Human Biology 74.3 (2002) 497-500
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Sex, Gender and Health
Sex, Gender and Health, edited by Tessa M. Pollard and Susan Brin Hyatt. Biosocial Society Symposium Series, Vol. 11. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1999. 170 pp. Hardback $54.95; paperback $19.95.
From the beginning of Sex, Gender and Health, it is not clear whether the aim of the edited volume is to show how anthropologists explain differences in the health experiences of men and women (first sentence) or whether the aim is to show why the differences in health experience exist (second sentence). This confusion (are facts produced or uncovered?) highlights the difficulty of achieving the book's second aim: to bring social and biological anthropologists together. "Too often they fail to communicate," observe Pollard and Hyatt (p. 1). In response to this disciplinary division, and in an effort to integrate biological and social perspectives, the first part of Sex, Gender and Health brings together "biological anthropologists who incorporate an understanding of gender into their hypotheses" (p. 8). The second part is made up of "social anthropologists who focus on understanding how the interaction between gender and biological factors has affected ... health outcomes" (p. 8). The result is a text that illustrates three barriers to cross-subdisciplinary communication: theory, methodology, and, most striking of all, language.
Sex, Gender and Health is the product of the Biosocial Society's 1997 workshop, held at the University of Durham's Stockton Campus, plus additional contributors. Geared toward students of the human sciences or anthropology, "or anyone wishing to gain an interdisciplinary perspective on the subject" (cover), Sex, Gender and Health features eight contributors, five from the UK, and one each from the USA, Canada, and Australia. More diverse than the authors' origins are the author's approaches to research. For example, C.M. Hill and H.L. Ball use an ethnographic database to support their contention that parents are rational actors. In contrast, E.K. Rousham presents results from a 16-month longitudinal study of child growth in Bangladesh. T.M. Pollard uses biology and epidemiology to build a hypothesis that estrogen moderates responses to stress, while L. Manderson mines the ethnographic literature to place disease risk and treatment options in the context of gender norms. S.B. Hyatt historicizes a case study of brain surgery, whereas P.A. Kaufert conversationally analyzes written text to understand the exclusion of women from the new discourse on health. Finally, R. Littlewood uses cross-cultural examples to model the local meaning of parasuicidal drug overdoses. At first glance exciting, the diversity of perspectives is ultimately disconcerting. How many readers can be equally at ease with the language of adaptive strategies (p. 20) and Foucault (p. 102)?
In the introductory chapter 1, T.M. Pollard (a biological anthropologist) and S.B. Hyatt (a cultural anthropologist) describe differences between biological and social anthropology in the interpretation of well-documented discrepancies in male/female morbidity and mortality. They assert that "social perspectives and biological [End Page 497] science need not find themselves in irreconcilable and antithetical opposition to one another" (p. 7). As for their own position, they explain that science is itself a cultural practice, in keeping with the assumption that facts are "produced as a result of interaction between researcher with the subject of research" (Lock and Scheper-Hughes 1996:42).
In contrast, chapters 2 and 3 are built around hypothesis testing and the assumption that there are "facts about the world" to be "uncovered" (Lock and Scheper-Hughes 1996:42). In a chapter entitled "Parental Manipulation of Postnatal Survival and Well-Being," C.M. Hill and H.L. Ball examine sex-specific infanticide and child neglect to show that parental preference for male (or female) offspring is adaptive in an economic sense. They argue that undesired gender is an extrinsic cue for investment decision-making, and that the outcome of the decision is "dependent on the ecological and cultural environment at the time the decision is made" (p. 21). Culture-specific vignettes show how parents can be understood to be "rational actors" who "anticipate their...