Monday, April 9, 2012

Gender in Research

I am always very fond of the overlaps that occur between classes. Normally I find them between classes with similar focuses (like Women in Society and Women in Jewish Culture, or Women in Jewish Culture and my capstone for Jewish studies). More recently, however, there was an overlap between Women in Society and my Lab in Social Psych! Which is great, because throughout the semester so far I've generally been viewing the lab as a graduation requirement that is, unfortunately, not all that catered to my interests.

However! We more recently were assigned an article for class called "New Feminist Approaches to Social Science Methodologies" by Sandra Harding and Kathryn Norberg. Although this article addressed possible solutions within research methodology suggested by feminists - to eliminate power differences between the researcher and the researched in field work, for example - it did not address the idea that research methods are structured around the dominant groups. It seems that research was likely initiated by men, who began by researching other men. So by the nature of researching men, does it then exclude an entire half of the population? Are the research methods that are catered towards men the same that should be catered towards women?

But then the question of gender differences comes into play. Basically, do they even exist in any sort of tangible way? In Women in Society, we spent our most recent class period focusing on gender difference research. It was determined that this dichotomy is somewhat troublesome, in particular the manner in which gender difference research is used to reinforce better-than-the-other dichotomies (as some examples of this: males as better than females, straight as better than gay/lesbian/queer, white as better than black). Even today, while sitting in a doctor's office in Worcester, I heard a radio ad that suggested that women need more sleep than men because they are better at multitasking, and this apparently warrants a greater need for sleep. What?!

People are much more likely to report difference research. Few people would be interested to hear the manners in which men and women are not so different, because then they would be unable to feed into the one-party-as-better-than-the-other dichotomy.

Additionally, gender difference research does not tend to take into account the manner in which gender is socially constructed, and that tremendous variability does exist.

Prof. Falmagne suggested that we restructure the manner in which research questions are constructed, that we denaturalize this tendency to structure our research questions as difference questions; difference research is only one way of examining a research question, based on categorical thinking, which is based on categories that are assumed to be uniform.

And so, instead, she suggests, we focus on the understanding of two separate parties, not on their differences. Contrasts between the groups may arise, and these are helpful in highlighting variations between the two, but without feeding into that dualism so common in Western thought (specifically, the manner in which gender is constructed in dichotomous terms). To further stress the importance of why we should attempt to limit our difference research: there are social consequences to this research, mainly concerning the manner in which the outcomes are interpreted. Going back to that radio ad I heard in the doctor's office: that specific sleep research was interpreted in a manner which enforces certain general traits attributed to gender, and then those interpretations were announced to the public as being backed by science. Though generally a harmless interpretation, this displays the manner in which gender research can be consumed, interpreted, and used by society in order to normalize and naturalize the dichotomy of gender.

How does all of this play into the Lab in Social Psych, you ask? Well, I shall tell you.

For my main project/paper, I needed to create a hypothesis based on the "Views of Life" survey that we were distributing to our participants. I ended up choosing a hypothesis based on gender difference, without quite realizing that I was feeding into a somewhat frustrating practice within research. I hypothesized that, based on the manner in which women are suggested to be more empathetic than men within society, that women would report more feelings of "focusing on others" (a sub-category within the emerging adulthood questionnaire) whereas men would report more feelings of "focusing on self". Results? Women were overall more focused on themselves and on others than men were, but there were not enough differences to report anything significant.

So what have I determined from all of this? Basically, that it's easy to buy into things that continue these dichotomies so ingrained in society. It seems much more common (and possibly more interesting) for someone to approach another person and say "hey, did you know that women are better at multitasking than men?" than for someone to approach another and say "hey, did you know that men and women are both empathetic?"

But gender is socially constructed, and socially constraining, and it doesn't necessarily mean anything. At all. People are complex and complicated, and to say that a person is a certain way simply because they identify as a certain gender, or look like a certain gender, is a completely unfair thing to do. Our society continues to organize through these dichotomies because it is comfortable. But that doesn't mean that it's accurate, honorable, or the best way to continue organizing society.


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