Wednesday, October 27, 2010

The public purchase of sociological stories

Folks who know me know I've got beef with evolutionary psychology. Here's why:

And that's not even getting into the complete drivel posted on the Psychology Today website every other day. But I've been on this rant-train for years. I have the bingo card and everything (useful for making those brain-fryingly awful comment threads just a little more enjoyable). So why bring it up now?

Well, today I happened across an excellent article from a 2007 issue of Sociology. Stevi Jackson and Amanda Rees' "The Appalling Appeal of Nature: The Popular Influence of Evolutionary Psychology as a Problem for Sociology" set my sociologist's heart all aflutter.

See, my major problem with evolutionary psychology is not that it's largely bull -- and sexist, racist bull at that -- because, honestly, I don't read enough evo pysch journal articles to know. All I know is how it's reported in the papers, and how folks respond to it in the comments. Here's an example (from the second Telegraph piece) for those of you who don't troll the science pages looking for new fuel for your rage fire:
Men who hate supermarket shopping now have the ultimate excuse to leave it to their mothers, wives, or girlfriends.
Today, a scientific study says that over many thousands of years evolution has designed women to excel when it comes to hunting down the most fulfilling food.
This is accompanied, of course, by a picture of a women in a supermarket with the wonderful caption "Women's shopping skills may have been honed on the African savannah". If you're checking, that one's on the bingo card.

The problem with this style of reporting is that it follows this particular formula: take one part Science is Truth, mix with two parts Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus, and add a dash of "hey dudes, don't you hate grocery shopping, hurr hurr hurr", and you've got the evolutionary psychology reporting trifecta. Evolutionary psychology privileges the heterosexual reproductive imperative as the prime mover in the foundation of human social life. In doing so, say Jackson and Rees, evo psych "lays claim to the entire subject matter of our discpline, offering a purportedly more objective account of human sociality". And while sociologists have never been particularly good about defending our disciplinary turf, we do have the tools at our disposal to provide an alternative perspective to the origin myths evolutionary psychology proposes. Thing is, we tend not to use these tools in public.

Evolutionary psychology has a leg up on sociology as it is. It's claim to science-yness solidified with it's appropriation of the word "evolution" -- sociobiology just doesn't have the same ring to it -- evo psych hits on all four cylinders. It's 'evolutionary', so if you disagree with it you're an socialist/feminist anti-science ideologue; and it's 'biology', and we all know you can't fight your genes. The way it appears in the mass media, it's also comfortingly simple and easy to digest -- the way we are is the way we've always been, and it's no surprise that life on the African savannah looked a lot like the 1950's American nuclear family. It's a good story.

So what's a sociologist who insists on the primarily social and cultural genesis of gender and sexuality to do? According to Jackson and Rees, tell a better story. And tell it in public, rather than to each other in late-night wine-infused departmental bitch sessions. It's not evolutionary psychology as a discipline that's the problem here -- it's the domination of the science section of the news papers by stories that tell us women like pink because we used to gather berries. Sociologists have different, but equally compelling stories to tell about the same social facts. The thing is, our stories can be more complex, more interesting, and ultimately more emancipatory. In the words of Katherine Hepburn in The African Queen (via Jackson and Rees, once again): "Nature, Mr. Allnut, is what we are put in this world to overcome".

1 comment:

gennakusch said...

This hits home with a lot of the stuff that I come across in education policy. The reaction to the perception that boys are being left behind is to structure education separately for boys and girls because "we naturally learn differently." Boys need to be more active while girls will naturally work hard at their work. This of course fails to acknowledge the reality for women when they leave school. The whole thing is bogus and frustrating yet we are still told as teachers that we need to treat our students differently based on their gender. Do you think you could send me that article in an email? I have some people who need to read it.

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