Conventional versus non-conventional facets of reality

One of the slipperiest concepts in social theorising is that of social construction. Another potentially more productive way to look at social reality is in terms of what properties of the world are conventional rather than non-conventional. A great example comes from the physics of time. I’ll briefly introduce this and then sketch out parallels with theorising sex/gender.

The duration of a second is conventional. One definition is that a second is

‘the duration of 9192631770 periods of radiation produced by transition of an electron between two hyperfine levels of a Caesium-133 atom.’

It is conventional in the sense that it could have been otherwise and in fact the definition of a second is changing. As Bradley Dowden explains:

‘conventions are up to us to freely adopt and are not objective features of the external world that we are forced to accept if we seek the truth.’

A non-conventional feature of time is the transitivity of events in the same frame of reference. That means if an event

A precedes B, and
B precedes C, then
A precedes C.

Let’s give this distinction a go for sex/gender. Phenotypic sex category at birth has a clear definition in terms of genitals which, for most people, coincides with sex chromosomes. The category is highly reliable and is predictive of much, including sexual reproductive roles – but only for cisgendered and heterosexual people, and even then it is imperfect (due to menopause, for instance). Sex category loses its predictive power for LGBTQ+ people.

The male/female dichotomy could have been otherwise. For instance it is a fact that many adults have a gender identity that differs from the phenotypic sex category they were assigned at birth and some people are nonbinary, i.e., neither a man nor a woman. In terms of social roles, there is much greater variation than two categories (see, e.g., twinks and bears). A binary category tethered to sexual reproductive role is not the only way to carve nature at its joints.

However, there are non-conventional facts about reproductive biology that determine, for instance, whether someone is able to become pregnant. Katrina Karkazis argues that sex/gender category should be detached from the specifics of what bodily organs we have:

‘It is long overdue that we understand sex not as an essential property of individuals but as a set of biological traits and social factors that become important only in specific contexts, such as medicine, and even then complexity persists. If we are concerned with certain cancers, for example, knowing whether someone has a prostate or ovaries is what’s important, not their “sex” per se. If reproduction is the interest, what matters is whether one produces sperm or eggs, whether one has a uterus, a vaginal opening, and so on.’