Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Critical Assessment of Theories on Gender Development*

1. Understanding Sex and Gender
Many People confuse and mistake the term gender with sex. Some think that these two are interchangeable words. However, they are distinct. Sex refers to the biological and physiological characteristics that make us male or female. Sex differences can be defined as differences on genetic or anatomical composition and function. According to Stewart et. al. (2003:3) although biological sex is important, recent researches have shown that men and women have relatively few attributes of behavior or communication which are innate and are determined by our biological sex.’ The sex is almost common in any animals in the world- male and female.
Gender is however socio cultural construction that makes us man or woman. In fact, the socio-cultural definition of man-like and woman-like behavior form our gender. Unlike sex, gender is specific and unique to human beings. It refers to the social construction of masculinity and femininity. Stewart et. al. (2003:4) have defined gender as ‘what culture makes out of raw material of biological sex.’
According to Gherardi (1995:185):
Gender- as a socio-cultural product – is constructed at both the symbolic and interactional level. It gives rise to social structures which reflexives institutionalize the gender.
Krolokke and Sorenson (2006) have however given prime importance to the communication behaviors on determining gender:
Dominance and difference scholars also tend to see gender as a social construct in a dialectic exchange between identity and society. Within this approach, sex is distinguished from gender as a biological and usually unquestioned entity (p. 157).
Communication behaviors that are socially constructed as appropriate for women and men are labeled feminine and masculine. Although, this difference can be felt in almost every culture, the perceived role differs from one culture to another. In almost all countries women are perceived inferior to men and this has invited the discrimination which ultimately is affecting the prosperity of the half of the population in the world. Modern study of gender is an effort to minimize the discrimination and ensure equality to the people of both the sexes.
2. Theories on Gender Development:
Gender has always become an intellectual debate and a powerful movement for gender equality is getting momentum since the last century. As women are suppressed in the patriarchal society, a powerful feminist movement is going side by side. Scholars have explored the nature of gender and how it develops in human being. Thus, three major theoretical explanations have been posited- biological, psychological and social (Stewart et al., 2003). While, Lips (1993: 39) mentions that six types of theories have emerged in psychology to explain the differences and similarities between human males and females i.e. psychoanalytic/ identification, social structural, sociobiology, social learning, cognitive developmental and social interaction process theories. Unlike, Stewart et. al., Lips has totally ignored the biological theories and focused on psychological, social and cultural theories.
In the following pages, I try to briefly introduce these theories and comment on them. These theories, since many years, are either boosting or weakening the feminist movement. So, important theories are seen in that light as well. Though, scholars are divided on the number and types of theories of gender construction, I have based my observation on the distinction made by Stewart et. al. (2003). At the end of the write – up, I have slightly looked at the Hindu Mythology from gender perspectives where, in some cases, women are treated as superior to men. Before we discuss the theories, let’s see how Stewart et. al. have approached these theories:
<!--[if !supportLists]-->1. <!--[endif]-->Biological theories:
<!--[if !supportLists]-->1.1 <!--[endif]-->Traditional perspective
<!--[if !supportLists]-->1.2 <!--[endif]-->Newer Perspective
<!--[if !supportLists]-->2. <!--[endif]-->Psychological Theories:
<!--[if !supportLists]-->2.1 <!--[endif]-->Psychoanalytic / identification theories
<!--[if !supportLists]-->3. <!--[endif]-->Social Interaction Theories:
<!--[if !supportLists]-->a. <!--[endif]-->Social Learning Theory
<!--[if !supportLists]-->b. <!--[endif]-->Cognitive Developmental Theory
<!--[if !supportLists]-->4. <!--[endif]-->Social Role Theories
<!--[if !supportLists]-->5. <!--[endif]-->Moral Voices Theories
<!--[if !supportLists]-->6. <!--[endif]-->Aspect Theories
3. Biological Theories
Biological Theories emphasize that the perceived gender role is determined by Biology and that sex determines the behaviors throughout the life of human beings. These theories are based on biological differences between human male and female. There are two perspectives which advocate that sex determines the gender:
1.1 Traditional Perspective:
This perspective lays that gender role is ultimately determined by the sex or sex is the powerful and ultimate determinant of gender. The theorists tried to prove that men and women are different by birth and they are assigned roles in the society as suited to their anatomy. Thus it saw gender as unchangeable. Pleek (as quoted in Stewart et. al., 2003:15) says, ‘According to this traditional perspective, psychological differences between the men and women as well as individuals’ psychological need to develop and maintain a normal identity simultaneously accounted for and justified traditional divisions of work and family responsibilities by gender.’
These assumptions of the traditional perspective didn’t encourage the feminist movement. It rather blocked a way towards women’s emancipation from traditional patriarchal society. ‘Obviously, relying on this traditional perspective of gender leads to gender stereotyping that encourages people to view others as members of rigid categories rather than individuals with unique human qualities.’ (Stewart et; al., 2003:15-16). Hence, as an improvement to this perspective, new perspective came in to being.
1.2 Newer Perspective:
This perspective also assumes that sex determines the gender. However, unlike traditional perspective, it also accepts the influence of socio-cultural things in shaping gender. This perspective deemphasized the idea that behavior is biologically determined. The proponents of this perspective tried to prove that biological differences occur between man and woman. They also found that certain biological differences like the rate of growth, wrist and fine finger movements are proven. However, they are criticized for failing to prove the impact of the anatomical difference on gender role and performances.
Unlike the traditional, this perspective prompted feminist movements for gender equality. The important contribution of this theory is that by accepting the role of socio-cultural aspects on gender construction, it established the notion that perceived gender roles can be changed.
4. Psychological Theories
Unlike biological, psychological theories try to approach gender as the social and cultural construction. It believes that not the biological but the differential treatment between men and women by the family and society creates gender. From the time they are born, males and females are treated differently in both obvious and subtle ways and are expected to behave differently (Spence & Buckner, 1995:105). The most important of psychological theories are Freudian Identification, Social interaction, social learning and cognitive developmental theories.
a. Freudian Psychoanalytic/Identification Theories
Freud could be emphasizing or reinforcing traditional perspective of biological theories on gender construction when he said that gender is defined by sex and it is unchangeable. However, he says it is not the anatomy but the psychological effect of the biological construction in human beings that creates gender. He also said women are biologically inferior to men. What he termed as ‘penis envy’, the girls feel inferior because of the feeling that they don’t have penis and ‘develops a sense of inferiority and contempt for her own sex’ (Lips, 1993:42). As the girl knows that she will no more possess the penis, she begins looking beautiful an adorable so that men will begin loving her. Freud’s this assumption makes women inferior to men and also emphasizes on stereotype role of women - trying to look beautiful and pleasing to men.
Freud is widely known and revered as the father of psychoanalytic theories. . However, he is strongly criticized for assuming that women are inferior to men- they are seen as an inadequate male. Freeze and colleagues (as quoted in Stewart et. al., 2003:17) saw Freud’s theories as ‘an instructive example of masculine bias. Many of the scholars believe that Freud’s identification theory was a setback for feminist movement. However, Lips (1993: 44) says:
‘his theory opened new possibilities for debate in the whole area of sexuality. … One current of controversy has challenged the phallocentrism of Freudian Theory, arguing for more gynocentric approach.’
Actually, propounded by Freud’s colleague Karen Horney, the gynocentric approach seems more powerful than the former.
b. Gynocentric approaches in Identification Theory
Furied with the over-emphasis Freud gave to penis, some scholars have tried to approach this theory from the other and a reverse perspective. Freud’s colleague Karen Horney has given central role to the motherhood or reproduction capacity of the women. She said women are biologically superior to men:
From the biological point of view, woman has in motherhood, a quite indisputable and by no means negligible superiority. This is most clearly reflected in the unconscious of the male psyche in the boy’s envy of motherhood. … One receives a most surprising impression of the intensity of this envy of pregnancy, childbirth and motherhood, as well as of the breasts and the act of suckling. (Horney as quoted in Lips, 1993:45)
She has described the traditional male dominance over women as the product of men’s continuous orientation on male child not to let women be superior. Horney suggested that ‘the strength of men’s desire to achieve and create is overcompensation for their unconscious sense of inferiority in the creative process of reproduction’ (Lips, 1993:45).
While Freud’s identification theory was a setback to feminist movement, Horney and others’ approach a booster. It put women in the centre and portrayed men as inferior, questioning the traditional man dominance and superiority.
5. Social Interaction Theories
Social interaction Theories are one of the most influential and contemporary theories in gender development. Unlike Freudian identification, these theories lay that gender is shaped through our interaction with others in the society. Shaping gender begins from the birth of the child and is cultivated throughout the life.
Nowadays, there have been cases of less female births in parts of India and other countries. This can be seen as serious gender discrimination which begins even before the child is born. Hence, interaction of a child with the mother, family, friends, community and society shapes our gender perception. Scholars emphasize that socialization – ‘a process in which child acquires the values and behaviors seen as appropriate for their gender’ (Stewart et. al., 2003:18) affects the perception and shapes up the gender. The major theories approaching gender from this perspective are social learning and cognitive developmental theories. According to Stewart et al. (2003:18), proponents of these theory believe that same sex modeling observed through communication with others is crucial to the process of gender development.’
a. Social Learning Theory:
This theory claims that same sex models, what others of the same sex do and how they act, have the ultimate role on determining gender. Social learning theorists say a male child learns his role from the father and girl child learns her role from the mother. The child begins learning ‘girl-like’ or ‘boy-like’ behaviors from even before the preschool years. This process expands to seniors at the family, school, friends and society. These institutions enforce and reinforce the gender perceptions. According to Stewart et. al. (2003:18):
information provided by same sex models both at home and the media along with enforcement for gender appropriate behaviors from significant others serve as the foundation for acquiring ‘gender’. As they learn from parents, teachers, friends and others, they learn and follow the behaviors appropriate to their gender. Also they give up the gender appropriate behaviors. The elders reward them for appropriate behaviors and punish for inappropriates.
This theory is still very much influential in gender development studies. Researches are carried on the differential behavior to the child by their elders, which determine the gender perception.
b. Cognitive Developmental Theory:
Cognitive Developmental Theory claims that a child learns gender in stages until five or six years of age which is cultivated until the age of 20. Jean Plaget’s theory expanded by Lawrence Kohlberg states that children can accurately label ‘I am a boy’ or ‘I am a girl’ at the age of 3. However, it is not a stable stage. They are yet unaware that their biological sex doesn’t change. It is only at the age of 6 the child learns that s/he is a girl or boy and will remain same. This stage is very important and thought to be crucial because the children become interested in same sex model. So, rather than teaching by others, gender is a learning process initiated by the child her/himself after knowing their stable sex.
Slabey and Frey’s conclusion (as quoted in Lips, 1993) also supports this view. According to them (p. 59), the process of gender identity formation has three stages: (1) an awareness that two sexes exist (attained around age 3) followed by (2) an understanding that gender does not change over time (stability) followed in turn by (3) an awareness that gender remains unchanged across situations and behaviors (consistency).
Unlike social learning theory which states that gender learning is a continuous process, cognitive developmental theory claims that gender consistency is attained at a specific point during development. According to Stewart et. Al. (2003:21) when the gender consistency occurs:
the child’s role shifts from one of the passive receiver of gender reinforcement to one of active seeker or reinforcement. … In general, the cognitive developmental perspective suggests that children first make a cognitive judgment – ‘I am a girl’ or ‘I am a boy’- after which they begin to value and enact behaviors that are considered masculine or feminine.
This theory is criticized because it gives a passive role to the society which is one of the most powerful institutions on gender construction. Besides, exactly the age of 3 and six on which child learns the sex and stabilizes it also may vary. Spence and Buckner (1995:105) point to the gender learning even earlier age but refuse to specify: ‘children learn to identify their own biological sex and the sex of others at very early age and gender quickly becomes a central feature of children’s emerging concept of self.’
However, this theory is worth considering as it emphasizes on gender learning at different stages. According to the theorist, the age 3-20 is important and the years 6-8 and 16-18 are crucial for change in stereotypic beliefs. Given specific attention during this period, the child’s gender perception can be influenced and improved.
6. Social Role Theories
In contrast to social learning and cognitive developmental theories which emphasize that gender identity is a continuous learning process, social Role theories believe that children don’t learn individual behaviors, instead a set or pattern of those. Social role are a set of behavior patterns that define the expected behavior for individuals in a given position or status (Stewart et. al., 2003:23). In terms of development of gender identity, learning of gender roles and role related behaviors come first and then only children learn and exhibit feminine or masculine behaviors as suited to their sex.
Talcott Parsons and George Herbert Mead are the proponents of these theories. However, they represent two distinguishable strands of thought. Parsons deals with the learning of gender roles in early life. He says males and females first develop their social roles through interaction in the family. He explains the development of social roles in early childhood as an identification with or rejection of the mother – for girls, gender development is a process of identifying with mother and while for boys, rejection of mother’s female role (quoted in Stewart et. al., 2003:23).
Parsons propounded this theory at the time when mothers were thought to be the primary agent of socialization. However, recent theories have also identified father’s role in socializing gender role in male child.
Mead is, however, different in this approach. The scholar has termed this process of gender development as ‘symbolic interaction.’ By symbolic interaction, he suggested that individuals develop their view of self from the perception of significant others. Expectations of male like or female like behaviors are communicated by others and children learn their gender role while meeting these expectations and act in accordance with them.
Social Role Theories have been criticized for treating all males and females’s socialization in ‘a laundry list of behavioral characteristics. The critics like Kimmel have contended that this assumption makes the roles of men and women seem static (Stewart et. al. 2003:24). Kimmel and Messner have given more importance to the socio-cultural settings and emphasized that gender learning rather differs from one culture to another- respective of race, class, ethnicity, age and other relevant factors.
7. Moral Voices Theory
Carol Gilligan propounded this theory in her 1982 landmark book ‘In a Different Voice’. She says the social environment in the early childhood is experienced differently by male and female which leads to basic differences in personality development. She argues ‘given that for both sexes the primary caretaker in the first three years of life is typically female, the interpersonal dynamics of gender identity formation are different for boys and girls’ (quoted in Stewart et. al., 2003: 24-25). She based her argument in Chodorow’s observation that females’ identity formation takes place in the context of an ongoing relationship with their mothers while males must separate psychologically from their mother in order to define themselves as masculine (p. 25).
Stewart et. al. (2003:24) regard Gilligan for expanding of human development with a consideration of women that was missing from many previous theories. However, she has been criticized for portraying women as more emotional and men as rational. Stewart et. al. (2003:24) regard it as polarized approach to gender: males follow an ethic of justice and females follow an ethic of care. This theory can also be criticized for rejecting father’s role in upbringing the child and the impact of his behaviors in them.
8. Aspect Theory:
As a criticism to somehow rigid categories offered by Gilligan in Moral Voices Theory, Ferguson proposed Aspect Theory. This theory views conscious selfhood as an ongoing process in which individual priorities and social constraints limit and define person’s identity (Stewart et. al. 2003:27). According to Ferguson, human self which is ultimately reflected in gender roles has various aspects that are developed by participating in social practices, including communication that call for certain skills or values (Quoted in Stewart et. al., 2003:27). She has also pointed that if the perceived traditional gender roles are interchanged, their behaviors can also be changed.
Thus her theory has boosted that gender roles are interchangeable and that men and women are likely to equally perform the given duty. Gould praises Ferguson for avoiding polarization by recognizing that males and females may exhibit responsibility oriented (caring) or right oriented feelings and behaviors depending on the situation.
9. Conclusion:
These theories are approaches to define and understand gender. However, Lips (1993:70) agrees that none of them has emerged as adequate to explain all aspects of gender. But, they make understanding gender easier and earlier theories are criticized and new ones appear. And the discussions still continue. Scholars are trying to locate common and differential gender roles society transfers on the male or female child.
Among the theories we discussed, traditional perspective of biological theories lays that sex determines gender. It has been criticized for somehow baseless and rigid stance on gender development, which suppressed voices for equal opportunity and equitable treatment to both the human sexes. Newer perspective, while emphasizing the role of physical sex in gender, accepted cultural aspects paving ways for further debates on gender equality, boosting the feminist movement.
Among the psychological theories Freud’s psychoanalytic/identification theory has widely been criticized for assuming that women are inferior to men. He says when girl child knows that she is no more going to possess penis and her sex is unchangeable she becomes submissive to men. His colleague Horney criticized his phallocentric approach and redefined the theory by giving superiority to women that men are jealous of women’s reproduction capacity – a gynocentric approach. As giving central role to sex in male female relationships, Freudian theory is still important approach in gender studies.
Social interaction theories give importance to socialization on gender learning of a child. Social learning and cognitive developmental theories are two attempts trying to approach gender from this perspective. Social learning theory emphasizes on same sex model on gender learning of a child- they learn from their same-sex seniors. However, cognitive developmental theory lays that children learn gender in different stages of life. Theorists say 3-6 years of age is very important for a child in gender learning and by the age of six s/he has the feeling of stable gender identity and begins acting that suits the gender.
Among social theories, social role theories lay that a child rather than learning individual behaviors learns the whole or patterns of behaviors. Moral voices theory gives emphasis to the identification with or rejection of mother’s role. And the Aspect Theory says gender learning is a continuous process. It is difficult to abandon perceived traditional role but they are interchangeable.
The overall criticism of these theories could be like that almost all of them are based on the research and studies in the west particularly in Europe and North America. The scholars focused their studies on the children of that part of the world and came to a conclusion. Hitherto debate should be like if the children in Europe and Africa or Asia or Latin America learnt gender differently. Even in Hindu Mythology, the superiority of women is established – many of the highly regarded deities are goddesses and even girl child is worshipped and regarded as a form of Goddess. Still the patriarchy seems to be taking advantage of it and making women more dependent on men- portraying them too precious to leave unattended. However, careful and extensive study may yield an interesting conclusion.
Gherardi, S. (1995). Gender, Symbolism and Organizational Cultures. London, Sage Publications.
Krolokke, C. & Sorenson, A. S. (2006). Gender Communication: Theories and analysis. California, Sage Publications.
Lips, H. M. (1993). Sex and Gender: an introduction. California, Mayfield Publishing Company.
Spence, J. T. & Buckner, C. in Cody, M. J. & Kalbfeisch, P. J. (1995). Gender, power and communication in Human Relationships. New Jersey, Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.
Stewart, L. P., Cooper, P. J., Stewart, A. D. & Friedly, S. A. (2003). Communication and Gender, 4th Ed. Boston, AB Longman.

*This work was prepared as a partial fulfillment for the requirements of RMP 03 Gender and Communication, Regional Masters Program, Dhaka University.*

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