Whimsical, queer exploration of all things gender.

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“The analytical category of gender presents particular methodological difficulties. Discuss.”

For those who found the last post to be a case of ‘tl; dr’, sorry that I’m simply putting up another essay again. In this one I discuss scientific methodology, and tensions between this and postmodern thinking, and feminist criticism of positivism.


This was written by 16th March 2011.


Every academic field has methods that are conventionally considered acceptable for use within that field. The use of unconventional methods ranges in acceptance and frequency in a field dependent manner, and broadly speaking the most ‘rigid’ research areas may be the so-called ‘hard’, or natural sciences. Here, the only acceptable methodology is the scientific method, deviation from which results in loss of scientific status. Science cannot progress without the collection of empirical data in a controlled and repeatable manner, which provides objective information on a given hypothesis or model. Models that are supported by evidence are only held with for as long as the evidence supporting it remains the best available. When better evidence becomes available, the model must be either modified or replaced. Models may exist that independently are supported well in the explanation of part of a system, but when considered together are not compatible. Two areas of physics (using this same methodology, but different methods) which blossomed during the twentieth century are quantum mechanics – the mathematical underpinnings of matter and energy on very small scales, and general relativity – which provides a description of gravity on very large scales. Whilst work done in both these fields are (now) uncontroversial and entirely embraced by the scientific community, these models of the behaviour of the universe break down when attempts are made to integrate them. The point I am making with this example is that the very nature of the knowledge we create through the use of different methods can result in total incompatibility with knowledge created in another way, even when the methods themselves are not particularly controversial – which of course is not necessarily even a stability that can always be relied upon in some areas.

Due to its multidisciplinary nature, the field of gender studies arguably attracts as many different methodologies as any given discipline can reasonably justify. There are scientists utilising quantitative methods resting on a positivist philosophy, social scientists using a range of quantitative and qualitative methods, and theorists who may use hermeneutics, discourse analysis or post-structural thought, to highlight some important examples. These different methods can be regarded as a toolbox, providing different analytical advantages and disadvantages which may be considered dependent upon both the researcher and the research question. Methodology is dependent on ideology (Keller 1985, p. 126), and thus the scientist approaching gender may completely reject the position of the poststructuralist and vice versa despite consideration of the same questions, using methods accepted within their respective fields. Such methods are both clearly used to explore questions about gender. The methodologies used within these schools of thought rest on different philosophical axioms which will be considered through the lens of gender in this essay, in order to examine their effectiveness and interplay. Consideration of the problems academic supporters of each of these methodological camps (natural sciences and post-structuralism) have with each other will be used to expose the weaknesses of each position. The defences of each position along with amalgamation of theoretical strengths will be then used to cross-examine the problematisation of methodology, using research done on gender as case studies.

Dispute over the validity of scientific methodology is not only seen when researchers use this school of thought directly to try and answer questions in the field of gender studies, but has indeed been critiqued more generally by some feminists who have argued that the scientific community, through being male dominated for centuries, is a construction of the patriarchy and that: “Traditional research contains more or less concealed expressions of sexism in its focus, its linguistic usage and its results. In this way the asymmetrical gender relations in society are legitimated and reproduced” (Alvesson and Sköldberg 2000, p. 210). Methods can therefore be problematized both when ‘science is done to gender’ and when ‘gender is done to science’. Before discussing real examples of methods used in scientific gender based research, it is worth further discussing what science actually ‘is’, what questions it can hope to answer, and how this relates to gender. This clearly involves very large philosophical and subjective questions that perhaps interestingly one doesn’t need to consider in order to do ‘good science’ (based on the fact that many successful, well published and well regarded scientists never explicitly address such questions within their careers).

The Nobel Prize winning physicist Erwin Schrödinger claimed that the two fundamental axioms of science is that ‘nature’ is both objectifiable, and knowable (Schrödinger 1967, quoted in Keller 1985 p. 141). The existence of facts or truths about the world is taken to exist independently of the consideration of any consciousness. It is understood that by collecting data in a manner that is independent from influence by the person collecting it, one does not subvert the results which arise from analysis of this data. It can be argued that for any topic on which empirical data can be collected and analysed in order to test predictions about the world, science can be done. In the natural sciences, the data that is collected is restricted to the ‘material’ (rather than the ‘social’ – this rather problematic distinction will be returned to later). Examples of two scientists who have used such a methodology related to the field of gender are Melissa Hines and Simon Baron-Cohen.

In Hines’ book Brain Gender, a large deal of scientific literature and experimentation is reviewed in order to attempt to answer whether biological factors contribute to behavioural sex differences and what the ramifications of this may be. The discussion references cognitive sex differences on measures of visuospatial abilities (Hines 2004, p. 12), and it has been shown that differences between the sexes may be large or negligible depending upon what abilities are specifically tested. Whilst this information on its own doesn’t bring us closer to answering Hines’ questions, it is possible to argue that the methods being used are indeed appropriate, and may be part of the construction of answers. Ability at particular tests done by men and women are quantifiable and analysable – objectifiable and knowable. The same can be said of doses of hormone and the physiological responses to such, which Hines also considers by studying how sex typical reproductive behaviour in the rat is affected (Hines, 2004 p. 47). The analysis of animal models is a standard and heavily used method of learning about human biological systems due to huge overlap as a result of evolutionary processes.

Fascinatingly, it has been shown that sex differences can be observed in non-human primates through toy preferences (Alexander and Hines, 2002). This provides evidence for a non-social component due to the animals having neither prior experience of the toys nor being influenced by peers or environment. Whilst there is clearly scope for further work to be done this has implications for a great number of gender based questions concerning the interplay of the biological and the social in men and women.

The use of scientific methods can also be constructive in disproving commonly held gender-based misconceptions. For example it is a commonly held social conception that high levels of testosterone result in increased aggression. However, in Hines’ discussion, a metaanalysis demonstrates a small correlation which may itself be overstated due to there being evidence to suggest that positive findings may be overrepresented (Hines, 2004 p. 135). This highlights a problem with the concept of peer review, which will be returned to when critiquing the use of scientific methods.

If obeying a positivist philosophy, then claims that this is so problematized as to deny useful conclusions to be drawn may be considered solipsistic. However there is great academic scope for multiple levels of problematisation as related to gender which shall now be further explored.

Methods, broadly speaking may be thought of as being systematic processes by which data are collected and then analysed. But what if your data are statements, arguments, or even other methods? Post-structuralism provides tools for doing this by the deconstruction of arguments which can allow new information to be revealed or new conclusions to be drawn, which hidden or ignored biases in the existing methodology don’t account for. Post-structural thought could potentially be regarded as anti-methodological (Alvesson and Sköldberg 2000, p. 184) however I would argue whilst being used systematically to problematize other methods; it unavoidably becomes a methodology itself with paradigmatic and syntagmatic analysis examples of methods used within semiotics and deconstruction (Prasad 2005, p. 99). The central ideas that the ‘self’ as well as elements of society (including sex and gender) are socially constructed as well as the importance of what a reader understands from a piece of work in contrast to what the writer necessarily intends are of great importance.

So why deconstruct scientific methods when the logic – that is, to control extraneous variables and not allow the quest for truth to be coloured by personal biases – may appear to be an effective way to answer questions of gender, particularly given that there are results that have independently been found to be repeatable? Because it can be argued that despite best intentions and efforts (that are never always going to be there in every piece of work), political, cultural and social influences will insidiously impact upon the scientific enterprise (Begley, 2001 p. 114). An example relevant within gender studies is how the model of human conception has changed over the past fifty years. It was once thought that the sperm was the ‘active’ and the egg the ‘passive’ agent in conception. Language used within the literature on this topic reflected this and was clearly influenced by social parallels drawn from preconceptions of the ‘male’ and the ‘female’ despite research existing which demonstrated active roles for the egg cell (Begley, 2001 p. 117). Larger scale historical examples where hindsight has demonstrated that attempts at a scientific enterprise were clearly distorted by personal beliefs and preconceptions include the damage done by the field of eugenics, and the rise of the anti-Mendelian ‘Lysenkoism’ of the Soviet Union in the 1930s (National Academy of Sciences 2001, p. 112).

Furthermore, one might argue that it is in fact impossible to separate the biological from the social. As Hines herself says “All of our psychological and behavioural characteristics, however, have a biological basis within our brain. No matter whether hormones or other factors, including social factors caused us to develop in a certain way, the hormonal or social influences have been translated into physical brain characteristics, such as neurons, synapses, and neurochemicals. Thus, the distinction between biological and social/cultural causes is false.” (Hines, 2004, p. 213-4). Given that the social must be experienced through the material in the two-pronged sense that all thought originates in the complex but materially finite brain, and all experience of the world is through biological, sensory perception. There are thus good arguments suggesting that science attempting to stand independently in the production of new information is at best hampered and at worst fundamentally flawed.

The monolithic monopoly on being able to effectively create knowledge through scientific methods is thus well challenged given that social context can change the results discovered. This may be a problem with the cognitive visuospatial sex differences discussed by Hines, as according to one of the very metaanalyses she references “partial support was found for the notion that the magnitude of sex differences has decreased in recent years…it was found that the age of emergence of sex differences depends on the test used” (Voyer et al. 1995). Given that the differential biology between men and women have not changed over this time frame, and that there has been no clear methodological upheaval in more recent studies being done, it is implicit that the change in the magnitude of the results is a result of the time and cultural attitudes the studies were performed in.

There are a number of responses that defendants of the methods used to collect the data presented in Brain Gender may argue. Firstly and most obviously, empirical results are real. Deconstruction may allow for greater understanding of problems that may be inherent in research, but the explicit results of scientific research that have been shown to accurately model elements of the world including relevant issues to gender (our understanding of physiological differences, for instance). It is important to recognise that peer review exists in order to attempt to catch such methodological problems. Also when utilising a scientific methodological approach, one is really attempting to create models that usefully reflect the world, rather than necessarily state an essentialist truth about the world which can be readily problematized.

Historical context is also important to better appreciate how gender and methodology are related, by considering past interaction and discussion that has gone on between the scientific community and post-structuralists (Oakley 1998, p. 708). The 1990s saw a series of intellectual arguments known as ‘the science wars’, involving the criticism of scientific objectivity by post-structuralists, with the rebuttal by the scientific community that their critics lacked both intellectual rigour, and an understanding of what they were critiquing. An important event was the ‘Sokal affair’, whereby a professor of physics was successful in getting an article published in a post-structural journal despite then revealing that he was testing to see if they would: “publish an article liberally salted with nonsense if it (a) sounded good and (b) flattered the editors’ ideological preconceptions” (Sokal, 1996). This clearly problematizes post-structural criticism as a method of academia with forward motion a great deal. It is commonly argued that post-structuralism has a lack of constructivity, and does not offer alternative explanations to the hypotheses which it problematizes. As a result of this, it clearly isn’t a methodology that can exist independently. In order to have meaning, the deconstruction that is posited must have a structure to act upon which is near exclusively the result of alternative methods.

By beginning a deconstructive critique with the a priori assumption that the structuralist position is inherently flawed can result in a lack of engagement with the position under scrutiny. This can lead to misunderstandings and oversimplification of the subject matter at hand leading to a far less convincing and less useful output. For example, the argument that has been put forward suggesting that ‘science is the masculine’, ‘nature is the feminine’, and that knowledge acquired by science from nature is a form of rape (Oakley 1998, p. 709) and that subsequently Newton’s Principa Mathematica can be characterised as a ‘rape manual’ (Begley 2001, p. 115) demonstrate a lack of engagement with the purpose or methodology of science, whilst simultaneously abusing the sensitive term ‘rape’ in a manner that does not empower or usefully critique. Such dramatic language use is also likely to inspire a (deliberate) reaction in readers, which is another important dimension related to all methodologies which will be returned to.

Having discussed the work of Hines, the way in which scientific methodology can be used to study gender can be better understood by a comparative examination of the work of another scientist and his work’s implications and problematisations within gender studies – Simon Baron-Cohen. The premise of his book The Essential Difference examines the theory that: “The female brain is predominantly hard-wired for empathy. The male brain is predominantly hard-wired for understanding and building systems” (Baron-Cohen 2003, p. 1). Baron-Cohen’s methodology rests upon the use of two tools which he is responsible for creating, the Empathy Quotient (EQ) and the Systemizing Quotient (SQ). These are questionnaires where points are scored dependant on answering ‘strongly agree/disagree’ or ‘slightly agree/disagree’ to a range of questions of which some are scored for positive answers, some are scored for negative answers, and some do not affect the final score of the test at all. The results that he has found show that on the SQ, people with autism score higher on average than men who score higher on average than women. On the EQ this pattern is reversed. How then, is this methodology problematized by the analytical category of gender?

Firstly, the way in which language is used to express the research is somewhat problematic. The summary on the back cover of The Essential Difference begins with “At last, leading psychologist Simon Baron-Cohen confirms what most of us have long suspected: male and female brains are different”. Then on page 8 of the book, the subtitle “Your Sex Does Not Dictate Your Brain Type” is used. If sex does not dictate brain type (in that the differences he is referring to are statistical averages, thus allowing for the existence of, within his model, women with ‘very male’ brains and vice versa) then this raises the question of why he has chosen to refer to the brain types as ‘male’ and ‘female’ given this clearly obfuscates his point. This requires him to explicitly demonstrate to his readers that he is aware of and receptive to the need of “not perpetuating the mistaken attitudes of former generations by assuming that sex differences imply that one sex is inferior overall” (Baron-Cohen 2003, p. 10). Demonstrating this is clearly no bad thing,  however it can be argued that it is at best an ‘unscientific’ (that is, obviously subjectified) approach to discuss the hypotheses in these terms. The choice of language on the back cover was clearly designed to be simple and catchy, to increase the appearance of significance and therefore readership, and status.

Baron-Cohen’s methods are also critiqued by other scientists. An alternative model has been proposed with ‘Machiavellianism’ and EQ offered as a more accurate dichotomy than EQ/SQ (Andrew, Cooke and Muncer 2007). It is argued that the EQ and SQ have “not been strongly validated”, and that “the relationship between empathising and systemizing is still unresolved”. Some of the criticisms levied against the EQ/SQ model are not particularly complex. For instance: “One would expect that if these were two contrasting cognitive styles that showed such a clear pattern then there would be a negative relationship between them. This has certainly been proposed by Baron-Cohen, but seldom strongly supported by research which has generally shown a weak negative correlation between the two styles. Furthermore, some research using other proposed methods of measuring systemizing and empathizing has found no significant correlation.” (Andrew, Cooke and Muncer 2007).

These are problems that if truly using an objective approach, one might expect Baron-Cohen to address more explicitly, however the reasons this does not happen are easy to understand. All academics clearly have a vested interested in the value of their research contribution due to impact on their reputations and by extension, career success. Discussion of further work needing to be done is common, but self-criticism of methods is very rare due to the fundamental uncertainty this then places on the value of the whole work. The process of peer review and intra-disciplinary competition does provide a policing of research to limit the impact of the avoidance of this level of self-criticism (which is not unique to natural scientists of course) however should the work being criticised have been written by someone ‘eminent’ and published in a ‘prestigious’ journal it is unlikely that the problematisation will receive as effective a voice on the academic landscape.  This may also be regarded as a problem from a feminist perspective when considering arguments that men may have more active and effective voices than women in many circumstances in society, which relates this problem directly back to gender.

What is most interesting methodologically is that whilst number of individuals taking the test, their sexes and their scores can all be quantified and analysed, how is the wording of the questions that form the main methodological tool performed ‘scientifically’? There is an implicit and unavoidable subjectivity here, and it is difficult to claim a firm authority on ability to do this. Gender further problematizes this question by the fact that all researchers are gendered, and arguably cannot disconnect their ‘selves’ from the words they choose to use in the construction of their methodological tools. Based on the discussion of post-structuralism that has already been engaged with this position may regard this only as a flaw or disadvantage; however there are potential benefits that this may also bring despite it being common that a lack of discussion occurs on such points within scientific literature. Scientists are not robots; by acknowledging that subjective traits that do not yield to rational analysis such as creativity, integrity and curiosity do influence research (National Academy of Sciences 2001, p. 111) constructive dialogue can be opened in order to create a more nuanced understanding, such that research validity isn’t jeopardised by neglect of such.

These critiques have partially alluded to an important approach in considering scientific methodology through a gendered lens – feminist epistemology. This approach (or approaches) involves examining the ways in which gender affects the acquisition of knowledge. There are a great many ways that feminist methodologies may be developed because there are a diverse number of branches of feminist theory (Rosser 2001, p. 126). An interesting dimension to the problematisation of scientific methodology are the different conflicts that can arise out of these positions, which will be related back to the work of Baron-Cohen and the potentially unavoidable subjectivity in science just discussed.

The first of these positions I shall consider is that of liberal feminism. A simple summary of this would be the belief that women suffer unjust treatment in society in comparison to men, and that this is unjust and equal consideration with regards to sex is a social ideal to be aimed for. There is no incompatibility with the hegemonic, objectivist approach to scientific research as ideally it is believed within this framework that gender biases in science can be consciously uncovered and removed (Rosser 2001, p. 129). It is not saying that science has successfully been performed in a de-gendered manner. A simple example would be a consideration of the social consideration of the hormones testosterone and oestrogen. Whilst both of these hormones are found in men and women with numerous and complex roles and effects, one is very much gendered as male and the other very much gendered as female, with a huge emphasis being placed on their roles in the development of secondary sexual characteristics. The reasons behind this could be explored, but from a social perspective it seems that due to the simplicity of this description and the fact that everyone learns this basic concept in secondary school biology, the trickle down of scientific research into education and the gendered implications this has results in a propagation of relatively ubiquitous and basic ‘engenderments’.

Sexism within the scientific community as a result of subjectivities connected to gender has been documented and studied. A paper published in the prestigious journal Science (claiming to have demonstrated that the corpus callosum in the human brain was larger in females than in males) was examined and shown to have methodological flaws by the neurophysiologist Ruth Bleier. She performed her own study, which, with conscious methodological improvements, resulted in no differences found. Her group’s paper was however rejected by Science, with a reviewer rejecting her arguments seemingly for tending “to err in the opposite direction from the researchers whose results and conclusions she criticizes” (Spanier 2001, p. 369). One might argue that whilst this may indicate problems already discussed with difficulty in criticising scientific results that have attained a position of privilege, it has been shown through empirical study and statistical analysis that nepotism and sexism exist within peer review (Wenneras and Wold 2001, p. 44). This raises the important point that it is demonstrable that both methods and methodologies that were created and near-exclusively used by men for a long period of history can be used by women to demonstrate clear evidence of need for adjustment to attain equality. I avoid saying ‘the need for the empowerment of women’ due to the potential for positive discrimination to result (in theory at least) merely an inversion of the problem. The crux of this evidence within a liberal feminist framework is the need for equality.

Baron-Cohen’s conclusions and assumptions have been faulted in detail on a methodological basis within what could be described as a liberal feminist framework (Nash and Grossi 2007). One might find it problematic that faults with work that (in theory) endeavours to remain objective is criticised on grounds that are immediately political in nature through a lack of relevant connection. However, concurrency and legitimisation are maintained by working within the same methodology as the research itself is performed under, which adds voice to the feminist position. Various books have been written which could be considered under this framework, including those which deal with Baron-Cohen’s work directly such as Delusions of Gender by Cordelia Fine, and Pink Brain Blue Brain by Lise Eliot.

Marxist feminism is markedly different in that knowledge is viewed as a construct resulting from the human endeavour of production that is tied to a proletariat/bourgeois dichotomy. This creates a methodological space for the argument that research questions about both sex differences and biological causations of sexuality or gender identity would not be valid research questions if society was free from inequality (Rosser 2001, p. 131).

Essentialist feminism provides an interesting difficulty to be resolved philosophically and politically when considering gender research. This position is compatible with positivism, and holds that biological differences may mean that men are superior in some physical and mental aspects, and women are in others (Rosser 2001, p. 133). This can arguably lead to reinforcement of a potentially harmful and restrictive binary, though by focussing on the ways in which women are believed to be ‘superior’ to men may be useful in the empowerment of women within a patriarchal system. Obviously the interactions between methodology and this interpretation of feminism may be problematic because of the argument that this constructs barriers to individual freedom based on a socially constructed categorisation. Such ideas of social construction resulting in ‘othering’ as a result of social perception of biological differences (which alone don’t necessarily imply an inequality) are found within existentialist feminism which was explored by Simone de Beauvoir: “The enslavement of the female to the species and the limitations of her various powers are extremely important facts; the body of woman is one of the essential elements in her situation in the world. But that body is not enough to define her as woman; there is no true living reality except as manifested by the conscious individual thorough activities and in the bosom of a society. Biology is not enough to give an answer to the question that is before us; why is woman the Other?” (de Beauvoir 1974, p.51).

This range of categories of feminism makes methodology a difficult area to agree on, because the underlying principles vary significantly even if the general aims (equality for women) are the same. This highlights the importance of the relationship between philosophy, epistemology and methodology when considering research through a gendered lens. This remains true whether actively attempting to answer questions that directly contribute to gendered debates (sex differences, etc.) using scientific methods, or researching topics that are not obviously directly contributing to such debate but still have subjective elements which require conscious and careful language use and analysis to avoid contributing to any level of patriarchal maintenance, repression or preconceived engendering. Some feminists believe that the use of quantified methods is not compatible within an honest and emancipated feminist research methodology. Ann Oakley discusses this in terms of objections against positivism, power and p-values (Oakley 1998, p. 710). In this discussion, Oakley deals with the unequal power distribution between the ‘knower’ or researcher, and ‘known’, the subject – who under a scientific method is properly made to be an ‘object’, arguably removing any agency. However qualitative methods which are sometimes held up as an alternative are subject to these same methodological difficulties, especially if considering any post-structural consideration of language problematisation. The underlying social reason that is given for these attitudes rather than a legitimate superiority/inferiority relationship between methodologies generally is that “Feminism needed a research method, a distinct methodology, in order to occupy a distinctive place in the academy and acquire social status and moral legitimacy” (Oakley 1998, p. 716). In other words, the field required its ‘niche’, in the same way that individual researchers require this in their field. Originality is the key to success and respect within the academy, and this must be achieved not just with subject but also with methodology to some extent.

There are therefore a great many ways in which difficulties can be encountered when considering even just quantitative methodologies and the analyses that may be applied to them in the consideration of gender. What it means to be ‘scientific’ is contentious before considering how language affects results, how unavoidable subjectivity can arguably permeate even the best controlled systems and work – but that fortunately if one can utilise a multifaceted and open approach, engaging quantitative methodology in dialogue with political and social theory can be constructive rather than irrelevant or overcomplicated. Self-expression is as much a part of science as competently collecting one’s data is.  All published academics must consider how to do this, yet this is a stage of the research process that can go relatively un-critiqued despite arguably being strengthened by a systematic element of the consideration of the implications of how and what is being said. This could potentially be regarded as the invisible element of methodology, though this provides good evidence for the usefulness of criticism of methodology from outside of the immediate community or system. Ironically enough then, despite the sometimes polemical or highly subjectively motivated attacks that have occurred on and between quantitative scientific methodologies, post-structural thought and feminist methodologies, the exchanges temper and strengthen all of these so that the complete toolbox can be used to more convincingly express understandings of the world.


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