Boy/Girl: A hard (science) distinction

I had an interesting conversation with my doctor a few weeks ago.  Upon learning I was studying to take my comprehensive exam in “gender”, she shared her hesitance with the way in which sociologists discuss sex and gender as socially constructed categories.  Laughing, she proclaimed, “I’m just too much of a hard sciences person for that.”

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It’s true.  The social and hard sciences don’t always see eye-to-eye when it comes to issues of sex and gender.  Hard scientists maintain that men and women represent two stable, mutually exclusive categories.  These categories are based on empirical observations and are presented as biological facts.  Social scientists are a bit more skeptical, separating biological sex from the socially constructed categories of gender and suggesting that even categories of sex—based on observations of empirical data—may reflect some level of social construction.

That being said, I’m not sure I see as clear of a distinction as my doctor.  The problematization of sex categories does not necessarily contradict the methods of hard science and, in contrast, seems to be aligned in many ways with scientific values and processes.

For example, gender scholars[i] have highlighted a mismatch between the criteria used to define biological sex and the sex categories themselves.  Biologists base classifications of sex on multiple criteria such as an individual’s internal and external anatomy, chromosomes and hormones.   As you may or may not be aware, these criteria are not always aligned—an individual may have male reproductive organs, two X chromosomes and low levels of testosterone among other variations. Thus, it would seem plausible that biologists could classify sex differently, perhaps relocating the line between men and women, drawing additional lines or maybe even eliminating hard distinctions between sex categories altogether.  In fact, sex_continuumgiven the various combinations of these criteria, it is plausible to conceive of sex as consisting of 5 or more categories or as existing along a continuum, similar to how we delineate age or weight. Yet, in most American hospitals and doctors’ offices, we continue to cling to the male/female binary.

In some ways, this stagnation in how we view biological sex seems somewhat in opposition to the values and methods of science.  Science, as we view it today, is seen as a progressive project—one that continually builds upon previous findings in an effort to establish new knowledge.  In many cases, this process includes the falsification of previous theories, concepts and systems of classification. To name just a few examples, scientists have abandoned the notion of 9 planets within our solar system, medical professionals have reconceptualized autism as a 3.32-580x326spectrum of characteristics and neurologists now recognize multiple types of intelligence.  Further, previously stable either/or categories have become increasingly murky with the introduction of new knowledge.  With the increased prevalence and a greater understanding of long-term and chronic illnesses, the distinction between sick and healthy has blurred (i.e. the point at which one transitions from a cancer sufferer to a cancer survivor is not always clear).  Even the distinction between life and death has become a point of debate in the context of new technologies and scientific discoveries, as is clear by heated national discourse regarding abortion and end-of-life decisions.

Given the evolution of many biological and scientific categories, why does the sex binary remain impervious to change? Why is it “unscientific” to suggest that this categorization may be inaccurate or in need of modification?  It may be because doing so reminds us that objectivity and science, while useful tools, are not concrete objects distinct from the social world in which they exist.  Such a realization can be disconcerting, yet I believe there is space to be both critically reflective of science and to continue to operate within its system.  It is on this point—not on our appreciation and respect for the hard sciences—I think my doctor and I disagree.


[i] For those interested, you may want to check out Kessler and McKenna (here) or Fausto-Sterling (here).

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One thought on “Boy/Girl: A hard (science) distinction

  1. I often feel that doctors make hard lines where continuums are more appropriate–for example the idea that a baby is viable at 26 weeks or the “fertility cliff”. I wonder if it is in part because the system they are dealing with is so complicated that the only practical solution is to over-simplify. If this is true than it may be the case that their “hard science” is a bit mushier than they think…and I think even mushier than the soft sciences that attempt to understand complexity.

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