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Cross Cultural Studies of Gender Roles
Cross cultural studies are important as they help us to explain the nature / nurture debate.
The nature side of the gender argument focuses on the biological explanations of gender
roles stating that gender differences result from innate differences between males and
females. The nurture side of the argument, on the other hand, focuses on social
explanations stating gender differences result from our life experiences as we grow up.
There is also an interactionist approach which is often more realistic as it takes both of
these factors into account stating that gender differences are caused by innate
tendencies which are modified by environmental factors, e.g. The biosocial theory.
The term `culture' encompasses the knowledge, beliefs and values shared by a society
that are passed down the generations through imitation and communication. By looking at
research through a variation of different cultures we can distinguish between universal
features, which suggest an innate basis for gender therefore supporting the nurture side
of the argument, and culturally specific features, which suggest gender is learned and so
support the nurture side of the argument.
A famous piece of cross cultural research on gender was the Six Cultures Study by
Whiting and Whiting (1975) studied child rearing processes in North America, the
Philippines, India, Mexico, Kenya and Japan. Researchers integrated themselves into the
societies and conducted systematic 5 minute observations of the children's daily lives. It
was carried out on 500 similar families, in terms of their desires for their children, by 17
researchers. Parents provided gender roles for their offspring through a combination of
nurturing and supporting, direct tuition and training, and control and praise. In Kenya,
children spent 41% of their time working, compared to a mere 2% in North America, this
made gender difference negligible. In Kenya, sharp distinctions were made between boys
and girls as girls start typically feminine tasks (such as food provision and child rearing)
from a young age which then continues throughout their lives. From this experiment
Whiting and Whiting were able to conclude that location and environmental conditions are
strongly associated with expression of gender role and that socialisation in these
settings strengthens the biological differences between men and women; this is therefore
in favour of nurture influences.
Malinowski (1929) also provides support for the nurture argument through his studies on
the Triobrand Islanders. In documenting their sexual behaviour he reported that the
Triobrand women were sometimes highly aggressive. Gangs of women would capture and
rape men from other tribes, often quite brutally. They would boast about their conquests
and consider these to enhance the reputation of their tribe. This completely goes against
the majority of research into gender roles which tells us of the passive, caring female.
Buss's (1990) cross cultural study on features men and women look for in sexual /
romantic partners, on the other hand, found evidence to support the nature argument. In
all of the 37 cultures they compared, women's concerns in finding a mate were dominated
by the need for protection and to be provided for economically (e.g. Income, status,
employment) whilst men's were dominated by physical attractiveness and age. This is
very clear support for the evolutionary approach and as it was such a large sample of
cultures it is a very reliable study.
From Mead's study (1935) on sex and temperament in three primitive societies, she
claimed " We are forced to conclude that human nature is almost unbelievably malleable,
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therefore states that behaviour is determined largely by nurture and culture, rather than
nature and our biological make up. However, the reliability of her findings has been
questioned by Gwertz (1981) who also observed one of the tribes in the the 1970s finding
makes to be more aggressive than females; this contradicts Mead's findings. He argues
that mead studied these tribes when they were facing a transitionary phase in their