This post is a longer-form discussion following this Twitter thread. The thread began with Steve Vaisey expressing interest in how gender scholars would respond to this article, which apparently shows that women in more-gender-egalitarian societies have personality profiles more different from men than do women in less-gender-egalitarian societies. It then presents evolutionary psychology as one way that people might interpret that finding, implying that gender-based personality differences might be “natural,” not socially constructed, since they are more different when society “gets in the way” less, i.e., when society is freer.
I have still not read the article, but only the abstract, so my comments are about the discussion that followed, not about the quality or interpretation within the study.
First, let me recap the Twitter thread about more-free societies. The study’s assumption is that more-free means less-society, i.e., traits observed more in more-free societies are more likely to be “natural,” in the sense of pre-social, traits.
Any reasonable theory of social construction must include the fact that preferences and desires are the result of iterative processes of social construction. You can get this from any garden-variety psychoanalytically-informed theory, from Freud to Chodorow to Foucault. Add to this the fact that active repression can produce seasoned resistance (e.g., here ), and it is no longer reasonable to talk about societies as being unidimensionally more- or less-free. Thus, there are plausible genealogical accounts in which “more-free” societies would predict less variation and plausible genealogical accounts in which “more-free” societies would predict more variation.
I don’t see a way around this as a faithful statement of the theory. But it produces an epistemological mess. Steve is “astonished“; Nicholas Christakis worries:
How would you assess the truth of claims, Andrew, assuming we hope to grasp the truth about the world?
— Nicholas A. Christakis (@NAChristakis) December 19, 2017
I sympathize, and I do hope to grasp the truth about the world. I like falsifiability, and I think it’s a crucial tool for disciplined inquiry. But at least at this scope, the theory as I’ve outlined it is unfalsifiable, since the same cause predicts opposite effects. I actually think one could imagine more traction by moving to a lower analytic level, for example by trying to characterize the types and histories of (non-)freedom rather than trying to characterize entire societies as more or less free.
But assuming we can’t do that, we’re left with this conundrum. Posit, for the sake of argument, that the claim I’ve outlined above is ontologically true. That’s at least plausible. And posit that it’s also impossible to discern the truth of that claim because of the epistemological problems already discussed. Logically, both of these can be true. That’s frustrating; it dashes our hopes to grasp the truth about the world (for this particular question); but it isn’t evidence that the claim isn’t true.
I think Steve is asking to update the likelihood of the claim being true based on the new information in the article (right, Steve?). Essentially, that means bracketing the complexity of the claim and figuring that there’s some validity to the study’s interpretation, even if that interpretation isn’t dispositive. Well okay, I’m willing to go with that, but only if we recognize that then the evidence in the article is similar to qualitative, historical, genealogical, and similar evidence: clues as to the operation of a causal process that is inherently unknowable.
But in the bigger picture, the fact that we don’t have the tools to assess a claim does not make that claim less likely to be true.