Discuss the biosocial approach to gender development. (8 marks + 16 marks)

The 'biosocial approach' refers to theories that combine both biological and social explanations, such as Money and Ehrhardt's theory and social role theory. You can choose whether to discuss one or more theory.

Money and Ehrhardt’s biosocial theory suggest that social labelling and different treatment of boys and girls interact with biological factors (such as prenatal exposure to testosterone) to steer development. Unlike explanations that are purely biological or purely social, this theory was an attempt to integrate the influences of nature and nurture.

Money and Ehrhardt argued that the primary determiner of gender development is the sex of rearing, which is initially determined by biological factors. The child will be socialised based on this sex and their gender will develop based on how they are raised. Money and Ehrhardt predicted that if a genetic male is mislabelled as a girl and treated as a girl before the age of three, he will acquire the gender identity of a girl.

This theory, however, has been disputed by the case of David Reimer, who was genetically male but was raised as a girl (under Money's recommendation) after a botched circumcision. Despite being given hormone treatments in order to develop an outwardly female appearance, Reimer became isolated and depressed, and reverted back to being male immediately after finding out his true sex. This conflicts with Money's claims that genetic sex is more important to gender development than the sex of rearing.

This outcome has also been supported by further research. Reiner & Gearhart studied 16 biological males born with almost no penis. Of the 14 who were raised female, 8 re-assigned themselves as male by the age of 16. This high rate suggests that biological factors have a more important in gender development than social factors.

However, there are methodological problems with the two aforementioned studies, and many other studies in this area. The case of Bruce Reimer is a case study, and the results may well not apply to other individuals: there is an extreme lack of generalisability. The study by Reiner and Gearhart has a small sample, and so the results from this study may also be invalid.

Another problem is that much of the research in this area is done on people with intersex conditions. The results of these studies should therefore only be applied to the general population with caution, as they may only be applicable to people with intersex conditions. These people may, for example, adhere more to social norms than the general population as they have to try harder to fit in. Research into such personal and potentially painful issues also has the potential to cause psychological harm, an ethical issue which should be avoided.

Eagly and Wood’s social role theory has been described as a biosocial one. While the evolutionary explanation suggests that selection pressures caused both physical and psychological differences, social role theory suggests that evolution only causes physical differences. Psychological differences are a consequence of these physical differences.

Social role theory argues that physical differences between men and women allow them to perform certain tasks more efficiently. For example, men’s greater speed and upper body strength make them more suitable for hunting. The physical differences between men and women create social roles – men are the providers and women take on a domestic role. This may also explain sex differences in mate choice: each sex will seek a partner who fulfils the social roles that they themselves do not.

Social role theory was put forward as an alternative to the evolutionary approach. However, some critics feel that evolutionary theory better explains sex differences. One reason for this is that behaviour is at least as important as physical characteristics and therefore selection pressure would act directly on psychological as well as physical differences. Even very young children exhibit psychological sex differences, suggesting they are biological and not psychological.

Eagly and Wood supported their theory by using data from the Gender Empowerment Measure to identify levels of gender equality in various cultures. They found that in cultures where women had a higher status and male-female division of labour was less pronounced, sex differences in mating preferences became less pronounced. This suggests that social roles are the driving force in psychological sex differences.

This conclusion was challenged by Gangestad et al., who conducted a further analysis of the same data after adding additional controls such as affluence and social structure. The finding was that gender equality was not related to sex differences, and thus evolutionary theory can provide a better explanation for the joint effects of biology and culture.

Research studies have found that social factors do influence psychological gender differences. For example, Williams found that children in a Canadian town with access to multiple TV channels had more strongly sex-typed views than children in towns with one or no TV channels. This supports social role theory as it suggests that social influences rather than physical differences determine psychological sex differences.

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