Whimsical, queer exploration of all things gender.

Posts tagged ‘Science’

“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.

References:

  • Alexander, G. M., and Hines, M., 2002, ‘Sex differences in response to children’s toys in non-human primates (Cercopithecus aetheops sabaeus)’, Evolution and Human Behaviour 23, p. 467-479.
  • Alvesson M. and Sköldberg K., 2000, ‘Reflexive Methodology’, p. 184.
  • Alvesson, M. and Sköldberg K., 2000 ‘Reflexive Methodology’, p. 210.
  • Andrew J., Cooke M., and Muncer S. J., 2007 ‘An alternative to empathising-systemizing theory’, Personality and Individual Differences 44, p. 1203-1211.
  • Andrew J., Cooke M., and Muncer S. J., 2007, ‘An alternative to empathising-systemizing theory’, Personality and Individual Differences 44, p. 1204.
  • Baron-Cohen, S., 2003, ‘The Essential Difference’, p. 1.
  • Baron-Cohen, S., 2003, ‘The Essential Difference’, p. 10
  • Begley, G., 2001, ‘The Science Wars’, in Lederman, M. and Bartsch, I., ‘The Gender and Science Reader’ p. 114.
  • Begley, G., 2001, ‘The Science Wars’, in Lederman, M. and Bartsch, I., ‘The Gender and Science Reader’ p. 115.
  • Begley, S., 2001, ‘The Science Wars’, in Lederman, M. and Bartsch, I., ‘The Gender and Science Reader’ p. 117.
  • de Beauvoir, S., 1974, ‘The Second Sex’ – quoted in Rosser, S. V., 2001, ‘Are there feminist methodologies appropriate for the natural sciences and do they make a difference?’ in Lederman, M. and Bartsch, I., ‘The Gender and Science Reader’ p. 134.
  • Hines, M., 2004, ‘Brain Gender’, p. 12.
  • Hines, M., 2004, ‘Brain Gender’, p. 47.
  • Hines, M., 2004, ‘Brain Gender’, p. 135.
  • Keller, E.F., 1985, ‘Reflections on Gender and Science’, p. 126.
  • Keller, E.F., 1985, ‘Reflections on Gender and Science’, p. 141.
  • Nash A. and Grossi G., 2007, ‘Picking Barbie™’s Brain: Inherent Differences in Scientific Ability?’ in Journal of Interdisciplinary Feminist Thought, Vol. 2 Issue 1 article 5.
  • National Academy of Sciences, 2001, ‘Methods and Values’, in Lederman, M., and Bartsch, I., ‘The Gender and Science Reader’, p. 111.
  • National Academy of Sciences, 2001, ‘Methods and Values’, in Lederman, M., and Bartsch, I., ‘The Gender and Science Reader’, p. 112.
  • Oakley, A., 1998, ‘Gender Methodology and People’s Ways of Knowing, Some Problems With Feminism and the Paradigm Debate in Social Science’, Sociology, Vol. 32, no. 4, p. 708.
  • Oakley, A., 1998, ‘Gender Methodology and People’s Ways of Knowing, Some Problems With Feminism and the Paradigm Debate in Social Science’, Sociology, Vol. 32, no. 4, p. 709.
  • Oakley, A., 1998, ‘Gender Methodology and People’s Ways of Knowing, Some Problems With Feminism and the Paradigm Debate in Social Science’, Sociology, Vol. 32, no. 4, p. 710.
  • Oakley, A., 1998, ‘Gender Methodology and People’s Ways of Knowing, Some Problems With Feminism and the Paradigm Debate in Social Science’, Sociology, Vol. 32, no. 4, p. 716.
  • Prasad, P., 2005, ‘Crafting Qualitative Research’, p. 99.
  • Rosser, S. V., 2001, ‘Are there feminist methodologies appropriate for the natural sciences and do they make a difference?’ in Lederman, M. and Bartsch, I., ‘The Gender and Science Reader’ p. 126.
  • Rosser, S. V., 2001, ‘Are there feminist methodologies appropriate for the natural sciences and do they make a difference?’ in Lederman, M. and Bartsch, I., ‘The Gender and Science Reader’ p. 129.
  • Rosser, S. V., 2001, ‘Are there feminist methodologies appropriate for the natural sciences and do they make a difference?’ in Lederman, M. and Bartsch, I., ‘The Gender and Science Reader’ p. 131.
  • Rosser, S. V., 2001, ‘Are there feminist methodologies appropriate for the natural sciences and do they make a difference?’ in Lederman, M. and Bartsch, I., ‘The Gender and Science Reader’ p. 133
  • Sokal, A., 1996, ‘A Physicist Experiments With Cultural Studies’, Lingua Franca, archived at: http://www.physics.nyu.edu/faculty/sokal/lingua_franca_v4/lingua_franca_v4.html
  • Spanier, B., 2001, ‘From molecules to brains, normal science supports sexist beliefs about differences’, in Lederman, M. and Bartsch, I., ‘The Gender and Science Reader’ p. 369.
  • Voyer et al., 1995, ‘Magnitude of Sex Differences in Spatial Abilities – a Metaanalysis and Consideration of Critical Variables’, Psychological Bulletin, Vol. 117, issue 2, p. 250.
  • Wenneras, C. and Wold, A., 2001, ‘Nepotism and Sexism in Peer Review’, in Lederman, M. and Bartsch, I., ‘The Gender and Science Reader’ p. 44.

 

Book review: Delusions of Gender by Cordelia Fine

Delusions of Gender is an excellent book. From a neuroscientific perspective, Cordelia Fine meticulously unpicks prevalent gender stereotypes we’re all very familiar with, and lays out a detailed and well researched critique of the (often shoddy) research and writings that have propped these beliefs up.

The book is divided into three sections – ‘half changed world, half changed minds’, ‘neurosexism’, and ‘recycling gender’. Whilst I didn’t feel this sectioning was strictly necessary due to how all of the subject material and arguments are interlinked and related, they do help maintain a sense of ‘detailed introduction’, ‘analysis of scientific claims’, ‘detailed conclusion’, which is helpful. I felt that Fine draws the reader in from the start – with pithy, acerbically satirical (but importantly, inoffensive) humour on the very first page of the introduction. By page 9 of the first chapter, one is drawn in by proclamations such as the familiar ‘male/female’ check-boxes at the start of many forms in fact ‘priming gender’ and influencing how one then answers the form. Fine expertly achieves what is necessary for any popular science book – getting people interested in the questions, without scaring them off with the technical aspects. No biological background is needed to appreciate the critiques that Fine structures throughout the book.

I feel the concept of ‘neurosexism’ is a valuable one, which Fine has coined in this work. All too often, the prejudices of researchers can leak into supposedly objective work, because there is a prevalent attitude that scientific methodologies allows researchers to successfully remove themselves from influencing their results, even when undertaking interpretations – rather than recognising the difficulty (and ultimate futility) of this. Little to no acknowledgement of this happens inside or outside of the field, and so one can hopefully see how in combination with the simplistic (but again, virtually ubiquitous) attitude that ‘science = facts’ can cause a lot of problematic stuff to be taken for granted. It is a mighty claim for anyone to say something behavioural is ‘hardwired’, though this is a term I would hazard we are all familiar with through popular culture. Fine uses a great quotation from Anne Fausto-Sterling in the introduction which sums up her claim nicely:

[d]espite the many recent insights of brain research, this organ remains a vast unknown, a perfect medium on which to project, even unwittingly, assumptions about gender.

Throughout the book, an impressively thorough number of references are given (the bibliography is 39 pages long), though in the text there is a recurring focus on the work of a small handful of particular authors. In no particular order, ones that stuck out to me were:

  • Louan Brizendine – The Female Brain
  • Leonard Sax – Why Gender Matters
  • Simon Baron-Cohen – The Essential Difference (and other works)
  • Allan and Barbara Pease – Why Men Don’t Listen and Women Can’t Read Maps


These works were quoted and dissected, used as examples of poor methodology, untenable claims, and problematic stereotype support. What Ben Goldacre might term ‘Bad Science’ (another fabulous book, that you should read if you haven’t, incidentally). The reason I bring this up is because some might claim that the revisiting of these sources may imply there isn’t that much out there to criticise, that Fine may be picking on only a few examples to make her arguments easier to maintain, or to make strawmen of the cases presented.

I do not believe these potential criticisms to stand up, however. Brizendine, Sax, and Baron-Cohen are all respected neurologists, psychologists and doctors (With Allan Pease being the exception, his background being in sales before writing best-sellers on body language and communication with his wife), commanding a great deal of academic clout – making it all the more impressive that Fine’s meticulous research creates serious criticism that also remains accessible. There are a large number of differently sourced examples through the book that highlight how ingrained and accepted much insidious gender stereotyping there is throughout societal consciousness. None of the quotations chosen by Fine of works she casts a critical eye over appear unfairly cherry-picked, and indeed having also read The Essential Difference at least, I can confirm no misrepresentation or simplification of Baron-Cohen’s work, which is almost disappointing as one would not expect a Cambridge Professor to propagate such underdetermined claims that buy into a chronically anti-feminist state of affairs.

Delusions of Gender doesn’t restrict itself to an insular critique of those within the niche of neurobiology. By broadening discussion to how work in this field has influenced (or been influenced by) how people view personal relationships, single/mix sexed schooling, how people raise their children, advertising and media, and work on gendered behaviour in animals, Fine managed to create a work that covers so many important questions as to keep the non-scientist engaged from beginning to end, but without attempting an analysis in terms that are outside her area of familiarity. You won’t find any Judith Butler or Michael Foucault in the references. Nor will you find any meaty discussion of how trans* or non-binary gender experiences are related to the narrative of the science of sex differences. Fine obviously can’t be held responsible for the ubiquity of the sex binary within scientific discourse, though I feel exploration of this could have been a valuable and fascinating addition to the book. It is a delusion of gender to imagine that there are only two genders.

This is tame criticism however for a book that clearly sets out its area of investigation, and does so with precision and originality. I feel it would be a very small number of people who could read this book and honestly say they hadn’t learnt a lot. Make time for this book, even if you think it sounds too brainy.

The story of Agnes – Gender recognition and surgery in the 1950s

This post is based off a chapter of a book. It’s a rather obscure book called ‘Studies in Ethnomethodology’, which may be among the least catchy possible titles for a book, even given that the chapter was originally published as a paper in 1967. Bear in mind that much of the way in which this story is discussed will be reflecting on attitudes held widely on gender in the 1950s and 1960s.

Don’t give up on me just yet, as the contents are rather unexpectedly fascinating.

The paper was written by one Dr. Garfinkel and his experience treating a patient called Agnes, whom he first met in November of 1958. Agnes had sought medical attention in her home town, been referred to a doctor in Los Angeles, who referred her to a colleague of Dr. Garfinkel who saw her with him.

The nineteen year old Agnes was the youngest of four children, supported by her mother who worked in an aircraft plant. Her father died when Agnes was a child. She was raised Catholic, but no longer believed in God.

These particular sisters may not have put Agnes back on the path to righteousness…

She also had a penis, and testes.

Agnes was presenting with what nowadays would be referred to as an intersex condition – in that she possessed physiology typically associated with the social categories of ‘male’ and ‘female’ at the same time. To quote from Dr. Garfinkel’s account directly:

Agnes’ appearance was convincingly female. She was tall, slim, with a very female shape. Her measurements were 38-25-38. She had long, fine dark-blonde hair, a young face with pretty features, a peaches-and-cream complexion, no facial hair, subtly plucked eyebrows, and no makeup except for lipstick. At the time of her first appearance she was dressed in a tight sweater which marked off her thin shoulders, ample breasts, and narrow waist. Her feet and hands, though somewhat larger than usual for a woman, were in no way remarkable in this respect. Her usual manner of dress did not distinguish her from a typical girl of her age and class. There was nothing garish or exhibitionistic in her attire, nor was there any hint of poor taste or that she was ill at ease in her clothing, as is seen so frequently in transvestites and in women with disturbances in sexual identification. Her voice, pitched at an alto level, was soft, and her delivery had the occasional lisp similar to that affected by feminine appearing male homosexuals. her manner was appropriately feminine with a slight awkwardness that is typical of middle adolescence.

As tempting as it is to pick apart the frankly amazing number of problems there are with anyone, let alone a doctor scrutinising someone in such terms, this isn’t actually the focus of where this is going. Please feel free to pick it apart in your own delicious, juicy minds.

This is a fairly common intersex (and more generally, trans) pride symbol. To think that being intersex is to be a ‘mix’ of male and female (rather than its own state of being, not framed in terms of a binary) as the stereotypical pink-purple-blue colour scheme suggests may be a bit simple.

Agnes wanted to get treatment for what she regarded as a very problematic condition. She thought of her penis and scrotum as being nothing more than a tumour that she wished to have removed so she could get on with living a ‘normal female life’. The fact that she had been born with a penis had meant that for the first 17 years of her life she had been treated and socialised as a boy by her family others who knew her. When she was around 12 years old, she was delighted when she noticed breasts beginning to develop, and other female secondary sex characteristics associated with the onset of puberty.

After much medical scrutiny, it was decided Agnes had a rare disorder known as ‘testicular feminisation syndrome’ , where the testicles, rather than producing testosterone, instead produce lots of oestrogens, causing an XY fetus to develop female genitalia and female traits at puberty. Agnes was seen to be a unique variation on this, in that she had a penis and scrotum and no vagina, and also no ovaries or womb. The doctors were a bit confused by this, but it was the best they could come up with – particularly given how ‘obviously female’ Agnes was to them in all other respects.

Agnes considered herself to be entirely apart from feminine homosexuals, “transvestites” (n.b. I put this in inverted commas because this was the term Dr. Garfinkel and Agnes herself were using at the time to refer to cross-dressers. The term ‘transvestite’ may be considered offensive, and it’s important that this be borne in mind), or any other gender variant individuals, considering them to be “freaks”, and nothing like her whatsoever. She went to an incredible amount of trouble to ensure that she was never scrutinised as being anything other than a ‘normal female’. To again quote directly from Garfinkel’s account:

“I’m not like them” she would continually insist. “In high school I steer clear of boys that acted like sissies … anyone with an abnormal problem … I would completely shy away from them and go to the point of being insulting just enough to get around them … I didn’t want to feel noticed talking to them because somebody might relate them to me. I didn’t want to be classified with them.”

Just as normals frequently will be at a loss to understand “why a person would do that, i.e. engage in homosexual activities or dress as a member of the opposite sex, so did Agnes display the same lack of “understanding” for such behavior, although her accounts characteristically were delivered with flattened affect and never with indignation. When she was invited by me to compare herself with homosexuals and transvestites she found the comparison repulsive.

Agnes was also very anxious about how her situation may affect her relationship with her boyfriend, Bill. Agnes met bill in April of 1958, seven months before she received medical scrutiny. Her refusal to let him allow his hands to wonder below her waist was met with much frustration by him, only temporarily alleviated by claims of her modesty and virginity. Agnes disclosed her situation to him in June, and whilst Bill accepted that it was “like an abnormal growth”, he found it difficult to understand why Agnes attended sessions every Saturday to discuss the condition with the doctors (over 70 hours of interviews were recorded and analysed). This was because Bill did not know that Agnes had been raised as a boy, and she sure as hell wasn’t intending for him to find out. She was also somewhat scared about the fact that Bill might himself be ‘abnormal’ (i.e. homosexual…) due to staying with her after disclosure – though she put this worry to rest after remembering that he took interest in her before he ever knew.

In March 1959, Agnes received a castration operation, where her penis and scrotum were removed, and a vagina constructed in their place. Before the surgery, she was scared that the doctors would make the decision that she was ‘actually’ male, and would amputate her breasts without telling her – but was reassured when told this definitely would not happen. With some time for healing and the use of a penis shaped mould, she was able to acclimatise her new genitals such that she was able to have vaginal sex.

After surgery, Agnes was well accepted by her immediate family and Bill. This was because the doctor’s treatment legitimised her claims of having been ‘female all along’, and that her being raised as male was simply an unhappy mistake due to a condition. The medical justification also meant that her “man-made vagina” was seen as ‘legitimately deserved’ by her, unlike individuals making claims of being women, whilst being ‘unambiguously’ physiologically and genetically ‘male’. Sorry for all the inverted commas, but I hope you see I’m illustrating the beliefs of Agnes and wider society at the time, rather than my own.

PRIDE SHARKTOPUS. I swear, coming up with images to break up the text of this post in a relevant way has been nearly impossible. But I could not resist this badass. For anyone wondering, they’re brandishing the (from bottom left going clockwise): the STRAIGHT ALLY flag, the ASEXUAL flag, the BISEXUAL flag, the PANSEXUAL flag, the GENDERQUEER flag, the INTERSEX flag, the TRANSGENDER flag, and the rather more common LGBT flag. This link is the best I could do towards crediting. 

Five years after her surgery and consultation sessions had finished, Agnes returned to catch up with the doctors who had helped her. Whilst she was no longer with Bill, none of the men she had been with sexually since him had ever given any reason to think they found her in any way out of the ordinary. She was still worried however, so Garfinkel arranged for her to see an expert urologist, who confirmed that “her genitalia were quite beyond suspicion”.

Agnes then dropped a massive bombshell.

During the hour following the welcome news given her by the urologist, after having kept it from me for either years, with the greatest casualness, in mid-sentence, and without giving the slightest warning it was coming, she revealed that she had never had a biological defect that had feminised her but that she had been taking estrogens since age 12. In earlier years when talking to me, she had not only said that she had always hoped and expected that when she grew up she would grow into a woman’s body but that starting in puberty this had spontaneously, gradually, but unwaveringly occurred. In contrast, she now revealed that just as puberty began, at the time her voice started to lower and she developed public hair, she began stealing Stilbestrol from her mother, who was taking it on prescription following a panhysterectomy. The child then began filling the prescription on her own, telling the pharmacist that she was picking up the hormone for her mother and paying for it with money taken from her mother’s purse. She did not know what the effects would be, only that this was a female substance, and she had no idea how much to take but more or less tried to follow the amounts her mother took. She kept this up continuously throughout adolescence, and because by chance she had picked just the right time to start taking the hormone, she was able to prevent the development of all secondary sex characteristics that might have been produced by androgens  and instead to substitute those produced by estrogens. Nonetheless, the androgens continued to be produced, enough that a normal-sized adult penis developed with capacity for erection and orgasm till sexual excitability was suppressed by age 15. Thus, she became a lovely looking young ‘woman’, though with a normal sized penis…

This 19 year old girl with no medical training, by sheer, unadulterated luck, and using a method that now would be essentially impossible, managed to achieve the treatment and recognition she desired in a time when any gender or sexuality variance was seen near-universally as sickness and/or criminal.

Try reading all that again, bearing in mind what you now know about Agnes. Do you find yourself thinking of her in any way differently? It’s quite amazing how even today, many people still consider legitimacy in gender identity to require the green light from the medical establishment. Agnes’ genius manipulation of the system gives a great big middle finger to anyone who would try and question or prevent her legitimacy. For her, being transgender wasn’t an identity she felt any connection with. She had no interest in waging a political fight, or in challenging any aspect of social norms. There’s no way to really comment on whether her disgust at gender and sexual minorities was an act or real. She got what she needed.

Respect.

The original chapter can be read here (at least in part), through Google books.

Is there a clear way to define a ‘biological’ sex?

One of the most fundamentally obvious things people might think when they’re asked what ‘Gender Studies’ actually is, is that it may look at differences between men and women… in some way. An interesting question to ask might be what actually is it that makes a man ‘a man’ and a woman ‘a woman’? It’s not as obvious as one may think.

When this question was first asked in a legal context (roughly 50 years ago), three factors were used to define ‘biological sex’: the chromosomes of an individual, what gonads (ovaries or testes) they possess, and their genitals. This is overly simplistic as it turns out that many different combinations of these three factors exist than the two categories everyone was assumed (or expected?) to fall into.

The rest of this post will contain science. For anyone apprehensive, I dare you to read on. I double dare you.

We are all told in school that with regards to chromosomes, men = XY and women = XX. For many people this is true. On the Y chromosome, which is a small, stumpy little thing, lies a gene called SRY, which stands for ‘Sex Determining Region Y’. It is responsible for unspecified gonads in a foetus to develop into testes. Seems pretty straightforward. However this area of the Y chromosome can in rare cases cross over to an X chromosome. If this X chromosome is then inherited, an individual who is XX but in all other ways ‘male’ (gonadally, genitally, and in appearance when older) will result. If the SRY-less Y chromosome is inherited, then the foetus will be XY, but otherwise ‘female’. Because sex on a birth certificate is decided just from someone taking a cursory glance, these conditions may be undiagnosed until the age of puberty, or sometimes not at all.

Individuals who possess a SRY gene will develop testes. Testes then produce testosterone, which is responsible for the development of typically male external genital structures (penis and scrotum) and internal genital structures (the bits needed for reproduction inside that aren’t the testicles themselves – mainly specific tubes).

Before sexual differentiation, all foetuses possess two structures where their internal sex organs will be, called the Müllerian and Wolffian structure. Testes produce a substance called ‘Anti-Müllerian Hormone’ (AMH), which causes the Müllerian structure to regress. The testosterone produced by the testes causes the Wolffian structure to develop into male internal structures. Lack of testosterone prevents the Wolffian structure from developing and causes it to regress, and lack of  AMH allows the Müllerian structure to develop into ‘female’ parts.

The ‘triggering amount’ of testosterone needed to cause penis and scrotum development is lower than the amount needed to make Wolffian structures develop – so if a foetus has a condition that results in lower levels of testosterone (and there are quite a few that can), the result will be someone without the corresponding male internal organs to match the external ones.

Whilst there are many, many different genetic conditions that can make fitting clearly into a ‘social sex box’† problematic, there are a couple that illustrate the potential ambiguity in defining sex very well.

The first of these is called CAH, or Congenital Adrenal Hyperplasia. This is a mutation in a gene which causes a particular enzyme the body normally produces, to not work. This enzyme is essential for the production of the substance cortisol, and so people with CAH cannot produce cortisol. The result of this is that the hypothalamus (the region of the brain which monitors certain hormone levels among other things) says:

“There is no cortisol! Release precursors!”

Various human brains (paraphrased)

In normal circumstances such precursors would get made into cortisol – but because the enzyme responsible doesn’t work, the precursors end up getting made into testosterone and other ‘masculising’ hormones – giving XX foetuses male genitalia. Due to not actually having testicles, no AMH gets produced, so female internal structures still form. Sometimes the genitals of such individuals are judged to be ‘ambiguous’, and tests are done at birth that reveal the condition. Some however look like entirely unremarkable boys, and may go completely undetected.

Another interesting condition is Androgen Insensitivity Syndrome, AIS. This is a mutation that occurs on the X chromosome, and happens in a gene that encodes a receptor (protein that senses when a particular thing is present) for testosterone. This means that in XY foetuses, even though testes are produced normally, and testosterone is then produced normally – none of the rest of the body can detect that the testosterone is there…so female genitalia develop. AMH is produced which prevents Müllerian structural development, but the Wolffian structures can’t develop either as the testosterone can’t be detected. AIS babies show no signs of being anything but female, though are XY and have testes. There’s no clearly agreed reason or way to decide whether possession of one trait or another is what indicates a foetus or babie’s ‘true’ sex, if such a truth can actually be said to exist.

AIS can be ‘complete’ or ‘partial’, with the ‘partial’ condition resulting in ambiguous genitalia. To quote from the book ‘Brain Gender’ by Melissa Hines:

The direction of sex assignment of individuals with PAIS depends to some extent on the appearance of the external genitalia; those judged to have a penis too small for success in the male role may be surgically feminized and raised as girls, whereas others are reared as boys and treated with andogens to try to stimulate penile enlargement and development of other male secondary sexual characteristics. In this syndrome and others involving undervirilization in XY individuals, however, additional considerations, such as the desire of the parents for a son versus a daughter can also influence the direction of sex assignment.

It’s fair to say that the result of accident or injury resulting in penile loss wouldn’t result in an individual who would be unable to have ‘success in the male role’, regardless of the fact that they have already been raised and socialised as male. This discussion hasn’t even touched on the importance of how personal understanding and identity of one’s gender can reflect on how one is defined. If an individual ‘feels’ strongly that they are a given sex, how is this necessarily any less biological? Whatsmore, is there even reason why choice of identity (particularly beyond the strongly binary male-female that is enforced by much of society) is ‘less valid’ as a way by which sex can be defined? It’s easy to get into some very tricky philosophical areas related to this, and certainly the arenas of biology and socialisation are virtually impossible to disentangle from each other.

When it comes down to it, none of these factors are how people judge the sex of people they see day-to-day. We look at what clothes people wear, their size, build, and where they have hair. We listen to what they sound like, and what their name might be. Most people rarely question what they’re presented with assuming they can easily put a person into one box or another. The questions asking why people feel the need to do this, and why people react the way they do when they can’t, are further huge areas to consider!

†If you’re into that sort of thing.

Tag Cloud