Sunday, August 14, 2011

FACT: Sociocultural Norms Influence Scientific Thought.

I am a scientist (-in-training) by profession, and think about biology a lot. Other than the fact that bio is just fun (duh), I think about the relationship between intersex and normal, biological variation in what bodies look like and how they function.

I am currently working in a research collection far away from my home, NYC. One thing I've been noticing is my frustration over the biological specimens I'm using, and how they don't conform to what they "should" look like, making my job as a researcher more difficult. I'm supposed to take this measurement, but this bump or groove or whatever may be worn down, or in a slightly different location, or did something wonky and looks strange, or is just plain missing in the specimen because it broke off (more likely) or just didn't form. I have been tracking my anxiety looking at some of these specimens and going, "OMG, NOT AGAIN. WHY WON'T THESE SPECIMENS JUST LOOK NORMAL? WHY WON'T THEY BEHAVE?"

And I've been thinking about how stupid that is.

These specimens I'm working with are the way they are because they are the products of evolutionary history/trajectory, environmental factors, genetics, growth and development, and just plain ol' individual idiosyncracies. There is not a right or a wrong way for bodies to be or to exist. They just are. When I'm frustrated, it's not because the "strange" specimens I'm working with are effing up the measurements I'm trying to take - it's because any measurement you try to standardize won't work for all specimens, because there's just too much diversity in body form for any one measurement to work for every specimen out there. When I'm frustrated, it's not because that bump or groove should look like this or that so that I can easily classify it as X, Y, or Z - it's because X, Y, and Z are arbitrary categories researchers made up to make it a little easier to describe those bumps and grooves, knowing that the forms of these bumps and grooves are on a continuum or sometimes outside these continuua, and can't easily - or sometimes at all - be classified as X, Y, or Z. As a researcher, I've gotta make judgment calls, do my best, be honest about what I can and can't say, describe how I did what I did and recognize that others may do it differently or disagree. All it means is that there's yet more research to be done that spins off this stuff.

I guess I'm just kind of surprised that, since I think about this stuff only ALL THE TIME in terms of intersex, I would be reminded that biological forms aren't wrong, or strange, or bad. They just are. What may be wrong, or strange, or bad - if anything - is the fact that the standards we use to categorize and describe things will always have some element of subjectivity, a place where you have to draw the line even if no lines really exist in nature, dividing things up into neat little categories for our convenience. Nature is messy, and biology - the study of nature - is thus messy as well, because you can't easily study something that doesn't lend itself to be easily understood and described. That's one of the reasons I love biology so much, actually - endless variation, nothing is for certain, things change all the time. The best. But these things sometimes mean that DOING biology can feel like the worst, especially since career scientists' futures of doing biology (or whatever branch/es of science they're doing) hinge on ugly things like getting grant proposals funded and flashy results and beautiful, clear-cut conclusions that might make its way into fancy, exclusive journals. There's a lot of pressure for things to work out, to make sense, to have more rules than exceptions. But nature is full of exceptions. The specimens I've seen are proof of that.

Socicultural researchers have also long noted that science in itself is not an exact science. How scientists conceptualize, explain, and describe biological phenomena is not unbiased or entirely objective, but partially a product of cultural norms and ideas. One of the most infuriating examples for me, as an intersex person, is the staunch assertation that biological sex is a categorical variable. A categorical variable is any sort of trait that can be easily lumped into one of two or more categories - for example, whether something is present or absent. It can't be kindasorta there or more there than not there. No. If something is present, it's present. If it's absent, it's absent. No questions. Categorical variables are in contrast to continuous variables, where a trait isn't just described as this or that (or also the other thing, etc.). There is a range of variation and any attempts to divide up this variation into categories will be arbitrary, although it's not uncommon for scientists to do this if they want to force a continous variable into a categorical one for ease of analylzing something.

All right, all right. Fine. Categoricatinuous whatever. The reason it's so infuriating that sex is still considered a categorical variable is because well, it's not. I don't think there has been a single science course I took in college that I didn't raise my hand once a semester in response to the inevitable sex-is-one-or-the-other-categorical-stuffystuff and specifically asked about intersex individuals. My response has never been anything other than, "Oh, well, that's really rare, and that would be an exception to the rule." Um, okay. Doesn't that then mean that if there exceptions, that the RULE NEEDS TO BE MODIFIED? Dismissing the fact that intersex people exist to make nature less messy and complex makes biology less ACCURATE. I always knew, sitting in those classrooms, just by virtue of existing, that the sex-is-categorical thing just simply was false. There are tons of nit-picky topics that I've discussed throughout my science training in college and grad school that have highlighted, if nothing else, that there are SO. MANY. variables to consider, that things are super-complex, that if you're doing it right, you can't just gloss over stuff that's inconvenient to you. But that's exactly what science does when it's pretty much universally acknowledged that I apparently don't exist since biological sex must be a categorical variable. Scientists' insistence that biological sex is categorical comes from sociocultural ideas about what sex is, and how one defines it and where sex is located in the body. These things may differ among groups of people and change over time, but the fact that these sociocultural ideas heavily influence upholding this inaccuracy can't be ignored. Just because scienctists largely don't recognize that sex is categorical doesn't truly erase me. Um, I'm still here, guys. *waves*

I am more conscious now how ridiculuous it is to place value judgments on the specimens that are "thwarting you" in trying to complete your work. But even so, I think that these assumptions that things must be or look or function a certain way are the basis for why we discriminate, why we refuse to try to understand, why we fail to examine the assumptions we're making instead of writing off the bodies and beings that are causing cracks in our shitty paradigms that aren't real and don't explain the reality of what's actually out there. We need to accept and try to understand the diversity we're seeing and not write it off. When we write off these bodies and beings, we do a lot of harm. And that's not something I want to participate in, and need to be conscious about.


  1. i notice you don't get a lot of responses on your posts, which seems criminal to me because your blog is great! so i wanted to de-lurk and say it's awesome, you always write really engaging and thoughtful stuff, and i always learn something. keep it up!!

  2. Amen, my friend. You make such an accurate account of the whole thing. Biological sex is a spectrum.

    This really speaks to me on a personal level right now. I've recently come the conclusion that I'm intersex. I've yet to have medical work done, but will be soon. In the mean time I'm still recognizing myself as intersex because, hey! it makes sense. But in my quest to try and talk to others to understand how I differ from the typical female, I've gotten many people just telling me that "oh well there is lots of variation you look normal to me"

    Hm. I find it so interesting that people will admit there is variation within the "male" and "female" categories. Heck, there is even variation in the intersex! But they're still trying to police where in the boxes I sit... If there's no such thing as typical, then why are you trying to box me into typical?

    sorry I'll stop ranting! Thank you for this blog post, I'm going to continue reading your posts. <3 Email me if you want, I'd love to have more open minded, interesting intersex friends.

  3. Thank you for your comment! There is definitely a lot of variation within biological sex, within each of the categories of "male" and "female," as well as within "intersex," however we decide to define these categories and whoever identifies with them. Thanks for reading! :)

  4. Ross, thank you so much for your kind words and praise! :D It miggggght be that I don't get as many comments, however, since I'm slow to publish them & respond. (EEK.) I am trying to be better about this!

    Thank you for reading! :)