Ásta’s Social Categories + Butler’s Gender Performativity = A Detailed Theory of (Performative) Gender?


In everyday social interaction, probably the most important aspect of person’s gender is if they do it in a way that their interaction with others goes nicely and smoothly. This requires balancing their gendered actions with the expectations of others. This kind of interaction creates an aspect of gender I call performative gender in contrast to other aspects of individual’s gender for example their sex or gender identity. To build an account of performative gender, I use Ásta’s view of conferral of social categories and suggest that if it is combined with Judith Butlers’ theory of gender performativity, they form together a fuller account of performative gender and its constitution than neither of them alone.

In a recent book, Categories We Live By (2018), Ásta offers a way of analyzing socially constructed categories such as gender and nationality, revolving around the concept of conferral. Ásta’s account studies how gender is conferred on a person in a concrete situation lasting a given duration, maybe as short as a couple of seconds ; for example, a short meeting between a salesperson and a customer, where both subjects categorize each other multiple ways. Unfortunately, Ásta’s account does not offer us tools for investigating “what kind of attitudes, states, or actions of the subjects matter” in the conferral in a given context . In order to study this question , I suggest we use Butler’s theory of gender performativity.

In the book Gender Trouble (1990) Butler famously presents a theory of gender performativity. The theory states that gender is constructed via constant iteration of gender performatives. Its basic argument is that gender is something we do rather than something we possess or express. By doing gendered acts, gender performatives, we don’t reflect already existing facts about gender; rather, these acts produce gender. Butler expands Austin’s concept of a performative to encompass everything we use to communicate: gestures, appearances, talk etc. Gender performatives are commonly recognized gendered habits, and we perform countless number of them every day. Who is, and who is not, allowed to perform a particular gender performative is highly regulated in societies. Even though Butler’s theory covers gender in a wider sense than just how the gender of a person comes to exist, it can also be used to study that.

Ásta’s and Butler’s views have many similarities that set them apart from many other metaphysical theories of gender: Neither focuses on specific genders (e.g. woman and man) but their views can rather be used to study any gender. Neither requires that a person’s gender remains stable across contexts. Ásta’s focuses on a person’s gender in a specific context, and Butler’s theory can be used to study the same phenomena. But as theories of gender, they both lack something the other has: Butler’s theory is at the same time too wide and too detailed, and Ásta’s view doesn’t offer us tools to study the details of the conferral context. My suggestion is that we use Butler’s theory as a method to study the details of the conferral context in Ásta’s sense, mostly by investigating what’s concretely going on in the conferral situation in terms of the concept of a gender performative. This would allow us to take the best of both views and build a detailed account on the constitution of performative gender.


One thought on “Ásta’s Social Categories + Butler’s Gender Performativity = A Detailed Theory of (Performative) Gender?

  1. Altner, Franz says:

    I was just thinking that Conchita Wurst is an example of a person that plays with features that are characteristically associated with men and women. Also, if gender conferral is something that we do together and not solely defined externally, by habits that enable performative actions that pick out the features that we use to say which gender to confer to a person, wouldn’t that mean that the practice of gender conferral is to volatile or dynamic? Anyway, as I said in the discussion, I found your talk super interesting and would be curious what you think about this suggestion.

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