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Gender Studies

Originally 'gender' is a grammatical term borrowed from linguistics; it is the collective term for the categories of masculine or feminine or neuter into which nouns of many languages are allocated. Anthropology borrowed the term to discuss the social roles occupied by males and females in society. The gendered roles in society were assumed to be the ‘natural’ result of ones sex, but cross-cultural studies demonstrate that while sex is a universal condition of humans, gender roles vary across culture.

Gender studies as a field has arisen out of women’s studies and indeed is still very closely linked in most academic institutions. Because our gender is so core to what we do as human beings, every epistemology has a contribution to make to the field, whether it be psychology, cultural studies or anthropology. But what ever the discipline, the core question is the same; to what extent are gender roles the result of biology and to what extent the result of social conditioning or ‘enculturation’?

This is an important question for medicine for many reasons because patterns of health and illness in men and women are different throughout the life span. To understand whether these differences are the result of biology or environment is vital to the formulation of effective treatments and health interventions.

One of the features of medicine as a discipline has been its unwillingness to collaborate with non-medical disciplines in order to enrich its own practice, and yet the social sciences have much to offer about dealing with people within their social context, which is fundamental to medical practice. Partly this problem is due to the fact that gender studies and medicine do not speak the same language easily. Medicine is a positivistic paradigm (the truth is knowable and can be found through deductive reasoning) whereas gender studies generally follow a more post-structuralist, critical paradigm (where there is no universal truth because meaning is not fixed but contextually dependent). Obviously, for the two fields to communicate effectively careful translation is required. To begin this process we have taken quite a basic representation of sex and gender as our starting point.

 Content by Ann-Maree Nobelius, 23 June 2004