Issues in Interdisciplinarity 2020-21/Evidence in Transgenderism


Transgenderism is the phenomenon whereby a person's gender identity does not correspond to the sex they were assigned at birth.[1] Although this concept exists cross-culturally and throughout history, it is difficult to distinguish between the various terms used (e.g. transsexual, third gender) and their boundaries. Fluctuating definitions of the phenomenon are derived from different disciplines, in which evidence also takes various, conflicting forms. Psychology, biology and social anthropology tackle transgenderism from different perspectives, using various methodologies, research tools and frameworks. To formulate a comprehensive understanding of transgenderism and expand societal consciousness on the issue, it is important to identify the tensions and values behind evidence in each discipline.

Evidence in BiologyEdit

Biological studies on the causes of transgenderism involve different fields of the discipline: genetics, brain activity and biological factors; while employing different methodologies. In genetic research, biologists use heritability studies in families to see if inherited genes from previous generations could influence gender identity. Similarly, twin study designs are used as evidence. By comparing the concordance rate in DNA among monozygotic and dizygotic twins, they obtain data to estimate the genetic contribution of gender identity. Though this method is one of the most widely used, it yields some limitations as the instruments used to measure gender identity may be confused with gender expression.[2]

Biologists also conduct molecular genetic studies to examine the consequences of prenatal hormone exposure, focusing on sex-hormones receptors that could be responsible for undermasculanisation-feminism. Studies typically investigate small sample sizes or individual genes, and conduct a statistical analysis to see which ones are overrepresented to draw conclusions. However, further work and replications in this area is needed before considering it as strong evidence.[3]

Finally, biologists look for quantitative evidence in parts of the brain that account for sexual dimorphism. Typically, researchers compare brain structure and activity between cisgender and transgender people using various medical imaging techniques such as functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI) and Positron Emission Tomography (PET).[4] This examines if brain regions in transgender people resemble the genders they identify with, rather than the one they were assigned to. Studies show that it is indeed generally the case.[5]

Evidence in PsychologyEdit

Psychological research into the cause of transgenderism tends to focus heavily on the experience of the individual, providing significant quantitative evidence by either quantifying qualitative evidence or using methodologies that rely on interviews and questionnaires, as well as observation.[6]

Early methods of obtaining evidence were overwhelmingly case-study based, with the first research in 1949 from Cauldwell based entirely on one individual. This was useful in giving a snapshot of period typical attitudes to transgenderism as a mental immaturity brought on by a disruptive upbringing and genetic predisposition, whilst demonstrating an accurate qualitative account of personal experience.[7] However, this methodology is not conducive to generating quantifiable evidence applicable to other individuals, hence the recent shift towards alternate methodologies.

Recent methods of obtaining evidence include experiments exploring the sociocultural backgrounds of transgender individuals and gender identity development during childhood.[8] These methods are more conducive to establishing universal laws within the discipline as they generate large sets of quantitative data for evidence that can be studied to identify causal relationships.[9] It has been found that children display knowledge of typical gender stereotypes long before they show a differentiation between sex based on genital information, highlighting psychology’s emphasis on the importance of ‘nurture’ over ‘nature’ and more biologically based theories. However these types of methodologies, despite rising ethical standards in recent years, tend to lack consideration for transgender individuals within the structure of the methodology, eg. continuing to use binary terms such as male and female within questionnaires.[10] Therefore, there are still improvements to be made to the methodologies used in psychological research to collect evidence.

Evidence in Social AnthropologyEdit

The main evidence used by anthropologists is ethnographic evidence collected by methods like fieldwork, participant observation or interviews, which are predominantly qualitative. The data is then analysed using the framework of anthropological theories or positionalities, such as structuralism, feminist or queer theory.

Social anthropology’s evidence of transgenderism consists of analysing the lived experiences of transgender people through ethnography, and exploring the context-dependent existence of transgenderism and its expressions. It explains transgenderism as part of identity and often with a level of agency and performativity[11] that other disciplines neglect because social anthropology uses evidence by relational methodologies. For example, the Travesti in Brazil are biologically male but acquire female body characteristics. However, although ethnographic research shows that they are viewed as women psychologically (similar to the view in scientific disciplines), the Travesti may not see themselves as transgender.[12] The qualitative approach of social anthropology is important because the definition of transgenderism varies cross-culturally and temporally/[13] The Western male-female binary framework[14] exemplifies this need for contextualisation of evidence as it is not universally applicable or correct, as demonstrated by various global ethnographic studies[15], or carry colonially-impacted ideas. Furthermore, queer theory suggests that gender is distinct from sex and can be socially constructed. Thus, notions of gender may vary cross-culturally, so queer theory can be used as a framework in social anthropology to explore the relation between gender, biological sex[16] and transgenderism.

Social anthropology situates lived transgender experiences within their societal context (e.g. class, race)[17], taking into account the impact of intersecting factors[18] on transgenderism, gender binaries, or labels used in various societies, such as colonialism in the history of a society having an impact on cultural perception on gender or transgender issues. Reflexivity in social anthropology takes into account the positionality[19] of the ethnographer and puts into question possible biases within their methodology, ethnographic evidence and analysis.

Integration of Evidence and ConclusionEdit

By integrating evidence from the three disciplines, a more holistic understanding of transgenderism can be gained. In Biology, limitations of the twin study design (i.e. distinction between measurement of gender identity and expression) may be improved upon by using more subjective evidence from other disciplines. Psychology may use social experiments with participants in various age groups to distinguish between gender expression and identity, as childhood may be a key time in establishing stereotypes. Social anthropology may obtain evidence from individuals using interviews/testimony instead of quantitative evidence. Combining these through an interdisciplinary approach will give the most efficient use of evidence.

However, interdisciplinary tensions could stem from differences in methodologies used by social anthropology and scientific disciplines. Due to reliance on qualitative evidence such as interviews or observations by ethnographers in social anthropology, clashes in evidence may happen as quantitative evidence tends to hold more authority, potentially leading to a power imbalance across the disciplines or favouring evidence from natural sciences. However, by quantifying experiences, the subjectivity of transgender experiences cannot be captured. By reducing transgenderism to biological or psychological factors, there is loss of societal context and the variety of lived transgender experiences across cultures.

Causes of transgenderism are complex and it is unlikely that an exact set of explanations can be found within one discipline. In order to apply evidence to real life, it is important to be aware of why certain types of evidence are used, and what they measure and fail to capture. Awareness of these disciplinary tensions allows for a comprehensive, interdisciplinary application of evidence to be used in understanding transgenderism.


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