Levels of Explanation Applied to Gender - Theories of Gender

Gender, Nature, and Nurture - Richard A. Lippa 2014

Levels of Explanation Applied to Gender
Theories of Gender

It's riot just what we inherit from our mothers and fathers that haunts us. It's all kinds of old defunct theories, all sorts of old defunct beliefs.... It's not that they actually live on in us; they are simply lodged there, and we cannot get rid of them.


Henrik Ibsen

It is time to turn to theories of gender. But before examining specific theories, let's first consider the general sorts of explanations that most theories of gender use to explain the behavior of men and women.

Theories of gender generally focus on four different levels of explanation (Fig- 3.1):

1. Group level factors

2. Past biological and social-environmental factors

3. Current biological and social-environmental factors

4. Traits residing within the individual

Level 1, the group level of analysis, considers you to be a member of a group, either biological (people with XX chromosomes) or cultural (Latinas, members of the middle class, Southern Baptists, the social categories of female and male). Group level processes include biological and cultural evolution, which respectively shape the characteristics of biological groups (e.g., species and the two biological sexes) and cultural groups (religious groups, ethnic groups, the socially defined categories of male and female).


FIG. 3.1 Levels of explanation applied to gender.

Level 2 attempts to explain your gender-related behaviors in terms of the past events that affect you. These include both biological and social factors. For example, the genes you were bom with, the chemicals you were exposed to as a fetus, and the way your parents treated you when you were young all may influence your current behavior as a man or a woman. As analyzed at Level 2, you exist as an individual distinct from other individuals.

Level 3 moves forward in time and focuses on current rather than past events that influence your gender-related behavior. For example, the way your brain cells are organized right now, your current level of testosterone, and the setting you are now in may all affect your current gender-related behavior. Level 3 analyzes you as an individual. The factors influencing your behavior are in the here-and-now, not in the past.

Level 4 analyzes your behavior in terms of your traits, abilities, and dispositions—factors that reside within you, At Level 4, it is as if we slip inside your skin and examine the characteristics that make you up. These may be seen as resulting from both your biological inheritance and your life experiences.

At the far right side of Fig. 3.1 is what all theories of gender try to explain, gender-related behaviors. More specifically, theories of gender try to explain: (a) behaviors that show on-average differences between males and females, and (b) individual differences in masculine and feminine behaviors within each sex.

At each of the four levels of analysis shown in Fig. 3.1 (group level factors, past factors, current factors, and internal traits), both biological and social-environmental processes are present. Biological factors include evolutionary processes (Level 1), the past influences of genes, physiology, and biological environments (Level 2), the current influences of genes, physiology, and biological environments (Level 3), and all the residual effects these factors have on our individual traits (Level 4).

Biological influences may be both genetic and environmental (in the sense of biologically active environmental influences, such as uterine environments, exposure to chemicals, exposure to infectious agents, nutritional factors, and so on). Social-environmental factors include influences from the cultures and social groups we belong to (Level 1); influences from events in our past, such as parental rearing (Level 2); influences from our current social setting (Level 3); and all the residual effects these factors have on our individual traits (Level 4).

Let's use a concrete example to illustrate social causes. The behavior of men and women may vary depending on whether they grew up in the United States or in Saudi Arabia (Level 1: the influence of cultural groups). Your behavior as a particular man or woman may depend partly on how your mother and father reared you (Level 2: your past environment) and on the people you are with right now, such as a boyfriend or a girlfriend (Level 3: the current environment). Finally, your behavior as a man or a woman may depend on your personality traits, abilities, attitudes, and stereotypes (Level 4: internal dispositions).

The arrows pointing from left to right in Fig. 3.1 indicate cause-effect relationships. All the levels of explanation are interconnected. Thus, the biological evolution of males and females (Level 1) can influence the individual genes you were born with (Level 2), which may then influence the current structure of your brain and your level of sex hormones (Level 3), which ultimately influence your personality traits and abilities (Level 4). Biological causes thus flow from the distant past of our species, to our individual pasts, to the present. Ultimately, all of these interconnected causes influence our behavior. The same is true for environmental factors. The culture you were born into (Level 1) can influence the way your parents reared you (Level 2), which influences your current friends and settings (Level 3), which in turn influence your traits and attitudes (Level 4) and ultimately your behavior.

Note that causality does not simply flow from past to present (from left to right in Fig. 3.1). Factors at a given level may interact with one another. This is indicated by the arrows that point, up and down. Biological and cultural evolution can mutually influence one another. As some human groups learned to domesticate milk-producing animals, for example, they simultaneously underwent biological evolution that increased the number of adults who could digest milk. Thus biological evolution was influenced by cultural changes, and cultural evolution depended on biological evolution. In the case of sex differences, a biological trait (e.g., greater upper body strength in males; female gestation and lactation) could influence cultural evolution (e.g., men being more involved in warfare; women foraging and staying closer to home to care for physically dependent infants). Similarly, cultural changes (e.g., the shift from hunter-gatherer to agricultural civilizations) could influence biological evolution (e.g., people were exposed to more infectious diseases in more densely populated agricultural societies, and they developed immunity to some of these diseases).

Level 2 factors may similarly influence one another. Our genetic heritage can influence how our parents treat us. To give an obvious example, beautiful children are often treated differently from homely children. Physical attractiveness, a substantially genetic trait, influences our past social environments. Past chemical environments (e.g., exposure to hormones or to drugs as a fetus) can influence which genes "turn on" and which did not "turn on" in our DNA.

At Level 3, factors also Interact. Your current social environment (e.g., being with an attractive romantic partner) can affect your current body chemistry (e.g., sex hormone levels), which can in turn activate some genes and deactivate others in body tissues.

When viewed in terms of interactions (the up and down arrows in Fig. 3.1) and the simultaneous flow of causality from past to present causes (left to right arrows), you can see how difficult it may sometimes be to disentangle biological and social-environmental influences from one another. Rather than a system of clearly partitioned causes (nature vs. nurture; biological vs. nonbiological; genetic vs. nongenetic; environmental vs. nonenvironmental), we have a spaghetti-like network of interacting factors. The famous Swedish theologian Emanuel Swedenborg (1987) once noted that "each moment has a series of consequences extending to eternity." Figure 3.1 makes a converse point; each behavior has a series of intertwined causes extending indefinitely into the past. Disentangling those causes is not always an easy task. However, it is the task we set for ourselves, to disentangle some of the causes of gender-related behaviors, based on the best evidence available.

Now it is time to consider specific theories of gender. Keep in the back of your mind that these theories are not necessarily mutually exclusive. Each theory may contain elements of truth.