Sex Is Not a Natural Act and Other Essays

By Leonore Tiefer | Go to book overview

subordinate status, an aspect of their work they called "the slavegirl project." They repeatedly emphasized how important it was that they not defer to familiar theories and concepts but merely stick to the data of memories and associations and try to figure out what sexuality was coming to mean, year by year, body-part by body-part. This is the only collectivist method of social construction work I have come across.

In a classic piece of research, Suzanne Kessler and Wendy McKenna ([ 1978] 1985) were able to show how gender is constructed during children's development. Using a variety of figure-drawing and verbal tasks, they showed how children move from vague gender categories to two definite ones and from using a variety of attributions to relying exclusively on the presence or absence of a penis for deciding gender.

The data, of course, are hardly new. Many developmental psychologists over the years have invented creative nonverbal tasks involving dolls and drawings to find out when young children developed two categories of person and what cues they used at different ages (e.g., Katcher, 1955). Such studies were usually presented, however, in terms of developmental "mastery" of the biologically "correct" two-category system. Kessler and McKenna embedded their findings in anthropological data showing that the cues and categories for gender in other cultures were different and thus that the children they studied had acquired a construction of gender appropriate to modern Western culture. Once one steps back from assumptions about the inevitability of conventional categories and concepts, one can watch what people do and how they grow to do it from a different perspective.


Manipulating Social Constructions (Creating Change)

The final task for social constructionists is not merely to observe changes in constructions but to proactively create such changes. Psychotherapists do this all the time in the form of "cognitive reframing." Any situation involving change--education, job training, self-help group socialization--could provide a longitudinal fieldwork opportunity to see changes in action. A lot of AIDS research is addressing sexuality in this framework, showing how individuals who perceive themselves to be at risk are working to reconceptualize sexual activities, feelings, and fantasies.


Conclusion

Many but not all of the research methods mentioned above take a qualitative approach or combine qualitative with quantitative methods. Looking for di-

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