Essentialism vs. Social Constructionism in the Study of Human Sexuality
DeLamater, John D., Hyde, Janet Shibley, The Journal of Sex Research
Among sex researchers today, few debates are more intense than the one between essentialism on the one hand and social constructionism on the other. Yet often these terms remain undefined or ill defined. In this article we carefully specify these theoretical positions. We focus our discussion on this debate in the social and biological sciences; a parallel debate exists in the humanities, but it is beyond the scope of this article. To illustrate the particular content of the debate, we consider two classic issues in sex research--sexual attraction and sexual orientation--and how they have been addressed by essentialist and social constructionist researchers. Finally, we consider the possibility of a conjoint essentialist/social constructionist approach in sex research.
The concept of essentialism originated in the work of Plato (428-348 B.C.) (Mayr, 1982). He argued that, for example, a triangle, no matter what the length of the sides or the combination of angles, always had the form of a triangle and thus was discontinuously different from a circle or rectangle. For Plato, the phenomena of the natural world were simply a reflection of a finite number of fixed and unchanging forms, or eide, as he called them. The eide were renamed essences by the Thomists of the Middle Ages. Constancy and discontinuity were the crucial properties of essences. That is, an essence does not change and is categorically different from another essence. The essentialists attributed continuous variation to the imperfect manifestation of the essences. Essentialism was the philosophical foundation for positivism in philosophy up to the twentieth century. Essentialism therefore dominated philosophical and scientific thought in the Western world. We will refer to this form of essentialism as classical essentialism.
Ironically for the purposes of the current discussion, Darwin was one of the first to reject essentialism, at least partially. His reward was rejection of his work by the philosophers of the time. His notion of change through evolution was fundamentally at odds with the notion of constancy in essentialism.
Popper (1962) brought essentialism back into modern discourse on the philosophy of science, while at the same time rejecting it soundly. According to Popper, essentialism is defined by two doctrines. First, "the best, the truly scientific theories, describe the `essences' or the `essential natures' of things--the realities which lie behind the appearances." Second, "the scientist can succeed in finally establishing the truth of such theories beyond all reasonable doubt" (Popper, 1962, pp. 103-104). For Popper, theories are never more than hypotheses. They are conjecture rather than true knowledge.
In the social sciences today, and specifically in sexology, essentialism seems to have become something of a fuzzy category, a term that many use but few stop to define. We doubt that those who use the term generally have in mind Plato's notions of true, underlying essences. Today, essentialism implies a belief that certain phenomena are natural, inevitable, universal, and biologically determined (Irvine, 1990). We will refer to this form of essentialism as modern essentialism. The term is often used loosely to refer to research and theory presuming a biological basis--usually a biological determination--of sexual behavior, although as we will see in a later section, there are also cultural essentialist theories. Interestingly, the term essentialism is generally used by those who are opposed to it, not by those who practice it. In the sections that follow, we will review theories and research that fit into this broad category, while at the same time considering whether these theories and research also conform to some "essential" properties of classical essentialism: (a) a belief in underlying true forms or essences; (b) a discontinuity …
Questia, a part of Gale, Cengage Learning. www.questia.com
Publication information: Article title: Essentialism vs. Social Constructionism in the Study of Human Sexuality. Contributors: DeLamater, John D. - Author, Hyde, Janet Shibley - Author. Journal title: The Journal of Sex Research. Volume: 35. Issue: 1 Publication date: February 1998. Page number: 10+. © 2007 Taylor & Francis Group, LLC. COPYRIGHT 1998 Gale Group.
This material is protected by copyright and, with the exception of fair use, may not be further copied, distributed or transmitted in any form or by any means.