Tristan Potter

Kessler and McKenna - the subjective categorization of gender

Nov 26th, 2020

This post was originally published on Apr 6th, 2018 as part of a larger work titled “Gender: Flip the script”

Kessler and McKenna in “The Primacy of Gender Attribution” discuss the significance of determining another person’s gender in encounters with others.

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

They argue that when we interact with someone, we assign gender before most other actions. We then make assumptions about how to treat that person based off of our gender assignment, and retroactively justify our attribution and our actions.1

As an aside, there is some evidence2 that many (if not all) of our thoughts and actions are retroactively justified, but that is a topic for another time.

Part of being a socialized member of a group is knowing the rules for giving acceptable evidence for categorization. 3

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

This is important because the attribution of gender is key to defining Western social encounters; it shapes how we interact with others, what to expect from them, and how to interpret their actions. Gender attribution is such a strong social cue that when an individual’s gender was perceived as ambiguous, Kessler and McKenna noted that other people often showed signs of unease as they tried to place the individual into a gender category.3

This presents a challenge for people who don’t identify with the gender attribution their parents made at birth. They may want to express cues to other people to treat them differently, or so they treat themselves differently (self-attribution). This may be particularly complex for people with identities that don’t fit into the normative blue and pink dichotomy of Western society.

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.

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.3

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

Objectivity is a lie

The gender binary also colours our experiences in a way that seems objective. While many people subscribe to the idea that all things, including the human experience, have an objective truth, experiences are by definition subjective and require interpretation by the perceiver.

The gender binary is often used as a tool to categorize people’s experiences in a way that seems objective. However, making gendered assumptions and attempting to construct other peoples experiences within an objective view of reality is inherently flawed, since experiences are subjective. Since our experiences require interpretation, and specifically our experiences of gender, gender attribution cannot be an objective reality.

“A defining feature of reality construction is to see our world as being the only possible one.” 3

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

More reading

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

Thank you to Sam Yoon, Eli Lee, and Brigitte Dreger for providing early feedback.

  1. This is in contrast to having some set guidelines in mind to determine someone’s 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”). 

  2. Studies done by Benjamin Libet on consciousness and its impact on actions, as well as studies on split-brain patients have lead to some interesting findings. 

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