one at that (Woolgar 1996). Humans are the sole focus of interest and any comparison
between our behaviour and that of lower animals is unjustified, demeaning and
reductionist. This is because humans have language, language enables discourse and
it is through discourse that social reality, including gender, is constructed. (This is
especially true of educated, middle-class Western humans judging by the disproportionate attention they receive.) The study of discourse is the study of implicit meaning
and all meaning is subjective so there can be no one authoritative or ‘privileged’
reading of a text. Although social constructionists recognize the implications of this
observation for their own analyses, they nevertheless ‘deconstruct’ (often in dense
literary and psychoanalytic terms) the ways in which gender is created in social talk.
To give a flavour of their approach to gender differences, I quote from one of the
most frequently cited writers of this genre (Hollway 1984, pp. 227–8)
Hence recurrent day-to-day practices and meanings through which they acquire their
effectivity may contribute to the maintenance of gender difference (reproduction without
a hyphen) or to its modification (the production of modified meanings of gender leading
to changed practices) . . . I am interested in theorising the practices and meanings which
re-produce gendered subjectivity (what psychologists would call gender
identity). . . . Gender differentiated meanings (and thus the positions differentially available
in discourse) account for the content of gender difference.
In this article, Hollway goes on to explain how different discourses about sexuality
locate women and men in different positions relative to one another. She writes of
the ‘discourse’ of the stronger male sex drive, the ‘discourse’ of the Madonna–whore
distinction and the permissive ‘discourse’ which appeared to (but did not) liberate
women’s sexuality. Now each of these topics is of some considerable interest to
evolutionary psychology, as we shall see, but in that discipline rather than locating
them as discursive fictions they are taken as answerable empirical hypotheses about
which evolutionary theory makes clear predictions. Men’s sex drive should be
stronger—and it is (Oliver and Hyde 1993). Women should experience a reputational cost if they gain a reputation for promiscuity—and they do (Cashdan 1996).
Women should find casual sexual liaisons less satisfactory than men—and they do
(Townsend et al. 1995). Nor are these findings exclusive to a single culture or language community—they exist independent of so-called ‘constitutive’ discourse.
For social constructionists the key question of the origins of these discourses is
But to assume the mechanical reproduction of discourse requires asking how it got to be
like that in the first place. And that question is in danger of throwing theory back into
answers according to the terms of biological, Oedipal or social and economic determinisms
(Hollway 1984, pp. 238–9).
In short, better not to ask the question if you think you may not like the answer.
But elsewhere in the social sciences some academics were indeed resorting to
‘social determinism’. Sex differences come from outside the child. Babies are not