The Sociology of Gender Relations

Sylvia Walby. The Sage Handbook of Sociology. Editor: Craig Calhoun, Chris Rojek, Bryan Turner. Sage Publication. 2005.


Sociology has contributed to the transformation of the traditional perception of the relations between men and women from one primarily rooted in biology to one that acknowledges their social constitution, and hence variability and malleability. The fundamental re-thinking of this aspect of life is a process in which sociology has played a significant role alongside popular movements.

There is today a mountain of empirical research in sociology that thoroughly documents the variations in patterns of gender difference and gender inequality across a myriad of social domains, including employment, caring, politics, violence, culture, sexuality, development, globalization and many more. This work is rich, diverse, innovative and comprehensive. A large part of this chapter will be devoted to an account of the themes and contributions of this research.

Yet, despite this very broad development of the analysis of gender relations within sociology, gender is not often regarded as core to traditional sociological theory. This is not to say that there is not theoretical work on gender. There is such work, but this has been largely, though not exclusively, within the realm of cultural theory rather than sociological theory. This has occurred partly because gender was neglected in much of the sociology that has been considered to be classical, and hence not been regarded as core to the central concerns of the traditional sociological canon; partly because the gender field matured at a time when cultural theory was in the ascendance, especially in the UK; and partly because of the interdisciplinary location of much gender analysis which draws on literary and cultural theory as well as social theory.

However, there always has been a strand of gender analysis within comparative and historical research and within sociological theory, although this has been less visible, and it is here that the promise especially lies for the development of the next wave of analysis of the sociology of gender that more decisively connects gender to the core concerns of sociology in general and sociological theory in particular.

What started as a special field of sociology has now developed way beyond any narrowly defined ‘woman question’—few, if any, areas of social life are now considered to be entirely ungendered. This increase in scope has, in recent years, been tempered by a greater realization of the importance of other forms of social relations in the construction of specific forms of gender relations, so that gender is less frequently considered in isolation from ethnicity, ‘race,’ class and other social divisions.

The argument of this chapter is that a proper integration of gender into the classical themes of sociology would benefit both sociological theory and the understanding and explanation of gender relations. Recent developments in comparative and historical work on gender are taking this agenda forward.

The chapter is in four parts: first, a summary of the main contributions of sociology to popular understandings of the relations between men and women; second, a critical analysis of the theoretical debates within the sociology of gender; third, a review of the rich and diverse empirical work in the field; fourth, a discussion of promising contemporary developments.

Sociological Contributions to the Understanding of Gender in the World

Sociology has made several key contributions to the popular everyday understanding of gender relations as well as to social scientific analysis: that gender is socially constituted; that gender is different from biological sex; that there are variations in the patterns of gender relations.

Popular understandings of the differences between women and men have, in previous eras, been rooted in notions of essential unchanging differences. A major contribution of sociology, now widely taken for granted, is that gender is socially constructed. The social constitution of gender is sociology’s claim and its taken-for-granted project. The social rather than biological basis of the differences between women and men has been established in contemporary thought through developments in sociology in tandem with waves of feminist activity. One of the instruments taking this forward was the development of a new vocabulary to articulate new conceptualizations of the relations between men and women, not least the devising of the concept of ‘gender.’ This term, previously restricted to usage in the arcane niceties of grammar, has been reinvented as the cornerstone of a new understanding of the relations between men and women as one that is inherently social. The word has entered the public vocabulary and, slowly, parallel words have been devised in languages other than English. The analytic separation of sex and gender represents a key sociological intervention, changing language, not only in the academy but also in the policy world, and beyond. Oakley’s (1985) work is a key example of this conceptual innovation.

Associated with the notion that gender is social not biological, is the notion that gender is changeable rather than fixed. In different times, places and social locations gender relations take different forms. This was an insight of the early anthropologists, once closely associated with the discipline of sociology, who took as core to their discipline the exploration of different patterns of family and kinship. Mead (1928) is only the most famous of these early pioneers investigating the variations of the constitution of gender relations through the different configurations of social institutions. This understanding of gender as malleable is a key assumption of many feminist movements seeking to change the context within which gender is constituted. Despite the development of evolutionary psychology in notions such as ‘the selfish gene,’ that contest the extent of this variability (Rose and Rose, 2001), the sociological understanding arguably remains dominant. The analysis of the variations in these forms of gender relations is now a key part of the field of gender studies.

Gender and the Discipline of Sociology

Historical Development

The location of gender analysis in sociology has a long and varied history. It is often presumed that there were no leading intellectuals writing on gender relations in and around the discipline of sociology during its foundation in the nineteenth century. However, this absence is exaggerated in at least two ways. First, at the turn of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries a strong and vigorous women’s movement generated several leading intellectual figures and writers. One of these was Charlotte Perkins Gilman (1966 [1898]), who wrote of the significance of the confinement of women to the home as the basis of not only their subordination but also of their cultural differences from men, and who published not only books translated into many languages (Women and Economics ran to seven editions in seven languages), but also in the American Journal of Sociology (Gilman, 1909). But she is rarely recognized as part of the sociological canon. Second, at the same time sociology and anthropology were often considered a single discipline, while core to anthropology was the analysis of family and kinship. This located gender issues at the core of the combined discipline. When the disciplines split, the analysis of family and kinship was left primarily located in anthropology (Coward, 1983). The construction of what constituted the sociological canon in the latter part of the twentieth century left on the margins those writers who had addressed gender issues.

Gender: Everywhere or Particular Institutions?

One of the strategic analytic choices in locating gender within sociology is that of whether gender is considered, first, to be relatively concentrated in a few specific social institutions or, second, to affect all domains and levels of abstraction. The most important example of the first route is where gender is seen as primarily constituted by processes within the family (Parsons and Bales, 1955), though there are further examples, such as sexuality (MacKinnon, 1989). By contrast, in the second route gender is seen as constituted in more or less all social domains (Walby, 1990). The first, more focused, analytic strategy used to be common, but has increasingly given way to the second.

Specialized or Mainstream

There is an enduring tension between the development of gender analysis as a specialized sub-field within sociology (considered either in particular institutions or spread across all social domains), or integrated, mainstreamed, into the discipline as a whole. This is both an organizational and an intellectual issue. On the one hand, in order to develop the specificity of the analysis, focused discussions in specialized academic units, conferences and journals seem appropriate. On the other, the relevance of gender to the breadth of sociology may be best realized in integrated departments and academic spaces. In practice, complex combinations of strategies were often used (Platt, 2003).

National Differences

There are national differences in the analysis of gender relations. In the second half of the twentieth century, the United States led the analysis of gender in sociology, first in functionalist analysis of the family, then in the development of women’s studies. Today, the US has perhaps a more classical approach to the analysis of gender within sociology than some other countries. In the UK, the cultural turn has had a great influence on the analysis of gender relations. However, interest in many of the less developed countries has led to many international debates, with concerns for post-colonial perspectives as well as difference and ethnicity. Perspectives from the South have perhaps also been more concerned with classical issues of social inequality.


The development of women’s studies and gender studies since the 1980s has been an interdisciplinary development, rather than one that is located simply within sociology. In the early years sociology was central to the development of the interdisciplinary field. However, more recently the interdisciplinary field has been increasingly dominated by cultural and literary disciplines. This is represented in the contents of leading interdisciplinary gender journals, such as Signs. The interdisciplinary development of gender studies has had implications for the development of the analysis of gender within sociology.

The presence of literary theories and methodologies has been one of the influences on the epistemological underpinnings of the field that has moved it away from a realist concern with scientific procedures and the cumulation of knowledge to a concern with different perspectives and a move towards, though not always embracing, relativism. This has affected the analysis of gender within sociology, not least because of the operation of many gender specialists within the interdisciplinary field of women’s/gender studies as well as their home discipline.

A key achievement of classical sociology was that of the grasping of the macro and micro levels within one overarching theory, and the development of a deep ontology of the social as a consequence. This has been in danger of being lost in a move towards cultural and literary theory and away from sociological theory. However, this is not inevitable and there are contrary developments.

Theoretical Debates

Gender and Class

The relationship between gender and class was one of the early concerns of gender analysis, with many critiques of traditional theorizing of class and capitalism for positioning gender in a residual or marginal location in sociological theory (Crompton and Mann, 1986), resulting in at least some incorporation of gender into contemporary class and stratification analysis (Erikson and Goldthorpe, 1992). The feminist debates addressed the nature of the entwining of gender and class relations, some using a theoretical vocabulary that kept these sets of social relations analytically distinct, such as in dual systems theory (Hartmann, 1976), while others analytically integrated them more fully. These theoretical questions still underlie contemporary analysis of new developments in the economy, from flexibility to globalization and the knowledge economy (McCall, 2001).

Class is not the only form of deeply structured social inequality that cross-cuts gender; rather, there is a multiplicity of these, not the least of which is ethnicity. The recognition of the significance of these other social divisions was key to the development of a literature on differences and inequalities of many kinds.

Difference and Essentialism

The analysis of ‘difference’ has become one of the central theoretical issues within gender analysis, as it has in some other parts of sociology (Calhoun, 1995). This debate addressed ways in which gender relations were differently constituted in different ethnic groups (Bhopal, 1997), the ways in which different nations and national groupings were gendered (Yuval-Davis, 1997), and how perspectives from the South were to be understood and integrated (Mohanty, 1991). A key underlying theoretical question was that of how the standard for justice should be determined, including the implications of statements either that different social groups had divergent conceptions of justice (Young, 1990), or that all people had fundamentally the same agenda for the achievement of human capabilities (Nussbaum, 2000). A related issue was the nature of the relationship between difference and inequality (Meehan and Sevenhuijsen, 1991; Scott, 1988), the ontological status of difference (Felski, 1997), whether sensitivity to different value systems necessarily leads to social relativism (Fraser, 1997; Walby, 2001b), and the implications of feminism for an analysis of fundamentalism (Afshar, 1998; Moghadam, 1994). The theoretical concern with difference in feminist theory fuelled the turn to postmodern approaches.

Feminist theory struggled to address the critique that it insufficiently addressed social fissures other than that of gender, especially those associated with racialization, ethnicity and postcolonialism (Mohanty, 1991). This issue related to an extensive theoretical debate around ‘essentialism.’ This concerned the question of whether the process of abstracting the core features of gender relations tended to underestimate the significance of differences among women and to exaggerate the stability and cross-cultural relevance of the categories. Was feminist analysis that took as its main focus the oppression of women by men, necessarily essentialist, reducing complex social processes to simple biological dichotomies (Segal, 1987), or was this critique simply a caricature (Bell and Klein, 1996)? The focus on difference was associated with debates as to whether it was possible to use the categories woman, patriarchy’ and gender’ without succumbing to essentialism. Should feminism embrace womanhood or degendering (Lorber, 2000)? Was the process of stabilization of the categories needed to specify and compare significant differences between women inherently one that rigidified and essentialized these distinctions? Indeed, could there be an adequate analysis of difference that avoided the trap of essentialism (Ferree et al., 2002)? The prioritization of difference, indeed the ontologizing of difference, was sometimes considered to be at the expense of the concept of woman’ and gender,’ and that such prioritization of difference over gender had gone too far, that the ontologizing of difference was to the detriment of the analysis of gender itself (Felski, 1997).

Some analytic strategy of abstraction, whether called ‘essentializing’ or not, is always necessary in order to build categories sufficiently stable for practical analysis (Fuss, 1990). The alternative strategy of analytic dispersal of gender in order to avoid essentialism can lead to the absence of a category adequate to include gender in analysis in any meaningful way, since if gender is considered to be a different phenomenon within specific forms of ethnicity, culture or historical periods, it can never be possible to have an analysis of gender per se. That is, if gender is analytically dispersed and embedded in other forms of social relations, as argued by Holmwood (2001), then it is hard to have an explanatory analysis of the forms of variations in gender (Sayer, 2000). The way forward is not to disperse gender, but rather to develop concepts and analytic strategies that are sensitive to variations in the form of gender without losing meaning. Even the concept of patriarchy can be developed so as to be sensitive to historical change and ethnic and national difference (Medaglia, 2001; Walby, 1990,1994). This development has been associated with the revitalization of realism and interest in classical sociology, and a concern to build an ontology of the social using abstraction at different levels, and in which a robust category of gender is preferred.

Methodology and Epistemology

Science itself has been taken as an object of study and been found to be gendered (Rose, 1994). The implications of this for feminist methodology (Reinharz, 1993) and feminist epistemology (Harding, 1986) are profoundly contested (McLennan, 1995).

Harding (1986, 1991) considers that a standpoint epistemology, based on women’s experiences, is a route to improved objectivity, and is preferable to what she calls ‘feminist empiricism’ and postmodernism. She argues that knowledge about gender is best investigated using qualitative methodologies that centre on the voices of women. This epistemological and methodological stance has been widely endorsed in much of women’s and gender studies, including that within sociology. In particular, it has been core to the preference for small-scale qualitative studies in this field.

One line of criticism of this stance came from those who queried the existence or validity of a notion of a unified women’s standpoint, in light of the significance of difference and diversity, not least that associated with ethnicity. This is associated with a move towards a postmodern understanding of the social. A second critique came from a defence of science for feminism, such as that of Nelson (1990), who argues for a revised feminist empiricism based on Quine. Indeed, since science is neither a mirror of nature nor a mirror of culture, neither absolutist position (science as truth or social relativism) is tenable (Walby, 2001a). Rather, it is necessary to utilize the methods of science, piecing together evidence and theories in socially located networks.

While there have always been those who rejected standpoint epistemology and a preference for reporting on women’s voices using qualitative methods, the strictures of ‘feminist methodology’ have been to the detriment of the development of an analysis of gender relations in sociology, unduly restricting the range of methodology deemed appropriate within a feminist stance, especially in the UK, where in particular it reduced the propensity to use quantitative methodologies (Kelly et al, 1992). However, with the erosion of this epistemological and methodological stance, the range of methodologies used in the sociology of gender has broadened significantly.

Empirical Science of Gendered Social Institutions

There is a wide, rich and diverse set of empirical studies of gender relations that address most of the empirical fields within sociology. This myriad of empirical studies explores the form and implications of different forms of gender relations in different social institutions and social locations. The following are illustrative of such developments.


Rather than treating women as a unity, analyses of employment have teased out the complex forms of old and new inequalities consequent on industrial and political restructuring and the transformation of work (Walby, 1997; Crompton, 1997). The debates on new forms of flexibility at work have been gendered, and used to inform a range of empirical studies, ranging from part-time work (O’Reilly and Fagan, 1998) to home-working (Phizacklea and Wolkowitz, 1995). These have addressed the way and extent to which the extension of women’s employment has been in forms of employment that are casualized, insecure and low-paid, or whether women can benefit from the new flexibility. Occupational segregation was investigated as a tenacious feature of the gendered labour market, despite changes in its forms (Reskin and Roos, 1990; Hakim, 1992; Scott, 1994). The complex impacts of policies and laws to regulate equal opportunities (Cockburn, 1991; England, 1992) and work-life balance such as maternity leave (McRae, 1993), especially those associated with the increasing integration of the European Union (Hoskyns, 1996; Rees, 1998; Walby, 1999), were investigated. The complexity of the interrelationship between gender and ethnicity among women workers, where paid work has varying locations in the lives of women from different social locations, was explored (Brah and Shaw, 1992; Phizacklea, 1990). The increasing significance of the European Union has produced interest in the comparative analysis of gendered labour markets in the member states of the European Union and the explanation of the differences found (Rubery et al, 1999). The influence of the cultural turn in gender studies may be seen in the interest in the role of sexuality in the workplace (Adkins, 1994), and the role of culture in restricting women’s success in management.


The significance of male violence in women’s lives was demonstrated by many studies overturning traditional assumptions that such violence was the result of psychological or biological forces, whether as a result of a few deranged men or some evolutionary male imperative. The social shaping of patterns of violence and social responses to this violence have brought this field firmly within a sociological frame of inquiry. The relationship between violence and socially structured gendered power relations has been key to this field, though not uncontroversially so.

The methodology used by UK sociologists in this area has been primarily qualitative (Dobash and Dobash, 1980; Hearn, 1998). In the United States, the methodology has been more diverse, including large-scale surveys (Straus and Gelles, 1990), the findings of which were subject to considerable debate (Dobash et al, 1992), leading to methodological revisions as surveys around the world learned from and improved the methodology in earlier ones (Johnson, 1996; Walby and Myhill, 2001). Only later were large-scale surveys conducted in the UK, which confirmed the finding that violence against women was widespread (Mirrlees-Black, 1999). There has been a steady uncovering and naming of more diverse forms of violence against women. This includes not only rape, sexual assault and domestic violence, but also child sex abuse, sexual harassment, stalking and trafficking in women, which are all part of a continuum of violence against women (Hester et al, 1996; Kelly, 1989). The critical analysis of the response of the criminal justice system and relevant agencies to gendered violence again demonstrated the importance of social context and social response in structuring the impact of the violence (Mooney, 2000; Taylor-Browne, 2000).


The gendering of sociological debates on welfare and on citizenship has taken as its starting point the critique of the neglect of the care work that is so often performed by women to a greater extent than men. Debates on citizenship often took as their starting point a public conception of the citizen. The feminist critique demonstrated that such a theorization effectively marginalized the contribution of women to society, especially their contributions in the home as mothers (Lister, 1997). The implications of different forms of state support for care work for gender relations has become the new focus in this field (Hobson, 2000; Jenson, 1997; O’Connor et al., 1999; Sainsbury, 1996).

Within the analysis of the state, a key question has been the extent to which women articulated different political interests than men, and the implications of any such divergences for the form and actions of the state. After much scepticism, a gender dimension to political interests was demonstrated in analyses of voting behaviour, in that employed women are more likely to vote left than men and non-employed women, at least in the United States (Huber and Stephens, 2000; Manza and Brooks, 1998). A higher proportion of women elected representatives was also found to make a difference to the extent to which representatives were likely to support a feminist agenda, at least in the US (Thomas, 1991) and Sweden (Wängnerud, 2000). Political pressure by women was also found to make a difference even when women do not have the franchise (Skocpol, 1992). The combination of different forms of women’s representation, in elected representatives, gender machinery in the state such as women’s units and civil society or social movements may be the most likely to make a difference (Mazur, 2002; Vargas and Wieringa, 1998).

US Sociology has led these debates on political sociology especially those involving quantitative analysis. Within the UK, the sociological focus has been more frequently on cultural politics than the state, reflecting the cultural turn in British sociology and women’s studies (Franklin et al., 1991), tending to leave the analysis of the state to political scientists (Norris and Lovenduski, 1995).


The debates on the place of sexuality within the analysis of gender relations have drawn on a range of sources of theoretical inspiration from Freud to Foucault (Richardson, 2001). Despite the lack in Foucault’s own work of much in an explicit and direct way about gender, his conceptualization of sexuality and power became very influential in the 1990s in theories of gender and sexuality, though not uncontroversially so (Ramanzanoglu, 1991). The sociological analysis of gender and sexuality might be considered to have been main-streamed’ by Giddens’s (1992) work on changes in the patterns of intimacy associated with changing patterns of gender relations.

Substantive research topics have included that of the subordination of women and girls within sexual practices; the use of demeaning sexualized stereotypes to attempt to control women’s and girls’ conduct, for instance as ‘slags’ or ‘drags’ (Lees, 1993); the construction of heterosexuality (Jackson, 1999); the diversity of sexual moralities (Weeks, 1995); and the exploitation of women’s sexuality at work (Adkins, 1994). Not all research has seen sexuality unambiguously as a terrain of male power, some seeing it as a site of negotiation, while there has been much attention to powerful female icons such as Madonna.


Feminist cultural studies has been one of the areas within the sociology of gender and women’s studies in the UK that has developed most extensively, with the establishment of several journals, as well as many books, at the point of intersection of women’s studies, sociology and cultural and literary theory. The initial interest in the content analysis of images presented by advertising, television and the media, has been replaced by sophisticated textual analysis informed by the discourse analysis of Foucault and the deconstructionism of Derrida (Franklin et al., 1991; McNay, 1992). A key feature of these analyses has been the breaking down of any remaining monolithic notions of femininity, or indeed, masculinity (Connell, 1995; Hearn, 1998; Morgan, 1992), and the exploration of the diversity found, especially that associated with ethnicity (Mirza, 1997). There has been a tendency to celebrate women’s agency, including that of non-feminist female icons such as Princess Diana and Madonna.

Feminist cultural analysis had a tremendous influence on the forms of theorizing in women’s studies during the 1980s and early 1990s, leading to a shift away from analysis in terms of social structures to those of discourses and of agency. Further, there has been the problematization of the notion of a coherent monolithic subject, for instance, in Butler’s (1990) work on ‘performa-tivity.’ Here gender is merely what exists at the moment of performance, that is, the notion of a stable gender identity is rejected by Butler because it is considered to be overly essentializing. However, Butler’s analysis has tended to lead away from the sociological analysis of the social institutions that provide the framing for any such performance.

Today the analysis of culture is largely integrated into analyses of gender, rather than constituting a separate field. The term gender itself has been subject to extensive reconsideration in the light of so much deconstructionist analysis (Hawkesworth, 1997).

Caring and the Household

The sociology of the family was traditionally a strong area of sociology, but in the early development of women’s studies this field tended to be sidelined in favour of newer substantive fields of inquiry. However, there has been a strong strand of research into caregiving. This includes analysis of kinship and marital obligations for caring between generations (Finch, 1992), and between spouses (Delphy and Leonard, 1992). The significance of this unpaid care work and the burdens that are placed on women in this regard is a continuing theme in this work (Folbre, 1994; Gardiner, 1989; Sevenhuijsen, 1998).

During the 1990s the increased diversity of household forms has been the subject of sociological inquiry, especially that of the increasing proportion of lone mothers (Ford and Millar, 1998; Phoenix, 1991); and gay and lesbian households (Weeks, 1995). The changes in household forms have generated interest in how young people actually manage the transitions between different household forms and stages (Irwin, 1995), especially the diverse transitions by young women to either employment or to motherhood, which vary significantly by ethnicity and by education (Bhopal, 1997).

Within the analysis of caring runs an underlying theoretical question as to why so many women actively choose to care when it reduces their access to many conventional forms of social power. Housewives and their choices are one of the substantive issues that drive the feminist interest in the agency/structure debate.

Nature and Science

The relationship between the biological and the social has always been an area of debate in the sociology of gender. Early attempts by radical feminists to incorporate the body into their work on patriarchal domination (Firestone, 1974) were often condemned as essentialist, and as leading inevitably to the reduction of gender to biology and hence to ahistoric and falsely universalistic analysis (Segal, 1987). However, today it is widely accepted in mainstream sociology that it is necessary to have a conception of the body in sociology (Turner, 1984). While the early radical feminist texts might have been unsubtle in their conceptualization, their critics’ assertions that their concern with bodies and biology was necessarily essentialist are incorrect.

There have been debates as to whether the new reproductive technologies, especially those that assist fertility, such as IVF, empower women or whether they take away a source of women’s power, placing it in the hands of male doctors, who use it for mere medical experimentation. These analyses of the new reproductive technologies have explored the interconnections and tensions between scientific developments and social relations, often considering them as primarily cultural processes (Franklin, 1997). Science and the environment have been analysed as gendered issues, demonstrating how far the range of the field of gender studies can extend.

Contemporary debates are about the two-way traffic between concepts originating in the social and the biological fields of inquiry (Haraway, 1997), rather than assuming that any reference to biology will dominate or in some way inappropriately contaminate a sociological analysis. Biology, in the age of the genome project, which has mapped the shape of the human genes, is no longer seen as a fixed entity, but as a fluid area of discovery. Haraway’s work shows how metaphors migrate in both directions between the social and the biological fields, taking some of their meaning from one and transposing it in the other. In so doing, the concepts with which we think gender are changing.

Globalization and Development

There has long been a gender analysis in development studies (Moser, 1993), which is now frequently framed by the debates on globalization. The analysis of development as gendered processes includes: the relationship between women around the world, both economically (Mies, 1986) and politically (Berkovitch, 1999; Moghadam, 2000); whether economic development is necessarily or likely to improve or make worse the position of women; women’s relationship to national projects, world religions and states (Kandiyoti, 1991); and women’s engagement with the rise of fundamentalism (Afshar, 1998). The way that increasingly powerful international bodies, such as the World Bank, the World Trade Organization and the United Nations, affect the gendered strategies available in specific locations, is a newly developing area of gender studies. These bodies both enhance the power of global capital and yet also facilitate global feminist networking (Walby, 2000). These developments add a new twist to the debates on diversity within feminist theory, since no community can be hermetically sealed, all are connected and thus ultimately comparable. In such a new context the local is always already framed by the global, and a retreat to local specificity can never be a full answer.

Social Structure and Gender

Social structure is a key sociological concept (López and Scott, 2000), important in providing a basis to theoretical claims as to ontological depth. The reconsideration of the issues of agency and structure in mainstream sociology (Giddens, 1992) had a resonance in feminist debates. Macro accounts of women’s oppression by men were criticized for giving too much weight to structure and insufficient to women’s active agency. While feminists in economics criticized their discipline for an overly individualistic account of human economic action (see Feminist Economics), the revisionists in sociology were criticizing their discipline for placing too much importance on structure at the expense of agency.

There are two main problems with traditional forms of analysis of social structure. First, macro-level concepts have been insufficiently gendered, thus making it hard to develop gender-sensitive macro-level analyses. Second, traditional forms of development of concepts of social structure and social system have emphasized dichotomous rather than plural cleavages. One of the issues here is that of the use of institutional rather than relational conceptions of social structure (see Walby, forthcoming, 2006). These problems are being addressed in new developments in the comparative and historical analysis of gender relations.

Contemporary Developments in Comparative and Historical Analysis

There has been development of comparative analysis of gender relations with a historical dimension in several locations, especially welfare regimes, political movements and employment. The most developed is that associated with the debate initiated by Esping-Andersen (1990, 1999) on the nature of welfare state regimes. The three-fold typology of liberal, social democratic and corporatist forms was criticized for underestimating the significance of gender in these differences. Key to the debate was the differential location of women in relation to the process of commodification which was highlighted as core to a contradiction in his analysis (Orloff, 1993). On the one hand, it appeared that de-commodification, a move from market- to non-market-based forms of support, was interpreted as progressive and associated with social democracy. On the other, the movement of women’s labour from the home to the market was also seen as progressive and associated with social democracy. Yet this was a process of commodification, not de-commodification. Gender is a critical intervening variable, necessary to explain the difference. The gender debate went on to make sophisticated distinctions between the implications of different kinds of state support of care work for patterns and inequalities in gender relations, especially that between support paid in cash and support made in kind by the public provision of services (Jenson, 1997; O’Connor et al, 1999; Sainsbury, 1996). A second major programme of work is that concerning the comparative investigation of the nature and impact of women’s politics, investigating in particular three types of representation of women and their interests—elected representatives, gender machinery or women’s units in the state, and civil society and social movement—comparing political processes across policy domains and between different countries (Mazur, 2002; Vargas and Wieringa, 1998). A third area of comparative research is that concerning different patterns in gender relations in employment. Among the numerous projects, probably the most significant is that of Rubery et al. (1999), comparing practices within the EU. A fourth approach is to compare gender regimes rather than particular institutions of gender relations (Walby, 1994, forthcoming 2006).

These research programmes both engage with central sociological debates in their own terms as well as gendering them. They are based on theoretical questions, the answering of which is advanced by theoretically driven empirical research. They are cumulative, building on previous findings and theories. They are cross-disciplinary, indeed the welfare debate is on the borders of sociology and social policy, the political movements on the borders with political science, and employment on the borders with economics and management.


Rather than rejecting the sociological canon, it needs to be deepened. The way to theorize gender is to deepen and develop the classical sociological heritage, not to dismiss or ignore it. While some have claimed that feminism must do this by rejecting old methods, that ‘the master’s house cannot be re-built using the master’s tools,’ this chapter argues that these are everybody’s tools, and can be used to good effect. The key aspects of classical sociological theory that are best retained in theories of gender relations are especially those of depth in ontology, the grasping of macro- and micro-level phenomena within the same overarching theory, and a scientific epistemology and pluralist approach to methodology.

There are many rich, diverse empirical studies of gender relations. The rebuilding of sociological theory of gender, which both enables a better explanation of patterns of gender relations and a better sociological theory of social relations, is just begun.

Standpoint epistemology has led much sociology of gender in the direction of relativism, though this has rarely been adopted unequivocally. Methodologically, this epistemology has led to a dubious prioritization of qualitiative methodologies listening to women’s voices, and to the neglect of the potential of quantitative methodologies. Yet, the range of questions in the field suggests that a plurality of methodologies is more appropriate. This requires the rejection of feminist standpoint epistemology and the embrace of a realist approach to knowledge. It requires empirical studies to be oriented more systematically to taking forward large theoretical questions.

The ontology of gender needs to be deepened using classical sociological theory, rather than flattened through a disproportionate focus either on agency or through the use of cultural theory. Only then can we adequately compare the forms of gender regime, not merely micro-level patterns of gender relations. The dispersal of the category of gender implied by the ontologizing of difference and influenced by poststructuralist and deconstructionist approaches needs to be curtailed so that sufficient abstraction is conducted so as to enable categories and concepts to be developed that are firm and stable enough for comparative analysis.

Only if we can explain the world can we know how to change the world. The cumulative nature of scientific knowledge is not the enemy of a critical gender analysis, but its ally.