Gender as a Discovery Process: Social Construction, Markets, and Gender

Originally published in Cosmos + Taxis

We argue that gender is a dynamic and fluid social category. Gender is widely understood to structure human relations, shape norms, and afford status to individuals and groups. However, gender cannot be construed as a predetermined or fixed phenomenon and/or as structured simply by biological imperative. Understanding gender requires an appreciation of discovery processes of expression, experimentation, and evolution, interwoven in culture, politics, and the economy. Because gender as a discovery process is dynamically produced through decentralized human interactions, we analyze gender as a species of spontaneous order, as described in the Smithian-Mengerian tradition of liberal political economy. We illustrate how gender discovery takes place by detailing the complex and emergent patterns of gender performance across a wide variety of social settings, especially market interactions. This paper shows how markets facilitate gender discoveries through the symbolic use of products, medical and other health innovations, and the use of commercial sites to facilitate shared gender meanings and understandings. Although the centrality of gender roles to human culture through place and time is appreciated, we believe that gender as a discovery process carries normative weight. Respect for pluralism and liberal individualism implies tolerance of gender diversity and experimentation with gender fluidity. Overall, we propose that liberalism (properly construed) offers the most robust framework both for understanding gender and for morally upholding the value of gender expression and identity.

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