2002-03 Pembroke Seminar

"Embodiment" 
Anne Fausto-Sterling
Chesler-Mallow Senior Faculty Research Fellow, Pembroke Center
Professor of Biology and Gender Studies

In 2002-03, the Pembroke Seminar will explore how biological bodies become culturally expressive. Traditionally, the study of race and gender has been subdivided into the study of biology, on the one hand, and the study of culture, on the other. Thus, the nature/nurture debate frames most discussions of the body, especially with respect to gender and race. Indeed, until recently, feminist scholarship has championed the dichotomy between sex (biology) and gender (culture). But the body does not itself make such clear distinctions. How can we frame the discussion of embodiment so that biology and culture become one?

How do children develop masculine and feminine characteristics? Why do some become more physically active than others? Why do some become skilled in particular cognitive tasks? Why do some become more physically aggressive while others become more verbally aggressive? How and why do these characteristics become associated with gender? How should feminist theorists respond to studies that suggest that prenatal hormonal exposures account for the early emergence of masculine and feminine characteristics or to studies that suggest male-to-female transsexuals have more female-like brain structures and female-to-male transsexuals have more male-like structures? How should feminist scholars respond to the use of such biological findings in court decisions?

Can feminist theory benefit from the new and expanding knowledge of the plastic nature of brain cells, both during childhood and adulthood? When new cultural images of the body become incorporated into an individual’s self-image, does the brain itself actually change? Are there limits to cultural plasticity? Are there limits to biological plasticity? How does the history of the body affect the contemporary patterns of disease? Does culture produce specific patterns of disease? Does biological difference produce different patterns of disease? If culture and biology produce disease patterns together, how do they do so?

How do gender awareness and gender identity emerge? How does gender become culturally specific? How do stable sexual identities and desires form, and when and why do they sometimes change over the life cycle? How do gendered body images become incorporated into human consciousness, and why are body images at times extremely stable and at other times quite changeable? How does racism affect early development? Does the chronic stress of racism produce racially weighted disease?

Varied theoretical approaches to answering the above questions come from the fields of cultural studies, phenomenology, feminist psychodynamic theory, socialization theory, and developmental systems theory. Developmental systems theory seems especially versatile. It has been applied to diverse levels of organization: biologists use the theory to study the emergence of order as an embryo develops from a single cell into a complex organism; cognitive scientists apply systems theory to the understanding of brain function; developmental psychologists use systems theory to understand the emergence of complex motor skills and basic cognition, and political theorists use systems theory to study complex multinational behaviors. We are interested in the applications it might have to the study of embodiment.

We seek applicants from all fields, but especially from cultural studies, feminist social psychology, developmental psychology, developmental biology, history of the body, anthropology, cognitive psychology, and sexuality studies. As a group we will explore theories that attempt to combine biology and culture in flexible and imaginative ways. We are especially eager to find scholars who are interested in applying developmental systems theory to the study of the development of gender awareness, gender identity, forms of sexual desire, brain and hormone development, and the cultural and historically specific expression of gendered or racialized traits. We therefore welcome scholars who have a background in DST, even if they have not previously worked on gender or race; similarly, we welcome scholars from all fields who work on gender and/or race and who are interested in pursuing theories that blend biological, sociological, historical, or cultural approaches to the problem of embodiment.