Abstract: Transgender Theory: Embodying Research and Practice (Society for Social Work and Research 14th Annual Conference: Social Work Research: A WORLD OF POSSIBILITIES)

12438 Transgender Theory: Embodying Research and Practice

Friday, January 15, 2010: 11:00 AM
Golden Gate (Hyatt Regency)
* noted as presenting author
Julie Nagoshi, MSW , Arizona State University, Phd Student, Phoenix, AZ
In a recent article, McPhail (2004) argues that social work research, practice, education, policy, and advocacy work have been based to a large extent on an “oppression model” of social power relationships between individuals categorized in terms of essentialist, binary categories, such as male/female and heterosexual/homosexual. These essentialist ideas about gender are taken for granted by most heteronormative individuals in society and serve to maintain the social dominance of men over women. In contrast, queer theory conceptualizations, which are grounded in feminist theories, have challenged such essentialist ideas by arguing that some if not all aspects of gender identity and behavior are largely self-determinable social constructs. McPhail notes that the oppression model has it strengths in that social constructivist definitions of gender and gendered relationships can undermine the sense of identity one has as a member of an oppressed group of people, a sense of identity that has often inspired and empowered political action and advocacy. Her suggested solution is for social workers to “compromise” by recognizing the tension between the essentialist, binary, oppression model of identity and the social constructivist queer theory models. We argue for the need for social work to consider a transgender theoretical and practice framework that both encompasses and moves beyond both essentialist and social constructivist approaches.

“Transgender theory” is an emerging theoretical orientation driven by the limitations of previous conceptualizations of the nature of gender and gender identity in understanding the lived experiences of transgender individuals and transsexuals. By rejecting the idea that one of the most fundamental social identity categorizations, gender, is essentialist in nature, while at the same time asserting that even a fluid gender identity is both embodied and constructed, the lived experiences of many transgender individuals presents a dynamic manifestation of social identity that transcends both essentialism and social constructivism. This has implications for a social work discipline that, as McPhail (2004) suggests, is caught between the social constructivist impulses of theoretically oriented academic researchers and the essentialist impulses of practitioners and political activists and advocates. Instead of a “compromise” as McPhail proposes, transgender theory would argue for a transcendant approach that would embrace and go beyond both imperatives.

The key to such an approach is the lived experiences that McPhail (2004) uses as part of her argument in support of queer theory's critique of essentialist conceptions of gender and gender identity. One's identity within a social categorization must be understood as a continually dynamic interaction between a social environment that can be understood positivistically in its efforts to essentialize social identity, a subjective consciousness that must be understood phenomenologically in its efforts to construct aspects of self identity, and the lived experiences and actions of the person that embodies these interactions. This transgender theory, in turn, provides a more solid theoretical basis for reconciling feminist theoretical scholarship and social work practice and advocacy, not only with regards to issues of gender, but also to larger issues of group identity and social oppression.