Tristan Potter

Michel Foucault – who decides the categories?

Nov 29th, 2020

This post was originally published on Apr 6th, 2018 as part of a larger work titled “Gender: Flip the script”

“And we’re such language-based creatures that to some extent we cannot know what we cannot name. And so we assume it isn’t real.”

~ John Green, Turtles All the Way Down

There’s been many examples over the decades of people resisting the changing nature of words, or the introduction of new ones. Recently, this is particularly focussed on gender and sexuality. Why do we continue to support the idea of a gender binary in Western society?

To help us answer this, we turn to Michel Foucault; a French philosopher best known for his insights into the relationship between power, characterization, and categorization. Foucault is a contemporary authority on language and how power manifests itself in our interactions. His work has relevance to gender and sexuality as examples of a classification system – one that influences how we act and how we expect others to act in Western society.

Categorization as communication

Starting with the connection between categorization and language: in order to communicate ideas, we need to be able to classify and categorize the things we want to communicate (i.e ideas, objects, and people). This is because the words we use to communicate (adjectives, verbs, nouns, etc) are all categories and classifications.

For example:

Without categorization, no mechanism of classification or description would be present, which would prevent us from being able to describe anything, and without the ability to describe things, we loose the ability to communicate, even possibly to think.1

Knowledge production and power

With the notion that categorization is a necessary part of communication, we can dig a bit deeper into how a society decides on the definitions. The acts of structuring, organizing, and categorizing experiences are forms of knowledge production; which makes them acts of power.

Knowledge production is an act of power in many ways, but some obvious ways that knowledge is connected to power include:

We can see the impact of this in a couple ways, one being the classification of “personhood.” Since we give the subjects classified as persons specific rights/privledges, inclusivity in this category impacts people’s lives directly. Since the impact of inclusion/exclusion in any category or characterization has complex ramifications, even seemingly-inconsiquential categories are important.

Another example of this impact is knowledge produced in the medical field. Since the field is mostly comprised of people with sexually male physiology, the biology of people with other physiologies has not been extensively studied, and issues affecting other people (including the side effects of medication) are often downplayed.

“Medicine defines the female and male bodies as distinct but not equal; analyses of medical texts throughout history reveals the male body to be constructed as superior and the template against which bodies are judged. Any aspect of the female body that differs from the male or that cannot be given a male comparative (exemplified by the uterus) is viewed as evidence of deviation or “fault”.”

The Western context

Moving back to categorization, remember:

The formation of the two gender categories in the Western idea of gender and their continual effects on social relations are an illustration of the relationship between gender categorization and the power structures present in Western society.

Historically, Western society recognizes two genders, which are rationalized using naturalistic arguments2. These arguments rely on the idea that a trait is inherent to all people regardless of their culture or society (i.e. the trait is inherent to human biology).

The factors and power dynamics that lead Western society to settle on only two genders, and the ways naturalistic arguments were constructed to support this idea, are easy to find in our historical literature.

The specific theory that’s used to justify a gender dichotomy in Western society is usually reffered to as bio-determanism. It uses appeals to nature (the equivalence of naturalality with good-ness)3 and sexual dimorphism (the condition where the two sexes of a species exhibit different characteristics) to justify the Western gender binary. However, we have records of other societies that use more than two categories4, providing a counter-example to any naturalistic arguments.5

The way gender categories are formed in different societies is complicated and unfortunately not well understood, but we can conclude that gender isn’t solely biological. Despite growing research on and support for intersex, trans, and gender queer people who do not fit into these categories, Western society continues to frame its populations in terms of two genders.

Why do we continue to categorize people using a gender binary?

The story of Western gender constructs is largely informed by the power dynamics of society. The individuals in positions of authority influence the categorizations we use, whether they be church officials like St Thomas Aquinas, educators and philosophers like Aristotle, or even the people around us who may relay our actions to an authority figure or someone whom we respect.

However, it’s not just influential leaders and thinkers who enforce gender; we all enforce, attribute, and assume each other’s gender. While these effects may not be equivalent to those with structural power, we are all implicated in perpetuating and normalizing Western ideas of gender.

Thank you to Sam Yoon, Eli Lee, and Brigitte Dreger for providing early feedback.

More reading

Foucault, Michel. The Order of Things: An Archaeology of the Human Sciences. 1st American ed.-, Pantheon Books, 1970.

Foucault, Michel, and Robert Hurley. The History of Sexuality. London: Allen Lane, 1979. Print.

  1. Foucault uses a thought experiment of a language with too many or too little categories to make the point that such a language would be useless, hypothesizing that such a language “does not distribute the multiplicity of existing things into any of the categories that make it possible for us to name, speak, and think.” (Foucault, The order of things: an archaeology of the human sciences, XIX) 

  2. Naturalism in this case is referring to metaphysical naturalism, which is the argument that a trait “related to consciousness and the mind are reducible to, or supervene upon, nature.” 

  3. As an aside, appeals to nature are generally considered to be a fallacy. 

  4. Some examples include: hijras in South Asia, two-spirit people in Native American cultures, the femminielli of Naples, and kathoey in Thailand

  5. Since there exists at least one society that does not have only two genders, we know that this isn’t a trait that is solely biological.