Some odd remarks on social constructivism about gender

Alice Dreger writes:

 People who think gender identities, gender roles, and sexual orientations are all socially constructed are the most naive biological determinists I’ve ever seen. They think all human brains are completely without structure when it comes to these things; we all have empty slates in our skulls at birth. No, we don’t! Really!

She also remarks:

There’s some pretty good evidence that across almost every (if not every) culture, there is some consistency in gender role expectations. Boys across cultures are expected to—and do—play with toys meant to represent weapons. Girls across cultures are expected to—and do—play with toys that represent cooking and parenting. This doesn’t mean all children meet these expectations (we know they don’t), it just means all cultures seem to share some basic gender expectations.

I’d be surprised if social constructivists all endorse Lockean tabula rasa theories of mind (at least when it comes to behaviors we interpret as gendered). And even if they did, you’d be hard pressed demonstrate the falsity of this by appealing to cross-cultural analogies between gender preferences for toys. So I’ll admit to finding this piece puzzling.

15 thoughts on “Some odd remarks on social constructivism about gender

  1. It’s not puzzling at all. It’s warmed-over Steven Pinker evolutionary psychology crapola.

  2. There are many funny things in that article (and I don’t mean “funny ha ha”). But, I really wish people wouldn’t suggest that “real” and “socially constructed” were opposites or contraries. That should be obvious to anyone who has bothered to try to understand the literature, I’d think. Also, the suggestion that the tendencies of “3 year old boys” to use sticks as swords or to shoot (is there such a tendency for 3 year olds?) is somehow determined by evolution is odd, given that for most of human history there were no swords or anything one could shoot with. I suppose there’s a somewhat more plausible way this could be put, but the example itself already shows that there is, at least, heavy cultural influence.

  3. Kathleen, ‘puzzling’ is meant to be read while rolling your eyes and sighing heavily. ;-)

    Matt, extremely well said.

  4. I don’t really find it that puzzling either. I’ve heard some (admittedly extreme) academics espouse views like the ones that Dreger is criticizing. In a way, I agree that a piece like this is probably unnecessary, since the extreme constructivist position remains a fringe one, indefensible in the light of the empirical evidence. But one runs across it and its close relatives enough that, I feel, articles like this one remain necessary.

  5. Happy Philosopher, the view she is characterizing as social constructivism is a complete caricature. Sure, there might be some academics out there in the world who might say something like what she’s discussing. But that doesn’t mean an assertion like “Social constructivists think that. . .” is justified. Moreover, *even if* social constructivists did espouse the strawman position she attributes to them, the handful of empirical evidence she points to (and over-inflates the reach of) wouldn’t be the kind of evidence that could falsify such a position (as Matt’s comments highlight).

    So I’m puzzled insofar as I’m puzzled why on earth someone would think this is a sensible thing to write.

  6. HappyPhilosopher — I am fascinated! Cites please!

    magicalersatz — done and done. (rolling eyes, sighing heavily :)

  7. I’ve heard some (admittedly extreme) academics espouse views like the ones that Dreger is criticizing.

    As I used to like to tell my students, the world is a big place full of many different things. For any position, no matter how extreme or silly, you’re bound to find someone who supports it. But that doesn’t mean you should treat such views as if they were mainstream, get annoyed that someone, somewhere, holds the view, or spend a lot of time on it, especially when there are more important and central problems.

  8. I don’t regard the position as a “complete caricature”. I can only speak from my experience, of course. But I have listened to apparently serious academics espouse the position that Dreger criticizes (or closely related positions). Because I have heard these positions advanced with regularity (if infrequently), it does not strike me as unreasonable to pen an article like Dreger did.

    As Matt says, it’s certainly true that there are less obscure positions that Dreger could be addressing. But that is a criticism that could be leveled against 99% of academics, myself included.

  9. Strawmanning social constructivists/social constructionists has been a growth industry in philosophy for many years. It has drummed up much business for academic publishers, too. My impression is that this strawmanning is beginning to go out of style, which is maybe why people are surprised by these comments.

  10. Maybe her goal isn’t to argue against social constructivism, but to distance herself from it – in which case, a strawman version will do just fine. Even better if it’s the strawman version your intended audience already thinks *is* social constructivism.

    Maybe she’s trying to create distance between social constructivism and arguments about biological diversity in relation to sex, in order to make the latter more appealing to (say) a more conservative audience.

  11. That’s an interesting take, Heg, and possible, I think, though if that was the goal, I think it was very disappointingly executed.

  12. I think the comments here are an exercise in misreading. She’s explaining what she thinks or means when she says that gender is constructed since she is often, as she claims, taken (by what appears to be non-academics) to mean something quite different than she intends it to mean. In particular, people that she meets or comes into contact with and who are presumably not engaged in gender studies of any kind professionally, but might be either inclined to be feminists/social constructivists or have preconceptions about what those positions are (in the same way in which some people are inclined to be moral relativists while not being professional philosophers at all or have preconceptions of what moral relativism is) take her to hold a very extreme and, in her view, silly position (but one which is clearly the popular caricature). She is nowhere saying that this position is common among professionals (although she says some do hold it) or that that’s what social/gender constructivism is. Quite to the contrary, she is explaining that it is not reducible to the silly position and that there are various ways in which one might take, she herself occupying one such position.

  13. I read her as saying that she is a social constructivist, but that those people on the fringe or the extreme or who hold silly views—to use the language in the comments—who take their constructivism to mean that biological material has no role to play in the formation of what gender means in a culture are “naïve biological determinists.” She is distancing her nuanced view from *both* the hard line of gender fixity (‘men are men, women are women’ sorts of caricatures of oppressive views) and the other hard line of gender fluidity (it’s all up to a choice one can change at any moment).

    Pointing to the cultural use of toys is her way of describing an end result of evolutionary pressures. It’s not to say that there are definite ways in which boys and girls and others (even the fact that we have this other category, too) fit into culture that are universally true of humans. It’s to say something similar to how we can say based on genetic analysis across cultures that the large majority of humans have evolved along common descent. She dances close to saying the patterns indicate how the labor is divided is settled by the dominant sexual regularities, but acknowledging sex as a category itself is fuzzy also means the division of labor is also going to be fuzzy. So she can’t make the division itself clear and distinct. But if she is right that this is something more like the telephone game, and if it is right to think about culture and material evolving along the same lines as biological evolution, then what we have to acknowledge is how these cultural assignments of what functions genders perform are not necessary. This is the conclusion I think evolutionary psychologists/sociologists should come to, but I am not sure why the popularizers don’t stress it.

    It isn’t necessary for mammals to have four limbs. It isn’t necessary for there to be sexes. It isn’t necessary for there to be mitochondria or chloroplasts in certain eukaryotes. It just happened this way, but it very easily could have happened another way. SImilarly, humans stumbled into patriarchy and carried it with them as they populated the world; niches allowed for the production of alternates to patriarchy as well as variations on the theme. Global capitalism changes things by reducing the geographic separation, blurring further lines demarcating a culture’s influence, but again none of this is necessary in terms of the frequency or ubiquity with which the effects are seen.

    I watch privet and undeveloped lots taking over my forests down here in the Southeast United States. If I naively believed evolution was about survival of the fittest, I am obliged to believe privet and exposed clay triumph in this local area because they have, built into them, the right kind of biological necessity and permanence to survive in this harsh, fragile world. And once I believe that, then I do lose out on the idea that grounds all of evolutionary change: “It doesn’t have to be this way.”

    Maybe if we taught evolution and selection in the popular culture not so much as a linear progression towards dominance by the fittest but as a rearrangement of the cobweb connecting forms of life with geographic features and climate, then we can start undermining those supposedly fixed social structures by always reminding them how it needn’t be this way.

  14. I think she makes a decent point that “gender identity” may be a lot less fluid than we might intuit; she also makes a decent point about the social causes of attempts to differentiate intersex persons. I don’t think she’s given any decent reasons to support the idea that gender roles are not extremely fluid and socially shaped, but just about the time I was trying to formulate a serious response on that point, she called someone “stridently” feminist. Apparently she thinks stories about chiding her “friends” are supposed to convince the reader of something, in lieu of actual evidence.

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