EXCERPTS FROM ‘Hormone troubles: Feminist analyses of contemporary neurosciences’

Matusall_Hormone TroublesThese excerpts from a recently released paper entitled Hormone troubles: Feminist analyses of contemporary neurosciences  (doi: 10.1177/0306312713488843 Social Studies of Science October 2013 vol. 43 no. 5 780-791) represent several ways that sexist bias continues to undermine scientific research and analysis about the brain. One of the biggest problems is continued reliance on untested and unproven assumptions about causation between brain structure and brain function. Even where structural differences between male and female brains may be found, they are little more than statistics. We do not know what effect–if any–these apparent differences may have on individual behaviors and desires. Assumptions about the significance of scientific findings reflect and heavily reinforce cultural bias favoring gender determinism.

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“The critique today is thus similar to that 30 years ago: a historically specific patriarchal social order is explained by human evolution, the strong focus on biology ignores possible interdependences with the social world, weak results are generalised, context is mainly ignored, and overall, the research in this area still maintains dichotomies.”

Critique 1: historical blindness

“Evolutionary just-so stories are even applied to very recent phenomena such as colour preferences. Psychologists speculate about the genetic origin of gendered colour preference even though gendered colour codes as currently expressed are not more than 50 years old, and their introduction can be interpreted as a response to the concern that masculinity and femininity were not rooted in biology but had to be acquired (Fine, 2010: 208–209). Deterministic explanations of human psychology are also at odds with recent research in neuroplasticity, which stresses the impact that physical, social and cultural environments as well as life experiences and individual behaviour have on brain structure.”

Critique 2: hormones, genitals and gender roles

“Yet, [Jordan-Young argues, several reasons mitigate against transferring the well-established effect of androgens in the development of genitalia to the development of sexual personalities. First, brains develop much more slowly than genitalia, and their development depends on interactions with other people and the environment – as does psychological and behavioural femininity or masculinity.”

Critique 2a: intersex

“A particularly sensitive issue in the BOR [brain organization research] discourse is how intersex syndromes are traced in specific prenatal hormonal environments. As Jordan-Young (2011) maintains, in cases of intersex, these hormonal differences are particularly entangled with social factors such as increased medical surveillance, surgeries or parental expectations. This entanglement makes it difficult to point out the determining factors for behaviour and psychological traits associated with specific intersex conditions (p. 78). In a discussion of early childhood treatment of such conditions, Iain Morland (2011) points out that defining external genitalia as intersex is an effect of social expectations, rather than of physical evidence (p. 148). Morland discusses intersex as a problem of gender (in the eyes of the medical establishment) versus a problem of trauma (in the eyes of activists) and argues that by treating it as a problem of gender that has to be surgically solved, a problem of trauma is created.”

Critique 3: lateralisation

“The theory of bigger corpora callosa in women, however, has been subject to scientific disputes that have been carefully analysed by biologist Anne Fausto-Sterling (2000). She describes the corpus callosum as being embedded in a knotted web of knowledge that ‘[links] the underrepresentation of women in science with hormones, patterns of cognition, how best to educate boys and girls, homosexuality, left versus right handedness, and women’s intuition’ (Fausto-Sterling, 2000: 119). She concludes that no agreement exists about what the corpus callosum actually is, what belongs to it and what it does not, what influence left versus right handedness has and whether it shows significant differences between genders or not (Fausto-Sterling, 2000: 126–130, 138–140). Moreover, the corpus callosum may change over time due to factors such as experience, health or age. Fausto-Sterling (2000) emphasises that differences found in corpora callosa are only of statistical relevance, that they depend on sample size and are at least in part linked to political debates (pp. 144–145).
Ten years on, Fine (2010) observes that despite growing evidence against it, the theory of gender differences in corpus callosum size and lateralisation is still dominant…””

Critique 4: context is ignored

“Lack of context is also problematic in other areas, as several contributions in the volume Neurofeminism, edited by Robyn Bluhm, Anne Jaap Jacobson, and Heidi Lene Maibom (2012), point out. Regarding the context of imaging research, Letitia Meynel (2012: 12) deconstructs the ‘apparent transparency’ of functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) images as ‘objects from nowhere’, while the process of their production is lost. Such fMRI images, in other words, are constructed rather than simply depicting an already existent ‘reality’. Nevertheless, they are granted the status of transparency, making them valid sources in lay discourse about gender differences and implying a clear distinction between male and female brains (Meynell, 2012: 27). Ginger Hoffman (2012) is equally doubtful about neuroscience’s ability to say anything meaningful about the constructed quality of gendered brain differences. While she acknowledges some evidence for physical difference between genders, she stresses that in giving meaning to these differences, it is necessary to assume that differences in brain states always imply differences in mental states, an assumption she challenges with the philosophical concept of multiple realisation, arguing that different strategies may lead to the same result (Hoffman, 2012: 31–37). Knowing brain states is not sufficient to understand strategies and intentions, she concludes.”

Critique 5: maintaining dichotomies and heteronormativity

“By comparing brains of gay men to those of heterosexual women, and by deploying the hypothesis that male hormone exposure in female foeti and female hormone exposure in male foeti leads to homosexuality, the norm of male desiring female and female desiring male is maintained by assuming that lesbians have male brains and gays have female brains. Yet this is only one possible way among many of framing sexual attraction (Jordan-Young, 2011: 160–161).”


“However, the congruence between the contemporary critiques of neuroscience reviewed here and those which were voiced 30 years ago suggests that despite developments within the research field and transformations in other areas of society, gender brain research has not changed much either in terms of epistemology or in the fierce rhetoric with which historically specific gender differences are inscribed into biology.”

One comment

  1. Reblogged this on There Are So Many Things Wrong With This and commented:
    Thanks for this, Elizabeth. The more I read on the subject of gender, the more I think that all efforts to bolster the concept legally or medically are culturally driven.

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