After the Facts: Psychology and the Study of Gender

Article excerpt

Abstract

Over the past 30 years, psychologists have developed diverse approaches for studying women and gender. One approach, the study of gender differences, assesses the attributes and characteristics of men and women. A second approach conceptualizes gender not in terms of individual difference, but in contextual terms. It focuses attention on social relations, interactive processes, and linguistic practices which structure relations between men and women. Some workers have drawn on qualitative and discursive approaches to explore the processes and practices that produce gender. A third approach, which I call feminist skepticism, draws upon postmodern thought and critical psychology. It views psychology and cultural life as mutually constitutive, and examines psychology as a cultural artifact. Workers have also explored how the social relations and work conditions in the field have shaped knowledge. Feminist psychology has yielded a rich body of knowledge about gender, innovative modes of inquiry, and new understandings about psychology.

Feminist psychology1 is a collection of efforts to understand gender. From its beginnings in the early 1970s, feminist psychology has continually expanded its scope of inquiry and its modes of studying gender. Over time, the lines that demarcate different approaches have become more visible. Feminist psychologists now have sufficient collective experience to step back and reflect on larger questions of what we do, how we do it, and why. When we pose these questions, we give a variety of answers. Some feminist psychologists aim to understand and improve the lives of women and girls. Others investigate gender as a meaning system and/or as a principle of social organization. Some are content to don the mantle of science and use the standard technologies of psychological research. Others have found conventional research technologies inadequate and have struck out in search of new modes of inquiry. Others have turned a skeptical eye toward the discipline itself, drawing inspiration from the critical psychology movement and postmodern thought. They ask how the pretheoretical assumptions of psychology, its history, and its social relations give shape to the field and influence the knowledge it produces. In a nutshell, their question is how the discipline disciplines its disciples.

In what follows, I describe a number of approaches to studying gender. They invoke different meanings of gender and involve different methods of inquiry. They are not the only ways to study gender, nor do they exhaust the meanings of gender. No doubt other approaches are yet to be devised. I intend my typology to serve as an intellectual tool for purposes of discussion, not to indicate absolute demarcations or a rigid classification. Any description is also an interpretation. My typology reflects one interpretation of the field; others have also been offered (e.g., Crawford & Marecek, 1989; Crawford & Unger, 1994; Wilkinson, 1997). 1 emphasize points of divergence to highlight what is at stake in adopting one approach or another. In actual practice, the distinctions that I draw are blurred. Moreover, individual researchers do not assume fixed identities associated with one or another approach but rather take them as standpoints from which particular projects are launched.

Before I begin, two disclaimers are in order. First, this is not the story of gender research, just my story. I am not a neutral and detached observer, but one with a set of intellectual commitments. I have engaged all three approaches to gender, but now find myself most comfortable with the second and third. I have come to give priority to studying human action embedded in its cultural, historical, and social contexts, not to discovering universal mental mechanisms. I have come to question if such universal mechanisms of social life exist. I have grown uncomfortable with research technologies such as mental measurement and contrived laboratory scenarios because they seem to deform that which they purport only to assess. …