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Centre for Women's and Gender Research
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What is FEMSAG?

Marie Curie post doctoral fellow Claus Halberg tells us what he is working with.

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What is FEMSAG all about?

The project aims to develop and strengthen the conceptual framework surrounding sex and gender (and nature vs. nurture more broadly) in a way that accommodates both feminist and naturalist concerns, concerns that have traditionally been seen to be in tension with one another. From a feminist point of view, the point of a distinction between sex and gender was originally that of pushing back against scientific and public sanctioning of essentialist views of the nature and origin of sex differences in cognition, emotion and behaviour. The naturalist concern flows from taking Darwin seriously, namely, always to view the human form of life as but a particular way of being animal, hence as being subject to broadly speaking the same conditions and forces of evolution and development as other kinds of animals.

FEMSAG seeks out possible points of convergence between the concerns for feminist anti-essentialism and naturalism about sex and gender in three domains of current discourse: the fault lines between current research on sex differences in the brain and the feminist critique of this kind of research; the efforts to "rethink" the concepts of nature, matter, and the real undertaken in the context of the so-called "material turn" in feminist theory; and current attempts to reconceive gender-nonconformity and gender dysphoria using resources supplied by the phenomenology of the body as developed by the French mid-20th century philosopher Maurice Merleau-Ponty.

Why and how did you become interested in your research theme(s)?

The theme of my current research project has really been a preoccupation of mine at least since the early phase of my Master's degree in philosophy. It was galvanised, however, first by the TV series "Hjernevask", which was aired on Norwegian public broadcasting in early 2010, and by the topic I was assigned for the trial lecture part of my doctoraldefence back in 2013, during which I got to address those issues in some detail for the first time.

What methodology do you apply and what is your data consisting of?

In this project I do not generate or collect new “data”, and so there is no need for a particular “method” with which to generate, collect, or analyse such data. The material I work with are mainly feminist theoretical texts (such as those issuing from the “material turn” in feminist theory) and texts of feminist science criticism (particularly from the field known as “neurofeminism”). In those instances in which I engage with empirical studies I do so with a view to the philosophical and conceptual underpinnings of that research. If you want a word for my “method”, perhaps “dialectic” is the closest (yet far from fully adequate) I can come up with: the practice of seeking conceptual and theoretical reconciliation between two modes of discourse (feminism and naturalism) that, taken separately, both have something going for them yet which seem to be in conflict with one another.

How is your research relevant to the public?

The nature vs. nurture issue with respect to sex and gender seems ever to be able to incite the attention and curiosity of the public, and research in this domain is typically widely covered in the science columns of mainstream media. More often than not, however, the fundamental concepts structuring public discourse on this topic - nature and nurture, biology and culture, genes and environment etc. - tend to be invoked by both "sides" of the fault line between feminist anti-essentialism and those who claim the naturalist mantle, both claiming to take the reasonable "interactionist" stance. A central premise of this project is that public discussion of these issues will be more productive and enlightening if the idea of "interaction" is given more consideration. Only on that condition might we get in position to discuss eventual implications that empirical findings regarding sex differences in cognition, emotions, and behaviour might have for social policy.