Genetic sex: “a symbolic struggle against reality?” Exploring genetic and genomic knowledge in sex discourses
Thesis or dissertation
University of Exeter
Genetic sex -the apparent fundamental biological cause of the two male and female human varieties- is a 20th century construct. Looking down the microscope, the stained chromosomes are concrete countable entities and lend themselves easily to genetic determinism. As the chromosome composition of a person is generally fixed at the time of conception, when a Y- or X-bearing sperm is united with the X-bearing egg, a person’s genetic sex is taken as permanent and unchanging throughout their life. Drawing upon gender theory as well as science and technology studies this thesis explores how our particular construction of the concept of ‘genetic sex’ relies on four features of biological sex (binary, fixed, spanning nature, and found throughout the body) and in addition proposes one unique feature, inheritance. The empirical research is based on an analysis of popular science books as well as two case studies of how genes relate to sex determination and development. The analysis of the metaphors used in these books and journal articles reveals how now, with genomic efforts to explore gene expression profiles, there is a shift away from seeing genes as having ‘responsibilities’ for determining phenotypes towards seeing them play a role along with other genes in genetic cascades where other factors such as timing can be incorporated. The analysis of genomic features such as imprinting and X-chromosome inactivation also provide evidence that such a change should be recognised. Rather than seeing sex in terms of fixed and static differences and similarities, current research offers new ways of conceptualising similarities and differences as dynamic and responsive to environment. This supports wider understandings of ‘biology’ as relying on the interactions between genetic processes, cellular environment, and tissue environment – in which the social physicality of bodies is important in forming and maintaining a person’s biology and genetic processes. Yet as the historical analysis of the shift between the one sex to two sex model indicates, it remains to be seen whether the social sphere will respond by incorporating this new evidence into the tacit, everyday understandings of sex or seek to maintain the binary and fixed relationship(s) between men and women by governing them as males and females.
PhD in Sociology