Tristan Potter


Kessler and McKenna: the subjective categorization of gender


Jul 15th, 2020
Originally published Apr 6th, 2018

Kessler and McKenna observed the importance of determining another person’s gender in their work “The Primacy of Gender Attribution.”

When meeting someone:
1. Assign the other persons gender
2. Make assumptions based off of our assignment
3. Retroactively justify the attribution of gender

They argue that we assign gender and make assumptions about people based off of our assignment before all other actions, and that we retroactively justify our attribution instead of making the attribution based on a defined criterion.1

Part of being a socialized member of a group is knowing the rules for giving acceptable evidence for categorization. 2

(Kessler and McKenna, Gender: an ethnomethodological approach, pp6)

Identification of another’s gender is key for our understanding of their roles: how to interact with them, what to expect from them, and how to interpret their actions.

These roles and the primacy of gender attribution are taught through a variety of social institutions, including religion, school, parents, etc. and inform our actions from an early age. Kessler and McKenna note that when an individual’s gender is perceived as ambiguous, other people often showed signs of unease as they tried to place the individual into a gender category.2

The primacy of gender attribution becomes obvious when we recognize that assignment and identity can be seen as special cases of attribution, and, even more importantly, that in order to meaningfully interpret someone’s assignment, identity, and role, and the relationship among them, one must first attribute gender.2

(Kessler and McKenna, Gender: an ethnomethodological approach, pp17)

Notably, there is some evidence345678 that many (if not all) of our thoughts/actions are retroactively justified.

Objectivity is a lie

Many people subscribe to the idea that all things have an objective truth, including the human experience. This notion uses the gender binary as a tool to categorize people’s experiences in an objective way. However, making these assumptions and attempting to construct other experiences within an objective view of reality is inherently flawed, since experiences are by definition subjective and require interpretation from the perceiver.

“A defining feature of reality construction is to see our world as being the only possible one.” 2

(Kessler and McKenna, Gender: an ethnomethodological approach, pp18)


  1. By defined criterion, I mean having some set guidelines in mind to determine someones gender. For example, seeing a beard and attributing manliness. Instead, Kessler and McKenna’s work demonstrates that we instinctively attribute gender (that person is a man) and then justify it later (“I attributed them as a man because of their beard”).

    Think about what your thought process is when you see someone who’s gender is ambiguous. 

  2. Kessler, Suzanne J., and Wendy McKenna. Gender: An Ethnomethodological Approach. University of Chicago Press, 1985.  2 3 4

  3. R. W. Sperry, “Cerebral Organization and Behavior,” Science, vol. 133, no. 3466, pp. 1749–1757, 1961. 

  4. V. Mark, “Conflicting communicative behavior in a split-brain patient: Support for dual consciousness,” Toward a science of consciousness: The first Tucson discussions and debates, pp. 189–196, 1996. 

  5. R. W. Sperry, “Hemisphere deconnection and unity in conscious awareness,” The American psychologist, vol. 23, no. 10, p. 723, 1968. 

  6. M. S. Gazzaniga, J. E. Bogen, and R. W. Sperry, “Observations on visual perception after disconnexion of the cerebral hemispheres in man,” Brain, vol. 88, no. 2, pp. 221–236, 1965. 

  7. R. W. Sperry, E. Zaidel, and D. Zaidel, “Self recognition and social awareness in the deconnected minor hemisphere,” Neuropsychologia, vol. 17, no. 2, pp. 153–166, 1979. 

  8. M. S. Gazzaniga, J. E. Bogen, and R. W. Sperry, “Some Functional Effects of Sectioning the Cerebral Commissures in Man,” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, vol. 48, no. 10, pp. 1765–1769, 1962.