Theoretical Perspectives Of Gender Development

What are the processes that account for gender differentiation? This question has stimulated theoretical debates that continue in the field today. The beginning of the controversy over the relative influences of social and cognitive factors can be traced back to Maccoby's (1966) book The Development of Sex Differences. In one chapter, Walter Mischel emphasized environmental influences by using principles of learning theory (e.g., rewards, punishments) and modeling to explain sex-typed behavior. In another chapter, Lawrence Kohlberg proposed a cognitive-developmental theory based on Piagetian principles, highlighting how developmental changes in cognitive structures account for gendered behaviors. While both theories have moved toward a middle ground with social learning theory incorporating cognitive factors (i.e., social cognitive theory) and cognitive theories recognizing environmental influences, there continues to be inconsistencies and confusions in the literature regarding which factors play a necessary and central role in early gender development (see Martin, Ruble, & Szkrybalo, 2002). In fact, this controversy was recently revived with Bussey and Bandura's (1999) updated presentation of their social cognitive theory of gender development. In addition to providing a comprehensive explanation of their theory, they critiqued cognitive theories of gender development on theoretical and empirical grounds. In response to this critique, Martin et al. (2002) defended assumptions proposed by cognitive theories with a review of supportive research and by addressing misconceptions in the field. Although these two publications are directly linked to Mischel and Kohlberg's 1966 accounts, the degree of overlap is much greater and the possibility of a comprehensive and integrative theory of gender development does not seem far away (Martin et al., 2002 Powlishta, Sen, Serbin, Poulin-Dubois, & Eichstedt, 2001). In the next section, we briefly review the basic tenets of each of these theories and discuss the assumptions that guide our own research. Given that biological theories of gender development have appeared to build momentum in recent years, we also provide a short account of this view.

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