Feminism and Social Psychology, Part 1: Pairing Research with Revolution

It’s our Identity and Activism Week – woot woot! As we’ve been talking about identity, particularly racial and gender identity, I’ve been reflecting a lot about how I can incorporate my awareness of issues like racism and classism into  my chosen area of study and plans for the future.

When I discovered social psychology first semester freshman year, I thought I had found my academic calling.  I  began to stay up late in my dorm room reading Steven Pinker and Robert Cialdini.  I watched footage of the 1960s Milgram experiment and listened to Philip Zimbardo talk about his terrifying Stanford Prison Experiment.  I started to peruse the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology in my (limited) free time.

Nerd Alert

Social psychology grabbed me because it provided me with an entirely new, analytical lens through which to view my everyday social interactions.  Learning about social psychology provided me with the vocabulary to conceptualize and understand phenomena I’d already identified  in the world around me.  I loved the idea of looking at things like friendships and romantic relationships through the eyes of a scientist.

Unfortunately, the more I learned and read, the more I began to pick up on some of the serious shortcomings of the field.  Like most fields within academia, social psychology is dominated by white men, and it shows.  They may be the “best and the brightest,” but university faculty aren’t immune to gender and racial biases.  I started to perceive serious problems in the way the field of psychology presents research on topics like gender, class, and especially race.  Voices of women, LGBT people, people of color, and other marginalized groups are silenced. Too often, the research presents an oversimplified description of social trends without ever addressing the systems that have brought about these trends.  I’ve seen too much research essentialize characteristics of groups of people without examining the complex cultural factors at play.

In one of my courses, the teacher presented research about parenting styles of different races like this: “Research shows that White parents use a more authoritative style, while other racial groups tend to use a more authoritarian style.  The authoritative style has been shown to produce the best outcomes.”  She then moved to the next slide, essentially leaving us with: “White parents are the best parents, end of discussion.”  Uh…WHAT?!

Harry Potter

Any discussion of the sociocultural or socioeconomic factors that might create these disparities? Of the larger systematic forces – community violence, police brutality, mass incarceration – that might compel some racial groups to be most strict with their children? Of the inappropriateness of lumping all non-White groups together? Of course not.

And that incident wasn’t an anomaly.  At least in my experience, in psych intro or survey courses where professors feel compelled to give broad overviews of a domain, research about topics like race is hastily presented without room for discussion, reflection, or reaction.  I was taught to worship Raymond Cattell, “Father of Trait Psychology” – never once was I taught about his staunch segregationist attitudes or connections with neo-Nazism.  When my teachers briefly tried to explain the evolution of sex differences or race differences, I became uncomfortable with how this research was being used to confirm certain stereotypes. I saw evolutionary psychology research pseudo-scientific bullshit published in magazines like Psychology Today positing to answer explicitly racist questions (e.g., “Why are black women less attractive?”)

That's So Raven


In this way, I began to see how research can be used not as a tool, but as a weapon.  The more I encountered this, the more I began to wonder, How has a field with so much promise to explain social behavior and enact social change become so problematic? It seemed that no field was immune to this, and certain fields that sought to measure and analyze human behavior – psychology, public policy, sociology – were particularly at risk.  This got me thinking, are academia and activism even compatible? I thought I had found my academic calling, but as I developed in my feminism and engaged in more serious reflection, I felt less and less sure.

Dog in space

After doing more reading and examining nuanced areas of the field, I’ve realized that social psychology doesn’t have to be this way.  Looked at in conjunction with feminism and other social justice movements, social psychology has so much promise.  An understanding of how our brains work and how we make decisions is absolutely critical for feminists.  If we want to change people’s thoughts, mobilize groups, and bring about social change, we must first have a picture of why people think the things they do.  Thankfully, some of this work is already being done.  In Bertrand and Mullainathan’s now-infamous field study, they found very convincing evidence of racial biases in hiring.  Psychologists Claude Steele and Joshua Aronson have revolutionized the way we think about gender and race-based achievement gaps with their research on stereotype threat.  In what I consider some of the most creative  psychology research ever conducted, social psychologists at Harvard have developed a procedure for measuring people’s biases, even if test subjects don’t know they have them.  They address not only racial biases and gender biases, but also religious prejudice, ageism, sexuality biases, obesity bias, and a variety of other types of bias. And in my own experience working in a behavioral economics and social psychology lab, I’ve had wonderful discussions about race, gender, and politics, and we’ve studied how identity shapes behavior.

I truly believe that social psychology can offer answers to questions about stereotypes, biases, and prejudice, and only by understanding how these phenomena operate will we be able to change them.  This could be a beautiful two-way street: psychology could gain so much by viewing research through a feminist lens, and movements like feminism should be seriously thinking about how psychology could be of benefit by them. If we as feminists truly want to bring about widespread social change, we must pair research with revolution by partnering with diverse academic fields, striving to remove discrimination and prejudice from academia and research in the process.

(If you agree that there is a need for a partnership between social psychology and feminism, check back in a few weeks – I will post the second part of this two-part series, identifying five social psychological concepts that feminists should be aware of.)

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