The development of gender identity is a notion explored greatly through the social sciences, with emphasis being placed on anthropology, philosophy, psychology and sociology. This essay is going to discuss the development of gender identity through psychological works, with reference to the nature/nurture debate. In order to do this, the essay will be broken down into specific sections. Initially, the themes outlined in the title will be individually explored to offer their definitions.
Secondly, the essay will move on to look at the varying schools of thought within psychology surrounding gender identity development, where the essay will cite some key thinkers and their theories. Thirdly, the essay will move on to combine the notion of gender identity development with the nature/nurture debate to discuss and express any correlations between them. The essay shall then be wrapped up by way of a summary of the undertaken works, as a way of creating a conclusion. The essay shall now explore the themes within the title, to offer definitions.
Gender, in its common usage is the term used to denote the distinction males and females in accordance with anatomical sex. The term is often used interchangeably with the term ‘sex’ when discussing anatomical differences, however, depending on the approach taking, the definition of gender changes. For example, sociologically, gender refers to the socialised attributes of being masculine, feminine or androgynous, which is in keeping with the notion of ones own ‘gender identity’.
Gender identity, is considered to be subjectively experienced, rather than being physically acted out. The nature/nurture debate is the endeavour to discover the extent to which human behaviour is the result of hereditary or innate factors (nature) or are they determined by environmental and learning factors (nurture). Historically, each side of the debate has had its support, however, it is difficult to assess the contributions of each as both interact throughout human development. The essay shall now tackle the psychological theories surrounding gender identity development.
Psychodynamic theory is a label given to all psychological systems, and theories, which place emphasis upon the processes of change and development. Stemming from the works of Sigmund Freud, psychodynamic theory takes in to account both nature and nurture in the development gender identities. The nature side of the debate is represented through the innate sexual drives possessed by all human beings that motivate much of human behaviour. However, these sexual drives do not outwardly influence gender identity development.
Instead the nurturing element arises through the phallic stage of Freudian psychosexual development. In this stage the Childs resolution of the Oedipus complex in boys and the Electra complex in girls identifies the beginning of appropriate gendered behaviours. The Oedipus complex is a label that describes the attraction between a male child and his mother. The Electra complex labeled the attraction between a female child and her father. The essence of these discoveries was the sexual attraction to the opposite sex and the hostility toward the same sex.
The premise is that the child will take on board the patterns of behaviour, appropriate to and reinforce masculine and feminine behaviours to the child. Social learning theory is a psychological approach to the study of social behaviours. The premise of this theory is that of role observation, and the mimicking of behaviours, known as operant conditioning and vicarious learning, respectively. Applied to gender development by Bandura and Mischel; Social learning theory stresses many important factors in the development of gender identity; these include reinforcement, observational learning, modelling and imitation.
Social learning theory incorporates both notions of primary and secondary socialisation, including parents, peers and the mass media as important for gender identity development. Cognitive development theories stem from the works of Jean Piaget. Piaget was one of the first psychologists to look at the way in which children think and reason. Despite moves in the 1960’s and 70’s to revaluate his theories, many of his basic principles and assumptions have been empirically supported to be correct.
Piaget’s works identified that children look only at a superficial level, focusing on surface appearances rather than looking for more depth. Piaget’s works were greatly extended by Kohlberg to explain the development of gender concepts – Kohlberg argued that an important factor in a childs development of gender concepts is the acceptance that it is fixed and unchanging – regardless of surface appearances. Kohlberg advocates that a child must develop through three stages to understand gender – initially children do not use gender in any way, to categorise themselves or others.
The first stage (1) occurs at the age of two years, at this point a child can consistently an accurately label themselves and others as male or female, however, this categorisation is based on physical appearances and symbols such as clothing and facial hair. Stage 1 is regarded as ‘gender identity’. Stage 2 begins at the age of 3 – 4 years, a child now understands that that if someone is male or female then there were previously male or female and will continue to be male or female, therefore the child realises that gender is stable across time.
Stage 2 is regarded as ‘gender stability’. Despite the childs appreciation of gender stability, they still place emphasis on symbols as masculine or feminine – for example toys, if a boy is playing with a doll, a toy recognised as female then the child is unable to determine whether the child is male or female, the resolution of this comes into effect in stage 3. Occurring at the ages of around 5 years, the child realises that gender is constant and consistent across both time and situations, the child now realises that gender is an underlying and unchanging aspect of identity.
Stage 3 is known ‘gender constancy’. As well as theories arising from Psychodynamic psychology, social learning theory and cognitive theories, there are also notions for the biological perspective and humanistic theory. The theoretical approaches above support differing approaches in relation to the nature/nurture debate. The essay will now explore these to express their standpoints and cite any correlation. In brief, these theories assume different positions within the nature/nurture debate as follows.
Psychodynamic theory stands very much in the middle, accepting the importance of both innate and environmental factors in the development of gender identities, Freud famously quoted ‘anatomy is destiny’, yet speaks extensively of the importance of relationships with the same-sex parent. Social Learning Theory is in keeping with the nurture side of the debate, promoting the importance of all environmental factors, through reinforcement and modelling of acceptable gender appropriate behaviours.
Outlining the importance of socialisation in the home (primary) and secondary through peers and the mass media. Cognitive Development Theories are in keeping with the nature side of the debate, where, in Kohlberg’s view, gender development occurs through the resolution of three stages – where at the end of stage three the child is able to determine that gender is an underlying and unchanging aspect of identity. In conclusion, this essay has discussed the development of gender identities.
To summarise the works undertaken, initially definitions were offered of the themes in the essay title, which then moved on to discuss the psychological works of Psychodynamics, Social Learning Theory and Cognitive Development Theories, writing in relation to the nature/nurture debate. Despite there being many more theories of gender identity development, certain aspects were omitted in order to reflect on different positions in the nature/nurture debate.
As well as issues such as sexual orientation and androgyny were also over looked. Despite strong arguments arising from each theory, it is difficult to accurately and empirically deduce the exact role of nature or nurture in the development of gender identities as both are constantly interacting throughout ones own life, and at a time of radical social changes (from the writing of these theories), with immense family diversity including single parent and same sex families.