Doubting gender. Or why it is best to leave certain questions unanswered

Kristin Hübner, is a PhD student at the Department of Sociology at the University of Warwick.

Kristin Hubner

Her piece ‘Doubting gender. Or why it is best to leave certain questions unanswered’ finished in the top 10 of the ESRC’s writing competition, The World in 2065– in collaboration with academic publishers, SAGE.  

“Any social scientist who tries to predict the future should be regarded with healthy distrust”, I was told by my professor during one of my first sociology lectures which, ironically, dealt with the subject of social change. If this quote is to be believed, then the following paragraphs can only be understood as a work of fiction. Confronted with the choice between dystopia and utopia I chose the latter, believing and hoping that constructions of reality can eventually create a tangible reality.

In order to paint a picture of how sociology in general and, in this case, feminist theory in particular might change the world within the next 50 years, it is perhaps best to examine one specific example and compare the recent past with the potential future. In 2009, Caster Semenya competed in the 12th IAAF World Championships in Athletics in Berlin and won the gold medal in the 800-meter race. Her success, however, was immediately followed by a controversy regarding her ‘true’ sex and the question of whether Semenya should be permitted to compete as a woman. After eleven months the IAAF’s medical commission, which included a gynaecologist, endocrinologist, psychologist, internal medicine specialist and a ‘gender expert’ concluded that the athlete should be allowed to enter sports competitions as a woman and keep her medal.

I argue that this case perfectly illustrates the importance of feminist sociology and of incorporating its research findings and theoretical concepts into a wider scientific and social context. If this incorporation will continue to take place over the next 50 years, we might experience a utopia in which we would not encounter another case like Semenya’s again – or, at least, deal with it differently. By 2065, the political and social implications of categories such as gender and sex might in fact have become more widely acknowledged through the dissemination of feminist theory and the expansion of interdisciplinary research. By then, gender, which is usually associated with socially constructed ideas about femininity and masculinity, and sex, which commonly refers to a person’s ‘female’ or ‘male’ biological make-up, will be recognised as complex and yet somewhat arbitrary categories. It will be acknowledged that a person’s chromosomes, hormones, sexual preferences, behaviour and appearance (to name only a few highly gendered human characteristics) cannot and do not need to be consistently categorised as ‘female’ or ‘male’. By 2065, we might even question the use of these gendered distinctions altogether.

A significant part in the dissemination of essentialist assumptions about gender is due to the segregation between natural and social sciences. When natural sciences are considered a source of objectively measurable truths, resulting in a perception of biology as destiny, it can limit people’s views regarding themselves and others. The segregation between the sciences is in itself a highly gendered classification between the more ‘objective’ natural sciences and the more ‘subjective’ social sciences, and has been criticised not only by feminist sociologists. The inclusion of feminist and sociological theory in disciplines such as biology, chemistry or medicine could lead to a more generally accepted scientific ideal, which stresses the importance of considering the biases and socio-political consequences of scientific interpretations. Scientists across various disciplines would thus become more aware of how their own internalised ideas about gender, ethnicity and other social categories shape what they infer from their findings. This would also make researchers become more conscious of how their interpretations influence social norms, standards and even laws.

So, if by 2065 another athlete’s gender – or any person’s gender for that matter – is questioned, society and science in this utopia will, through the influence of feminist sociological theory, have changed to such an extent that there will be no need to refer to a medical commission. There will instead be a greater acceptance of the notion that gender is a socially constructed concept, based on a too simplistic dichotomy which does not represent ‘reality’.There will also be more awareness about racialised notions of gender that shape the way we perceive femininity and masculinity, and which might have contributed to raising the issue of Semenya’s ‘true’ gender in the first place. Indeed, the importance of intersectionality – acknowledging that gender can mean different things for people of different ethnic and social backgrounds – will have become the standard way of researching and grasping the social world.

In spite of not being able to predict the future, this is how I envision feminist sociology will change the world within the next 50 years, and it is the utopian vision I strive to realise through my research.


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