This paper approaches the topic from a consideration of psychological research in the fields of sex and gender and language. It does so in general terms and avoids discussion at levels of detail. Therefore where a reference is made to specific research the intention is to do no more than exemplify a general principle. The paper will conclude that different perspectives in psychology do at times co-exist, though complement and conflict are frequent.
It will suggest the lack of a decisive answer is a result of the relative immaturity of Psychology as a discipline and a concomitant lack of adequately powerful theories that might serve to unite otherwise disparate perspectives. A consideration of how psychology approaches the study of sex and gender reveals, amongst others, four significant theoretical perspectives that are for the most part quite distinct in terms of their objects of knowledge and consequent methods of analysis.
Biological psychology is concerned with explaining the differences between male and female in terms of hormones, genes and brain structure. It is mechanistic, with a strong empirical tradition. Evolutionary psychology attempts to explain differences between sexes in terms of behavioural selection for reproductive fitness. Whilst in large part necessarily theoretical, it embraces empirical methods as a means of testing theories. Social constructionist psychology approaches sex and gender through the study of discourse in various historical, cultural and social contexts and so is hermeneutic.
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Finally psychoanalytic psychology primarily uses clinical observation and the study of infants to gather evidence of how humans acquire and develop a sense of sex and gender (cited in Holloway et al, 2007, pp. 127ff). (6) The immediate impression from the above is that the scope for complement, conflict or co-existence is not clear-cut. Given that they do not share common objects of knowledge, the hope might be for complementary theories that together contribute to a broad understanding. Certainly the biological and evolutionary perspectives appear complementary at the theoretical level n that both regard biological sex as the determinant of gender and view differences between sexes as biological features that have been selected for during evolution. However, biological psychology attempts to explain differences in male-female psychology in terms of selected physiological characteristics, for example dimorphism in brain structures (cf. Hofman and Swaab, 1991, cited in Holloway et al, 2007, p. 139). On the other hand the evolutionary psychologist would principally argue in favour of selected behavioural characteristics such as differences between male and female sexual attitudes (cf. Clark and Hatfield, 1989, cited in Holloway et al, 2007, p. 146).
There is thus an apparent conflict at the level of analysis. It is therefore ironic that evolutionary psychology must perforce co-exist with biological psychology since, given the understandable constraints on its ability to conduct the sorts of empirical investigations that might be wished for (cf. Herrnstein-Smith, 2000, cited in Holloway et al, 2007, p. 173), it is dependent on a certain amount of corroboration from the biological perspective, amongst others (cited in Holloway et al, 2007, pp. 84). (22) Whereas the biological and evolutionary perspectives agree that biological sex lies at the heart of explaining gender, the social constructionist perspective explicitly rejects that view; sometimes for political reasons (cited in Holloway et al, 2007, pp. 185; see Spence, 1984 and Spender, 1980). Social constructionism regards both sex and gender as characteristics that are revealed only through discourse and action. They are a consequence of the individual's behaviour and experience in a given cultural, social and historical context (ibid).
The depth of the conflict is exemplified by a comparison of evolutionary studies that emphasise cross-cultural stability in particular sexual preferences (cf. Singh 1995, p. 148; Buss and Schmitt, 1993, p. 148, cited in Holloway et al, 2007) and social constructionist ideas such as Bem's (1994, cited in Holloway et al, 2007, p. 153) Gender Schema Theory. Crucially, for the social constructionist gender is something that is continually re-established throughout the lifetime of the individual (cited in Holloway et al, 2007, pp. 153). From the biological and evolutionary perspectives, it is predetermined. 33) Whilst the psychodynamic perspective largely complements the social constructionist, in terms of its interpretive or hermeneutic methodology, its explanations largely focus on the unconscious given that its objects of study entail "the meaning of the biological differences between men and women and how these become internalised in the child's mind" (cited in Holloway et al, 2007, pp. 184).
Thus both the social constructionist and psychoanalytic perspectives conflict with the biological and evolutionary approaches at the methodological level. Uniquely however (ibid, p. 86) the psychodynamic perspective recognises both biological and cultural contributions to it's theorising. It is not without its share of conflict however. Within the perspective, Freudian notions of the opposite sexed p arent as 'sexual object of choice' and 'penis envy' (ibid, p. 161f) quickly came under scrutiny of female and feminist psychologists (cf. Horney, 1926, cited in Holloway et al, 2007, p. 163). There is also conflict with evolutionary explanations of rape as an adaptive strategy (compare Thornhill and Palmer, 2000 and Rose and Rose, 2000 cited in Holloway et al, 2007, p. 71, p. 172). (26) Turning to a consideration of the study of language and meaning, one finds an equally intriguing mix of potential co-existence, complement and conflict when comparing the three principal perspectives. The evolutionary perspective sets out to explore the origins of language and its implications for the human species; the cognitive perspective adopts an information processing approach to the transmission of meaning; and the social constructionist perspective focuses on "meaning making" as a dynamic between interlocutors (cited in Cooper and Kaye, 2007, p. 119).
It is possible therefore to view the three perspectives as at least co-existent. Their objects of knowledge are different and one might expect their cumulative product to contribute to some sort of unified theory. Indeed, from the evolutionary perspective Deacon (1997, Cooper and Kaye, 2007, p. 115) suggests that language is a social phenomenon that defies explanation only in psychological, or only in neuro-biological terms. (9) However, the potential for conflict between the cognitive and social constructionist perspectives is revealed in how they view meaning as the object of knowledge.
For the former it is something that is constructed internally by the individual prior to transmission, and subsequently reconstructed by the audience. For the latter it is negotiated as a result of discourse between individuals - meaning emerges as the result of a complex interplay of intentions, interpretations and power-relations. Thus, there is cause for disagreement as to what "meaning" is and where it comes from (cited in Cooper and Kaye, 2007, p. 102). That this is adequate to justify a claim of conflict seems weak since the types of "meaning" espoused by the two perspectives are themselves different.
Further, at the level of common sense they are mutually sustaining. The very notion of discourse requires at least two participants seeking, though perhaps not achieving, a consensus of meaning. This demands that at some level each participant is cognising about their intended meaning and how the other is construing it. The implication is that the two perspectives ought to complement the other, or at least co-exist. (6) A key social constructionist argument against a purist cognitive perspective is that linguistic (and other cognitive) processes cannot be "transparently reported" (cited in Cooper and Kaye, 2007, p. 11). This argument is one that cognitive researchers have long acknowledged.
Commenting on early research into the cognitive modelling of language Boden (1977, pp. 113ff, et passim) notes that a person's understanding of language in a given instance is dependent, not simply on their knowledge of the world around them, but crucially on their understanding of their relationship with their interlocutors. Other researchers emphasise the point (cf. Sperber and Wilson, 1986, cited in Cooper and Kaye, 2007, p. 99). For their part, social constructionists such as Edwards et al (1992, p. 42, cited in Cooper and Kaye, 2007, p. 112) recognise the importance of the cognitive perspective and suggest only that theirs is a new perspective that offers different insights. Therefore, unless a researcher is determined to hold to one or the other perspective as a matter of purist dogma, it seems more reasonable given the disparate loci of the respective objects of knowledge and the statements that each perspective favourably acknowledges the other, then the cognitive and social constructionist perspectives are thus far co-existent. (32)
Within the evolutionary perspective there is a debate as to whether language evolved as an adaptational advantage and was the foundation for other cognitive abilities (Pinker, 2000 cited in Cooper and Kaye, 2007, p. 121), or as a consequence of selection for an ability to form and manipulate predictive metarepresentations (Sperber, 2000 cited in Cooper and Kaye, 2007, p. 121). These are polarised and conflicting views. Pinker's would complement the cognitive perspective with its emphasis on information processing, whilst Sperber would complement the social constructionist.
However, Deacon (1997) offers evidence that both capacities evolved in parallel. If he is correct, then there are substantial grounds for seeking a complementary accommodation between the cognitive and social constructionist paradigms. (6) Even from this scant evaluation, one is struck by the disparate objects of knowledge, types of theory and methodologies. The inevitable conclusion is that psychology is characterised by perspectives that at one or more of these levels conflict, co-exist or complement.
One might wish for a parallel to the cosmologist's search for a Unified Theory of Matter; where although theories might diverge cosmology has one over-arching object of study and one comprehensive methodology in computational empiricism. Psychologists do not stand on such substantial bedrock. The questions they pose are often difficult to formulate computationally without reducing the predictive power of any solution, or indeed are abstractions that cannot be treated computationally without trivialising them (see Sundem, 2006 for amusing examples).
Whereas the history of physics can be measured in thousands of years, psychology as a recognisable discipline has existed for just over a century. A sense of internal conflict muted by convenient co-existence and fortunate complement should not therefore come as a disappointment. It is merely an acknowledgement that psychology is still an emerging and diverse field, and that whatever conflict exists can reasonably be attributed to a lack of sufficiently powerful theories with which to reconcile the different perspectives. This essay focuses on the social perspective of psychology referring Language nd Meaning and Gender and Sex. It deals with the relationship between psychological theory and method in a range of material in both chapters, with particular attention to how social influences shape human development and behaviour. Language and Meaning ‘Language and meaning’, is used to describe a social constructionist approach to language. There are several ways in which the social perspective has promoted understanding in this area. There are primarily two different psychological perspectives on language: cognitive and social.
These approaches take evidence from different research bodies, each of which have a different focus As social beings, we continuously interact with other people, thinking about our use of language and how it may best serve us. The social constructionist perspective sees language as a way of creating meaning between individuals as they interact. The social psychological perspective defines the human world as being created through language, making it one of its most powerful and important features. This approach to language sees people using language to take action and achieve objectives.
Language is seen as a means by which goals might be achieved. The social psychological approaches to language therefore focuses on understanding language and its meanings as a social process. It sees language as an interactive process between people. It is seen as social because it involves this very interaction, and it is through this social interaction that meaning is created. Social psychology argues that there is more to language than the knowledge of syntax, semantics, phonics and coding and other rules of language, even if these are described as being interactive within a cognitive approach.
This argument helps define the contrast between social psychological and cognitive approaches to language. In social psychological perspectives, the purpose of language is not to reflect thoughts and emotions and convey them neutrally to someone else. Instead, the motivation for language is defined by the desired action brought about by the use of language. Social psychological approaches to language do not place meaning inherently in the constructions of language such as lexicon, grammar or semantics in the same way as cognitive approaches do.
One of the methodological complexities involved in researching language is that we must use language itself as the means by which we research it as a subject in its own right. This issue is at the centre of the tension that exists between cognitive and social approaches to language. The paradox here is that the necessity of responding in language may predetermine what is said about language. The cognitive perspective assumes that there are separate cognitive processes that language can represent in communication to others, or in dialogue with the self.
The accuracy of this depends upon how closely language communicates the cognition behind it. Cognitive psychologists believe that the thinking that underlies language can be studied accurately and in social isolation. However, discursive psychology argues that, when people use language, they do so in a social context, with an audience and for a reason. The social constructionist approach views language as the means for the socially produced meaning. It is the means by which people construct their world, interact with others and set out to achieve their objectives.
The cognitive approach sees language as the part of the cerebral information processing. It can be argued that meaning is generated by people as they communicate. There is therefore a tension between the social constructionist and cognitive perspectives with respect to meaning and whether it is communicated between people or constructed between them. The social constructionist perspective on language is that it is a tool for social interaction. These different views of language have different implications – the cognitive perspective is that language underpins human thought.
The social constructionist approach has no particular implication for the relationship of language to thought as it places language firmly within a socially constructed context. Sex and Gender ‘The psychology of sex and gender’, is used to refer to the social constructionist approach to sex and gender. There are several ways in which the social perspective has promoted understanding this area. With respect to the two terms (sex and gender), there is a distinction between the biological and the social.
However, biological sex may also be expressed in behaviour that is influenced by social factors and psychological meanings. Therefore, as labels, sex and gender may only be useful as theoretical constructs. However, gender is usually taken to refer to social constructs that pertain to biological differences. These sex differences can be the result of interactions between biological, psychological and social processes. Social constructionist psychology looks at how sex and gender have been constructed within particular social contexts.
It examines these social constructions and their influences. The social constructionist perspective is based upon the theory that the construction of meaning through language and social practices as discussed in the section above has produced patterns of behaviour, cognition and emotions that are gender-differentiated. Social constructionism argues that behaviour cannot be directly explained solely by biological, reproductive sex. It also argues that the world is constructed to have two biological types (male and female) who have many diverse social and behavioural manifestations.
This suggests that the many discourses of masculinity and femininity are socially produced. Social constructionism sees reproductive sex as being the visible difference between the sexes that provides the basis for a range of socially constructed gender differences. According to this perspective, biological sex is not central to explaining gender identity, but is a visible indicator to which a range of socially constructed gender differences are attached. Discourses about masculinity and femininity are therefore used by individuals to create their own gendered positionality.
Gender is seen as being constructed throughout life, as behaviour and experience is defined through cultural manifestations of gender. Evolutionary psychologists also acknowledge social influences on sexual behaviour. However, they provide no systematic way explaining this in their experimental approach. The strength of the social constructionist approach to gender is its ability to take into account the social and cultural contexts of individuals. Evolutionary psychology however does offer some explanation of the origins of gender difference.
The social constructionist perspective argues that sex is not central to explaining gender differences. Evolutionary and social constructionist perspectives have contrasting ideas about the relationship between sex and gender. Psychoanalytic psychology takes a different approach to social constructionism’s emphasis on external influences in determining people’s behaviour. However, both social constructionism and psychoanalysis are based upon the interpretation of meaning.
Unlike evolutionary psychology, psychoanalysis, in common with social constructionist psychology, believe that the researcher’s positionality and subjectivity is inevitably involved in research. The onset of puberty is an example of the convergence of biological, psychoanalytic and social constructionist perspectives. The psychoanalytic and social constructionist approaches use methods that consider people’s beliefs and experiences, and focus on the interpretation of meaning by relying on the interpretation of symbolic data.
The social constructionist perspective examines the importance of culture in the construction of gender. The psychoanalytic perspective acknowledges both the importance of biological difference and the social and cultural meanings inherent in this difference. The social constructionist and psychodynamic perspectives may be seen as complementary to each other in terms of methodology, as both use approaches are based on a hermeneutic theory to understand the meanings of gender.
Conclusion The social constructionist perspective underpins discursive psychological theories of meaning as emerging from context and interaction. Although the social perspective goes some way to addressing the influences of language and gender issues, there are some aspects which are also given a different perspective by other approaches. This can be seen in the sometimes useful linguistics frameworks of syntax, phonics, semantics etc. which is adopted by cognitive psychologists.
In some instances the social perspective complements other perspectives. Such an example is psychoanalysis in the area of sex and gender. However, in other instances it more commonly just co-exists, for example in the case of social constructivism and evolutionary psychology. Social constructivism is in clear conflict with the cognitive perspective in the area of language as illustrated and argued above. Cognitive and social constructionist perspectives make conflicting assumptions about communication.
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