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Publication Detail
Gender on the brain: a case study of science communication in the new media environment.
Abstract
Neuroscience research on sex difference is currently a controversial field, frequently accused of purveying a 'neurosexism' that functions to naturalise gender inequalities. However, there has been little empirical investigation of how information about neurobiological sex difference is interpreted within wider society. This paper presents a case study that tracks the journey of one high-profile study of neurobiological sex differences from its scientific publication through various layers of the public domain. A content analysis was performed to ascertain how the study was represented in five domains of communication: the original scientific article, a press release, the traditional news media, online reader comments and blog entries. Analysis suggested that scientific research on sex difference offers an opportunity to rehearse abiding cultural understandings of gender. In both scientific and popular contexts, traditional gender stereotypes were projected onto the novel scientific information, which was harnessed to demonstrate the factual truth and normative legitimacy of these beliefs. Though strains of misogyny were evident within the readers' comments, most discussion of the study took pains to portray the sexes' unique abilities as equal and 'complementary'. However, this content often resembled a form of benevolent sexism, in which praise of women's social-emotional skills compensated for their relegation from more esteemed trait-domains, such as rationality and productivity. The paper suggests that embedding these stereotype patterns in neuroscience may intensify their rhetorical potency by lending them the epistemic authority of science. It argues that the neuroscience of sex difference does not merely reflect, but can actively shape the gender norms of contemporary society.
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