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. 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 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. 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.184). (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...