Cross Cultural Studies in Gender

Custom Student Mr. Teacher ENG 1001-04 18 October 2016

Cross Cultural Studies in Gender

Most research into gender roles has occurred in Western societies, and generally shows a clear divide in gender roles, most encouraging masculine behaviour in boys, and feminine behaviour in girls. However, in order to further explore the idea of nature vs. nurture (biological vs. social approach); it is important to research gender roles in a variety of countries.

If clear themes, it may indicate that gender role development is nature, as would show that men are similar to men across the whole world, and likewise for females, showing there must be something determining the way men work, whereas if there are clear culture differences, it would imply social factors determine gender. Cross cultural research has been explored for many years by anthropologists.

Some of the earliest work came from Margret Mead in the 1930’s. Comparing three Papua New Guinean tribes, the Arapesh, the Mundugumor and the Tchambuli, she discovered different behaviours displayed by both men and women in each individual tribe. In the Arapesh, men and women were seen to be gentle, responsive- fitting the Western stereotype as feminine.

In the Mundugumor tribe, she found males and females to violent and aggressive- the Western stereotype of masculinity and finally in the Tchambuli tribe, she found role reversal to Western stereotypes, as males were more emotionally dependant and flirtatious, whereas the females were dominant, impersonal and definite. Although at first, Mead concluded that her research showed that gender roles came through cultural determinism as big differences were found between males and females in different cultures, implying that gender roles were driven by social factors.

However, after later analysis and extending her research to look at other tribes in Samoa, she changed her view (1949) to that her research actually showed cultural determinism, as despite differences in the roles males and females played in each society, in all the societies she looked at men were more aggressive than the women, contributing to the idea that gender role is determined by nature, as there are some behaviours which are innate and universal, e. g. ggression in men, but that degree to which they are expressed is relative to the particular culture. This fits under the biosocial approach, as her research suggests there are some behaviours which are universal, but the degrees to which these behaviours are expressed depends on social factors, such as culture. Mead’s study was a natural experiment, meaning the tribes were observed in their usual environment, suggesting she was noting their true behaviour. However, her method has been heavily criticised by other psychologists such as Freeman (1984).

Her research was conducted through interviews and observations of the tribes, but Freeman who also worked with Samoan tribes was told that Mead provided the tribesmen with what she wanted them to say. Although this questions the validity of her research, in later years there has been lots of cross cultural research to show differences and similarities and divisions of labour and behaviour by gender in every society (Munroe and Munroe 1975). Further research to support the nature side of the argument is from Whiting and Edwards 1975.

Through looking at 11 non-western societies, they found that gender roles were organised in similar ways across a range of traditional cultures. They found girls were encouraged to spend more time with their mothers and were more likely to be given domestic and childcare jobs, whereas the boys were likely to be assigned jobs outside the house such as herding animals. This lead to girls spending more time with younger infants and adults, whereas boys spent more time with their peers, and so It seemed younger girls were found to be more responsible and nurturing than boys who in early adolescence began to get more responsibility.

Whiting and Edwards concluded that the behavioural differences observed came about because of the tasks they are given. Girls are taught how to be responsible at a young age as they are exposed to female role models, and develop skills of caring for younger siblings. In another, Whiting and Whiting (1988) observed children in their natural environment with parents, siblings and peers. There were universal differences that girls were more nurturing and boys showed more dominance.

However, the fact there were key differences between boys and girls such as what they were socialised into, and what they were encouraged to achieve, implies that both upbringing and biology play a role in development; socialisation just magnifies the biological difference, hence differences across cultures such as between US and India. Bee (1995) supported the idea of socialisation being the most important factor in determining gender, as he stated children became the company they keep. However, researches such as

Omar et al found similarities in varied countries such as Switzerland, Ethiopia and the US. Their research indicated that all boys show higher levels of competitiveness and aggression than females, indicating there are underling biological factors. Further support for the nurture argument comes from Berry et al (2002). They studied male superiority on spatial perceptual tasks in 17 societies. He found that this superiority is only found in relatively tight knit, sedentary societies but absent in nomadic societies.

This shows that the magnitude of sex differences is linked to culture and ecology. In tight knit societies, the division of labour is greatest because women stay at home whilst men travel, whereas in nomadic societies, both men and women travel and hunt so there is less division of labour (Van Leeuwen 1978). Therefore, this implies that social factors dictate gender role, due to the cultural differences in division of labour found. Berry’s large study of a variety of societies indicates his results can be representative of the general population and we can generalise results.

However, Kimura (1999) offered an alternative biological interpretation, that in hunting societies, those with poor spatial perception are likely to die, thus eliminating such genes from the gene pool. This explains why in nomadic societies, there would be less gender difference in spatial abilities. Further biological support comes from Buss et al (1989). Involving 10,000 participants from 37 cultures, he found universal themes in what males and females looked for in marriage partners. Women desired males who had good financial prospects, whereas men placed more important in physical attraction and youthfulness.

Both sexes agreed intelligence, kindness and reliability are important. Due to the fact these finding were universal, and the scale of the study implies we can generalise, it suggests gender roles are biologically determined. However, an alternative argument may be that women look for providers, not because of biology, but because of the fact women tend to earn less in society, and in some countries, have fewer rights, which is a social issue determining differences in gender roles. But despite the fact that labour division are the same in most cultures- irls are brought up to be nurturing, responsible and obedient, likely to raise the children, whereas boys are raised to be more independent, self-reliant and high-achieving, and provide for their family, suggest that it is biology that determines sex roles. However, it is difficult to decipher whether division is the direct outcome of biological differences or whether it is a more indirect outcome of biological differences. Eagly and Wood argued that all cultures shape their socialisation processes along with the lines of inborn biological tendencies.

However, there has been research to counter this. Sugihara and Katsurada (2002) found that Japanese men do no not seek to be macho like Americans, but instead value being well-rounded in the arts (usually associated as femininity), showing that labour divisions are not the same in all cultures. As well as looking at the divisions of labour between difference cultures, there has also been research into the differences between gender roles in collectivist and individualistic cultures.

In 2002, Chang, Guo and Hau, compared 145 American and 173 Chinese students by giving the students a 10 item Egalitarian Gender Role Attitudes Scale, which measured their attitudes to gender equality at home and in the work place. Chang et al found that American students emphasised the important of equal gender roles at work, whereas the Chinese students emphasised the importance of equality at home and in the family. Although this does indicate differences, this may be due to the nature of their home country. In communist China, equality at work is taken for granted.

Further exploring this, Leung and Moore (2003) compared Australians of English and Chinese decent using Bem’s SRI and fond differences in line with the Hofstede’s dimensions. Both male and female English Australians showed masculine traits which are valued in individualistic cultures, whereas Chinese Australian’s; male and female, showed feminine traits valued in a collectivist culture. Both research studies imply that cultural values and expectations have a strong on the development of gender roles and expectations (nurture). A big problem with much research is how you measure sex stereotypes.

Williams and Best (1990) study highlighted some of the problems linked to this. 2,800 university students from 30 different nations were given a 300 item adjective checklist (ACL) and asked to decide for each adjective whether it was associated more with men or women. They found a broad consensus across countries- men were seen as more dominant, aggressive and autonomous, whereas women were more nurturing, deferent and interested in affiliation. This suggests there are universal gender stereotypes about gender roles, indicating, they are derived though our genes.

However, this study proposed many problems in how they measured sex stereotypes. Firstly, the participants had to pick either male or female, there was no equal category (although there was a ‘cannot say’ category) which may have resulted in the division in gender roles being exaggerated. Furthermore, the task was related to stereotypes, not actual behaviours. Some argue that such stereotypes have a significant effect on socialisation within the culture, and this are related to behaviour, but the data does not demonstrate this.

Finally, because all of the participants are students, it indicates there behaviours are similar e. g. intelligences, and exposed to similar influences which may explain the broad consensus. Another problem is a lot of the cross-cultural research has been collected by western researchers, therefore, even though they were collecting data in western and non-western societies, the method of research will be developed by western psychology. This may indicated imposed etic, and the data collected is meaningless and demonstrates cultural bias.

To overcome this, Berry et al (2002) concluded that there should be a greater use of more genuine indigenous research, opposed to indigenous researchers carrying out the method of western psychologists. To conclude, despite methodological problems, due to the universal similarity in gender roles found in various investigations, it indicated that biology drives gender roles. However, difference found between cultures indicates social factors are also important, so there is a complex interaction between both factors, so the biosocial approach may be a more suitable approach, as it is less deterministic and acknowledges both aspects.

As well, it is important to account for historical changes. Much research was done in the 1970/1980’s when the gender gap in many western countries was much larger than is it today, as it is now accepted that both males and females work, and parental equality. However, males still occupy more powerful positions than women, and women perform more domestic duties. But it is an important factor to consider when looking at data.


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  • University/College: University of Chicago

  • Type of paper: Thesis/Dissertation Chapter

  • Date: 18 October 2016

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