Doing Difference

Doing Difference

Doing Difference is a landmark concept that grew out of the authors' earlier idea [1] of "doing gender", first presented at the American Sociological Association in 1977 by Candace West and Don Zimmerman [2] and published in an early issue of Gender and Society in 1987.[3] In 1995, Candace West and Sarah Fenstermaker sought to extend the idea of gender as an ongoing interactional process into the realms of race and class.

They begin their argument by asserting that the intersection of these three fundamental ways to categorize social difference cannot simply be thought of in a mathematical or even strictly hierarchical sense. That is, simply plugging in these concepts as variables in a multiple regression model to predict life success in a particular society provides a simplified way to look at their relative effects, but would fail to provide an adequate basis for even understanding, lesser yet altering systemic inequalities based on race, class, and gender. For instance, Poor black women in the United States face immense social disadvantages, but to place them at the bottom of some abstract listing of vulnerable populations tells us little about how race, class, and gender interacted in their biography and social milieu to constrain and direct their lives. Their analysis of these core differences from the standpoint of ethnomethodology turns the focus away from individual characteristics. Instead, they are understood processually as "emergent properties of social situations" which simultaneously produce systematically different outcomes for social groups and the rationale for such disparities.

The authors assert that the reason race and class were not adequately considered in earlier works is because the feminist movement has historically been the province of white middle class women in the developed world who were not sufficiently affected or attuned to the nature of these corollary oppressions. Furthermore, few women outside this privileged lot were able to gain access to institutions of higher education, which might have permitted them to engage in the academic discourse and activity about such shortcomings. Even if they had, the gatekeepers within the academy and at leading journals made this unlikely process even more difficult. Perhaps overt racism and classism (and sexism) is less apparent today in these institutions, but the tendency remains for those in positions of power to view the world in a way that discounts the experience of marginalized groups. A greater understanding of this core critique within Third-wave feminism can be gained through reading the early works of Patricia Hill Collins and bell hooks.

The central theme of "difference" here is meant to illustrate how the concepts of race and gender have been falsely conceived as biologically bound predictors of behavior and aptitude among those who are a certain skin color or sex. The commonalities within these somewhat arbitrary categories often exaggerated and the behavior of the most dominant group within the category (e.g. rich white men or women) becomes idealized as the only appropriate way to fulfill one social role. This conceptualization is then employed as a means of excluding and stigmatizing those who do not or cannot live up to these standards. This process of "doing difference" is realized in constant interpersonal interactions that reaffirm and reproduce social structure. Experiencing the world through the interaction of these "essentialized" characteristics and especially through dominant group's frame of reference (power interests) produces a pattern of thought and behavior that reproduces these social inequalities.

Social science research has rendered dubious any claim that race can simply be conflated with color, or gender with genitalia, or even class with paychecks. Class may not seem as prone to ideas about natural social differentiation, but within capitalist societies, it is often assumed that one's economic situation is a more or less direct indication of one's capacity to achieve. Since women and people of color taken are more often poor, natural disadvantage is at least tacitly assumed by many. Given the general observation that powerful groups seem to rely heavily on these ideas of natural subordination, many liberationist thinkers came to the conclusion that this essentialism would be a prime rhetorical vehicle to subvert. Thus, the deconstruction of role theory and functionalism within sociology was a central theme from the 1960s onward. This still left a somewhat gaping theoretical vacuum, one that continues to be felt by people struggling with this challenge to fundamentally alter their social cosmology.

Social constructionism has assumed the major explanatory role in these discussions by positing that the meanings of these supposedly ascribed statuses are in fact situationally dependent on the sort of social context in which we employ them. That is, race, class, and gender aren't just objective scientific facts, but dynamic processes of culturally constructing cues for moral behavior (for which one can be held personally accountable) in a particular circumstance. It is these constantly occurring processes, not some divinely decreed grand plan, which reproduces social structure. Individuals "do difference" when they acknowledge (knowingly or unknowingly) how their categorization renders them socially accountable to acting in a particular way in a situation. However, when individuals recalibrate "doing difference" to produce alternative ways to conceptualize interaction patterns, it amounts to social change.


  • West, Candace and Sarah Fenstermaker. 1995. "Doing Difference". Gender and Society, 9(1)8-37.
  • West, Candace and Don H. Zimmerman. 1987. "Doing Gender". Gender and Society, 1(2)125-151.

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