Gender and culture in psychology
Issues and debates
Gender concerns the social and psychological characteristics of males and females. Universality means that all psychological research is assumed to apply equally to both genders. For this to be true, rigorous testing of males and females must occur when research is performed, if not bias will happen. There are three ways in which this can occur:
1 Male (or female) samples — research is conducted on one gender only but findings are generalised to the other gender.
2 Male (or female) behaviour seen as standard — if the opposite gender’s behaviour is different it is seen as a deviation from the norm.
3 Biological differences emphasis — behavioural explanations tend to over-emphasise biology and under-emphasise social and external factors. Androcentrism is a form of male bias, where male behaviour is seen as the norm against which to compare female behaviour. Alpha bias occurs when differences between genders are exaggerated, while beta bias occurs when differences between genders are downplayed. Cultural bias occurs when findings from studies on one cultural group are generalised to all cultures. This can involve ethnocentrism, the assumption that the behaviour of one cultural group is the norm and superior to other cultures. Cultural relativism sees behaviour varying cross-culturally, with no one group being superior.
Fig 8.1 It is important to consider the cultural context of behaviour before making a judgement
Sheridan & King (1972) assessed the degree to which males and females differ in levels of obedience. Milgram (1963) had found that 62.5 per cent of participants obeyed instructions to deliver electric shocks that increased up to 450 volts (the shocks weren’t real) to a man in an adjacent room. However, critics argued that this was biased, as only male participants were used. Sheridan & King used Milgram’s research procedure, but with a puppy visible in a glass tank, which received real electric shocks (the shocks were mild and did not increase in intensity, though the participants thought they did). Invisible anaesthetic gas was used to make the puppy collapse, as if injured or dead. 54 per cent of males gave the maximum shock, while 100 per cent of females did. This shows that Milgram’s findings were androcentric and that females are more obedient than males, possibly as they are socialised to be so.
• Meeus & Raaijmakers (1986) used the Milgram paradigm to find the highest recorded obedience level of 90 per cent in Spanish participants, while Kilham & Mann (1974) used it to find the lowest obedience level of 28 per cent in Australian participants. This illustrates cultural relativism, as different cultural groups obey to different levels.
• Seyle (1936) reported on the fight-or-flight response, where individuals have a reflex response to perceived threats, permitting optimal functioning in fighting back or fleeing. He saw this as occurring in both genders, but Taylor (2000) found stress produces a ’tend-and-befriend’ response in females, due to them producing more oxytocin, which promotes nurturing behaviour. Seyle’s research is therefore an example of beta bias.
• Higgs (2011) reported on pibloktoq, a culture-bound syndrome found only among Arctic Eskimo communities, where individuals become excited, strip off, swear, break things and eat faeces. After enduring seizures and a coma, they awaken with no memory of the incident. This illustrates how behaviour can vary cross-culturally.
It is difficult to look at research through completely objective eyes as all individuals have a gender and a culture that can make them biased in drawing conclusions. However, there is generally good consideration of these matters by most researchers. A recognition that bias can occur is important in ensuring the effect it can have is minimised.
There is an issue of reactivity in human research as the gender of the researcher can alter the outcomes of the research; findings may be different if the researcher was female instead of male. This is also the case depending on whether the researcher is from the ethnic majority or ethnic minority of the culture in which research is conducted. This makes biases hard to avoid, although, again, an acknowledgement of this reactivity is important to ensure interpretation of findings is as fair as possible.
Freud’s psychodynamic theory can be seen as an example of alpha bias, as he saw females as morally weaker than males due to them identifying more weakly with their mothers to overcome their Electra complex than boys do when identifying with their fathers to overcome their Oedipus complex.
A consideration of cultural relativism is important when diagnosing and advocating treatments for mental disorders. For this to be effective, full consideration of a patient’s cultural background and norms should be undertaken.