The Nature-Nurture Debate in Gender Development

Notes from my various textbooks I will keep adding

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Masculinity, femininity, androgyny

If a person displays masculine, feminine or androgynous behaviour, what determines this - nature or nurture?

Is gender innate or has it been learnt?

These two perspectives are a famous debate is psychology (I will add the relevant notes I aquire in unit 4)

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The Nature Argument

The nature side of the debate states gender is biological - this would explain the strong relationship between a person's sex and gender.

The theory is that because each sex shares the same physiology and anatomy, they have many psychological traits in common too.

In the same way that genetics and hormones determine an individual's sex, they may also determine whether a person will behave in a masculine or feminine way. Males are born masculine and females are born feminine - in other words men and women are naturally different.

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The Nature Argument

The physical differences between females and males (like sex organs) serve an important evolutionary function. This allows males and females to come together and reproduce - the desire to reproduce and pass on genes is one of the basic instincts of any animal, including humans.

On this basis, masculine and feminine behaviours may also be instinctive

For example, are women more careful and more caring because, biologically they are the sex equipped to carry and care for children?

Are men more aggressive and more competitive because, biologically, they are the sex that has to look after and provide for their partners and children?

Indeed, there is some evidence women seek out such men when 'choosing a mate,' similarly, men are interested in women who are in a good position to provide them with offspring.

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Key study - Buss (1994)

  • Investigated the heterosexual mate preferences of men and women
  • The survey was carried out in 37 countries across all continents. Respondents were asked to rate the importance of a wide range traits in a potential mate.
  • Men in all of the countries surveyed rated good looks, youth and chastity higher than women did. Meanwhile, women rated good finacial prospects, industriousness and dependablitiy higher than men did.
  • This supported the evolutionary theory that women and men instinctivley seek out different traits in potential mates. For men, good looks and youth are good indicators of a woman's health and fertility and of her ability to carry and care for a baby. Chastisy is also important to men as an unfaithful mate may carry another man's baby; there is no evolutionary benefit in a man securing the survival of another's genes.
  • For women, a man who has good financial prospects and is industrious should be able to provide well for them. Dependability is also important as it would suggest a man who will stay around during pregnacy and after birth.
  • This survey was a questionnaire which means the questions (and traits) were preset, so respondents couldn't offer other traits Buss hadn't listed.
  • As a Westerner, Buss may not have identified traits that other cultures may seek in a mate, making findings unreliable.
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Cross-cultural Research

is useful in the nature-nurture debate. If a behaviour is a product of human nature, then it should occur across the world regardless of experience and upbringing

Buss's research indicates that sex-based mate preferences are also universal and so must be determined by nature

However,how does nature explain those cases where a person doesn't adopt the gender role expected of their sex even when there are no genetic abnormalities?

If males and females are naturally different, then how do we explain the finding that both sexes are becoming more similar as gender roles are becoming more androgynous?

There is aso a body of evidence to show that males and females have different roles in different societies.

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Mead (1935)

  • Mead carried out a detailed ethnographic (scientific description of specific cultures) study by living in various tribes in New Guinea for six months
  • In the Arapesh tribe, both sexes were feminine for example caring, expressive and co-operative. Both parents were said to 'bear a child' which meant the men also took to bed whilst the baby was being born.
  • In the Mundugamor Tribe, both sexes were masculine - assertive, arrogant and fierce. Both parents detested childcare - sleeping babies were hung out the way in the dark.
  • In the Tchambuli tribe, gender roles were reversed when compared to Western society. Females were very independant and took care of trading. Males sat around in groups, gossiping and preeing themselves. It was the males who were considered sentimental and not capable of making serious decisions.
  • Gender roles depend on culture. In most societies, women are the carers and the men are the breadwinners, but this is not the case all over the world. Mead shows there were exceptions - Gender-related behaviours are not universal, suggesting they are not determined by nature.
  • Mead carried out a very detailed observation of the tribes she lived in, yet she may have become too involved. Her findings are sometimes criticised for being subjective
  • - This is a good video on Mead!
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Problems with Mead's research

  • She was accused of bias in the way that she interpreted her findings
  • She apparently exaggerated the similarities between the sexes in the Arapesh and Mundugamor tribes. 
  • She also under-stated the fact that men were more aggressive than females in all of the tribes
  • Even in the Tchambuli tribe, it was the men who did the majority of fightings in times of war, this may support the theory that some gender-specific behaviours are innate.
  • Althought the reliability of Mead's research has been questioned, there are many other cross-cultural studies that show variations in gender related behaviour
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Other studies

Best et al (1994) - Observed parent-child interactions in playgrounds across Italy, France and Germany. Found that French and Italian fathers engaged in more play than mothers. However, the oposite was true of German fathers. This displays that males and females are naturally different in parenting roles - women do not necesarily focus on caring.

Pontius (1997) - Investigated Pakistani children and found no significant difference in spatial skills. This shows that males have innatley superior spatial skills.

Roscoe (1998) -  Studied native American tribes and discovered that berdaches (neither masculine or feminine, had a unique set of traits and and represented a third gender in Native American tribes) were common-place in these cultures. This challenges the Western assumption that there are just two genders

Sugihara and Katsurada (1999) - Used Bem's inventory to measure the traits of Japanese students. They found no significant differences between the sexes. Both males and females scored high on femininity. This challenges that males are born masculine and females are born feminine.

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Evaluation of the Nature Argument

To conclude, gender roles do not appear to be common across different societies as we would expect if they were innate

The evidence above strengthens the case for gender being culturally determined and therefore associated with nurture.

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The Nurture Argument

The nurture side of the debate suggests that gender is essentially a product of socialisation (when individuals are taught and encouraged to adopt certain values and roles). 

It is dependant on environmental influences - family upbringing and society's expectations would play a key role in a person's gender. This would mean boys learn to behave in a masculine way, and girls learn to behave in a feminine way.

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Why the nurture argument?

The nurture argument can explain why some people adopt the gender role not expected of their sex. In theory, a feminine boy would have had a set of experiences which have led him to acquire a different gender role from most boys. If gender roles are nurtured, it also explains why an individual's gender may change over time as anything that is learnt can be unlearnt and replaced with new behaviours.

The nurture argument can also explain cultural variations in gender-related behaviour. What distinguishes one culture from another is the fact that they have their own set of beliefs, values and norms. There is evidence that people's behaviour is influenced by the standards and expectations of their society. Gender is a behaviour and so, is open to this kind of influence.

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Sex role stereotyping

This means treating females and males differently according to a set of expectations.

There is a theory that beliefs, values and norms are transmitted by agents of socialisation (individuals and groups in society involved in the socialising of others) such as peers, parents, the education system and the media.

These influential groups work collectively to reinforce certain behaviours, and discourage others, depending on society's expectations.

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Sex Role Stereotyping

Sex Role Stereotyping leads to a situations where individuals are expected to behave in ways associated with their sex. Males are expected to be masculine, and females are expected to be feminine.

As cultures have developed, they have identified what it is to be masculine, and what is to be feminine.

These ideas come from what males and females typically do

Eg, in Western society, females are typically the main carer and are more sensitive, whereas males are typically the main breadwinner and are more competitive

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Sex role stereotypes and the media

Sex role stereotypes are frequentley observed by the media's output

Evidence comes from content analyses of sources such as children's books. teen magazines and television advertisements

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Furham and Farragher (2000)

    • They wanted to demonstrate that sex role stereotypes are used as part of British television advertising
    • Samples of adverts were taken across the day over one month. Over 200 ads were analysed according to the sex of the central figure. A male and female researcher coded the ads for the role and location of the central figure, the type of product, the use of humour and sex of voice-over
    • They found men were most likely to be presented in autonomous role (eg, professionals/celebs) whereas women were presented in familial roles (eg, as mothers, home-makers). Women were also most likely to be presented in domestic locations, whilst men doing lesuire activities and seen in work settings. Women were more likely to be used to sell household products and body products, whereas men were more likely to sell motoring products. Male figures were more likely to be presented as humorous. Nearly 70% of voice overs were male.
    • These findings represent the many stereotypes that society has about females and males. The fact that men are less likely to be presented in a domestic role suggests they are less capable of running a home/bringing up children. Similarly, the fact so few women are used for voice-overs amy imply their lack of status/power to sell a product.
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Evaluation of Furn + Farra

  • Findings from content analysis are open to interpretation - in this study, the two coders did not always agree on catergories.
  • However, even if the findings are reliable and adverts do use sex-role stereotyping, we cannot assume pople are influenced by this
  • Viewers will not percieve adverts in the same way as academic researchers
  • Viewers may extraxt different meanings from adverts
  • If viewers are aware of stereotypes, we cannot assume they will respond to them
  • They do not necesarily just copy gender roles they see without questioning them.
  • But there is a lot of evidence that shows people often identify with and imitate what they see in the media
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Sex role Stereotypes from parents

Sex role stereotyping can also occur in a more active way through direct actions of groups, such as parents

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Fagot (1978)

  • Wanted to investigate the effect of parental behaviour upon gender role development
  • Two researchers observed 24 different families in their homes. Half had young sons and half had young daughters. Each set of parents and children were only observed on five seperate, one-hour periods
  • Parents reacted more favourably to their child when he/she was engaged in gender-approporiate behaviour, and reacted negativley to gender-inappropriate behaviour.
  • Eg, they gave girls more negative responses when they engaged in active behaviour
  • This displays parents reinforce certain behaviour through socialisation by sex-role stereotyping their daughters and sons
  • Eval - parents knew they were being observed, and so may have reacted differently. This means the findings may not have been a valid reflection of what normally happened in the homes. They may have stereotyped more (or less) in reality
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The change of sex role stereotypes

Fagot's findings may be out of date as today's parents may treat their sons and daughters more equally. The nature of sex role stereotypes change with time as attitudes change

Eg, Furnham and Farragher (2000) compared their results with the earlier Manstead and McCulloch's (1981) analysis and found there was less evidence of stereotyping

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Sex role stereotyping across cultures

Stereotypes also vary across cultures.

Furnham and Farragher (2000) conducted their research in New Zealand and found that its TV adverts didn't necessarily portray the same stereotypes as Britain's

In contrast, Williams and Best (1982) asked respodents from 27 different countries to categorise a list of traits as masculine and feminine and found there was a broad agreement. Sex role stereotypes seem to be the same around the world. 

Are our expectations of males and females to do with our culture, or do stereotypes really describe real differences between the sexes that are, in fact, natural?

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Nature or Nurture?

The basic assumption of the nurture argument is that babies are born without a gender identity. 

A baby boy could be raised as a girl and vice verrsa

Of course this would be unethical to test this experimentally. However, there are real-life cases where children have been raised as the opposite sex which has given psychologists useful insights into the origins of gender

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Diamond and Sigmundson (1997)

  • Wanted to investigate the role of biology in the development of gender roles
  • The researchers reviewed the case of an 8 month old boy who accidentally lost his penis during a circumsicion in the '60s. On recommendation of a psychologist, they decided to reassign his gender. The boy had an operation to construct a vagina and became Brenda. She was socialised as a girl from then onwards.
  • Brenda appeared to adapt well to the female role of behaving in a feminine way. Money (the psychologist)  reported that the gender re-assignment was a success. However, as she reached puberty, she began to lose interest in feminine activities and felt different from other girls, discovering she had a masculine gender identity. In her teens, she discovered she had been born male and from then on began to live her life as a man, David Riemer, eventually having a penis reconstructed.
  • In this case, the effects of nature outweighed nurture
  • Evaluation - this study suports the role of nature, but it is based on one case and we cannot be sure that other boys would resist their new gender in the same way. This particular case was compounded by the fact that the boy had been an identical twin brother. Without such an obvious male role model in close proximity, the gender reassignment may have worked. The boys gender was also not re-assigned until he was nearly two so his masculine identity may be as he wasn't raised as a girl from birth.
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Contrasting evidence

  • Money and Ehrhardt (1972) reported on cases where children were sucessfully raised as the opposite sex from birth
  • One example, a new-born girl had been identified as a boy because her genitals appeared male due to exposure to male hormones in the womb
  • At the age of three, when the child's true biological sex became apprent, it was decided to continue to raise him as a boy as he already had a masculine identity
  • The 'boy' had surgery to make his genitals look more male and was given hormone treatment during puberty. As an adolescent, he associated with other males and was sexually attracted to females, suggesting the role of nurture was more significant in his gender identity.
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Evaluation of the Arguments

There is evidence to support both the role of nature and nurture in gender development

Many psychologists nowadays adopt an interactionist approach to explain gender and recognise that gender is a product of both biology and environmental experiences

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