Social Perspectives on the Concepts of Sex and Gender

09 Apr 2018

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Critically evaluate the contribution of the social perspective to our understanding of language and meaning and the psychology of sex and gender.

It can be said different psychological perspectives lead to different theories providing diverse insights into the same issue i.e. language and meaning. They focus their enquiry in different ways and consequently have dissimilar objects of knowledge. Each perspective asks different questions, use different methods and data and produce therefore different theories. These perspectives can be complementary, conflicting or coexisting, whereby each perspective and theory provides a variety of ways of applying their findings to everyday psychological problems. By focusing on the social psychological perspective, this essay will initially evaluate how this perspective contributes to a greater understanding in the formation, acquisition and use of language and how this understanding co-exists with, and may be complimented by or is in contrast to, other perspectives and how this fits in with the understanding of sex and gender. Social psychological perspectives emphasise the importance of investigating cognition by studying how meaning is created through participation and cultural practices and through language. The evolvement, acquisition and application of language used by humans, to express meaning and pursue goals, have been a topic of study amongst the various perspectives in psychology most notably evolutionary, cognitive and social perspectives. In researching language and the development of subsequent theories, language itself is used as a medium to investigate language. This methodological reflexivity is the source of conflict between social and cognitive perspectives on language when trying to determine to what extent, if any, the necessity of responding in language predetermines what is said. Social psychologists, more specifically discourse psychologists (i.e. Parker, 1992, as cited in: Cooper & Kay, 2007, p. 105), claims that in using language individuals do so in a social and historic context, with an audience and for a purpose. Individuals therefore will make assumptions about the knowledge, understanding and requirements of their interlocutors in an experimental setting which is a primary method used by cognitive psychologists to study the separate cognitive and underlying thought processes language represents in communication with others or dialog with the self.

The social constructionist perspective, on the other hand, uses evidence from actual language used in day-to-day communication and therefore appears to have more ecological validity. With the use of discourse analysis, they manage to describe how individuals organise their talk and use particular strategies such as the creation of subject positions or constructions of the world, to achieve particular ends. Wieder (1974 as cited in: Cooper & Kay, 2007, pp. 104-105) illustrated the use of language to determine behaviour amongst newly released prisoners living in a hostel by employing a method called ethnomethodology (the study of how people do things) devised by Garfinkel (1967 as cited in: Cooper & Kay, 2007, p.103). Wieder (ibid) found that the language used amongst the individuals (called "The Code") does not explain their behavior but rather was used by them to actively construct their social world and take appropriate action within it (i.e. not being a "snitch"). Social constructionists therefore base their understanding of language on the concept that language can be seen as a vehicle for the socially produced and sustained meaning that operates between individuals, in groups and societies (Cooper & Kay, 2007, p. 113). Although providing a feasible explanation for the use of language, it does not explain how language evolved or how it is being processed individually. Evolutionary psychologists (i.e. Lorenz, 1952 as cited in: Cooper & Kay, 2007, p. 78) offer an explanation about the evolution of language in claiming that language is an adaptive characteristic that has been acquired (through natural and sexual selection) at species level and is characterised by the ability of humans to create meanings in quite different ways of communication than that of other species. The complex interactive activation with competition (IAC) model devised by McClelland and Rummelhart (1981, as cited in: Cooper & Kay, 2007, pp. 91-94) and subsequent studies (i.e. Moss and Gaskell, 1998, as cited in: Cooper & Kay, 2007, p. 93) is used by cognitive psychologists in formulating their understanding that language is part of an information processing system that resides in the brain of an individual who creates meaning when hearing others speak or when speaking themselves. The three perspectives therefore provide complimentary understandings of language based on their individual analysis being evolution, individual processing or social construction.

Parker (1992, as cited in: Cooper & Kay, 2007, p. 105) describe discourse as a set of symbolic meanings created through the use of language to construct an event or object in a particular way. This is evident in the claim by social psychologists that individuals construct the world as consisting of two basic types of people - men and women. This is partially achieved through social identity processes as theorised in the Social Identity Theory (SIT) of Tajfel (1919-82, as cited in Phoenix & Thomas, 2007, p. 62) whereby individuals devise descriptions which derive from the social group they see themselves belonging to (i.e. male or female). Individuals, according to SIT, then tend to maximise perceived similarities to others in the same group (in-group) whilst minimising it with those outside the group (out-group) e.g. the notion of "opposite sex" (Hollway, Cooper, Johnston and Stevens, 2007, p. 151). Gender is consequently one of the most important and powerful social categories by which individuals define themselves. Bem (1981 as cited in: Hollway et al, 2007, p. 153) proposed in the Gender Schema Theory (GST) that femininity and masculinity are socially and culturally constructed dimensions absorbed by individuals to produce an understanding of gender to make sense of themselves and their behavior. Social constructionists however, argue that gender is not a set of characteristics or properties acquired by an individual but rather that gender identity is constantly established and re-established by experiences, behaviors and actions on both individual and group levels and is therefore ongoing throughout the lifespan of an individual. The study of sex and gender is thus concerned with the intricate interplay of nature and nurture in shaping similarities and differences between men and women. In studying sex and gender as a psychological phenomenon evolutionary (e.g. Clark and Hatfield, 1989, as cited in: Hollway et al, 2007, p. 146) and biological (e.g. Fitch and Denenberg, 1998 as cited in: Hollway et al, 2007, p. 138) perspectives emphasis’ the contribution of nature to the experiences of individuals by examining the biological and genetic structures relating to sex. Social constructionists acknowledge these influences but looks at the importance of context and culture in constructing an understanding about gender whilst the psychoanalytic perspective incorporates biological differences as well as the social and cultural meanings. The difference between these approaches is often exemplified through political tension between them in relation to their implications about the fixity of the social roles of men and woman and their personal relationships and behavior. Biological and social explanations ("nature" and "nurture") expose a fundamental conflict whereby social perspectives echo the underlying principal of psychoanalysts questioning individual agency in claiming that biological explanations, and most recently evolutionary explanations (e.g. Hilary and Rose, 2000, as cited in: Hollway et al, 2007, p. 172), are extremely deterministic (Hollway et al, 2007, p. 171). Social constructionists explained that historical research underlines the fact that values inevitably underpin all knowledge; however, allowance should be made for new ideas incorporating change and cultural settings such as the role of women in society. The methods employed by the various psychological perspectives in studying a specific psychological issue are often complimentary as opposed to contrasting. In explaining gender social constructionists take historical and cultural situations of human beings into account focusing almost exclusively on the meaning-making activities of humans. In studying the difference in the style of sexual behavior between men and woman at an American college, Clark and Hatfield (1989 as cited in: Hollway et al, 2007, p. 146) found that women, although accepting dating invitations were less inclined to accept invitations for private meetings (i.e. at the apartment of a stranger) with almost all women refusing invitations for sexual intercourse. The results were the same when women were first assured of the trustworthiness and integrity of the stranger thus accounting for fear of potential danger as a confounding variable (Clark, 1990, as cited in: Hollway et al, 2007, p. 146). Clark and Hatfield (ibid) claimed from an evolutionary perspective that the results are consistent with the arguments of evolutionary psychologists about evolved optimal reproductive style (ibid) through natural and sexual selection processes. The findings of Clark and Hatfield (ibid) underline, from a social constructionist point of view, the notion that the sexual behavior of men and women is filtered through their own individual cultural lenses. Psychoanalytical psychologists (e.g. Benjamin, 1990, 1995, 1998 as cited in: Hollway et al, 2007, p.164) argue that these external influences (e.g. identities are constructed through discourse and discursive practices) are over emphasised by social constructionists and therefore does not explain the agency and capacity for resistance and change by individuals. Each of these perspectives provides a valuable point of view but none is able to give a complete explanation of the findings of the study with each perspective concentrating on its own theoretical ground when analysing the findings of a study.

In conclusion, it is clear that different perspectives in psychology lead to different explanations of one or more psychological issues. These perspectives can co-exist in some ways such as the fact that social constructionists and psychoanalysts both base their interpretations on meaning. Social constructionists provide a comprehensive account in formulating an understanding of language and gendered differences with a strong focus on the extraction of meaning of behavior. Although this perspective goes a long way in understanding these, and other, psychological aspects, they do not answer all aspects such as the evolution and individual understanding of language. Findings of other perspectives such as biological, evolutionary and cognitive psychology assist in providing an explanation of those items social constructionists cannot account for.

Word count: 1662


Cooper, T., & Kaye, H. (2007). Language and Meaning. In T. Cooper, & I. Roth (Eds.), DSE212 Challenging Psychological Issues (pp. 71-123). Milton Keynes: The Open University.

Hollway, W., Cooper, T., Johnston, A., & Stevens, R. (2007). The psychology of sex and gender. In T. Cooper, & I. Roth (Eds.), DSE212 Challenging Psychological Issues (pp. 125-188). Milton Keynes: The Open University.

Phoenix, A. (2007). Identities and diversities. In D. Miell, A. Phoenix, & K. Thomas (Eds.), DSE212 Mapping Psychology (pp. 43-104). Milton Keynes: The Open University.



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