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Women's Difference, Women's Prize

California State University, Dominguez Hills
University of Wisconsin, Parkside
Latest update: May 10, 1999
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What Is Theory? Why Do We Need It?

Theory is an organized way of thinking about a subject. Most theories define the concepts they need to talk about the problem. Then they organize all those definitions so that they do not contradict one another. Definitions given, theories then try to explain and predict behavior on the basis of their concepts.

Most of us use theories unconsciously. When you suggest that idle hands should be kept busy, giving your children something to occupy their attention, you are operating on the theory of protestant ethics, or the work ethic. Depending on the definitions you use for the concepts, you might consider playing with Nintendo productive work, or you might consider it idle, leading to mischief later. At least one researcher uses Nintendo to reprogram the rules of the games and teach young children how to think critically about games. (Pogrow, the HOTS Program, the University of Arizona.) Now that would cause us to reconsider our definitions and how they fit together, wouldn't it?

Some people today insist upon teaching their children to read before the age of three, providing productive activities, ballet, gym, martial arts, etc. for almost every minute of their day. They are predicting that their children will be better motivated and more successful in later life if they learn productive work habits at such an early age. Other parents are alarmed at the loss of creative play. They would let children develop more spontaneously with less emphasis on production and competition at the preschool age. You can well imagine how these people have different definitions of the concept of achievement motivation. They have probably never thought out their definitions, probably never thought of this in terms of theory and prediction of future behavior. Unfortunately, this leads to more opportunities for contradictions and poor results in the theory's predictive and explanatory powers.

The abilities to predict and explain are powerful tools. Even though no one has any definitive answers as to whether playing Nintendo and/or following a full social/developmental schedule is good or not so good for preschoolers, we all of us sooner or later have to make decisions based on the answers we come up with. We may have young children and be forced to make decisions for them. Or we may just be forced to make a ballot decision on whether to pay for such education for all children. Either way, we can make better predictions and decisions if we get the contradictions out of our thinking, if we consider what is known on the many sides of the issue.

Theory helps in another important way. Most of these issues are intensely emotional when they apply to our friends and family. The parent who is opposed to Nintendo can get pretty emotional about the presence of Nintendo in the preschool or kindergarten classroom. That parent may not be willing to listen to why the teacher or the school has approved this, even though it might be part of Pogrow's research on critical thinking. The parent's emotion gets in his way. He "knows" Nintendo is bad. In order to hear what Pogrow has to say, the parent needs to step back, talk about the technical aspects of the problem, define what Nintendo means to her, what she thinks it means to her child. We call that critical distancing. Theory helps us to accomplish it.

Edward T. Hall, in The Silent Language, calls this emotion "affect." He explains that the more technical the approach we take to an issue, the less affect we feel over it. Bloom and Krathwohl, in The Taxonomy of Educational Objectives, speak of the "affective domain" in education, and the "cognitive domain." They recognize that we have strong feelings about what we "know." So, of course, we have strong feelings about what we learn. Once we have learned a concept that fits and is appropriate and fits well in one context, we are disconcerted when we encounter later contexts in which this piece of knowledge fails us. Think of math. How many parents were upset to learn that two plus two no longer equaled four for their elementary school children, who were studying numbers to the base two, not to the base ten?

What we know, how we come to know it, and how we measure the appropriateness of the context in which we apply that knowledge is of major concern to every social problem we face at the end of this twentieth century. We classify this officially as epistemology in philosophy, as the sociology of knowledge in sociology, as the cognitive and affective domains in education, and by dozens of other terms across all the disciplines, for every discipline addresses this issue.

Theory depends almost entirely on the definitions of the concepts which underlie it. Those definitions come from our experiences which differ radically from one social context to another. When we fail to consider this we shout rhetoric at one another, failing to gain any real communication, and thus failing to solve our social problems. (Hirschman)

Catharine MacKinnon makes this point well as she defines "discrimination" for her study in The Sexual Harassment of Working Women, pp. 4-7:

Two distinct concepts of discrimination, which I term the "differences" approach and the "inequality" approach, emerge as approaches to answering this questions. (Footnote omitted.) These conceptions ... are the result of an attempt to think systematically about the broader concepts that underlie the logic and results of the discrimination cases as a whole, with particular attention to discriminations law's most highly developed application: the cases on race. Applied to sex, the two approaches flow from two underlying visions of the reality of sex in American society. The first approach envisions the sexes as socially as well as biologically different from one another, but calls impermissible or "arbitrary" those distinctions or classifications that are found preconceived and/or inaccurate. The second approach understands thesexes to be not simply socially differentiated but socially unequal. In this broader view, all practices which subordinate women to men are prohibited. The differences approach, in its sensitivity to disparity and similarity, can be a useful corrective to sexism; both women and men can be damaged by sexism, although usually it is women who are. The inequality approach, by contrast, sees women's situation as a structural problem of enforced inferiority that needs to be radically altered.

...Current cases are analyzed in which courts have found sexual harassment "personal," "biological," "not a policy," and thus (implicitly) not employment discrimination as well as not based on sex. These objections are found uncompelling, mutually inconsistent, without weight in analogous areas of law, and ideologically sexist. Although some of the cases which rely on these formulations have been reversed on appeal, most of these assertions, which represent deep and broadly held social views on women's sexuality, have not been squarely controverted by the courts and continue to arise in litigation.

Note that the definitions of sex and sexuality as either growing out of perceived differences, or as growing out of the subjugation of women through structural inequality alters the whole pattern of the underlying theory. If we perceive gender as difference-based, then we perceive specific behaviors as impermissible, outlawing those based on wrong and/or purposefully limiting views of women. That means we evaluate individual behaviors and expectations for "wrong thinking," seeing nothing inherently wrong with the system except for abuse and misperceptions within that system. But if we perceive gender as structural subordination, then we see the system itself as inherently wrong, regardless of underlying wrong or right thinking about the individual behaviors. Very different explanations, very different predictions.

This is perhaps the most fundamental issue for women today: difference or structural equality. There are no answers. The question is not whether there are differences between men and women. Of course there are, at least for many men and many women. The question is: what must we work to change, inappropriate behavior within an essentially just system, or structural change of an essentially unjust system. According to what we perceive as creating the present conditions, we will understand different solutions.

This is the issue reflected in the title to this text: Woman's Difference, Woman's Prize. If we can situate difference within the structural framework of our society, the prize will surely be ours. For this, we will need the critical distancing of theory and the best minds humanity can offer. *****

Study Questions

  1. What is theory?
  2. What purposes does theory serve?
  3. What theoretical positions underlie many women's issues?

Some Basic Theoretical Concepts To Guide Us in Analysis of the Readings

These are certainly not the only theoretical concepts that could be used for analysis of the readings. Most theories in most social science and liberal arts disciplines seek to explain and influence human behavior. As sociologists, we place an emphasis on sociological and social-psychological approaches to these issues. As scholars, we draw more broadly from other disciplines to avoid the rigidity of limited focus. Nothing, to our knowledge, makes the theories we have chosen better explanations than any other theories that address these issues. As you expand your own reading you will find favorite theories that help you to better predict and/or explain the world. Do not hesitate to add them to this arsenal.

The theoretical concepts we include here give us a knowledge base that we can assume all of us understand and share. When we speak of the Herbartian apperceptive mass we will all know the concepts and definitions that we accept as forming Herbart's theoretical perspective. We are creating a kind of professional jargon within which we can cover material more quickly, for we are formalizing the ways in which we have agreed to talk about that material. Other ways of talking about the selections we read are equally acceptable, but we need to choose one set to facilitate our discussions.

Needless to say these are shorthand introductions to theoretical concepts that comprise the life's work of many highly respected professionals. Our definition of apperceptive mass does not give you a solid understanding of Herbart's approach to the world and our relationships within it. The definition does give us an agreed-upon term to explain a fairly complex set of ideas. Essentially, through the language of concepts that we agree to use, we are constructing a special social reality that works for us within the confines of this text. With that limited goal in mind we offer the following concepts.

Knowing or Epistemology

Most of us need some structure to our world. We would not be able to maintain completely open minds on all things, making decisions completely anew on the complex facts of every encounter. It is comforting to know what a chair is, to be able to recognize any one of several members of the class "chair," and to have a word for that class of objects. Unfortunately, having a word for that class of objects means that sometimes we cannot see anything but a chair, once we have classified and labelled the object. Thus, when an artist suspends a chair from a cord, hanging it by one leg, we may be confused and uncomfortable, for one cannot sit on an object so suspended. The artist is forcing us to reassess what we know, in particular, what we know about chairs.

The process we have just described of learning to recognize and classify a chair as a chair is called "naming" or "labelling." Once we have named or labelled an object we tend to see the object in that role or use. It becomes harder to see the object in another, different light. Whorf refers to this as the phenomenon of language as a cloak, of our tendency to interpret the objects we see by the names we have for them. Other authors, like Rokeach (The Open and Closed Mind), speak of dogmatism. Dogmatism describes the difficulty we have of conceptualizing solutions that rely on concepts outside the set of named categories and expectations we have learned.

If the names we learn guide us in the way we perceive objects and their interrelations, then we need to be conscious of how we learn, and of the underlying perceptions that come through naming in that learning process, especially if those names and labels may later limit our conceptualization. Consider for example what you know about "woman" or "girl." How did you learn the concepts that come to mind when you encounter these words or the people you label with them? If you learned a limiting way of naming and resultant limited expectations, that will be reflected in most of your thoughts about "women" or "girls." By learning to recognize and bring to consciousness those limitations, you have some choice in whether you want to continue to be bound by them.

Because so much of our world is shaped by socialization, and because much of that process includes naming, we need to become aware of how we learn, so that we can better judge what we know and how certain we are of the applicability of that knowledge in many different social contexts. That doesn't mean that we can't know anything, or make decisions. We do know. We do make decisions. But sometimes we make erroneous judgments; we limit ourselves unknowingly in the way we see the world. Awareness of how we learn and how we know gives us more freedom to control our own behavior and the results of our interactions with other people and with the institutions that control so much of our lives.

Study Questions

  1. How can naming or labelling lead to discrimination?
  2. What benefits accrue to re-examining the definitions by which we name or categorize?

A. Learning Theories

It is one of personkind's constant pursuits to try to know "reality." Epistemology, the theory and methods of how we know, especially how we establish the limits and validity of knowledge as we understand it, starts with how we learn. Learning theory comprises a subspecialty in social psychology. These brief summaries will give you enough information for us to talk about how we have learned what we know.

  1. Herbart's Apperceptive Mass

    Concept: A description of the mind: I like to use the term "stew pot." In the days of extended families in an agrarian culture, there was always a big pot on the stove into which all leftovers were tossed. Everything tossed in added immeasurably to the ultimate flavor of the stew. By skimming off the top, you got a different flavor from that of scooping down and stirring the whole concoction. That is how we can seem to be different people at different times and in different contexts. It all depends on what the stimuli of the context bring up from the apperceptive mass.

    There is an immediate analogy to learning. Some experiences stay on the top, some affect us profoundly and affect the whole set of our experiences. Sometimes you answer questions by skimming the surface of the pot, offering whatever happens to be there. Sometimes you delve more deeply and find very different answers.

    There is a further analogy in how you incorporate what you learn into your entire apperceptive mass. Sometimes information is forced on you. You just leave it there on top, in short term memory, forget it soon afterwards. Other times the information matters terribly, colors your whole life, then you find it connected in some way to all the other experiences in the stew pot. Think of paper clips. Some come out one at a time. But many are all strung together. If an idea in the stew pot is well connected to other ideas, and you recall one of them, all those other connected ideas come up with it.

    Hint: The best way to remember what you have learned is to connect it well to everything else you know and have experienced. That way, there'll be lots of paper clips that will bring the idea you are searching for up to consciousness.

    Technical Term: Apperceptive mass or Herbartian apperceptive mass

    Definition: The collection of all ideas, experiences, learning that constitutes the mind. This includes both conscious and unconscious, or aware and out-of-awareness, if you prefer those terms.

    Source: Herbart's theory of apperceptive mass can be found in any review of the classical literature on learning theory. My source: Hilgard's Theories of Learning. It's old. You may want to look for a newer version. Excellent summaries can be found in Bigge's Learning Theory for Teachers.

    Effects we can explain with the theory:

    1. The unreliability of memory. We have to dredge information up from the stew pot, and the information is colored by that which attaches to it. (Think of those paper clips that come up in a chain of tangles when you try to free just one.) There is also so much in the apperceptive mass that single bits of experience (untangled paper clips) escape our notice, and those ideas that are most important to us at the time we search our memories will color the memories that rise to the surface, will interfere with others so that we do not even notice them. Sometimes in court or in psychological tests or in surveys, probes are used. Probes are key words or concepts that the attorney or researcher hopes will prod our memory, somewhat like offering a paper clip and hoping that other ideas or memories will come with it.

    2. The inability to erase past experience. No way out of the stew pot, once it's in. It's a little like free speech. The answer to "bad" speech is to overcome it with "good" speech - more speech, not censorship. Once uttered, once experienced, we can only alter our responses to what is in our apperceptive mass, not erase it. Consider Rabelais' "frozen words." Rabelais, a 16th century French raconteur told the story of the giant Pantagruel, traveling one Spring on a ship with his tutor, Panurge. Suddenly, there were terrible sounds of battle. Panurge hid in a barrel. Pantagruel ventured out hesitantly and asked the Captain why all these terrible sounds in the middle of a calm ocean. "Oh," replied the Captain, "those are the sounds of a battle that took place last Winter when we were passing through here. They are melting in these warm breezes." [This telling is paraphrased. The original is in Rabelais, Gargantua and Pantagruel.]

      That once learned, once uttered, is a permanent addition to the mind, past experience that can be modified by more recent perceptions and learning, but might melt at any moment should the right warm breeze pass through the apperceptive mass. We experience continuous examples of mindsets, beliefs, attitudes, things once said in pleasure or in anger that crop up, unbidden, as if from nowhere, and surprise us. They are buried deep in the unawareness of past experience. We do not know to what extent they can be "erased" as opposed to "modified," or "tempered". Some believe that meditation can cleanse the mind of some of these contents. Maybe. If the question intrigues you, off with you to the library. It's a good research topic.

    3. Behavior that is inconsistent with our stated philosophy. For example, we may blurt out something discriminatory when we claim not to be prejudiced. The stew pot contains material from infancy. Some behavior, particularly spontaneous behavior or behavior under stress is likely to stir up the depths, draw on information or emotions that go back to early childhood, even though we are not consciously aware of it. (Freud) To the extent that we act on such early experience, unmitigated by more recent cognitive understanding, our behaviors may well be inconsistent with our professed cognitive position.

    4. The difficulty of maintaining orthodoxy.

    The stew pot is so individualistic for each of us, and so affects how we perceive the world that orthodox belief systems are distorted by individual perception. This could explain the need for orthodox belief systems to insist on rigid prescriptions for behavior, to guarantee that individuals will not lose sight of the belief system's dictates as they follow their own perceptions. This could explain the requirement for frequent attendance at religious gatherings, the AA philosophy that recovering alcoholics need to attend meetings, the Chinese marxist requirement that all individuals attend frequent "block" meetings in their neighborhoods. (Please notice the "could." This provides one possible explanation. There are many other possible explanations and many other theories to derive such explanations. Many people, with many different apperceptive masses, have considered what we believe and how we come to believe it.)

    Study Questions

  2. What is the Herbartian apperceptive mass?

  3. Rabelais' story of the "frozen words" serve to illustrate what characteristic of the apperceptive mass?

2. Bloom and Krathwohl's Taxonomy of Educational Objectives

Concept: There are many levels of learning in understanding a given concept. We first learn to recognize the concept, then to recall its name or classification when we see it. In later stages we learn to analyze it, to evaluate or judge its meaning and its importance to our worldview, and finally to synthesize it to other concepts.

Definition: Bloom and Krathwohl classify learning from the lowest to the highest level: recognition, recall, analysis, evaluation, synthesis. They analyze the measurement of learning in terms of which level the measure tends to assess.

Source: Bloom and Krathwohl, Taxonomy of Educational Objectives.

Effects we can explain with the theory:

  1. Inconsistencies in the limits we place unconsciously on people. Some material in the apperceptive mass was learned only to the lower levels of understanding. When that material is recalled, it comes up to consciousness just as it was learned. Consider the story of the little girl answering the door for her mother. [Curran recollects this story and believes it to be from Jules Henry's Culture Against Man.] The young child answers the door. A woman asks for her mother. The child calls out: "Mother, a lady wants to talk to you." Her mother answers the door, completes the transaction, closes the door, and then says to her daughter, "Dear, that wasn't a lady; it was a Negro." the underlying logic of that statement is too complex for the little girl to analyze. She is more likely merely to learn and recall it as it was stated. But the statement creates and enforces on the little girl different categories for "Negro" and "lady." That differentiation will now attach to all the other concepts the little girl carries about "Negro" and "lady." Her mother may not have meant to teach discrimination to her child. Analysis of the underlying assumptions of her statement may never occur to her if she is in a social context where such assumptions are received as "truth."

    The mother's discriminatory statement is now part of the child's apperceptive mass. When she recalls it, she will recall it as she learned it as a child. She might reassess the statement when she is older, in light of new cognitive understanding about discrimination. But it might be too emotional or seem too unimportant for reprocessing. She might not even consciously recall it. It may just stay there in her apperceptive mass affecting her responses and behaviors without her quite understanding why.

    When someone in adult life accuses the little girl, now grown to womanhood, of discriminatory thinking, she may deny it, claiming that she did not learn discrimination. If someone knew of the above incident and cited it, she might very well deny that her mother had ever said anything derogatory about black women. And at that childhood level of understanding, she is right. Her mother merely identified categories, and helped her correctly categorize. That is why we must know how we have learned the categories, how we have learned to name and label.

    At the lowest levels of learning, recognition and recall, people often mistake their own experience as universally applicable, for that is all they have yet experienced. As they move through analysis and evaluation, into synthesis, they are better able to discern nuances in reasoning, to see greater detail in variation, and understand the complexity of the concept. This is one possible explanation for discrimination and stereotyping. The greater our experience and understanding of difference and variation, the greater our tolerance, and the less our need to view the world as one simplistic whole. Nota bene: Levels of understanding vary across concepts. Someone may be brilliant, generous, caring, [generally at a high level of understanding for most of the concepts that come up in their everyday transactions] and still exhibit insensitivity or incomplete understanding on a concept they acquired at an earlier or less aware cognitive and emotional level. Knowledge level is not consistent across all concepts. It varies according to the conditions under which that concept entered the apperceptive mass.

  2. Mistaking How Much You Know or How Well You Know Something. This theory helps explain why sometimes you have difficulty with test questions, even when you think you understand the material. You may have learned the material well enough to recognize it, but not well enough to recall it, or well enough to recall it, but not to synthesize it with other theories.

  3. Following Emotional Appeals at Lower Levels of Learning. Levels of learning could also explain why it is so easy for a charismatic political speaker to persuade a crowd to engage in or accept prejudicial behavior that the individuals might not engage in, if they considered the meaning and ramifications at a higher cognitive level. In the heady atmosphere of a political rally no one brings up the finer points of the concepts. Notice that in the above example of discrimination, analyzing the words used, the mere placement in categories of address, which were undoubtedly socially acceptable in that place and at that time, there is little to quarrel with unless you move to levels of analysis, evaluation, and synthesis.

    If you analyze the categories of social address as unequal and discriminatory, then evaluate that inequality in terms of its racially-based reasoning, then you may evaluate the incident as signifying and promoting racial discrimination. Simple recall and recognition would not produce such a result. This emphasizes the importance of developing your learning skills, and of learning to assess the levels at which you know different concepts that affect your behaviors and your belief systems.

    Study Questions

    8. How does Bloom and Krathwohl's taxonomy help explain why sometimes our mouths say things our brains didn't mean to express?

    9. Why do sound bites have so much power to persuade?

    3. The Zeigarnik Effect

    Concept: Zeigarnik recognized the effect that reinforces unusually good retention of a piece of information that we couldn't recall on some past performance, like a test, even though we were sure we knew it. Once we look up the information, after the frustration of forgetting it, we have excellent retention of that material over time.

    Definition: "A finding, named for its discoverer, that a person has greater recall for tasks that have been interrupted and left uncompleted than for those that have been completed." [Jones and Gerard, p. 720]

    Source: Jones, Edward E. and Gerard, Herald B. Foundations of Social Psychology. John Wiley and Sons, Inc., 1967. Bluma Zeigarnik's research is summarized on pp. 617-621.

    4. Latent Learning

    Definition: Learning that is not yet well enough developed to be reflected in the measurement used.

    Explanation and examples: There is an early stage in learning in which neurons have been altered, some effect has taken place in the apperceptive mass, yet we are not capable of performing the traditional tasks used to measure learning of the concept. Ex.: using a computer. You may have learned something from your sessions at the computer terminal, but when the instructor says, "Turn on the computer, find the Dorsey file, and copy it to your disk", you manage to turn on the computer and then freeze. If the instructor helps you, you might think, "Oh, I knew how to do that", but you couldn't manage it on your own. Sometimes you say things like: "I haven't learned a thing." Yes, you have; but it's in the latent learning stage. That's going to be particularly true where muscle coordination must be combined with cognitive material.

    We have different latent learning periods for different concepts, for different types of learning. Some of us learn much more quickly by auding than by reading. Some of us learn much more quickly that which requires physical movement than that which requires intellectual manipulation of data and ideas. It is important that you learn to recognize your own latent learning so that you can discover ways to show what you have learned, to your teachers, for grades, to yourself, so you won't become discouraged on long and complicated tasks.

    One easy way to measure latent learning so you can see it: Carry with you a good compact paperback English dictionary. Every time you encounter a word you do not traditionally use, look it up, even when you think you know the definition. Put a small check next to the word in your dictionary. The next time you encounter the word, look it up again. Do not berate yourself for not remembering it. That's latent learning. It will soon be yours. Each time you look it up, add a check. You'll discover that you quickly spot words you have looked up a few times. They appear mysteriously in everything you read. I find that I need about 17 checks before the word is mine. That's a measure of my latent learning. Five checks and I know I'm 5/17ths of the way to making that word mine. I might miss the word on a vocabulary test, but I know I'm learning it. Try it and see how many checks make the word yours.

    If you want to use the word effectively in your writing, there's another piece. Try to write down the sentence in which it occurs. No pencil? At least read it carefully as a sentence. This will teach you to recognize and recall the context in which the word is used. There is nothing worse than knowing what a word means, but not being able to remember how to use it in context. I never counted on this one, so I can't share my latent learning measure with you. Doesn't matter. We're all different, anyway. Find yours.

    Source: Bigge, Morris. Learning Theories for Teachers. 1992.

    Study Questions

    10. How does the Zeigarnik effect help to explain the importance of the study questions to your learning?

    11. Why does latent learning contribute so much to the affective component of education?

    5. Convergent and Divergent Production

    Guilford, J., in The Nature of Human Intelligence, explored how many different kinds of intelligence we could measure. Once we thought of intelligence as some kind of global factor, g, that you had either more or less of, and that accounted for how smart you were. Yet we know that some people can be extraordinarily smart at some things, and just not get others. Learning theorists have many different theories to explain these anomalies. Perhaps we understand examples of inductive reasoning, but not deductive reasoning. A child, for example may be able to answer the question, "Lots of animals, what is that?" and answer "A zoo. A circus." But the same child may not be able to come up with the answer to "What is a zoo?." He might recognize and agree with "Lots of animals," but he might not be able to summon that answer on his own. This tells us that he can reason more readily from parts to the whole, than from the whole to its parts. Idiosyncracies in reasoning such as this are highly individual. Guilford wanted to measure these differences in our intellectual skills. He devised 120 separate intelligence skills and created tests to measure most.

    Cognitive skills that particularly interested him were those he considered would lead to creativity. To measure such skills he defined one of the primary factors for analyzing intelligence the skill's placement on the convergent/divergent production continuum. Convergent production is most often recognized as the "right answer." Divergent production is the creative alternative. In Guilford's test on the number of uses a subject can list for a brick, he scored divergent production as the number of different types of usage the subject identified. For example, an answer high on divergent production would include use of the brick to construct or build something, use of the brick as a weapon, as a weighted object, as a decorative object, as crushed powder for painting or marking, etc.

    Most school instruction that involves testing is heavily weighted toward convergent production, learning the "right answer." Few of our assignments and tests reward divergent production, finding new ways of looking at the problem or question. Guilford saw this as a severe limitation in the teaching of creative response. As we study theoretical approaches to women's issues, divergent production must be prized, for convergent production will often produce theories and approaches that are male-centered. Some of the approaches we consider may also carry with them increased affect, because there will be no "right answer" situatedness to provide the comfort of cognitive consistency.

    Study Questions

    12. Why would MacKinnon's statement that rape is about sexuality cause consternation?

    13. How does the argument that women can't make a commitment to a career because they have prior and conflicting commitments to their families exhibit a convergent pattern of thinking?

    6. Cognitive Dissonance Theory

    This is a theory we put to constant use in this text. Humans have an overall tendency to try to maintain consistency in their thoughts, values, and beliefs. When such consistency is impossible, there is a resulting discomfort. Jones and Gerard offer the following definition: Cognitive dissonance "refers to the state of tension generated when a person holds two cognitions that are inconsistent with one another. Inconsistency, within the framework of cognitive dissonance theory, refers to cognitions that carry contradictory implications for behavior." (p. 708)

    Consider an example. One of the cognitions might be: "I don't want to do the homework." The implication for behavior is not to do the homework. There is also another cognition, "If I don't do the homework I won't get credit it for it and that will seriously lower my grade in the course." the implication for behavior here is to do the homework. This is what cognitive dissonance theory calls a "forced compliance" task.

    The theory further posits that we tend to resolve the conflict by justification. That is, if we really need to do the task, in spite of our unwillingness, then we justify it to ourselves. We make up reasons why we should be spending our time this way so we won't fell so frustrated by it. We might tell ourselves it's actually good for us, it provides some useful knowledge, some useful practice in writing, etc. The harder we work at this justification the more likely we are to become convinced that the task was good for us, and to learn from it.

    Festinger studied this in an experiment in which he got people to eat grasshoppers. The more distant and forbidding the researcher who required that the subjects eat the grasshoppers, the more the subjects had to work at justification and the more they reported liking to eat grasshoppers afterwards. (Jones and gerard, p. 498) Festinger found that the nicer the researcher the more likely the subject to justify compliance as doing it for the researcher because he/she was so kind, so understanding, needed it, etc. That kind of justification tends to weaken the positive acceptance of the forced compliance task itself. Applied to the doing of homework that would suggest that if you do it for your teacher, or for extra credit, or for some other external justification, you will be less likely to come to like doing the homework, and probably learn less, since that would lead you to do it to please someone else rather than to take from the task itself what it can give you.

    We are hoping that the less you like doing the homework and the meaner we are about requiring it, the harder you will work at justification for doing it, and the more you will enjoy it and learn. Nice trick if it works, hmm?

    Duncan Kennedy describes another phenomenon that might relate to Festinger's work on justification and cognitive dissonance. Kennedy claims that students at Harvard Law rank as more popular conservative professors who act as authoritarians, who intimidate and bully them in the classroom, hewing closely to the inculcation of hierarchy. Such popularity is denied to the more liberal professors who dislike the enforced hierarchy and who therefore refuse to intimidate and bully their students. Kennedy's explanation is that "[a]s between conservatives and the mushy centrists, enemies who scare you but subtly reassure you may seem more attractive than allies not better anchored than yourself." He believes that students begin to worry that the liberals "niceness is at the expense of a metaphysical quality called rigor, thought to be essential to success on bar exams and in the grown-up world of practice." He sees the students as co-opted by the hierarchical system for which they are being indoctrinated. (Kennedy, in Kairys, David, Politics of Law, at p.40)

    A plausible extension of that explanation is that enemies who scare you make you work even harder at justification of what you are learning and the way you are learning it. Cognitive dissonance theory suggests that the appearance of greater popularity for the intimidating conservatives may not be as much ingratitude or co-optation as Kennedy believes. It might be the result of the cognitive dissonance resolution and justification. Recall that Festinger notes that kindness and caring on the part of the researcher weakens the justification effect. So also kindness and respect on the part of the liberal professor might weaken the justification effect, and so alter the perception of how much is actually learned.

    Giddens would say that sociology ought to make us all aware of such inconsistencies, as not appreciating the teacher who is kind enough not to intimidate and bully you, and then we could alter the normative ordering patterns that produce the justification task. Well, at least maybe the students could alter their evaluations of the teachers who try to help them through respect and humane treatment. Of course, then the whole system would change, and we as sociologists would have to start all over observing and critiquing it. But that's our job.

    Study Questions

    14. How could we use cognitive dissonance theory to explain the dilemma of a female trying to support her female colleagues in a hostile male working environment?

    15. Are there other theories that could explain this behavior and provide similar predictions?

    B. Theories on Knowledge and Affect

    1. Kurt Lewin's Field Theory

    Concept: Psychological life space. Lewin once explained this concept with the story of a group of male college students, probably in the 50s. The students lived in dorms, and one Saturday night played a practical joke on a friend by locking him in his dorm room. He had a date, but there was no phone in his room, so he couldn't call to cancel. At about ten the next morning one of the young men opened the door and walked into his friend's room. "What are you still doing here?" he asked. "You locked me in at seven last night," grumped the friend. "But," replied the young man, "we unlocked the door an hour later." (Curran recalls the story, but not the precise source.) The door was locked in the friend's psychological life space. As W.I. Thomas said, "When men believe situations to be real, they are real in their consequences."

    Powerlessness carries strong negative affect. We don't like to be powerless. Tugging at a locked door we cannot open is not a positive feeling. So often we just stop trying to open the door. It is on this basis that some have described a ghetto as existing in the mind of the person ghettoized. This is also one of the explanations for feminist literature demanding respect for woman's voice, woman's perception. To give voice is to allow the door to open. To listen respectfully to that voice is to remove the sense of powerlessness that came with the ever locked door.

    Definition: A person's life space consists of a set of valued possible activities, leading the person to move "from one activity to another in order to maximize satisfaction or minimize the frustration of a current need." [Jones and Gerard, p. 187.]

    Source: Alfred J. Marrow, The Practical Theorist, Basic Books, London, New York, 1969. pp.34-5.

    Elaboration: "Lewin held that the person's life space consists of a set of 'activities' potentially available to him at any given moment. Certain activities in the life space are perceived to lead to 'regions' that are positively valued, others to regions of negative value. Lewin referred to these values as 'valences.' He believed that at any given moment the person is in some activity region and in possession of needs that require some activity for their satisfaction. Behavior, he contended, involves moving from one activity to another in order to maximize satisfaction or minimize the frustration of a current need."

    Source: Jones and Gerard, Foundations of Social Psychology, John Wiley & Sons, Inc., New York, 1967, p. 187.

    Effects we can explain with the theory:

    1. The intimate association between affect and how we know. The concept of valences helps explain how affect is intimately connected to thought and belief systems. Think of our need to approach that which is pleasant, avoid that which is unpleasant. When could we explain an act of discrimination as an avoidance of negative feelings? Perhaps when we perceive others as different from ourselves, especially if that difference makes us uncomfortable because we perceive them as having more power, more strength, more opportunity, more social attractiveness, whatever. [Note that the negative affect is often mutual. The one discriminated against is apt to see the one discriminating as having more power, more opportunity. The one discriminating is apt to see the one discriminated against as having more ability to trigger protective social mechanisms, more ability to gain sympathetic responses from authority. As I have described them each sees the other as able to manipulate advantages to which the discriminator is not privileged.] Compare this to Feagin's description of discrimination as interest theory. When interests conflict we can move as in zero sum games where one side wins, one side loses, or in compromise and negotiation where each side gains some, and each side allows the other to gain some. Since the valences of behaviors and objects differ across life spaces we could agree to move in directions that maximize life space activity for all parties as in game theory.

    2. Unconscious benefits to those whom we perceive as like us. Milton Rokeach, in The Open and Closed Mind, notes that we tend to like others whom we perceive to be like ourselves. That means that we may grant advantages to someone we like because we make assumptions about him/her we do not make about those we perceive as different. The A student may be granted special courtesy on late work because the teacher knows that student always does his/her homework, always knows the answers, etc. But that same courtesy may not be granted the C student. The teacher in this case perceives the A student as being like herself, knowing the material. She perceives the C students as being different. Such subtle advantages are rarely conscious. We rarely critique the assumptions and theories on which we operate. Lewin would say that there is a positive valence attached to the A student.

      Rockeach also emphasizes the difficulty we experience in thinking outside the traditional patterns of the belief systems within which we have learned and function. As the poet might put it, elephants can fly, if we just believe they can. Nota bene: We are not discussing the elephant's self esteem. We are not discussing an alternate socially constructed reality in which we shall all agree that elephants can fly whether they really can or not. We are discussing our ability to perceive possibilities that are real, such as the suspension of gravity we learned with space exploration. Once we extend the limits of our belief system, old impossible things become possible, even ordinary. Einstein discovered relativity by imagining alternative ways to explain old theories. Lewin would say that negative valence would attach to the statement "Elephants can fly." One might be considered crazy [or a poet] for saying such a thing. Since it has negative valence we tend to stay away from the thought, and not to discover ways around impossibilities.