Theories of Personality:
a Feminist Perspective

Dana Brunanski
Departments of Psychology and Women's Studies
Simon Fraser University


Feminism and philosophy of science
Feminism and theories of personality
About the author


Feminists have argued that traditional, or mainstream, personality theories such as classical psychoanalysis, behaviorism and phenomenology [Aside: In this essay I am referring primarily to theories of personality as they are presented in a standard undergraduate survey course. I realize that the critique may apply to a lesser (or greater?) degree to more contemporary incarnations of the various theories] are not adequate from the perspective of feminist theory. Personality theories in psychology attempt to provide global descriptions and explanations of human functioning. Feminist theory, on the other hand, attempts to describe and explain the historical and contemporary oppression of women and other groups, and to suggest methods for social change. In this essay, I will examine aspects of the feminist critique of personality psychology, and science in general. I will begin by describing some of the assumptions of feminism and of a related movement, social constructionism. I will describe the challenges feminism presents to logical positivism, the philosophy of science which lies at the base of much conventional psychological discourse. Feminists have questioned positivist beliefs about the role of values in science and the presumption of objectivity. They have pointed out the androcentric bias that results from male psychologists developing theories based on male standards of functioning. They have also criticized psychology's focus on the individual and its resultant exclusion of contextual factors from explanations of human functioning. Finally, feminism requires that a theory of personality be relevant to ALL people's lives and that it has implications for social change. Many feminist psychologists are unsure as to whether revising traditional theories will ever meet these criteria.

Feminism and Philosophy of Science

This wave of the feminist movement began in the 1960s, as women became dissatisfied with such things as their role in the traditional family, their treatment in the workforce and academia, and being treated as inferior by male activists in the civil rights movement. Through their involvement in "consciousness raising" groups women realized that they were not alone -- not crazy or deviant as psychologists and others might say. Consequently feminists began to examine traditional psychological theories, from both inside psychology as academics and practitioners, and from outside the discipline, through such diverse areas as interdisciplinary women's studies, sociology, philosophy, patient and survivor groups, and rape crisis centres. Feminism is an ideology which emphasizes the goal of equality among all people, examines issues of oppression and power, and values the experience of women and other traditionally underrepresented groups as important and appropriate topics for scholarly inquiry. Feminism is also a social-political movement which strives to improve the lives of women and other oppressed groups and to bring about equality in all facets of society (Peplau & Conrad, 1989). However, feminism is not a homogenous movement: different varieties include liberal, cultural, radical, and socialist feminism. These feminisms differ terms of the factors they focus on to explain the nature, causes and consequences of women's oppression and the strategies they espouse for social change (Enns, 1992). In general, feminist theories tend to focus on the social, economic, cultural, political, institutional, and structural contexts that form and define the lives of individuals (Ballou, 1992). A key slogan of this wave of the Euro-North American feminist movement is "the personal is political". This refers to the belief that one's own experience is important and is partially the result of larger socio-economic forces (Brown & Ballou, 1992). This has implications for personality theories, as it means that personal experience cannot be explained solely with reference to such things as intrapsychic conflicts, personal social learning history or perceptions of the world and degree of actualization.

Many feminists also subscribe to a social constructionist perspective. According to Gergen (1985), the assumptions of a social constructionist orientation include: (1) the view that what we know of the world is determined by the linguistic and conceptual categories we possess to define it, (2) concepts and categories of understanding are social artifacts, the product of historically situated interchanges among people, (3) the degree to which a particular way of understanding prevails is dependent more on the vagaries of social processes than on its empirical validity, and (4) ways of understanding are of critical significance in social life. Social constructionism is a fundamentally contextual way of knowing. It suggests that in order to understand meaning and categories of understanding we must look at the social processes through which they arise (Lyddon, 1991). This view suggests that concepts such as gender and identity are not essential or biologically determined, but rather arise out of social, political, and structural contexts. Thus, a social constructionist view of theory building demands that we examine the sociocultural context when describing human personality (Espin & Gawelek, 1992).

Feminism and social constructionism are among several movements that have challenged the positivist roots of conventional psychology, with its reliance on mechanism, physicalism and reductionism, its focus on the individual and its reliance on the experimental method, prediction and control (Lyddon, 1991; Parlee, 1979). Aspects of the logical-positivist view of science have dominated much of personality theory, especially behaviorism. Logical positivism is a philosophy of science which rests on the assumptions that the function of science is to discover the laws governing the relationships between observable behavior, that the laws or principles should be consistent with empirical fact, and that scientific knowledge is cumulative. Topics that are seen as appropriate to positivist psychology tend to be those that can be controlled in an experiment -- phenomena that are easily abstracted from the complex, rich and varied world of human experience, simulated in laboratory experiments and analyzed using traditional concepts (Parlee, 1985). Valuing the mixed, ambiguous or marginal does not fit into a logical positivist framework, which assumes the existence of one truth (Brown, 1989). Furthermore, from within a logical positivist framework, values are not seen to play a role in science (Lyddon, 1991).

In contrast, feminists (and others) have pointed out that assumptions and values are extremely influential in the scientific process. They argue that there is always a connection between the implicit assumptions of theorists and researchers and both the content and methodology of their work (Lott, 1985), pointing to research such as that done by Rosenthal in the 1960s which demonstrated the role of experimenter expectation in the research process (Weisstein, 1993). Science is a social activity and scientific knowledge is, at least in part, a product of socially organized activities that reflect and embody values and goals (Parlee, 1985). Kuhn (1970) argued that scientific inquiry is conducted in small, specialized groups of scientists who share a paradigm, which is a framework or "disciplinary matrix" involving common assumptions, shared values, "exemplars" and rules of procedure. Ordinary scientific inquiry involves puzzle solving within an established paradigm which is generally not questioned and may even be preserved by disregarding evidence that challenges it. Sometimes anomalies lead to a period of crisis, which is resolved by a total reorganization, or scientific revolution. Thus, science is a social enterprise often characterized by conservatism (Paranjpe, 1994). This view is consistent with a Weltanschauugen philosophy of science, which challenges the logical-positivist assumption that scientific knowledge is value-free, and points out that any theory or "fact" is embedded within a particular philosophical, historical and/or cultural context, i.e. zeitgeist. Both feminism and the Weltanschauugen perspective raise serious criticisms of the presumed objectivity in science, by pointing out how values influence research and how science is a socially constituted activity (Lyddon, 1991).

Feminism and Theories of Personality

One way in which psychology's (and other sciences') presumed objectivity is revealed is by the erasure of subjective position, as in the avoidance of "I" and "me" in academic discourse. Every time I write "this essay intends to..." or "the author" it erases who I am, and what my effect is on the outcome. It is because of who I am -- a young, white, Western, feminist woman -- that I write what I write. My subjective position influences what I choose for my focus for analysis and even how I choose my references. Likewise, the views of the world and human nature presented by the white, able-bodied, heterosexual, upper-middle-class, educated European and American men who have been the major theorists in psychology have been necessarily limited by their experience and subjective position (Ballou, 1992). For example, Freud's focus on repressed sexual instincts can be linked to the sexually repressive Victorian society in which he lived. The emphasis in behaviorism on behavior, rationality and science reflects white, male, European- American values (Kantrowitz & Ballou, 1992). Basic humanistic concepts such as the actualization of one's potential are directly compatible with the values of the U.S. middle-class in the late 20th century (Lerman, 1992). Thus, far from being objective, mainstream psychology reflects a white, masculine bias (Brown, 1989).

Feminist critiques of psychology have pointed out that a male standard has been used throughout the history of the discipline, which "promoted a White, middle-class, heterosexual, able-bodied male norm, often referring even more specifically to college sophomores" (Yoder & Kahn, 1993, p. 846). Thus, women and other non-normative groups have been ignored or treated as deviant or exceptions in mainstream personality theories. For example, the concept of the Oedipus complex was developed in reference to males, then contorted in an attempt to describe the female variation. In research, characteristics such as gender and race have often been treated as extraneous variables to be controlled, or as "difference" variables (Espin & Gawelek, 1992). The traditional convention has been to generalize studies of men to all people, while generalizing studies of women or people of color to only women or people of color. If a theory applies only to particular men, how can it be considered a global theory of personality? Rather, it is merely a description of the normative development of a particular, privileged group of people. Yoder and Kahn (1993) point out that the consequences of using a such a limited yardstick to measure personality are in faulty generalizations, exaggerations of difference, and evaluations of deficiency.

Psychology has often failed to engage with the lives of women, and when it does engage the result is usually distortion and damage. Traditional personality theories may be irrelevant or perhaps even harmful to women and other non-normative groups, especially through the popularization of psychological ideas (Wilkinson et al., 1991). For example, Freud's switch from talking about actual childhood sexual abuse to talking about imagined abuse and Oedipal fantasies was a key factor in the widespread disbelief by therapists and the general public of women's (and men's) claims of child sexual abuse. Psychology as a discipline plays a major role in maintaining the status quo (Kahn & Yoder, 1989). For example, psychology is often used to develop and justify public policy. Psychologists themselves are well-educated, middle and upper class, traditionally male, usually white, and often Euro-American. These are privileged characteristics in contemporary society, thus it is in many psychologists' interests to maintain the status quo and their privilege resulting from it (Parlee, 1979). Thus the views of male experts often reflect the conservative cultural consensus (Weisstein, 1993).

Mainstream personality theories have tended to define the individual as the appropriate unit of analysis for understanding human functioning. Psychoanalysis defines early family relations as crucial, behaviorism identifies personal learning history as determining and phenomenology assumes an innate personal growth principle as fundamental. All of these explanations emphasize variables in or immediately around the individual. This focus on the individual does not allow psychologists to easily examine the cultural and historical context surrounding the individual, and thus minimizes the impact this context might be seen to have in shaping personality and behavior (Kahn & Yoder, 1989). It also promotes an ideology of individual responsibility (blame?) for success and failure (Brown & Ballou, 1992). For example, a focus of theory and research on gender differences and personality of women rather than the society which oppresses women functions to blame women for their position in society (Kahn & Yoder, 1989). Another example is the suggestion that is made by mainstream therapists that change will occur through uncovering our personal unconscious, modifying our adaptive functioning, or changing our perceptions. These all ignore the importance of larger socio-cultural factors in the development and maintenance of psychological distress (Kantrowitz & Ballou, 1992; Lerman, 1992). Thus they impart a vision of social change through individual action that does not challenge basic societal values (Kahn & Yoder, 1989). The focus on the individual may also been seen as a mechanism for maintaining social order and conformity, by naming certain characteristics (usually those of the dominant group) as signs of health and effective functioning. For example, behaviorism employs a normative criterion of health. Consequently, individuals are expected to modify their adaptive functioning to the environment -- an expectation which serves to reinforce the dominant social standards (Kantrowitz & Ballou, 1992). In general, "the individual focus in traditional personality theories serves to hold people accountable for their adjustment to externally imposed criteria for health while avoiding the social/economic/class-based/gender-based/racial/cultural relativity of those criteria" (Brown & Ballou, 1992, p. xii).

Decontextualization is a trademark of traditional positivist science. Examples from disciplines such as physics and statistics are numerous. Both are characterized by laws and procedures which assume that all else is held constant, even though in the real world nothing ever is. The experimental method itself can be described as context- stripping, as it strives to lift phenomena out of their context (controlling all extraneous variables), thus stripping them of the very complexity that characterizes them in the real world (Parlee, 1979). While this may be acceptable in physics where the subject matter is non-human, psychologists are attempting to explain human beings who are not merely objects moving according to laws of nature. We are also active interpreters of experience who respond to others' intentions, in a way that atoms and molecules do not. We are sentient beings. Social conventions have as much to do with human behavior as "laws of nature" (Paranjpe, 1994). In fact, social context may be the most important predictor of behavior (Weisstein, 1993). Thus, human psychology has a considerably different subject matter than that of physics, and should thus be treated differently. The practice of psychology would benefit from both the approach of the natural sciences, which views humans as objects, and that of the humanities, which views humans as subjects and interpreters (Paranjpe, 1994).

To understand human beings, psychologists must look away from theories of causality based on inner dynamics and towards the social context within which individuals live, including issues such as roles, social expectations and authority (Weisstein, 1993). Of course, we cannot focus only on social context and structural factors, ignoring personal history and development. Analysis must proceed on several levels with the goal of integration (Mednick, 1989). Thus interdisciplinary communication is crucial. To understand humanity we must look at the social, political, economic, cultural and historical forces that have drawn lines among people -- lines of gender, race, class, (dis)ability and sexuality, to name only a few. In order to understand these power differentials and other complex social phenomena psychologists can not ignore the perspectives of other disciplines such as philosophy, sociology, anthropology, history, economics, political science, and interdisciplinary women's studies. Arbitrary boundaries of knowledge decontextualize the subject matter: "the separation of disciplines and levels of discourse typical of mainstream models blocks the understanding of links, patterns, and interactions" (Brown & Ballou, 1992, p. xi).

Two important criteria for a feminist assessment of psychological theories are their contribution to feminist transformations and their relevance and implications for all women's lives (Kitzinger, 1991). Not only does feminist theory suggest that all science is based on values, it suggests that feminist science would have social change as one of its goals. Scholarship that does not work to end oppressions should be reconsidered as to its worth. This explicit political agenda would be criticized by many who see science and politics as belonging in separate spheres. But, as I've discussed, feminists believe that it is important to recognize and acknowledge one's subjective stance (Espin & Gawelek, 1992). Thus, feminist psychology prescribes an explicit discussion of values and political commitments, rather than denying, disguising or justifying them, with reference to the 'facts' (Wilkinson et al., 1991). Many feminists, myself included, would argue that no theory of personality, even the latest revisions, meets the second criterion of being relevant to all women's (and men's) lives (Walker, 1992). Perhaps theories could be broadened to include a more diverse sample of humanity and levels of analysis beyond the individual, but I am not convinced that any of the traditional (mainstream) paradigms are modifiable into truly feminist models. As Ballou (1992) argues: "certainly phallic towers can be rounded", but adequate modifications would require "change in contextual and structural metaphysics as well as epistemological expansion" (p. 6). Perhaps entirely new paradigms are needed.


This essay has examined the feminist critique of traditional theories of personality. Feminism is an ideology and a social movement that is concerned with the oppression of women and other groups. Feminists point out the importance of sociopolitical factors in the construction of individual lives, thus the slogan: "the personal is political". Feminism is related to social constructionism, a philosophical movement which asserts the social origins and context of knowledge. Both feminism and social constructionism have criticized the logical positivist roots of conventional psychology, questioning the validity of assumptions about science as a value free and objective enterprise. These assumptions lead to the erasure of the subjective position in psychological discourse. But the fact that psychology has traditionally been practiced by white, middle or upper class, heterosexual, able-bodied, European or American males has created a psychology filled with many androcentric biases. Thus, feminism prescribes the explicit acknowledgment of one's subjective position in opposition to these "objective" models of "mainstream" psychology.

Traditional psychology has taken the individual as its unit of analysis. The implications of this limited focus have included blaming the individual for her or his failure to adapt, the promotion of conformity to conservative forces and the omission of structural and contextual factors in explaining human functioning. Decontextualization is a trademark of positivist science. Feminism, on the other hand, argues for the production of analyses on several levels and thus, the importance of interdisciplinary communication. Central criteria for a feminist theory of personality are that it be relevant to all women's (and men's) lives and that it contributes to feminist transformations. It is unclear as to whether any of the traditional theories can be successfully modified to meet these feminist requirements. Perhaps entirely new paradigms are necessary.

About the Author

Dana Brunanski is a third year undergraduate student majoring in psychology and women's studies. She is interested in the revisioning of traditional psychological theory within a interdisciplinary feminist framework. Her main focuses (at this point) are theoretical issues, clinical psychology, gender, and sexuality. She intends to pursue graduate studies in clinical psychology, and become a feminist therapist, professor, and researcher.


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