Research

Overview

Norms and normative standards shape our lives in ways both large and small. As human agents, we encounter norms in almost all areas of our lives; and given that we are embedded in social structures which are deeply and fundamentally unjust, we must reckon with the fact that many or most of the norms which govern our behavior are also deeply unjust. Using the tools of analytic metaethics, feminist philosophy, trans studies, sociology, and decolonial theory, I aim to explain how norms and normative standards are constructed and warped by oppressive power structures, in order to understand how those structures shape our behavior at the level of shared concepts and individual normative deliberations. Put differently, I seek to understand how norms and normative standards work, in order to deconstruct the ways in which norms make us complicit in systems of injustice by shaping what individuals feel like we (collectively and individually) ought to do.

 

Dissertation

In my dissertation, "Gender Norms and Trans Experience," I seek to explain how gender norms exert force over our normative deliberations and therefore make us compliant with and complicit in gendered systems of power. It is sometimes assumed that gender norms apply to people on the basis of their assigned gender categories; for example, feminine norms are taken to apply to people because they are assigned the category “girl” or “woman”. However, trans and GNC people often experience gender norms which do not match our assigned categories as nevertheless applying to us and exerting force over our normative deliberations. For example, a person assigned the category “woman” may nevertheless be responsive to norms of masculinity; they may feel that they ought to, e.g., wear masculine-coded clothing.

To explain this, I develop traits ascriptivism (TA) as an account of gender norms. Ascriptivism here refers to the view that gender norms are socially assigned, rather than voluntarily adopted by individuals. Traits are understood to be descriptive features of individuals or groups. Traits ascriptivism is therefore the view that gender norms are socially assigned to particular features of individuals or groups, rather than to individuals on the basis of their gender categories. Gender norms in dominant contexts are treated as if they cluster around some “natural” properties of individuals. They therefore operate on the basis of expected coherence. If some trait is coded masculine, for example, it is thereby expected to occur together with all and only other traits that are coded masculine. But traits do not naturally cluster in this way. If a person who is assigned the category “woman” is disposed to express a trait which is coded masculine, they may feel that masculine gender norms exert force over them.

I explore the ways in which gender norms can be experienced as having normative authority over individual behavior. This authority is sometimes cashed out as authenticity. For example, a trans person might say that they are living in accordance with particular normative features of gender because that way of living represents who they really are. Given feminist commitments that gender norms are socially constructed, these claims may initially seem puzzling. To make sense of them, I argue that we should understand authenticity in these contexts as a constructive, socially embedded project of building and “owning up to” an honest and intelligible self, rather than a passive “finding” or “uncovering” of pre-given features of the self. This requires attentiveness to certain facts about one’s situation and psychology—such as facts about particular traits that one has, and the social gender-coding of those traits. Living authentically may therefore involve owning one’s responsiveness to gender norms.

 

Papers

“I’m Fully Who I Am:” Authenticity, Morality, and Gender Norms (Under Review)

Some people report that certain gender norms are authentic for them. For example, a trans man might say that norms of masculinity feel like his own or that abiding by them tracks who he really is. Authenticity is sometimes taken to appeal to an essential, pre-social “inner self”. It is also sometimes understood as a moral notion. Authenticity claims about gender norms therefore appear inimical to two key feminist commitments: that gender norms are socially constructed and that they are morally bad. I argue that that this apparent tension is spurious. I show that authenticity and morality can come apart; what is authentic for someone is not always, on the whole, morally good. I give an account of authenticity as a socially embedded constructive project, rather than a reflective connection with a stable, essential inner self. This project is undertaken in a non-ideal world and must therefore make use of available non-ideal materials. I conclude that gender norms can be authentic for someone, while at the same time being socially constructed and morally bad. This conclusion can help to enable a theoretical space that is both respectful of trans experience and critical of dominant gender norms, an important liberatory goal.

 

Inside and Out: Ascriptivism About Gendered Traits (Under Review)

Ascriptivism about gender normativity is the view that gender norms inhere in normative roles, which are assigned to individuals (usually based on perceived physical sex). It is a well-established view in feminist theory, for good reason. However, ascriptivism faces two major objections. First, it does not track actual gender-normative phenomena; some trans and gender non-conforming (GNC) people experience gender norms not assigned to them as exerting force over them. Second, ascriptivism locates gendered oppression on the female-assigned body. This ignores the oppression of trans and GNC male-assigned people, who can experience gendered oppression not only in spite of, but in part because of their male-coded bodies (in conjunction with feminine-coded presentation). I argue that a modified version, traits ascriptivism, can solve these problems. On the established view, individuals are assigned a normative role, and thereby a set of gender norms (“masculine” or “feminine”). On my view, traits are gender-coded, and thereby expected to cluster with other similarly-coded traits. The crucial move here concerns the order of explanation; on my view, the traits come first. I show how traits ascriptivism can solve both problems outlined above, as well as predict further features of how gender normativity actually operates. Traits ascriptivism therefore can do justice to the feminist motivations behind ascriptivism while improving its theoretical and political power.

 

Distorted Identities: Hermeneutical Injustice and Normative Social Roles (Draft)

Normative social roles help to shape our self-conceptions, to organize our social reality, and to make us the individuals that we are. We use shared social concepts to construct our normative social roles; and when those shared social concepts are warped by power relations, those normative social roles are also warped. I draw from the work of Korsgaard (2009) to understand normative social roles as constitutive of individuals, and argue that warped normative roles can distort one's construction of a coherent, autonomous self. I understand this as a function of hermeneutical injustice. If the available concepts which describe one’s experience are normatively flawed, one is a victim of hermeneutical distortion. When those concepts are embedded in a normative role, those who occupy that role are at risk of having their selves shaped by this distortion. I suggest that these normative roles can be repurposed as tools of resistance, provided that one identifies with them critically—that is, provided that one takes the associated norms as relevant to one’s conduct, but not normatively binding.

 

 

It's Just Science: Thick Concepts and Hermeneutical Injustice (Draft)

In discourse about social concepts, it is treated as “common sense” to appeal to science; one just is a woman, or “rational”, or “athletic”, it is claimed, in virtue of some empirically discoverable facts about one’s physical or psychological makeup. This move is used to silence protests against oppressive uses of a concept. Many such appeals rest on false information. However, sometimes the empirical facts are as described, but there is normative content “smuggled in”. Assuming that many social concepts are thick—containing both normative and descriptive content—I note that the descriptive content of some concept can be correct, while the normative content may be warped. Prying apart the descriptive and normative content of thick social concepts can help us understand and evaluate how normative claims are embedded in appeals to “mere science”, so that such claims, regardless of their empirical accuracy, function to reify oppression.

 

Papers in Progress

A paper on gender identity (with Em Hernandez)

A paper on trans authenticity and intelligibility

A paper on gender norms as weapons of colonial power

A paper on social norms and "worlds of sense"