Gender, Germs, and Dirt
Three streams of medical research have made the headlines in the past few years. The studies seem related in fairly obvious ways to gender socialisation, but so far no discussions of such a relationship have been published. The first set of medical studies concern the role that bacteria play in preventing depression. These studies show that depressed people lack a type of bacteria found in the gut of healthy individuals. The second set of studies address the correlation between increased cleanliness and sanitation and increased rates of asthma and allergies. Studies have shown, for example, that children who grow up on farms have lower rates of allergies than do children who grow up in suburban settings. The third concerns the higher rate in women than men, of allergies, auto-immune disorders, generally, and also, depression. Societal standards of cleanliness for girls might play an important explanatory role in each of these research areas. Of course ethnicity, and class (especially in terms of urban vs. rural settings) are also likely to be intertwined. Could it be that cultural preferences for cleanliness in girls, generally, have left them, on average, less exposed to germs, than are boys, and therefore made them more likely to get allergies, or suffer from depression as adults? And if this is so, why has gender not been fore-fronted in this discussion? In this paper I discuss this research from the perspective of feminist science studies and highlight the role that gender might play.
Keywords: Biomedical Research, Bacteria, Gender, Allergies, Depression, Feminist Science Studies
Dr. Sharyn Clough
Associate Professor, Dept. of Philosophy, Oregon State University