From Tubthumping to Semiotic Transposition, or, How to Survive the Sex-in-Brain Debates

By Alexandra Rutherford

I recently attended a book launch where the author, a novelist, described her creative process as “writing an image.” Since I have had major writer’s block about how to launch this blog, I figured I would take her suggestion and attempt to write an image that has been in my mind’s eye lately. Bear with me. I am not a novelist.

I am standing in a sort of dark science-fiction-y place where the ground is completely smooth except for a small bump that mars its otherwise pristine, glossy surface. I am seized by the need to smooth down the bump, so I go over to it, poke at it with my foot, and – sensing no imminent danger – press down on it. Gratifyingly, the bump recedes, but another bump emerges a few feet away. It turns out that the planet’s surface is rubbery and pliant but somewhat taut, and the pressure from my efforts has caused a compensatory bulge. I run over to it and stamp it down. As it recedes, two more bumpy bulges appear, and as soon as I stamp those out, three, four, and then five more quickly erupt. I realize that this is a futile endeavor.

Tubthumping (dated pop-cultural reference, I know!) begins to play in the background. I am decidedly not in the mood (though a whisky drink does sound good).

This image – and these feelings – are what come up for me as we are confronted – almost continuously – in both the popular press and the scientific literature with why women are biologically ill suited for jobs at Google (thank you James Damore), are adornments and distractions in the masculine world of science (thank you Tim Hunt), and why male brains and female brains are so fundamentally different.

In the case of this last, always media-worthy bump, the “smoothing” often takes the form of patient, careful, and impeccably reasoned critiques by feminist scholars and scientists (thank you – this must be exhausting) who then get blamed for their “ideological” fervor as if claims by white men for the superiority of white male brains were above ideological reproach. Science is valiantly wielded as the favored tool of persuasion on both sides, but science – it seems – is not the ultimate arbiter,  especially in an area as controversial as so-called “gender differences.” The same arguments surface again and again. Evidence is marshalled. Interpretations are offered. Yet the powerpoint deck seems to be set on a loop. How do we turn it off?

As a feminist-psychologist-historian-science studies scholar, I find some relief by engaging with a number of ideas and ways of thinking informed by feminist psychology, history, philosophy, and STS. They don’t turn off the slide show, but they at least help me step outside the loop.

In grappling with why such competing and contradictory scientific narratives about sex differences can co-exist side by side (i.e., They are huge and hard wired! No, they are small and culturally determined!), I take some solace in the historiography on scientific and medical controversies. In his book Electroconvulsive Therapy in America: The Anatomy of a Medical Controversy, historian Jonathan Sadowsky, for example, notes that rather than trying to decide which of two competing scientific narratives about ECT are actually “true” (It is safe and effective! No, it is unsafe and harmful!), it is more useful to ground these claims in their social and historical contexts and to understand them as conflicts over “very deeply held and often implicit ethical and metaphysical assumptions” – indeed, conflicts over the very nature of what it means to be human.

In my own recent work trying to make sense of the controversial status of the “1 in 5” statistic – referring to the number of women who experience attempted or completed sexual assault during college – I have also set aside the question of whether this statistic reveals “true” prevalence estimates (thus simply reproducing the controversy). Instead, I focus on what the debates reveal about deeply entrenched gender ideologies, power, scientific authority, and specifically, the nature of methods in the social sciences.

In the case of the sex differences debates, then, all of this enervating brouhaha about whether men and women really are fundamentally different – given we can argue both sides (apparently) with tons of facts and genetics and fMRIs – must also boil down to “Which set of assumptions about gender do you support and why?” Now there’s a debate! When science can “prove” either side (just as much as when it can’t), we are forced to interrogate why we want it to do certain things, and with what effects. We are forced to engage with values – with questions about the kind of society we consider desirable and what we might do to get there.

I am reminded of my friend and colleague Rhoda Unger’s classic (under)statement in her 1979 article “A redefinition of sex and gender.” As she put it, “It is also important to remember that biological determinants which are used to distinguish between groups are sometimes chosen for other than objective, scientific reasons.”

Am I proposing that scientific research on brain-based sex differences should be abandoned? Frankly, given the current state of affairs I do think there are more interesting questions that can help advance our understanding of gender and the brain and lead to gender-transformative policy-making. Check out Gillian Einstein‘s fabulous work on situated neuroscience, for example.

Another way to step outside the loop is to understand the sex differences debates as a form of agnotology – or an example of how “not knowing” is achieved. In her article “The speculum of ignorance: The women’s health movement and epistemologies of ignorance,” feminist philosopher Nancy Tuana outlines a number of ways in which the process of “not knowing” occurs. One of these, “ignorance produced by the construction of epistemically disadvantaged identities” is the process by which individuals and groups are constructed as “not knowers” or as “unreliable knowers” so the knowledge they produce can be discounted, or even suppressed. Without putting too fine a point on it, in the sex differences debates, when the science can be wielded by either side, who is constructed as an epistemically unreliable knower and why? (a rhetorical question). How does the discounting of the knower take place, and how can it be exposed and resisted? Feminist scholars have offered up tons of ideas here.

A final point that frustrates me about these endless repetitive claims about brain differences is that they all rest heavily on the deeply entrenched belief in the binary of sex and gender. Disrupting the binary and exposing the incredibly entangled complexity of – and variation in – both sex and gender has been a frequent strategy of feminist scientists and scholars hoping to disrupt the “sex in brain” debates. If we no longer accept that there exist two categorically separate, non-overlapping groups of biologically distinct males and females, and if we could more clearly see how biological processes are themselves interpreted within existing cultural frameworks predicated upon this (too simple) binary approach, it would become much harder to sustain the constant bickering over how similar or different males and females are.

And yet binary thinking persists and extends all the way down into our cells and chromosomes – metaphorically and literally. In her recent article “No way out of the binary: A critical history of the scientific production of sex,” Veronica Sanz reviews the large body of feminist history and philosophy that has revealed the scientific gymnastics required to maintain the illusion of the binary since the emergence of the two-sex model in the 18th century. She makes the interesting point that the very idea of the sex binary itself has never been put to scientific test. Scientists have never taken it upon themselves to “prove” the binary of sex, rather, it has always had the status of an a priori given from which deviations need to be explained and accommodated. How scientific is that!

One of the ways binary sex is constantly reinforced is through a process that Bernice Hausman has called “semiotic transposition.” That is, even though it makes no sense to refer to any entity other than a whole organism as having a sex, we have transposed the assignment of a sex onto the entities that we then take to signify the existence of that sex – the sign becomes the signifier (wow, that is circular, but don’t worry, that is the point – and the problem!). The supposedly “male” status of the hormone testosterone, and the “female” status of the hormone estrogen are good examples of this process – and ones that historians have unpacked. Sanz concludes that these semiotic transpositions have become invisible, and only when made visible (by enforcing semantic rigour), can we begin to disrupt this process.

In the meantime….

If disrupting semiotic transposition is not next on your list of to-dos (because, frankly, it sounds like a superpower), I would suggest that you settle in with a bowl of popcorn, blast Tubthumping on YouTube (and yes, maybe even sip a little cider drink) and then have a look at our FANTASTIC video series on gender-based analysis. This is our way of stepping outside the loop of the sex differences debates to unravel how sex and gender influence all stages of the research process, and what to do about it.

And of course, keep your eyes peeled for the next installment of Standpoints, our saucy mashup of feminism, psychology, history, and science studies. Our blog editor Jacy Young has solicited a wonderful lineup of posts from contributors near and far to help keep you in touch with the feminist side of psychology, and its history.

Learn More

Daston, L. (1992). The naturalized female intellect. Science in Context, 5, 209-235.

Rutherford, A. (2015). Maintaining masculinity in mid-twentieth century American psychology: Edwin Boring, scientific eminence, and the “woman problem.” Osiris, 30, 250-271.

Schiebinger, L. (1989). The mind has no sex? Women in the origins of modern science. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Shields, S. A. (1975).  Functionalism, Darwinism, and the psychology of womenAmerican Psychologist, 30, 739-754.

Author Bio

Dr. Alexandra Rutherford is the founder and director of the Psychology’s Feminist Voices Oral History and Digital Archive Project and a Professor of Psychology at York University in Toronto where she works with graduate students in the Historical, Theoretical, and Critical Studies of Psychology graduate program. Her current in–progress book project is titled The Science and Politics of Gender: Feminism, Psychology, and Policy in Late 20th Century America.

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