Posts Tagged ‘nature/nurture’

The process of learning about sex/gender

October 1, 2012

To what extent are men and women different because of biological factors? What role do social/environmental factors play? Those who claim the superiority of biological influences may point to studies showing that gender differences emerge at an early age for support. As a father, I often hear other parents talking about just how different boys and girls are (assuming, it appears, that these differences are simply natural). However, considering the concept of schema processing helps us see that children adopt particular sex roles as they integrate their own sense of self with their developing gender schema during a process that occurs over many years.

As a point of comparison, Fausto-Sterling (2000) discusses the process through which children learn to smile — a behavior that, like gender, people may assume is simply natural. At first, newborns exhibit a behavior in which the face relaxes while the sides of the mouth stretch outward and up (this has been observed in fetuses as early as 26 weeks of gestation), which suggests there is initially a basic set of neural connections that enable a developing human to “smile”. Within a few weeks after birth, a more complex smile develops in which the lips curl up farther, cheek muscles contract, and the skin around the eyes wrinkles. By around three months of age, babies generally have begun to smile in non-random bursts in response to stimuli. Over the next two years of life, smiling begins to be accompanied by other facial expressions (e.g., nose wrinkles, blinks, brow raises) used to express emotions ranging from pleasure to mischief. While the muscles and nerves that govern smiling develop and become more complex during the first two years of age, so too do the functions and social contexts that elicit smiling. Thus, what may seem like a simple physiological response becomes “socialized” as a child develops.

With respect to gender, a similar social developmental process exists in which children adopt particular roles and behaviors as they integrate their own sense of self with their developing gender schema. For example, children younger than 1.5 years of age generally do not yet have a working knowledge of gender; they cannot correctly label photos as “boy” or “girl” (Fagot & Leinbach, 1989). By age 2.25 years, however, about half of children can correctly label people as “boy” or “girl”. These “early labelers” tend to receive more positive and negative feedback from parents regarding appropriate or inappropriate gender-typed play than do children who learn sex-based labeling at a later time. This suggests there are social influences upon what we might often assume are biological sex differences. Further, children seem to base their initial understandings of sex primarily on cultural markers. For example, children under the age of three, when asked to correctly identify sex in a set of photos where babies were either naked or clothed, had much more success labeling those who were clothed, suggesting that their knowledge of sex tended to rely on an understanding of cultural differences as opposed to anatomical differences (Bem, 1989). Overall, these examples should remind us that “who we are” is determined by a constant interplay of the social and the biological. Or, as I remarked upon previously, nature and nurture are inseparable.

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Nature vs. nurture

September 7, 2012

Why are we who we are? Why do we do what we do? Why do we think what we think? In response to such questions, a commonly discussed topic in the academic and public sphere is the issue of “nature vs. nurture”. In other words, to what extent are individuals determined by genetic and biological factors (“nature”), and to what extent are individuals shaped by social and environmental forces (“nurture”)? Specifically in reference to questions of gender, Fausto-Sterling (2000) describes how we are really asking the wrong questions when we focus on “nature vs. nurture”, because claiming that there is a separate “nature” and “nurture” is an artificial dualism. Specifically, she suggests that we must “switch our vision…, so that we see nature and nurture as an indivisible, dynamic system” (p. 228). As an example, all animals develop in an environment. During the earliest stages of development in utero, that environment includes the mother’s body chemistry, which is impacted by such factors as what she eats, how much stress she encounters, and how her hormones respond to such experiences. These factors are impacted by broader social forces, such as socioeconomics, race, religion, and culture. Thus, trying to isolate an individual’s biology from the context in which it exists will involve an artificial process of separating the inseparable.