In this essay, Nathan Palmer uses the Bruce Jenner interview to explore social statuses and categorization systems.
On Friday, Olympic gold medalist Bruce Jenner publicly announced that, “for all intents and purposes, I am a woman.” Jenner discussed his transition with Diane Sawyer during a ABC News television special that 16.8 million people watched live. In the wake of Jenner’s announcement, there have been many smart discussions of gender identity, the difference between sexuality and gender, and the on going legal discrimination against gender and sexual minorities.
As I watched on Friday, the sociologist in me was struck by how the television show ended. As a montage of video clips played Sawyer said in a voice over, “It’s time to leave. The transition is ahead, so in a sense as we said, this is a kind of farewell to the Bruce Jenner we though we knew.” Sawyer then asked Jenner if he felt like he was saying goodbye to something. He replied, “I’m saying goodbye to people’s perception of me and who I am. I am not saying goodbye to me, because this has always been me.” I can’t think of a better way to describe a status transition.
A status describes a position within a community or group and its corresponding position within a social hierarchy of honor and prestige. Each status affords the individual who possess’s it a set of duties, rights, immunities, privileges, and usually it is also associated with a particular lifestyle or pattern of consumption. Every status has a corresponding set of roles. Roles are the set of behaviors and ways of thinking we expect a person of a given status to display. This is harder to understand in the abstract, so let’s focus our attention on the status at the center of the Jenner announcement, gender.
Gender is commonly understood in the United States as having just two main statuses; you can either be a boy/man or a girl/woman. Each status has a set of roles associated with it and each of us is expected to perform those roles. Not performing our prescribed gender roles or performing the gender roles associated with the opposite status has social consequences (e.g. judgment, ridicule, shame, violence).
We also use gender statuses to place ourselves and those around us onto a hierarchy depending on the situation. For instance, being a man might lead people to presume you are a naturally better leader, but a naturally inferior parent. If over time, your male status increases the number of leadership opportunities that come your way and decreases the number of care-taking opportunities that others extend to you, then you might become an excellent leader and a crap parent, but that is not solely nature’s fault.
Crossing “Mental Gaps”
What we are really talking about here are social categories and categorization systems. The sociologist Eviatar Zerubavel (1991) has explored how the ways we categorize objects, acts, and events in our world affects how we understand and interact with them. Zerubavel suggests that to create a categorization system we have to do two things: lumping and splitting.
When we come across a new object, act, or event we have to place it somewhere within our existing categories before we can understand it. This categorization work is known as lumping. On the other hand, splitting is the work we do to maintain the boundaries separating things we perceive as categorically different.
These category systems are distinctly social creations. We do not come out of the womb knowing where everything goes. We learn from the people we interact with where they draw the line separating this from that. After enough interactions we come to know how most people in our culture categorize the world.
While every human group has a categorization system, they can vary widely. For instance, humans have always needed to decipher family members from strangers, dangerous from safe, and edible from inedible, but different societies lump and split these categories differently. For instance, in the U.S. dogs are pets and insects are vermin, but both are categorized as food in different parts of the world. It’s tempting to think that the way you categorize things is the correct way, but you’re a little biased.
Part of the splitting work we do is to create gaps or spaces in the real world to reflect the gaps and spaces between categories in our minds. For instance, personal space creates a buffer between ourselves and others. Picket fences create gaps between my yard and my neighbors.
When we can’t create physical barriers between categories, we often create rites of passage (which are events that mark our crossing over a perceived barrier between statuses). Society is filled with these rites of passage, we hold events to celebrate an individual transitioning from child to adult (e.g. Quincineras, Bat Mitvas, ), from single to partnered (weddings), from child to parent (e.g. baby showers), from high school to college student (e.g. graduation parties).
These rite of passage events serve two social functions. First, they communicate to everyone that an individual has changed their status. Second, they reinforce in everyone’s mind that these two statuses are separate distinct categories. In effect rites of passage make the categories real, at least to those in attendance.
Keeping an “Open Mind”
Diane Sawyer’s final question to Jenner was, “So to everyone watching, if you could say to them, when you think of me please be…” Jenner quickly finished her sentence, “open minded.”
Being open minded, in a sociological sense, means realizing that the categories we have created in our minds are flexible. We made them up collectively and they are not a perfect reflection of reality. Our two gender status system isn’t the way to see the world, it’s one way of seeing the world amongst many. When people feel that they have no place in our categorization system or people are oppressed by our categorization system, we should change our minds.
- How can lumping and splitting help us understand prejudice and discrimination?
- Jenner told Sawyer that gender identity and sexual attraction are totally separate things; “It’s apples and oranges”. What did he mean and how is this an example of lumping and splitting?
- Zerubavel argues that rites of passage (where an individual transitions from one status to another) can serve to reinforce the perception that the two statuses are distinctly separate categories. The author of this essay argues that the Jenner TV show was much like a rite of passage. Do you think it’s possible that the TV show reinforced the very status distinctions it was trying to question in the first place?Explain your answer.
- Think of at least one other example of how people from a culture that is different from yours categorize the world differently. Does this mean that they categorize the world wrong? Explain your answer.
- Zerubavel, Eviatar. 1991. The Fine Line : Making Distinctions in Everyday Life. 1st edition. New York: The Free Press.
Hierarchies are systems that distribute power and resources to individuals and groups based on the social assets they possess. In most parts of the world, we see evidence that women are systematically placed toward the bottom of these hierarchies and when women possess a valued asset (e.g. a Ph.D.) they often are afforded less social honor and prestige for that asset than their male counter parts are. ↩