HeatherN takes issue with an article from the BBC that claims pair-bonding is more important to women than to men.
According to a study conducted in the U.K., women call their spouses more often than any other person, whereas men only call their spouses more often for the first seven years of a relationship. This, along with other observations about men’s and women’s call history, has led researchers to conclude that women were the driving force behind romantic relationships. Perhaps unsurprisingly, I have a few problems with both the conclusions of the study and the article:
1. The article provides no references to the study itself. This is a problem with many “scientific” articles but that doesn’t excuse the practice. Often I’ll see articles that discuss what “a study found,” or that will quote a few sound bits from the researchers involved. What these sorts of articles never seem to have, however, is a reference to the publication of the research itself. I understand that an article might not have enough space to provide a detailed analysis of a researcher’s methodology or conclusions, but they should at least provide their readers with the means to look into the issue further. I mean, I can’t even tell whether the study referenced in this article has been published at all, and if it has whether it was in a peer reviewed journal or not. Sure, Professor Dunbar is from Oxford, but that doesn’t mean his study wasn’t problematic.
2. I’ve got one word: Heteronormativity. The article mentions that the researchers had access to the callers’ age and sex. That is not enough demographic information to draw cultural trends. How many of the men were biologically male, how many of the women were biologically female? Was there a visible difference between heterosexual versus homosexual relationships? How about between partners who were married versus partners who had been together without marriage? Did ethnicity or nationality have any measurable effect? These are all questions we don’t know because the only demographic information they had was age and biological sex. So it is unsurprising that they found explanations for behaviour in the callers’ ages and biological sex, as that’s the only demographic information they had.
3. A misuse of the term “modern humans.” At the very end of the article, Professor Dunbar is quoted as saying, “If you look at hunter-gatherers and you look at modern humans in modern post-industrial societies, we are much more matriarchal.” There are a few problems with that sentence, the first of which is implying that hunter-gatherer populations aren’t made up of modern humans. The term “modern human,” is used in the vernacular to describe Homo sapiens, and hunter-gatherer populations are made up of H. sapiens, just like post-industrial societies. The use of ‘modern humans’ in this article harkens back to a colonial view of the world, in which hunter-gatherer societies were viewed as savage and less human than industrial societies.
4. A problematic use of ethnographic comparisons. In the same quote I mentioned in #3, Dunbar makes a general comparison between hunter-gatherer populations and post-industrial populations; this is a very general use of ethnographic comparison. This is a particularly general and irresponsible use of ethnographic comparison because Dunbar isn’t just making direct comparisons between two cultures. He’s actually grouping a whole lot of disparate cultures together under the heading “hunter-gatherer” and a whole lot of other disparate cultures together under “post-industrial” and then making a direct comparison between them. Responsible archaeologists and anthropologists use ethnographic comparisons carefully and contextually. Two cultures may share their level of technology or their means of obtaining food, but that doesn’t mean they share anything else.
So now I don’t even know whether the conclusions offered in the BBC article are accurate. There are enough problems with the study itself and with the article that it throws doubt onto those conclusions. Are women actually the driving force behind relationships? I don’t have the answer, and this article doesn’t really answer it either.