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Biology = Destiny
August 8, 2010 2:25 PM   Subscribe

Can you recommend a book chapter or article that summarizes the biological and/or psychological perspectives on gender without devolving into straw-man attacks or interdepartmental backbiting?

I am teaching a low-level sociology course in gender very soon and am in a bind with regards to covering the biological and psychological perspectives. Most soci books I've found are horrifyingly biased when it comes to biology and psychology and I want to cover these topics fairly.

I would like a readable book chapter or article (maybe from an intro bio or psych text?) that glances from early history (aka, education shrinks women's ovaries) to current thought, maybe going into the determinants of biological sex (hormones, chromosomes, genitalia) and the biological theories of how sex shapes gender.

Whatever the text doesn't cover I can do myself in lecture, but I figure there has to be a decent version of the standard "Biological perspectives on gender" chapter somewhere. Do you know where?
posted by arcticwoman to Education (20 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
 
Ooooh, I took a gender studies course that used a text like this, and I cannot for the life of me recall the title...

Switching gears a bit until digging around on Amazon reveals it to me. I like Woman: An Intimate Geography, by Natalie Angier. The title is a little silly, but she gives a really good rundown of the way that biology does and does not affect female gender identity.

I'm not sure if there is a book out there that has a historical approach, throwing in the obviously incorrect/outdated stuff in along with what scientists currently believe to be true - usually those areas are divided into different texts, one being history and the other being actual science.

I've also never come across any single chapter of a larger/more general textbook that covered what you want. Maybe a history of science text with a chapter on sex/gender?
posted by Sara C. at 3:02 PM on August 8, 2010


Robert Wright, The Moral Animal, Chapters 2 ("Male and Female") and 3 ("Men and Women").

You can preview Chapter 2 (with some pages missing) by searching within the book for [male female] and going to page 33. Or preview Chapter 3 by searching for [men women] and going to page 55.

Wright gives the evolutionary psychology view. I don't know if this is what you're looking for. He only goes into biological detail insofar as it helps explain how evolution works; he doesn't discuss "hormones, chromosomes, genitalia" as independently significant factors.

The book is from 1994, so I'm sure it's not up to date as far as newer research. But it's very well-written and gives a nice broad perspective. It's based on an enormous amount of anthropological and zoological data, not just armchair theorizing.

It certainly convinced me that gender largely results from biological/evolutionary forces. (This, of course, is not incompatible with the view that "culture" and "socialization" are important at the same time.)

I'd be skeptical of a book that just focuses on one gender. Wright focuses equally on both.
posted by Jaltcoh at 3:05 PM on August 8, 2010 [1 favorite]


Have you checked out Anne Fausto-Sterling's stuff? She wrote a book called "Sexing the Body" and one called "Myths of Gender." She's at Brown University, and while she writes STS stuff now, her background is developmental genetics and she does a lot of work currently with planaria. I think you might find her first chapter from Sexing the Body useful. Even she might have some interdisciplinary snark, though. When you get down to it, biology just isn't sufficient to determine gender.

If you're just looking for a biological description of sex determination, I would check out Scott Gilbert's Developmental Biology text. Gilbert is fantastic, and well versed in soc theory though he remains a hardcore biologist. I am a big fan. It's pretty dense biology stuff, but it's really good.

If you want a historical discussion, there's an article by Jane Maienschein, "What Determines Sex? A Study of Converging Approaches, 1880-1916" Isis, Vol. 75, No. 3 (Sep., 1984), pp. 456-480.
posted by Made of Star Stuff at 3:11 PM on August 8, 2010


It's not clear what your own stance on sex/gender is -- that'll help determine what books you use. There are philosophical perspectives that are not from the biological sciences or psychology - both of which focus on "truths" about sex/gender by looking backward and measuring things.

I'd be skeptical of a book that just focuses on one gender. Wright focuses equally on both

This statement from Jaltcoh reveals an underlying assumption that there are two -- even biological science cannot define two discreet sexes without any exceptions -- and when you enter the domain of meaning-making -- possibilities for defining sex and gender multiply.
posted by vitabellosi at 3:36 PM on August 8, 2010


This statement from Jaltcoh reveals an underlying assumption that there are two

Yes, you are correct.
posted by Jaltcoh at 3:38 PM on August 8, 2010


I teach soc of gender courses regularly. Because they are soc courses and a large proportion of my students have a really hard time *getting* that the sociological perspective is distinct (at least somewhat, although not totally exclusive) from other disciplinary perspectives, I tend to underplay the psych and bio perspectives (which are far more familiar to my students) somewhat.

I use Anne Fausto Sterling (mentioned above), but I use: The Five Sexes. There is also more recent material from her too.

I also use Emily Martin's THE EGG AND THE SPERM: HOW SCIENCE HAS CONSTRUCTED A ROMANCE BASED ON STEREOTYPICAL
MALE-FEMALE ROLES


I like these because they give a good nod to the bio-psychological contributors to gender, but at the same time makes it really clear how even the biological is socially constructed into gendered meaning.

For me, sociology of gender is not just about the content of the 'social issues', it entails a sociological perspective.

That is, it's not that bodies, the biological or minds or the psychological issues are irrelevant issues within sociology. Rather, when as sociologists we examine these issues, we do so using a sociological perspective particularly which entails serious consideration of social constructionism, social relativism, power, social discourse, class, ethnicity, gender, sexualities etc.

This is what I really want students to get their heads around in terms of gender. This is why I tend to use sociological perspectives to examine issues of bodies etc. rather than psychological perspectives.
posted by kch at 3:47 PM on August 8, 2010 [1 favorite]


I might also add that in my courses I maintain the disciplinary convention of using the term Sex (man, woman) as referring to the biological, and Gender (masculine, feminine, androgynous etc.) as referring to the socio-cultural (and if the course is a high enough level then we discuss in context of postmodern feminism the implications of such categories).

There is a dominant cultural myth that Sex determines Gender. While clearly there are biological contributors, understanding what these are and how they interact with (or are constructed through) socio-cultural systems is better worked within sociology than assuming that there is such thing as a 'pure' or 'independent' or 'objective' scientific/psychological perspective.

YMMV.
posted by kch at 4:15 PM on August 8, 2010


Jaltcoh - Angier's subject is femaleness. She's not focusing solely on one gender because she thinks men aren't worth studying, it's just not the scope of the book. Sort of like complaining that an US History text isn't trustworthy because it only covers the US.

To the OP - I would be wary of deliberately seeking out a text that sets out to show that sex/gender is predominantly affected by biology. Not because I think biology has nothing to do with it, but because you don't want to skew too far in the other direction. I'd go with something more neutral or which seeks middle ground.
posted by Sara C. at 4:29 PM on August 8, 2010 [2 favorites]


kch - I'm almost positive that the text I was searching for above had that Martin article in it. One of the most fascinating pieces of text I have ever read in my life, on any subject. In fact, had I remembered the title, I'd have mentioned it in that "books that will blow your mind" post the other day.

Nthing Anne Fausto-Sterling, as well.
posted by Sara C. at 4:34 PM on August 8, 2010


I'm almost positive that the text I was searching for above had that Martin article in it.

It's in a couple of different edited gender anthologies (don't edited gender volumes rock? ok, maybe I'm a bit biased here). But I'm at home, not next to my office shelf to pull the title of the volume. SaraC., if it's bugging you and if you (or anyone) wants the name of the volume, memail me and I'll pull it when I'm back in my office.

Jaltcoh, this discussion around your comment is ironic given what's written under gender for your profile. Dang! dancing through the cultural language issues of gender is pesky!
posted by kch at 5:20 PM on August 8, 2010


Jaltcoh - Angier's subject is femaleness. She's not focusing solely on one gender because she thinks men aren't worth studying, it's just not the scope of the book. Sort of like complaining that an US History text isn't trustworthy because it only covers the US.

Well, to say that the subject of the book is femaleness is begging the question. However, I maintain that the book should be viewed with skepticism. I wouldn't trust a US history textbook that focused solely on the US, because US history is inextricably interwined with other countries. Same with male + female.

However, the analogy doesn't go much further than that. What I mean is: there are so many countries that you can't possibly write a detailed history of all of them in one book. However, there are two genders. (I'm not denying that there are intermediate cases when it comes to gender, but I think everyone reading this understands what I mean by two genders.) If the topic were the oppression of women, that'd be different -- obviously, that is worthy of a whole book, to say the least. But if the topic is the biology of sex/gender? I see no reason to restrict it to women that doesn't have to do with politics or marketing. So I would be skeptical. Maybe there is a good reason, in which case my skepticism would be answered.

Jaltcoh, this discussion around your comment is ironic given what's written under gender for your profile. Dang! dancing through the cultural language issues of gender is pesky!

Well, I'm glad you've found irony in it. (My profile says: "Gender: partly biological and partly cultural, just like everything else.") I'm not sure what's ironic since that's exactly what I said near the end of my first comment. Again: to say that gender is largely the result of biology is not at all incompatible with saying that gender is "cultural" or results from "socialization." The link in my first comment explains this well. I fervently hope that students in sociology classes these days are learning that multiple level of analysis (biological, cultural, etc.) of a single phenomenon can coexist; the validity of one level of analysis does not obviate another.
posted by Jaltcoh at 5:31 PM on August 8, 2010


However, I maintain that the book should be viewed with skepticism. I wouldn't trust a US history textbook that focused solely on the US, because US history is inextricably interwined with other countries. Same with male + female.

Jaltcoh, you clearly haven't read the book and have no idea what you're talking about.
posted by Sara C. at 5:42 PM on August 8, 2010 [1 favorite]


OK, I've sent a couple MefiMails because I think we're in danger of getting off track and not being especially responsive to the OP's question. I'd rather not keep having a back-and-forth discussion on gender here since I don't feel it would help the OP. I'm happy to discuss any of this further over email with anyone.
posted by Jaltcoh at 6:04 PM on August 8, 2010


Everyone has an ideological position here: AFAIR, Fausto-Sterling believes gender is completely socially constructed (I could be wrong, but I seem to remember her citing the now notorious case where a boy maimed in a circumcision accident was raised as a girl and the researcher who studied him claimed that this worked, when, in fact, he was never happy in his forced gender and eventually committed suicide. For the best on this, see As Nature Made Him, which tells the whole sordid story and might actually be one of the best intro's there is to the issue).

Angier is a fierce opponent of evolutionary psychology (though she seems now to accept more of it and just not call the people she likes "evo psychos").
posted by Maias at 6:32 PM on August 8, 2010


Angier is a fierce opponent of evolutionary psychology

Pretty much every gender studies scholar I have ever come across has been a fierce opponent of evolutionary psychology. That particular field is, AFAIK, not considered legitimate within the field. The fact that Angier is sometimes willing to listen to the few of them that make any sense at all speaks very highly of her comparative neutrality.
posted by Sara C. at 6:38 PM on August 8, 2010


Also, am I the only person I know who has issues with As Nature Made Him? I think it's a fascinating and thought provoking book, but I remember taking some pretty serious issues with what I perceived Colapinto's thesis to be*. And yet everyone I come across says nothing but wonderful things.

*Which could have been a misread, I'll admit, since I was a fairly hard-line radical feminist at the time. This thread obviously isn't the right forum, but I'd love some discussion of what Colapinto was trying to do and whether it really works or not.
posted by Sara C. at 6:53 PM on August 8, 2010


From my perspective, the OP is actually asking for resources which I believe are beyond the scope of a sociological perspective for use within a soc course (which as the instructor is her prerogative). Evolutionary psychology and mainstream biological/psychological perspectives are not well accepted within the discipline because they do not share core working principles/ideas/assumptions of women's studies/feminism/sociology, namely serious consideration of social constructionism, power, sexualities, ethnicities, class, agency, discourses etc.

While these materials may indeed be worthy of examination from a sociological perspective (as has the Colapinto research for example), there is no real way to get a 'balanced' or 'objective' view out of all of this. This is what it means to have disciplines which are literally 'disciplined'. It is indeed possible to use interdisciplinary perspectives, analytical methodologies and pedagogical approaches to mediate some of these issues, however these need to be employed deliberately and with a degree of expertise in the multiple disciplines as well as in interdisciplinarity. This is no easy task.

The suggestions for Angier, Martin and Fausto-Sterling are all suggestions which approach some of the biological issues relating to sex, but in ways which are consistent with a sociological framing of gender issues. They are well validated in terms of their usage within sociology and gender studies more broadly (whether Jaltcoh or others disagree or not). Whether or not they are good in terms of other disciplinary framings, or whether or not they will be useful to the OP in her course is another point.

The degree of heat that is obviously apparent when these kinds of issues are raised is exactly the kind that I personally find annoying and distracting to the actual course material to the degree that generally, I stick to sociological perspectives on these issues in my soc courses (but not in my interdisciplinary gender courses).
posted by kch at 9:09 PM on August 8, 2010 [1 favorite]


Evolutionary psychology

*Thppppt!*

and mainstream biological/psychological perspectives are not well accepted within the discipline because they do not share core working principles...

Agreed. So, OP needs to clarify what is desired -- do you want something that describes the biological development in a male or female direction in humans? Sex-determining Region Y, androgen insensitivity syndrome, etc.? Or do you want to have your students look at some of the stuff produced by biology and psychology that sociology is criticizing?

kch: Fausto-Sterling took a lot of crap for that Five Sexes article, didn't she? Even with the "modest proposal" language? It might be a good way to introduce people to gender, but it seems like it'd be a very odd way to introduce them to "accepted ideas of sex and gender in biology." She's reacting to the very idea that biology can be used to determine the number and kinds of gender, and drawing out the fact that we're using biology to bolster the constructions we've already accepted.

It really is hard to introduce cross-disciplinary information like this in an undergrad course, especially when you're trying to pull from some of the very sources that the discipline is investigating.
posted by Made of Star Stuff at 9:44 PM on August 8, 2010


It really is hard to introduce cross-disciplinary information like this in an undergrad course, especially when you're trying to pull from some of the very sources that the discipline is investigating.

I agree. Some undergrad courses are designed for this purpose (and can be successful). Others aren't. I'm figuring the course that the OP is proposing is not, and therefore would recommend staying within the discipline.
posted by kch at 9:51 PM on August 8, 2010


OP here, thanks for all the suggestions and food for thought.

The reason why I am looking to introduce biological and psychological perspective is partly this: sociology did not develop in a vacuum, and none of us currently operates within a vacuum. I feel the need to briefly describe other theories of gender so that when we talk about social construction of gender (which, as a sociology course, will be a primary topic), the students have other ideas as context and comparison. What does it mean to talk about how gender is socially constructed if there is no understanding of competing theories? It doesn't make sense to talk about how many people believe that sex = gender without talking about where that idea comes from.

Also, I feel that some biological perspective is necessary for honesty's sake. Gender is not completely socially constructed. In some ways, gender is linked to sex. You won't find that in many sociology texts, but it is factually supported. If students hear from me and our textbook only that gender is socially constructed, and then learn elsewhere that there are sex-linked elements, they will lose trust in what else we discussed.

I want to be able to say "this is sex. this is why many biologists think that sex causes gender. This is why many laypeople think that sex = gender. While there may be some sex-linked aspects of gender, much of gender is socially constructed. Since this is a sociology course, the social construction of gender and the ways that the use of gender as a fundamental differentiating category shapes our lives, is what we will be discussing."

Finally, this is the first time I have put a course together myself and I am taking a lot of my cues this time from the available textbooks. Every textbook I have looked at has a whole chapter on biology and a whole chapter on psychoanalysis/psychology. I have chosen to skip psychoanalysis completely, but I think there must be something to the fact that covering biological perspectives is standard in a lower-level gender course.

I do understand that this is a sociology class though, and the biological/psychological stuff will be just a small part of it. Half a week out of thirteen weeks, to be exact. That's why I am just looking for a summary.
posted by arcticwoman at 7:26 PM on August 9, 2010


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