Different psychologists are motivated by different aspects of a particular psychological phenomenon giving rise to completely different theories on the same topic. Psychological research starts with a question; the nature of the following enquiry depends on the perspective and its object of interest, focus and goals. Methodology selected is appropriate to the needs of the approach adopted leading to different ways of investigating the same issue and the opportunity to analyse material produced in a given area of research at different levels.
This diversity characterizes psychological research and offers differing viewpoints. It can be found that theoretical insights from one perspective may complement findings from another and extend understanding of the issue. However, this is not always the case. For example, differences between other perspectives result in minimal consideration between them leading to a coexistence. Alternatively, perspectives can oppose each other and conflict can arise between dichotomous sides of debate resulting in irreconcilable viewpoint differences.
This essay is interested in the understanding of psychological phenomenon and will attempt to determine if this is enriched when the topic of sex and gender is looked at from a broad range of perspectives (biological, evolutionary, social constructionism, psychoanalytical and political). Through exploration of strengths and weaknesses of diverse viewpoints I will evaluate how theories produced relate to each other and consider whether the diversity of perspectives offers deeper knowledge of what it means to be a man or a woman. All perspectives attempt to understand the differences between men and women in sex and gender characteristics.
Is a single perspective adequate for full understanding? Biological psychology claims that a sexual dimorphism exists which “sexes” humans into distinct categories – male and female (Hollway, et al. p. 126). This is a fixed approach reducing humans to a product of genes, physical structure and hormones, accepted by some to be a complete definition, for example, to register the birth of a new-born baby. However, certain biological disorders are ignored. Furthermore, biology can not explain the experience of being human or account for all behaviour and developmental changes.
It appears, therefore, that a single biological viewpoint is incomplete and further explanation is required. We need to turn to another perspective for this. A social constructionist perspective conflicts with biological psychology in the nature versus nurture debate, approaching the topic differently. It argues that gender is a social expression of differences and investigates how this is constructed within cultural and historical influences. Methods analyse language and social discourses which construct the categories of being masculine and feminine.
Early research includes Social Identity Theory where we create our own sense of who we are by identifying with social in-groups and differentiating ourselves from out-groups (Tajfel, cited in Phoenix. , p. 62), and later work by Sandra Bem suggesting that we categorise behaviour through cultural lenses which “condition and colour” (Hollway, et al. ,p. 141) self-perception and our subject positions. This view further contrasts with biological psychology’s deterministic approach, suggesting instead, gender is fluid within a given social and historical context.
So, can this perspective usefully stand alone? It depends who is being asked, for example, in Albanian culture women can be socially constructed as males, taking on male appearance and duties, to fulfill the family need for a son (The Guardian, May 7, 1996, cited in Hollway et al. , p. 141). Biological explanation is redundant in this case. Nevertheless, this perspective has weaknesses. Methods, for example, rely on the accuracy of what people say. Furthermore, how does society construct gender differences in the first place?
Perhaps, as research suggests, gender differences are rooted in biology (Swaab and Fliers, 1985) which then provide a predisposition which can be triggered or cushioned as we develop, influenced by our environment. In this case a biological perspective is more useful as a conjunct to social constructionalism and the two perspectives combined, appear to offer a clearer picture. Although social constructionism considers gender construction dynamic, this is constricted by society which, therefore, neglects to account for personal agency.
Another perspective on sex and gender is psychoanalytical which investigates psychic development and how we become gendered. This is considered based on meanings, acting unconsciously between the individual and the world, which are transformed by childhood fears and desires (oedipal conflict and penis envy) shaping later identity. This alternative view contrasts with social constructionism and claims we see ourselves with personal agency allowing the individual to resist or change. This highlights how theoretical standpoints taken address similar themes but reach different conclusions.
Thus, the search for extended understanding indicates diverse approaches may be of benefit. However, sometimes a diverse approach it is not productive. For example, psychoanalytic theory suggests that women are determined by the lack of a penis. This is considered to perpetuate the status of women in society and is, therefore, challenged by the feminist political perspective. Furthermore, conflict arises based on the psychoanalytical neglect of the role of human conscious experience which disregards people’s own explanations of behaviour.
This leaves understanding from the psychoanalytic viewpoint in opposition to others and unsuitable for the needs of full understanding. Nevertheless, it is clear that each perspective has a value which may be compatible with another and approaching a given topic from different angles can address this. For example, consider parts of three perspectives: the interaction between biology and social influences, but mediated by our psyche (Hollway, et al. p. 159). Could this extend understanding as a bio-psycho-social explanation of female infertility?
Difficulty conceiving can have a biological basis, however, “cultural lenses” can define what infertility means to a particular woman. These meanings are internalized through her psyche in a manner according to her perceived subject position, and if resulting in inadequacy, negative experience and stress, could potentially affect reproductive hormone balance and ability to reproduce (Toates, pp225-277). Here three different viewpoints complement each other and combine to enrich understanding and by implication – treatment.
How helpful is an evolutionary perspective on the topic of sex and gender? It asks how evolution may have shaped different sexual behaviours between men and women. In line with the principles of evolutionary theory, this perspective argues that sexual behaviour is driven by an innate force to reproduce and survive. Evolutionary strategies, have been offered to understand male readiness to have sex with a stranger, and sexual coercion (Thornhill and Palmer, 2000) giving rise to conflict with the politics of feminism.
However, although data show gender sexual differences (Clark and Hatfield, 1989), the methods are questionable because other factors, such as, social practices may also have also been involved. Work by Dunbar suggests that evolution and cultural practices have a reciprocal influence shaping behaviour (Dunbar, 2000). This finding allows an evolutionary approach to be reconciled and combined with social perspectives, offering a richer explanation of behaviour. Theoretical standpoints require evidence for support and validation.
Perspectives select methods suitable to their theoretical need. Considering sex and gender, methodology follows two separate traditions: scientific at a functional level and hermeneutic at a higher interpretative level. Findings from perspectives using similar methodology can, to some extent, be compared at similar functional levels of analysis. For example, biological processes are investigated through observable and quantifiable research; evolutionary psychology reasons from reverse engineering and infers human behaviour from comparison with non-human behavioural studies.
Both of these perspectives have validity and are based on scientific tradition and can thus, co-exist. Alternatively, diverse methodology can result in radical conflicting views on the same topic. For example, most other perspectives consider that psychoanalytic theory of castration fear and the role of the unconscious cannot be empirically tested and is therefore unscientific and not valid (Hollway, et al. , p. 157). Conflict from different traditional methodological starting points may not be easily resolved.
One solution to methodological disagreement may be to change opinion about what can be termed as valid evidence in research to embrace all traditions equally. In conclusion, exploring diverse psychological perspectives addresses how the complex nature of psychological issues can be investigated in many ways. Knowledge generated is affected by the questions posed and methodology, giving rising to theories which can co-exist, complement or conflict. These relationships highlight that a multi-faceted approach stimulates debate and further research in a psychological area.
Although each perspective on the topic of sex and gender attempts to tell us something about ourselves, their models of being a man or woman differ. This diversity allows us to address whether we are the product of our biology or of our society, or, whether this is fixed or fluid. The conclusions reached differ, thus, the implications of each viewpoint are not the same. This can affect medical treatment options or how much opportunity we have to change how we see ourselves.
Diverse perspectives employ diverse methods from scientific and hermeneutic traditions. Analysis is at different levels which can lead to conflict between perspectives where methodology is considered invalid. Alternatively, occasionally no common ground for communication can be found. This does not enhance understanding. More usefully, the different levels of analysis and theories can place perspectives in a complementary position where theories interweave aspects of differing perspectives providing a greater depth of knowledge on a given topic.
It is difficult for a single perspective to provide adequate explanation of a psychological phenomenon, although this depends on who we are asking. What makes us a man or woman is not agreed upon by all perspectives, however, the example of female infertility, illuminates that a complementary relationship between biological, social constructionism and psychoanalytical psychology can exist, and demonstrates how psychology can progress through compatibility of diverse perspectives, extending our understanding of this topic.