WIERD Methodology: Some Problems with the Study of Sexuality

The title of this blog post refers to a 2010 paper entitled “The WEIRDest People in the World?” by J Henrich, S. Heine and A Norenzayan. WEIRD is an acronym for White, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, and Democratic. In the paper, the authors argue that most psychology studies take as their sample study group undergraduate college students who generally fit the WEIRD acronym. They argue that this sample is not very indicative of humanity as a whole and we should be very wary of using this group as indicators of general human psychological states. As they say, the WEIRDos “are particularly unusual compared with the rest of the species – frequent outliers.”

At first, I was skeptical of the acronym. I thought, why are we creating a new acronym for a problem covered by the term “eurocentrism”? But, WEIRD actually points to the demographic of study, and has some value specifying that group. However, I find that the more important issue is the methodology that makes this acronym meaningful: the lazy and ethnocentric science of human behavior.

I am quite approving of science that aims to find generalized human characteristics, also known as “human nature”. The problem is when lazy science puts the cart before the horse. As an example, let me point you to a BBC documentary about nudity I stumbled across last week.

The premise of the show is to put eight people in a house for a couple of days in varying relations with nudity and see what we can observe. During those two days, these people will be put at the disposal of scientists for the aims of show’s narrative.

I want to point out two problematic experiments explored by the show. The first is a hypothesis that we are nude in some relationship to sexual preference. That is, we are nude because we are more attracted to hairlessness. So, they put the participants of the show in a room and show them men’s chests in varying degrees of hairiness and the results are the the more hairless one is the more attractive one is.

The problem here is that there is no way to control out for culture, but more importantly THIS IS NOT EVEN CONCEIVED AS AN ISSUE. That is, the Norwegian scientist who is testing for this has white college students as subjects and the tv show participants, though not all white, are assuredly all middle-class bourgeois subjects. We know that increasingly since World War II (at least) that hairlessness has become an increasingly desirable trait in the Western world. That is all these studies show. To claim that this then speaks to human nature is Eurocentric. Scientists did this in the 18th and 19th century. They used European samples and then claimed that this was human nature. Furthermore, with human nature firmly entrenched, they found the rest of the world wanting in humanity as sub-par humans according to human nature! Ethically, these studies are terribly problematic. Scientifically, these studies are flawed. How do we control for cultural preferences? Is it human nature for people to find skinny, big-breasted tall women more attractive? Obviously not–this is a relatively recent phenomenon. And yet, the similarities are striking.

The second study i find problematic that the documentary explored involved a computer program that showed silhouette figures walking. The subject of the experiment looks at many of these “naked” silhouettes and determines if the figure is male or female. The researcher says that the body shape of the figure is reliably different. That is, people are very good at telling male or female based on silhouettes of figures walking. Again, the problem I see here is putting the cart before the horse. How much does the acculturation of the subjects impact their viewing of the visual clues? How much does it impact the scientists themselves? Is this study done cross-culturally? Extrapolating from this data into something that explains human nature does the task of creating human nature, as opposed to finding it “out there”.

And this is the problem with many many studies of sexuality. Under the sign of SCIENCE! there has been a privileging of biological explanations for understanding humanity. Frankly, I think there is nothing intrinsically wrong with finding biological explanations. I am all for them. The problem is that those looking for biological explanations often fail to account for equally (or more!) probable cultural explanations.

Even more problematic is when those putting forth biological explanations fail to see how their own cultural biases shape the very presuppositions they bring to their study. The glaring example of this is in flawed cases of evolutionary psychology.

The point I like to make to my students and peers is that in order to understand sexuality in global contexts, you have to understand your own presuppositions. I wrote about those in my post: Our Sexuality. Furthermore, in examining the sexuality of non-Western cultures, one also has to account for the change through time that has impacted those cultures through colonialism, globalization, ideological changes, anthropological seepage, metastasized tradition and so forth.

In sum, to claim human nature, you must be able to show that ALL humans in ALL time periods did such a thing. OR you must claim that anything any human did anywhere and at any time is human nature. Human nature is about universals. So, unless it is has the same commonality as defecating or breathing, any claim to human nature is an attempt to MAKE human nature. Is that really our job as scientists?

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