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Psychological research into language, and sex and gender

In this report I will be evaluating the contribution of social perspectives to our understanding from the two topics found in: OU, DSE212 Challenging Psychological Issues, Book 2.

The topics I have chosen for consideration of psychological research are language, and sex and gender. The approaches taken will be analysed the topic in general terms and not to focus on one particular aspect at detailed levels.

It points to the lack of a conclusive answer which is caused by Psychology as a discipline being relatively young and still in early stages with a lack of adequately strong theories that might assist to connect otherwise contrasting perspectives co existing.

The report concludes that different perspectives within psychology can coexist at times, though conflict is frequent throughout.

Sex and Gender

The Psychology of sex and gender is one the most topical, important and engaging subjects that psychology, it illustrates many of the difficult issues that psychological explanations must address, including the political implications of different perspectives and the challenging of integrating explanations.

It has been a controversial topic since the inception of psychology as a discipline and it powerful illustrates some of the diverse approaches with the field.

A deliberation of how psychology approaches the analysis of sex and gender discloses four psychological perspectives, these are:

Biological sex differences: Explaining the differences between male and female and biological correlates of behaviour. Investigations ere conducted through scientific processes

Evolutionary psychology: Explaining the differences in the behaviour between the sexes in terms of behavioural selection for reproductive fitness. Test are conducted empirically

Social constructionist theory: Gender differences between the sexes through the study of discourse in various historical, cultural and social contexts and so is hermeneutic.

Psychoanalytic psychology: Development and meaning of sexual differences. Studies are largely done through clinical observation.

Direct impressions of the four perspectives are objects of knowledge of each of the perspectives are all valid and useful in general psychology of sex and gender,. They pose somewhat different questions, have different objects of knowledge and use different notions of evidences. These perspectives may be complementary, conflicting however the scope for co-existence is not transparent.

Given that the perspectives do not share common objects of knowledge, however is there can be an underlying hope for complementary theories in which together they all contribute to a broad understanding.

Sex refer to the biological basis of differences between the sexes, where as gender refers to social constructed categories pertaining to these differences.

Assigning a sex to humans can sometimes be a complex process, biological characteristics such as genetics and hormonal used to designate ‘male or female, can be unreliable in small proportions of case, due to genetic abnormalities, such as, Androgen Insensitivity Syndrome (AIS) and Klinefelters’s Syndrome ((XXY) (OU, p137)

Certainly the biological and evolutionary perspectives appear complementary at the theoretical level in 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.

Evolutionary psychologists argue that sexual selections and the different optimal reproductive styles of our male female ancestors have results in some differences in the behavioural predispositions of the two sexes. These are seen to particularly apparent in the area of sexual behaviours and attitudes. Buss (1992), found while both sexes reported experiencing jealousy at the though of their partner being involved with another person, there were differences in the focus of their concerned. OU,p145)

In humans, unlike in other animals, clear differences in brain structures that correlate with differences in adult behaviour patterns have proven difficult to demonstrate. Nonetheless, imaging studies show some sex differences in brain functioning of Western adults. This is probably due, at least in part, to the brains plasticity.(Giedd et al, 1999) )p140). While some sex differences are clearly established at birth for most individuals, bodies and brained may become gendered over lifetime of use. A explanations would appear to be consistent with research findings from cross-cultural differences in male and female’s sexual behaviours, which Allen and Gorski, 1990 study has backed (OU, p139)

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, OU p.141), it is dependent on a certain amount of corroboration from the biological perspective, amongst others (cited in Holloway et al, 2007, pp.184). (22)

Social constructionist point of view, they regard sex and gender as characteristics that are revealed only through discourse and action.

These are consequence of the individual’s behaviour and experience in a given cultural, social and historical context. 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 Sandra Bem, who developed the idea of the ‘cultural lens of musicality and femininity. This lens is a way of perceiving the world that makes behaviour and experiences gendered, this is called the Gender Schema Theory (1994, Holloway et al, 2007, OU p.153). According to the social constructionist perspectives, biological sex is not central to explaining what it is to be a man or a women, rather it is a signpost to which a whole set of us socially constructed gender differences are attached.

In this account, social constructionist created discourse about masculinity and femininity are used by individual to create their own gendered subject positions.

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. In relation to Sex and Gender, political differences are often exposed when conflicting accounts of differences occur. Gender and sexuality came to be seen, through Freud’s work, as having far-reaching implications for the development of self. It 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” (OU, Holloway et al, 2007, pp.183).

Thus both the social constructionist and psychoanalytic perspectives conflict with the biological and evolutionary approaches at the methodological level. Uniquely however the psychoanalysis perspective recognises both biological and cultural contributions to it’s theorising. It is not without its share of conflict however. Within the perspective, a important critical developments in the psychoanalytic theory sex and gender includes Freud’s notion for the symbolic significance of the penis( and penis envy) quickly came under scrutiny from feminist psychologists to scientific practices. through Freud’ failure to consider the significant of women’s genitals. (OU, Horney, 1926, , 2007, p.164).

Language and Meaning

There are three main perspectives used to examine the complex area of language, these are:




These perspectives focus on different aspects of language including evolutionary developments of languages, the processing of languages and the construction of meaning through interaction.

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 language to understand how are related structurally and historically, how they are used differently by various social and cultural groups and how languages is used to communicate and create meaning. Language is the main medium for communication between human’s beings and where we express, explore and pursue those goals that mean most to us .It is possible 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.

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 (Sperber and Wilson 1986, OU, p100). 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.

A major social constructionist argument against a purist cognitive perspective is that cognitive processes cannot be transparently reported. 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 who they communicate with.

Within the evolutionary perspective there is also a debate as to whether language evolved as an adaptation advantage and was the foundation for other cognitive abilities. Pinker (1994) believes that languages may have evolved through natural selection, perhaps in conjunction with other cognitive abilities, OU, p83) or as a consequence of selection for an ability to form our “Metarepresentation” (Sperber, 2000, p.86). These are contradictory and conflicting views..

The major differences between psychological methods based on natural science principles and those based those on hermeneutic principles means that preservatives based on these methods may have difficulty achieving more than uneasy coexistence.

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, 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 inevitable conclusion is that psychology is characterised by perspectives that at one or more of these levels conflict, co-exist or complement, No perspective on its own can tell the whole story. The perspectives and levels of analysis and explanations cannot just be combined without an account of how they interact.

Word count: 1793 – 294 (References + Quotes +Titles + Bullet Points) = 1499


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