Thesis ID: CBB013149328

Establishing Sex: The Scientific Quest to Support a Controversial Binary (2022)


Sex and gender lie at the heart of a vast array of social, cultural, and political institutions and controversies. From highly politicized issues like transgender people’s access to bathrooms and women’s under representation in science, to more mundane ones like the color of children’s toys, sociologists have long recognized sex as a “master category” that structures every other dimension of life. Yet social change and human diversity challenge the essential, categorical understanding of sex that underpins the use of sex in this way. Biology has been a key reference point and battleground for contesting the sex binary. This dissertation builds on the sociology of science and feminist science studies using a mix of computational and qualitative methods to critically examine how scientists work to establish the sex binary as the authoritative ontology of sex. I examine three key sites in the process of the scientific production of sex categories. These sites—production of science in labs, presentation of science in writing, and reception of papers in scientific fields—are each important contexts where scientists do the work of establishing sex, its boundaries, contents, and meanings as a category system. Chapter Two is built on technographic analysis of all 53 research papers using machine learning to predict sex from brain scans, along with their supplemental materials, code, comments, replies, and retraction notices. Using this genre of sex research as a case study, I demonstrate how machine learning methods like support vector machines have unique affordances that can both help and hinder efforts to establish the binary nature of sex. Whether they ultimately do depends on researcher choices and intent. This poses a key intervention in the sociology of algorithms by theorizing how they can be deployed to resist (rather than enact) social change. Chapter Three draws on the literature reviews of 387 books and articles about sex differences to argue that the scientific authority of binary sex is often rhetorically established through revisionist histories of the field. I outline three commonly deployed revisionist frames: that binary sex is uncontested, that its proponents are Galilean martyrs fighting dogma, and that its opponents are child abusers. In Chapter Four I merge newly available NSF data on the demographics of all PhDs in the US since 1970 with Web of Science data on 69 million academic publications. Drawing on my qualitative work, I develop and validate an automated system for categorizing how life science research discusses sex. In keeping with theoretical and small-scale empirical work, I demonstrate that the more sex essentialism biology and health subfields publish, the fewer women they will grant PhDs to in future years. The inverse also holds: more anti-essentialist, feminist biology corresponds to more women PhDs in future years. This demonstrates that theories of gendered occupational segregation, which typically focus on variation in occupational requirements and norms, are incomplete without attention to variation in beliefs and scientific claims about gender. Taken together, this dissertation argues that scientists’ quest to establish (or undermine) the sex binary influence every stage of scientific production, including design, interpretation, presentation, and even the composition of the future scientific workforce. Sex is a powerful factor that, beyond being shaped by science, actively shapes science.

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Authors & Contributors
Jordan-Young, Rebecca M.
Chiang, Howard Hsueh-Hao
Cleminson, Richard
Crozier, Ivan
Cuomu, Mingji
Deslauriers, Marguerite
American Quarterly
Asian Medicine: Tradition and Modernity
Biological Theory
Bulletin of the History of Medicine
Classical World
Gender and History
Harvard University Press
Princeton University
Ashgate Publishing
Johns Hopkins University
Lexington Books
Manchester University Press
Sex differences
Medicine and gender
Science and gender
Human body
Morgan, Thomas Hunt
Cope, Edward Drinker
Money, John
Riddle, Oscar
Wilkins, Lawson
Time Periods
19th century
20th century
20th century, early
18th century
21st century
United States
Rome (Italy)

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