Swedish gender research started to grow strong during the 1970s, yet some studies date further back than that. Gunnar Qvist’s doctoral thesis from 1960 is commonly regarded to be the first within the field. Rooted in the women’s movement, the field has developed into a highly professionalised research discipline that is represented within most academic disciplines as well as within the discipline of gender studies.
This text about the evolution of gender research is the result of a successful collaboration among representatives from the three Swedish Centres of Gender Excellence at the universities in Uppsala, Umeå and Linköping/Örebro.
In Sweden the concept of genus, a translation of the English term gender, was introduced in 1988 by Professor Yvonne Hirdman in the scholarly journal Kvinnovetenskaplig tidskrift (today Tidskrift för genusvetenskap). She did this in an attempt to better capture the insights contained in the English equivalent ‘gender’ (compared to ‘sex’, which is limited to referring only to the mere biological characteristics of a person). The concept of gender dates back to the field of psychology in the 1950s, and in the 1970s Anglo-American feminists began using the term in the way it is used in modern gender research. Early theories related to the sex/gender issue treated the distinction between sex and gender as being rather unproblematic; a person’s belonging to one of the two available groups was thought of as something natural and self-evident. Using the concept of gender as completely unrelated to a person’s sex has enabled researchers to clearly point to the subordination of women as not being a permanent condition but rather an alterable social position.
Today many gender researchers emphasise that the boundaries between what’s social and cultural and what’s purely physical are very fuzzy. Not only gender but also biology and the body are involved in social and cultural processes. The body directly reflects the way in which it is used, and it is also indirectly affected by the constructs and values that it is surrounded by. In a gender-segregated labour market, men and women use their bodies differently. And in a culture with different norms for how the bodies of women and men should look and for how they should be exercised, fed and treated, the bodies also get shaped differently. Thus, the previously sharp distinction between culture and biology is increasingly turning into a grey area.
Since the establishment of the gender concept, the research on women and men’s social and cultural conditions has commonly been referred to as gender research and gender studies. Other terms, such as feminist research, have also been used. Gender research is a young research field where the concepts, methods and research objects used are constantly subject to discussion. Today the field is represented within all academic disciplines and cross-disciplines, and a large number of researchers are specialised in gender studies.
Gender research concerns the past, the present and the future, and has a clear political potential. Gender researchers have often studied, analysed and problematised how other research fields have dealt with – or have avoided dealing with – issues related to women’s and men’s conditions. The participation of gender research in academia has led to changes in scientific methods and approaches, and has in many cases affected how research questions are formulated. Yet the critical assessments have also often targeted the field’s own concepts, theories and scientific tools. This work is essential to the important ability of gender researchers to pose new and unexpected questions, and eventually facilitate change.
Footnote: The Swedish version of this text was originally published on the website of the three Centres of Gender Excellence genusfokus.se.
Translation: Debbie Axild