Our society needs categories in able to function (or so it seems). These categories come in handy when we’re collecting data for the Census, but the rest of the time, they tend to do more harm than good. In the United States, many pharmaceutical companies and healthcare professionals use these categories to study human health.
It seems like this would make sense, right? Some groups of people are prone to some diseases more than others, so stratifying the data could help to create cures or treatment specific to this group. In theory, this is true. But the real issue is that continuing to divide people into categories, especially in medicine, reinforces the notions that categories such as race, gender, and sex are inherent, biological, natural separations. The truth is, our society and culture has created these categories to be just that – categories.
Jezebel recently posted an article about gender labels on heart disease, in which the author asks researchers to use gender (though I think she means sex) as a criteria in their health studies. The author makes a good point about how heart disease presents very differently in males and females, and in order to figure this out, researchers couldn’t possibly be blind to sex. And I agree – researchers shouldn’t be completely blind.
But this hyper-focus on identifiers like race, sex, and gender can create some problems. Take the BiDil controversy, for example. BiDil was approved by the FDA as a heart medication for African Americans. This made it the first medication approved by the FDA for any one “race” group, a controversial decision, as it implies that race is somehow biological. However, as Dr. Howard Brody and Dr. Linda Hunt write in their article about the controversy, “A recent review of genomic science by a group of social scientists offered the conclusions that we must continue to do research on race in medicine, because whatever its biological basis (or lack of same), race remains a very important social construct, and as such, it has tremendous power to influence health and illness.”
But is it actually the “biology” of categories like race, gender, and sex that influence health, or is health effected by what it means to be a member of one of these categories in this society? What I mean is that it’s impossible to parse out a category like race from other categories such as socioeconomic status, class, location, sex, etc. While I agree that health researchers should never pretend to be blind to identifiers such as race and sex, they need to be wary of the fine line between inclusion and “scientific” racism/sexism.