Wednesday, June 10, 2009

From Erica: Community and gender socialization?

Today's topic- community, gender socialization, and psychology- is significantly more complicated than these tags suggest, and indeed there are several tags missing. Personal preferences, cultural standards, pressures, and immediate community (as opposed to ideological community) all influence and affect the things I've been rolling around in my brain these past couple of days, and I think they'll all be acknowledged here. The question is, how do I start to talk about something so enormous?

The whole need to discuss community, I suppose, is the best place to begin. I've spent most of my life in close-knit groups of people- small towns, or school groups- that support, tend to, celebrate with, and comfort each other. For me, a community does all these things. A community, in my mind, is a metaphysical "safe space." Since leaving behind both the communities I've lived in, 11 months ago, I've made friends, but had a hell of a time finding anything that truly constitutes a "community." This lack of a community, of a cohesive social network, has been devastating to me.

This is the part that bothers me the most. Why is the need for that- the "cohesive social network"- so significant in spite of all the positive social relationships I've managed to form in the past 11 months? A few things have come to mind as I've worried this subject the way my cat worries her nip-filled toys. Here they are, in list form:

-I'm from a small town

-My family is large and strongly interconnected

-I'm a cisgendered woman

I'll take these one at a time, for simplicity's sake.

I'm from a small town

Being from a small town is probably self-explanatory to anyone who's grown up in one or who's familiar with North American stereotypes about small town interconnectedness. Small town = small number of people = sense of knowing everyone = sense of connection and community is how the basic formula goes, I believe. I think this one applies fairly well. Growing up in an area where people watch out for each other- where family friends call you and take care of you when you're 11 years old and your mother's been rushed to the emergency room at 10 PM- makes it difficult to imagine the world any other way. The support network is undeniable. Living in my first city hardly changed my worldview; I was there in the context of a community where again members were there for each other at the drop of a hat- even when they didn't want to be. Membership in that community happened naturally, though not immediately, and so the urban environment did little to change my belief that community is vital.

My family is large and strongly interconnected

This one, again, is relatively easy to illuminate. My family is Irish-American Catholic, on one side, and white and Asian (predominately Chinese and Philippina) on the other. My immediate family consists of four people, but my extended family on both sides consists of almost fifty. We're spread out across the country, and thus don't get to see each other very often, but the social connection remains incredibly strong. If I make a trip to Los Angeles, there are easily five different relatives I can stay with; if I merely pass through the city, ten different people offer me a chance to have lunch, visit, or offer me a ride. Holidays were never small affairs, and when I moved into my first apartment, I found myself overwhelmed by a plethora of pots, pans, toaster ovens, and other paraphernalia that the relatives thought I might need.

Simply put, the family is close-knit and takes care of its own.

I am a cisgendered woman.

Since this post is already becoming ridiculously long, I'll try to keep this brief. Essentially, the current feminist and sociological literature (and some of the past) explores the relational nature of "women"- meaning here, the group of people who are assigned the sex "female" and the gender "girl" or "woman" at birth and who never conclude that they are anything else. What these arguments claim is that women are socialized, through the way they are treated by parents and caregivers and later by teachers and peers, to view the world in terms of relationships. Most of these arguments go on to apply this relational view of women to Western notions of traditional women's work- women as caregivers, women as relationship-builders, women as selfless nurturers, etc. Obviously, these are all generalizations that can't be expected to apply to everyone who identifies themselves as a woman.

I'm interested in the question of whether I've become so invested in this idea of a community in part because of my sex/gender identity: cisgendered woman. Obviously, as I've already discussed, other reasons apply as well. But the question remains: does my craving for stable, interconnected relationships have something to do with the fact that I've been socialized to see the world in those terms?

Maybe a more appropriate question, instead of "does," would be "how": how does my gender identity shape my desire for a community? A lack of community appals me and leaves me feeling vulnerable, unsafe, and insecure. This could be due to the fact that, without those networked relationships and that safe space, my gendered mind has very little material with which to engage in the world around it. While the other facets of my brain work overtime in other capacities, the emotional, relational aspect of it remains lost, at least to a certain extent. It doesn't have the full complement of social relationships to interact with in this new setting; instead, it deals in the simpler terms of individual friends.

It's entirely possible that I'm over-reading the situation, and that my gendered psyche has little to do with my desire for community. The literature hardly suggests that; in fact, the notion of community as embodied in a "society," with rules, standards of care, and specified members and non-members, is often attributed to men (here, I'm thinking of Hobbes, Rousseau, Locke, and Engels). Furthermore, sociological "gendering" is incredibly difficult to pin down and isolate from other aspects of personality development as an individual grows up. It's entirely possible that being from a small town had more to do with my community-seeking than my gender socialization did. Moreover, it's just as likely that my psychological profile, my unique personality that no one can source, is simply community-oriented.

Which brings me to the topic I'm most likely to explore in my next post: psychology in terms of brain development, individualization, and intimate partner abuse.

P.S. These posts are, in case you can't tell, rough drafts. This blog is about the exploration of ideas and not their formalization.



  1. You have me reflecting on my own experience with communities, and I think I feel the same way. No matter how many amazing friends I find, I feel lost without a solid community. For me though, I think it goes back to growing up in a small rural town, in a tight-knit religious community, with all my extended family nearby.

    But, could you clarify what precisely you mean by a "cisgendered woman"? I'm thinking your first paragraph in that section is an explanation, but I'm not positive, and I have a feeling I'm not the only person unfamiliar with that term.

    Also, I'm glad to hear this is a place for expressing ideas rather than putting out lovely final drafts. I'll be sending some material to you soon.

  2. Excellent, I can't wait to post your stuff on here!

    A "cisgendered" person is someone whose gender identity and assigned sex match. So for me, that means that the doctors looked between my legs when I was born, announced that I was a girl, and I've never disagreed with them. The theoretical contrasts are people who identify as transgendered/transsexual/genderqueer/intersex, where their assigned sex is wrong, or their gender identity and their assigned sex don't "match" the way society expects them to, or they like to keep people guessing. That's about the simplest explanation you'll ever hear, and consequently there's a lot of information missing. Maybe I'll make a "gender, sex, sexuality" post on here...