A superb guest contribution sent to us by a post doctoral academic in social sciences
What is critical realism?
When you look around at the world, do you believe that everything is socially constructed and that everything that exists is based on the way we all perceive it?
Or do you look around the world and see that some things are socially constructed and some things are most definitely real – whether we perceive them to be real or not?
If you agree with the first question, you believe in social constructionism or relativism. This means you see everything in the world as relative, subjective and socially constructed by humans.
If you agree with the second question, you believe in critical realism. This means that you see the world as a place in which some things are socially constructed (religions, for example) but some things stand independent of human thought and will exist whether we perceive it to be real or not (gravity, for example).
Years ago, I would have called myself a social constructionist. I would have described my approach to philosophy and science as relativist. I would have argued with you that all things in the world are relative and are all based on, and perceived by humans. I would have argued that many issues in society were purely down to perception and social construction – and that we could change them based on how we described them or constructed them using language and concepts.
However, my views were challenged by a scholar. One day, he asked me whether I believed that sexual violence was socially constructed. He asked me if I thought paedophilia was socially constructed. I pondered on that. Technically, these offences are socially constructed because we have decided that they are illegal and immoral based on the way we perceive children, adults, sex and power – but then came the crux of the issue.
He asked me whether I believed that the harm caused to victims was socially constructed – whether it was all relative and it was only harmful because we perceived it to be harmful.
I winced. I had heard that language before. I had heard that line of reasoning before. I had read those arguments in pro-paedophilia blogs and social media accounts. I had heard that sex offenders argue that the only reason they were in prison was because we perceived their offences to be bad. I had heard pro-paedophile advocates argue that children only suffer trauma from sex with adults because professionals construct it as a trauma.
I replied, ‘No, I believe the harm, injuries and trauma to the victim is real.’
He questioned me again, ‘So you believe some things are ‘real’ and some things are just socially constructed?’
My answer, for the first time, was yes.
He explained to me that critical realism was the middle ground between empirical realism and constructivist relativism. He asked me to list things that I believed to be ‘real’ and things I believed to be socially constructed by humans.
By ‘real’, we mean that it exists independently to the human mind. A tree is still a tree whether you believe it to be a tree or not. You still need oxygen to breathe whether you perceive it to be there in the air or not. Volcanos will still erupt even if you tell yourself that there is no such thing as volcanos. Gravity will still send you hurtling to your death even if you perceive yourself to have wings and be able to fly.
By socially constructed, we mean that it is shaped and constructed by our language. The way we talk about those things change the way we perceive them and react to them. Religion is socially constructed by humans. Mental illness is socially constructed by humans. Good and Evil is socially constructed by humans. Politics and ideologies are socially constructed by humans. They are perceived and constructed by humans differently all over the world. They do not exist without humans constructing them and perceiving them.
Why is this important to the debates around gender identity?
Gender identity is a social construct whereas biological sex is a concept that exists whether we perceive it to be real or not.
This is a contentious point for many, especially those who argue that biological sex is a social construct too – and that it only exists because we socially constructed the concepts of male and female.
However, this is incorrect. Femininity and masculinity are social constructs but the biological, molecular, DNA structure of males and females exists whether we perceive it and believe it or not.
When it comes to gender roles, gender identity and gender stereotypes – they are certainly socially constructed by humans. This is why they have changed over the millennia. Each generation brings with it new perspectives and approaches to what makes a ‘real woman’ or what makes a ‘real man’. This includes their appearance, behaviours, roles in society, fashions, likes and dislikes, occupations, rights and responsibilities. No one is born with these socially constructed stereotypes innately built into their brain or body.
Everyone is born a human baby. Some things are biologically driven, such as sexual development, puberty, bone structure, DNA, hormones and such. But a lot of other factors are socially constructed. Whether that child grows up to love trucks and action movies and football depends on how we socialised them and how we influenced them as parents, teachers, carers, friends, corporations and wider society.
So critical realism offers us the middle ground in this debate. Some things are real and exist outside of our perceptions (biological sex, hormones, DNA, blood, bone structure, puberty processes, growth and development) but some things exist only because we actively construct them with language, thoughts and beliefs (being ‘feminine’ or ‘masculine’, wearing dresses or trousers, playing with dolls or cars).
Currently, the debates around gender have become toxic and an unsafe space to discuss the difference between what is ‘real’ and what is our social constructs. It is too polarised for any of us to make progress or to safely support children or adults.
However, moving away from pure social constructionism and moving towards critical realism in this debate would mean that we could safely and ethically agree that some things are ‘real’ and some things are constructed by humans.
This is vital, in my opinion. Especially as there are examples of issues that require us to remember that biological sex is not a social construct:
- Male humans (no matter how they identify) cannot safely receive a blood transfusion from a female human who has been pregnant. This is because of the way the blood changes during and after pregnancy which introduces antibodies into the blood that males cannot use in their own bodies. Studies have shown that males who receive blood donations from females who have been pregnant are more likely to die or have serious complications.
- Male humans (no matter how they identify) are the only humans who can develop or die from prostate cancer. This is not a matter of social constructs, this is a biological fact. Female humans are not born with a prostate (except in some extremely rare cases of intersex people who, to be clear, have repeatedly asked us to stop bringing them into the gender debate). Females are born with skene glands that can rarely become cancerous but this is not the same as prostate cancer which is the second most common cancer in males. The reason this is important is because no matter how a male identifies, he will still need the right medical care to check his prostate as he ages.
- Female humans (no matter how they identify) are the only humans who can develop and die from cervical, ovarian, uterine, vulval and vaginal cancers. For the same reasons as above, no matter how someone identifies or feels about themselves, their biological sex dictates their risk – not their gender identity.
- Medicines behave and affect males and females differently because of their biologies. Research shows that females react differently to SSRIs, anti-psychotics, sleeping tablets and several other drugs that are fat soluble. Females also have much higher levels of oestrogen in their bodies than males which changes the way other drugs interact and behave in the body. For example, cancer drugs are shown to clear 17% slower in a female body than a male body because of the way female liver breaks down the drug. Warfarin for blood thinning is prescribed much lower for females than males, too. Further, beta-blockers behave differently in the male body to the female body. This is vital to the correct treatment in medicine of males and females no matter how they identify. These biological effects on medicine are not social constructs, they exist whether we perceive them to be correct or not. If a person comes into A&E or hospital with a serious condition, it is vital that their treatment is based on their biological sex and not on their gender identity in case doctors make deadly errors with dosage or drug choice.
- Female humans (no matter how they identify) are the only humans to have ever gestated and given birth to other humans. Therefore, this inescapable fact cannot be obscured by issues of gender identity. Males cannot conceive a pregnancy, they cannot experience miscarriage, they cannot experience ectopic pregnancies, they cannot become pregnant from rape, they cannot grow a baby, they cannot give birth to a baby, they cannot die in childbirth, they cannot develop gestational diabetes and they cannot have a Caesarean section. Whilst females who identify as men can have all of these experiences, this is only possible because their biological sex makes it so. Males who identify as women have never experienced any of these uniquely female events because they do not have the organs and hormones required to do so. Further, this does not mean that females who are infertile or cannot give birth or have never had children cannot be innately female – many other biological realities make them female.
Those are just a small selection of examples of what would be considered to be outside of human perception in critical realism. Whilst gender identity exists as a social construct, biological sex remains an immutable reality that has no care for our human perception of it.
It is unlikely that anyone truly believes that biological sex is a social construct. Whilst this is certainly argued by some, there are contradictions in their ideologies that mean they must believe biological sex to be real and immutable.
- If biological sex is just a social construct, why do transitioning people require hormone blockers and cross sex hormones to change their biological bodies?
- If biological sex is just a social construct, why do transitioning people seek to remove the genitals or sex characteristics they were born with?
- If biological sex is just a social construct, why don’t females donate sperm to the sperm banks?
- If biological sex is just a social construct, why can only females undergo IVF treatment?
- If biological sex is just a social construct, why are all surrogate mothers female?
- If biological sex is just a social construct, why do some doctors suggest drugs that delay sexual maturation (puberty blockers) for children?
If we truly believed that biological sex was a social construct, we would not attempt to block biological hormones or change biological sex characteristics or stop a biological sexual maturation process – because none of it would require physical, medical intervention. It would simply require us to reframe it in language and ideology.
As an example of what I mean, marriage is a social construct. For many years, the marriage of same sex couples was constructed as illegal, immoral and sickening. However, as a society, we reframed the issue and we constructed same sex marriage to be equal, loving, healthy and legal. We did not have to alter anything biological or scientific to achieve this change, because it was only a social construct. Therefore, simply changing the way we talk and think about it, changed it in reality too.
However, the same cannot be said for biological sex. We can change the way we think and talk about it, but we cannot change biological sex. This is the limits of human control. We cannot mute the reality of a biological system that has been at work longer than humans have existed. We can of course socially construct gender identities and what they mean to us all and how we talk about them. But this cannot be at the cost of understanding our biological differences.
Critical realism therefore presents the opportunity for us to remain clear about biological sex whilst also being able to discuss gender identity as a construct that humans are developing in the present generations.
One does not cancel out the other, since they are both performing different roles in society and in human life. Rather than removing sex from legislation, forms, research and government statistics – the best approach would be to encourage the use of both sex and gender identity. This way, we can usefully explore whether particular illnesses, oppressions, experiences and events are correlated better with sex or gender identity, for example.
If we conflate the two, we lose valuable human data and development. If we disregard one and keep the other, the same will happen. For example, if we conflate the two and see a large national rise in women committing suicide, how do we know whether that rise in suicide is from biological women or trans women? What if the suicide rate is much higher in trans women and we miss that vital data because we have conflated sex with gender?
So back to that all important exchange that influenced my thinking to reject pure relativism and to embrace critical realism.
I realised that pure relativism and social constructionism was leading us all down a path in which anything can mean anything depending on who is perceiving it and talking about it.
I might say the child is traumatised from being raped but the pro-paedophile group may reframe that as my perception and that the child was only traumatised because society frames sex with children as bad.
I might say that slavery was and is an abhorrent act against humans, but someone else could construct it as important for economic growth and capitalism.
I might say that mental health is a result of trauma, abuse, distress and oppression but someone else might construct mental health as a mental illness inside the brain which requires medication or even sedation.
Social constructionism and pure relativism therefore leads us down a dangerous road for human progress and development. Anything can be anything and every social construction is as equal as the next.
The person claiming that racism doesn’t really exist because it is all socially constructed can be held as an expert despite the evidence of institutional, structural racism and oppression all over the world. When we frame anything to mean anything we want it to mean (something George Orwell’s 1984 warned us of), we don’t have to act or we can deliberately obscure real issues affecting humans, the environment and the world. We can socially construct global warming as ‘liberal lies’. We can socially construct black families as criminals. We can socially construct Muslims as potential terrorists and white people as saviours.
These realisations meant that I changed the way I thought about the world, philosophy and science. I feel more comfortable with critical realism (although it is not perfect) because it accepts that some concepts are socially constructed and have a place in the world – but some things exist no matter what we think of them or how we construct them – and they also have a place in the world.