation is a prime example, especially when looking at the pre-transformation of the concept of gender; equality activists and feminist writers alike prominently use statistics of female and male representation in the political sector. However, these statistics again focus on the binary and therefore, out-dated understanding of gender. If we are to truly classify and analyse gender equality, and gender representation it should encompass all genders and gender identities.

On a whole of the application of the concept of gender is primarily linked to our previous understanding of binary gender. Without the development and social uptake of all genders and gender identities held within the concept, its application is primarily redundant. 

And why would a consensus perhaps hinder the progression of gender equality and understanding?

It is possible that by isolating concept into a static state provides frameworks for social and political studies but those who identify as fluid, more than one or no gender at all may be entirely excluded by a set understanding of the concept of gender. Not only will the newly formed identities that are encompassed under the umbrella of gender be excluded but the consensus of gender norms have historically only sought to undermine the progression of gender equality. While norms such a feminine and masculine have largely been retired from social and political society, their linguistic legacy remains, having historically enabled “power difference” with an “insistence on natural difference” essentially “ensuring inequality” (Vaerting, 1923:45-49).

On the other hand, a lack of consensus may make the understanding and defining of a concept the primary foci of surrounding research. Without a definitive concept understanding the application of gender as a concept becomes much more difficult and therefore could undermine the ultimate goal of feminism, gender equality.

The criticism of the consensus of gender as a concept can also be intrinsically linked to its historical basis in feminist literature. Most feminist writers and academics understand and define gender to be based on dualistic conception of men and women. This can be seen throughout literature that surrounds social and political studies alike. The use of concepts such as feminine and masculine when classifying political violence, and the use of binary gender as a lens in which to study the effects of social and political inequality undermine the developments that have taken place within the concept of gender and gender identity. The continuation of binary gender as a lens of comparative study when it comes to inequality also highlights the prominent issues that surround the consensus and classification of present day gender and gender identity. The concept of gender altogether relates to a developing and in its current form, a concept that is little understood. Without the encompassing of all genders and gender identities it is not possible to come to a consensus on gender as a concept in any sector or studies, let alone in social and political spheres where the lens of gender is used so prominently. In order to better understand the concept of gender and gender identity, studies into the representation of all genders and gender identities must take place. For the concept to remain relevant and for a consensus to be achieved it must encompass the present understanding of gender and gender identity as opposed to what has been previously understood. It is therefore, paramount that the study and formation of a cohesive concept that encompasses what we have previously understood about gender and the developments that have recently taken place in gender and gender identity to be formulated. This would enable both a better understanding of the concept itself and enable a better application of the concept. Without this development and cohesion the concept may well remain irrelevant to present day discussion and eventually become redundant.

Image Credit: Canva Images


De Beauvoir, S. (1949) Le Deuxième Sexe. Published: Editions L’Harmattan 

Firestone, S. (1970) The Dialectic of Sex. Published: William Morrow and Company 

Hawkesworth, M. (2006). Globalisation and Feminist Activism. Published: Rowman and Littlefield 

Mazur, A and Goertz, G (2008) Politics, Gender and Concepts: Theory and Methodology. Published: Cambridge University Press

Money, J., Hampson, J. G., & Hampson, J. L. (1957). Imprinting and the establishment of gender role. Archives of Neurology & Psychiatry, 77, 333–336. 

Oakley, A. Prof. (2015) Sex, Gender and Society. Published: Ashgate Publishing, Ltd 

Oxford Dictionary (2018) Definition: Gender. 

Available at: (Accessed: 12th March 2018)

Rubin, G. (1975). The traffic in women: Notes on the “political economy” of sex. In R. R. Reiter (Ed.), Toward an anthropology of women (pp. 157–210). New York: Monthly Review Press. 

Stoller, R. Dr. (1984) Sex and Gender: The Development of Mascultinity and Femininity. Published: Karnac Books


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