Sex Roles [sers] PP1011-sers-474421 October 27, 2003 21:19 Style ﬁle version June 3rd, 2002
Sex Roles, Vol. 49, Nos. 11/12, December 2003 (
Lay Understandings of Sex/Gender and Genetics:
A Methodology That Preserves Polyvocal Coder Input
Celeste M. Condit,
Deirdre M. Condit,
and Roxanne L. Parrott
Lay understandings of the role of heredity and genetics in the production of human sex may
be important in perceptions of the relative similarity and difference of men and women and
therefore of the appropriateness of behaviors or social policies. We employed 17 focus groups
segregated by gender and ethnicity (43 European American and 39 African American) to
assess lay understandings of genetics and biological sex. To ensure the inclusion of multiple
perspectives in results, we developed and applied a methodology we call “polyvocal coding.”
Results show uneven incorporation of basic genetics, with substantial diversity of alternative
understandings, especially with regard to sexual orientation. Different individuals, including
both coders and participants, may interpret the same information about sex chromosomal
inheritance as a fundamental quality of individual identity that constitutes essential and sig-
niﬁcant difference or as a component with limited impact on each person.
KEY WORDS: genetics; sex; qualitative methods; content analysis; polysemy.
Scientiﬁc accounts explain the production of bi-
ological sex through genetic processes. In some ways,
these genetic accounts support feminist arguments
for the equal treatment of all sexes by emphasizing
the complexity of genetic inheritance and the roughly
equivalent role of males and females in reproduction.
Previous research has not shown, however, to what
extent lay individuals’ account of sex and gender are
parallel to or incorporate genetic accounts of the pro-
duction of biological sex. Such understandings may be
important for lay perceptions of appropriate behav-
iors and social policies, as well as in medical contexts
such as genetic counseling. In the present study, we
explored the ways in which lay persons talk about
University of Georgia, Athens, Georgia.
Virginia Commonwealth University, Virginia.
Florida Atlantic University, Florida.
University of Alabama, Huntsville, Alabama.
Pennsylvania State University, Pennsylvania.
To whom correspondence should be addressed at Department
of Speech Communication, Terrell Hall, University of Georgia,
Athens, Georgia 30602; e-mail: email@example.com.
the transmission of genes through male and female
parents and their concepts of the biological bases of
sex. Because these concepts are socially loaded, and
because the feminist critique of science should be ap-
plied self-reﬂexively to our own empirical account-
ings, we here develop and employ an approach to an-
alyzing the talk of lay persons that attempts to respect
the possibility for diverse interpretations by using a
multiple coder method, which preserves the polyvo-
cality of lay discourse, rather than seeking to reduce
it to a common set of interpretations.
SEX, GENETICS, AND FEMINISM
Many feminist critiques of science focus on what
can broadly be labeled as a critique of scientiﬁc ob-
jectivity. Evelyn Fox Keller (1985) wrote:
The most immediate issue for a feminist perspective
on the natural sciences is the deeply rooted popu-
lar mythology that casts objectivity, reason, and the
mind as male, and subjectivity, feeling, and nature as
female. In this division of emotional and intellectual
2003 Plenum Publishing Corporation