When the sociology of gender emerged as a specific field in the 1970s the concern was to show any differences that do exist between the sexes to be exaggerated or indeed socially constructed. The claim that men and women are simply ‘naturally’ different was called into question by
examining how understandings of those differences vary across cultures and change throughout history. Indeed the interpretation of biology is something that is subject to social and historical change, as evidenced by the shift within Western science from a one – to a two-sex model of ifference (Laqueur, 1990). However, there are bodies that cannot be definitively classified as either ‘male’ or ‘female’ and these intersex people throw light on the social aspects of sexual classifications (Fausto-Sterling, 2002a; 2002b; Hird, 2004; Kessler and McKenna, 1978). Any perceived differences in ways of using bodies and minds are heavily shaped by the way people live. A Chinese peasant woman used to carrying heavy loads, for example, is likely to be physically stronger than a young American man who spends all day in front of the television and his computer. And how social meanings attached to sexual difference contribute to the formation of gender identities has been usefully explored by psychoanalysis. However, the way psychoanalysis characterizes feminine identity as precarious and subordinate, and based on understanding female biology as lack, is not always helpful in trying to imagine a more egalitarian gender order.
The problem with many of the attempts of social scientists and humanities scholars to examine ‘scientific’ claims about ‘sex’ is that most have a limited understanding of biological and related sciences. Scientists are often criticized by social scientists for ignoring factors that are not measurable within their discipline. For example, geneticists, look at the potentials certain genes contain, but cannot measure the effects of social factors on whether or not these potentials develop. Of course, good social scientists are not suggesting that genetics or biology definitely have no importance, they are merely illustrating that social environment plays a major part in determining our actions. The ways in which physical bodies and their (social) environment are entwined are extremely complex. Nevertheless attempts to engage with natural science understandings of differences between women and men are crucial because of the way in which commonsense ideas are usually based on misinterpretations of that science. For sociologists it is crucial to clarify what kind of scientific information actually exists about how men and women differ, and to analyze the social factors affecting how that information is interpreted. Once we establish that men and women are not simply born, we can begin to examine how they are socially made and what part individuals play in that making.