LOVES THE STATUS QUO
There's a box in
Media, Gender and Identity entitled 'Psychology
loves the status quo' which briefly argues that the academic discipline of psychology,
in its treatment of gender identities, tends towards conservatism. Here, online,
is an expanded version of that argument, with more examples. It begins with an
attack on psychology textbooks...
The malign influence
of psychology textbooks
are always able to consider texts critically, it would be too much to expect students
of a subject to continually second-guess their textbooks. Because the development
of gender identity is usually seen as a 'psychology' subject, it is worth considering
briefly some of the common questionable messages sent out by the textbooks.
first complaint is levelled at a whole textbook and associated university classes:
The Psychology of Women by Margaret Matlin (fourth edition, 2000). There
is also a journal, Psychology of Women Quarterly; the American Psychological
Association has a large 'Psychology of Women' division; and there are several
other books and teaching materials which refer to 'the psychology of women'. It
seems breathtaking that people who are upset about gender inequalities in society
can think that they will be performing a useful service by reproducing discourses
about 'the psychology of women'. To encourage the idea that it makes sense to
talk about 'women's psychology' as a coherent and unique entity plays directly
into the hands of sexist ideology, and indeed one wonders if this stuff is actually
produced by a right-wing movement eager to impose 'traditional' sex role divisions.
But apparently not; Matlin's textbook supports the view that gender is socially
constructed. It also highlights the fact that women may have certain experiences,
such as pregnancy and childbirth, which men will never have; and rightly highlights
that fact that women may be the targets of sexist discrimination. These are important
topics. But I would argue that we should study all this as part of the psychology
of gender. To separate out the 'psychology of women' seems absurd, or at best,
problematic. To take a parallel case, racism unfortunately remains an important
social concern, and victims of racist abuse or discrimination are likely to be
psychologically affected. But a university course about the 'psychology of black
people' would be deeply controversial! What is at issue is how society treats
and relates to different social groups - not an innate quality of the groups themselves.
It might be argued
that pregnancy and childbirth are experiences which make women unique - indeed,
this sounds obvious. But if pregnancy is the main factor which makes the fact
of being a woman important, then are sex and gender irrelevant to women who have
not yet had children? Are they not yet 'women'? What about women who have no desire,
or are unable, to have children? And surely focusing on child-bearing as women's
distinctive function is problematic politically - it hardly seems a 'feminist'
textbook - by virtue of its title alone - is instrumental in propagating the idea
that it makes sense to talk of a unique 'psychology of women', it is ironic that
she complains about people misusing the terms 'sex' and 'gender' (2000: 5-6).
(As we know, 'sex' is the biological category of male or female, whereas 'gender'
is the culturally-informed performance of identity). She suggests that 'sexism'
should be renamed 'genderism' - which indicates an alarming lack of understanding.
Sexism is all about expectations associated with sex, specifically - men
should not behave in a particular way, women should not be allowed to do a certain
thing. Sexism doesn't take in different personality traits or the details of gender
performance. It's all about whether you've got male or female genitals. So sexism
is just the right word. (Whilst 'genderism' might seem appropriate sometimes because,
say, the assertion that a man shouldn't cry, or arrange flowers, is an argument
about his gender performance, it is actually saying that such acts are wrong for
a man - so it is all about sex, not gender).
Does it make sense
to talk about 'the psychology of women'? Since women typically do have different
experiences in society to men, surely there's nothing wrong with it?
contents of The Psychology of Women aren't so bad. At least, for example,
Matlin (2000: 12) acknowledges that earlier studies in this area, from the 1970s,
showed an alarming tendency to identify women's lower levels of status in society
as being due to women's own inability to be confident and successful (!). That
some feminist researchers should end up blaming women's personalities, rather
than social structure, does not seem wise; perhaps, to be kind, it shows the power
of psychology's own paradigms. (The discipline of psychology, we are sad to find,
is powerfully oriented towards a supposedly 'descriptive' view of people, which
is fixed and which serves to further paralyse, and which lacks a critical understanding
of cultures and social structures). Matlin is also aware - despite her book's
title - that women are actually far from being a single or unified group.
The second complaint
about psychology textbooks is that there is a tendency to allow some traditional
cultural ideas to pass unchallenged. For example, Introductory Psychology,
whilst trying to explain the biological account of gender differences (which,
to be fair, the authors do not seem to be convinced by), notes that 'In
nearly all cultures, women are the main caretakers, while men are the warriors
and protectors' (Malim & Birch, 1998: 517). But this 'observation' is of dubious
value even in relation to our own society, today. As roles change within modern
societies, it becomes far from common to find a woman whose primary role is 'caring'
and, of course, even less common to find a man who is a 'warrior'! If our own
everyday experience does not support this supposedly universal point, then it
can hardly be considered useful.
textbooks have a tendency to report the conclusions of research studies as if
they are universal fact, rather than the possibly-contentious claims made by researchers
on the basis of a localised study which used particular methods (all of which
we need to know the details of in order to assess the study's claims). For example,
in Social Psychology (Pennington, Gillen & Hill, 1999: 300) we are casually
told that 'Women are more likely to use indirect verbal aggression such as talking
behind another's back, spreading gossip and rumour (Hines & Fry, 1994)'. This
comes across as a general statement of fact, whereas really - like most studies
- it is the interpretation made by some authors of their own research data, collected
in this case amongst women in Buenos Aires, Argentina. To be fair to Hines & Fry,
it is not their fault that their own focused research is badly presented as a
universal truth in a textbook. And to be fair to the critical abilities of the
modern student, I know that many would read a statement like this and say 'Oh
really?!', preferring their own observations of everyday life (that men
and women can be equally gossipy and back-stabbing, say) to the claims made by
a particular study. But textbooks have a responsibility to convey well-founded
information in a reliable manner, so the willingness of these psychology texts
to pass on questionable 'facts' about gender remains a worry.
Why pick on
It might seem unfair
to single out psychology, when many disciplines reproduce themselves through textbooks
which inevitably have to over-simplify existing knowledge. But the problem in
the discipline of psychology lies in its façade of scientific certainty.
The desire to present psychology as a science which is using reliable methods
to gather empirical facts means that psychologists typically suppress the
fact that all of the knowledge is based on questionable methods deployed by humans
who usually have a point to make. (This is the case across the humanities, of
course, but elsewhere scholars are more willing to be explicit about their assumptions
and uncertainties). The hidden insecurity of psychologists about the 'scientific'
status of their work can be seen in their embarrassing use of ultra-scientific
discourses in a bid to 'paper over the cracks'. The idea seems to be that if psychology
is only ever spoken of as a body of scientific fact, then it will somehow become
The point here
is not that claims made by psychologists are necessarily wrong. Maybe they are
often right. But the discourses used by professional psychologists, and required
of psychology students, weaken the discipline in the 21st century, because their
persistence in making confident universal assertions about how things are in the
world, reminiscent of 1950s information films, is viewed with suspicion by many
today. The reason for this scepticism is not (simply) that cynical eyebrow-raising
is a fashionable position; rather it is the healthy and sensibly cautious view
- unless taken to extremes - that knowledge is not produced impartially by disinterested
observers, but rather is the product of certain methods selected by particular
people, and used in specific ways, to make a point.
W. (2000), The Psychology of Women - Fourth Edition, Fort Worth: Harcourt
C.; Gillen, Kate, & Hill, Pam (1999), Social Psychology, London: Arnold.
Malim, Tony, &
Birch, Ann (1998), Introductory Psychology, London: Macmillan.