Tuesday, October 05, 2010

Nicolopoulou, Scales, & Weintraub - "Gender Differences and Symbolic Imagination in the Stories of Four-Year-Olds" (1994)

One of the side-effects of being married to a developmental psychologist with interpretive and socio-cultural inclinations who studies young children's play and narrative (Ageliki Nicolopoulou) is that, over the years, I have read hundreds of spontaneous stories composed by 3-, 4-, and 5-year-olds. They're fascinating in a lot of ways. Back in the early 1990s, when Ageliki was just getting started on this line of research, we even co-authored a piece about a body of childrens' stories that she had obtained—"Gender Differences and Symbolic Imagination in the Stories of Four-Year Olds" (published in 1994).

This piece has come up in a few conversations lately, and I think it should be of interest to a wide range of people (by which I mean just about everybody, including anyone who is ever around young children and/or who was ever a child). So it occurs to me that I should make it conveniently accessible.


In addition, below that is a letter I once sent to some friends that discussed this piece (among others), elaborated further on some of the issues it raises, and speculated a bit about some broader implications. Anyone interested in an introductory overview can have a look at that letter first ... or, if you feel so inclined, you can go directly to the article itself, which doesn't really need a lot of introduction.

As I said in the letter, we tried to work in as many of the children's stories as we could. I suspect very few readers will be able to get through the piece without laughing out loud at least once.

--Jeff Weintraub

[October 13, 2003]

Dear X & Y,

Here are some pieces that I think will interest you both as sociologists and as parents. I know enough about the realities of life to anticipate that your first reaction will be to put them on a pile for future reading (after which they will gradually disappear under other things-to-be-read-someday). But let me urge you to resist this impulse. At the very least, have a look at the first piece, "Gender Differences and Symbolic Imagination in the Stories of Four-Year-Olds"; once you get into the piece (and especially the children's stories quoted in it), I would guess you'll find it genuinely absorbing.

=> First, some background.

For a decade now the main focus of Ageliki's research has been on young children's narrative activities and their role in development. That is, her work comprises both (a) narrative development per se (i.e., children's acquisition and development of narrative skills and other related linguistic, cognitive, and symbolic abilities) and (b) the role of narrative in the larger process of children's socialization and development. Of course, in real life these two sides are closely interwoven and complementary, so she's tried to integrate them in her research--which is not that common. (She's also argued for the need to treat children's storytelling and pretend play as interwoven modes of their narrative & symbolic activity. Again, this might not sound radical or exotic, but on the whole the mainstream research literatures on children's play and narrative tend to be surprisingly segregated.)

Much of this work has centered on the analysis of a large body of data that Ageliki collected over the past decade from preschools in California and Massachusetts. These include over 3000 spontaneous stories composed and told by 3- to 5-year-old children in the course of an everyday classroom storytelling and story-acting practice (i.e., the stories are not elicited by adults in relatively artificial situations), combined with observations of the classroom activities, friendship patterns, play, and group life of the children involved. In the context of research on young children's spontaneous storytelling, I believe her collection is unique in terms of the quantity of stories per child that it includes, which is important for tracing longitudinal patterns. The circumstances in which the stories are composed also helps to make them exceptionally rich and illuminating.

Most of this research has been conducted in preschools serving children from largely middle-class and upper-middle-class back¬grounds, but in the late 1990s she was able to broaden the comparative scope of her data base by collecting stories composed this way by children in a Head Start class in western Massachusetts (where a former student of hers from Smith was a teacher). And last year she was able to establish some solid connections in the Philadelphia Head Start system, where (if she can get funded), she's opened up some exciting possibilities for a long-term research project.

The first two pieces here belong to what I described as category (b) above: i.e., they explore the role of narrative in the broader process of children's construction of reality and identity, particularly gender identity. These are the aforementioned "Gender Differences and Symbolic Imagination in the Stories of Four-Year Olds" (1994) and "Worldmaking and Identity Formation in Children's Narrative Play-Acting" (1997).

=> The "Gender Differences" piece is one (early) offshoot of this line of inquiry. With that piece, I went along for the ride, since there are a lot of theoretical angles that interest me (among other things).[1]
[1] In 1998 we also co-authored a theoretical article in Human Development on "Individual and Collective Representations in Social Context: A Modest Contribution to Resuming the Interrupted Project of a Sociocultural Developmental Psychology"(yes, I know that's a sprawling title) ... which might interest you at some point.

I suppose the grand way to describe Ageliki's subject here would be to say that it involves looking at the interplay between cognitive world¬making and identity formation in the development of children's symbolic imagination and group life, approached by treating their play and narrative activity as interwoven forms of socially situated symbolic action. One element of this project has been an inquiry into the developmental emergence of gender differences in symbolic imagination and in images of the social world (we might sum this up as "gendered images of order") based on the analysis of young children's spontaneous stories.[2]

[2] The stories in the "Gender Differences" piece came from children in the nursery school affiliated with [JW: confidential information deleted here]--than which there could not be a more relentlessly "enlightened," egalitarian, non-sexist, and progressive environment in North America. In fact, the place was so virtuously non-sexist that the teachers had never really noticed that the boys and girls were telling very different kinds of stories ... and at first were skeptical when Ageliki pointed it out to them. When you read the stories, you will appreciate the significance (and humor) of this fact.

The development of the argument in this particular piece was constrained somewhat both by space limitations and by the audience toward which it had to be angled (including both academics and child-serving professionals, predominantly psychologists and teachers). Aside from having to smooth over some of the complexities of the argument (which a well-tuned ear will probably be able to hear under the surface), space limitations meant that we had to sacrifice some really striking stories we wanted to quote and analyze (with great regret in some cases). But I think there is enough here for the flavor of the analysis to come through. And the children's own stories (we worked in as many as we could) are almost enough to carry the piece by themselves.

Actually, this kind of material is an absolute gold mine. The more time Ageliki spends with it, the more intriguing implications (for adults as well as children) and promising lines of investigation suggest themselves.

(Also, I am often reminded of Freud's remark about "the depressing contrast between the radiant intelligence of a healthy child and the feeble intellectual powers of the average adult," which invites us to consider what might account for what he calls "this relative atrophy.")

=> Ageliki has been continuing this line of inquiry (which also has a lot of facets not connected to gender, including the oral-language foundations of emergent literacy in early childhood).[2] In 1992-1996, while we were living in

[2] By the way, have you encountered Eleanor Maccoby's important 1998 book, The Two Sexes: Growing Up Apart, Coming Together? Maccoby (favorably) discusses Ageliki's gender-related work there and elsewhere.

western Massachusetts, she assembled a mountain of new data in collaboration with teachers at two preschools in Northampton and Amherst; and during 1997-1998, as I mentioned above, she and one of her graduate students gathered equivalent material from a Head Start program in Massachusetts, which should allow for some interesting comparisons (since the children involved obviously come from families with very different class and educational back-grounds).

"Worldmaking and Identity Formation in Children's Narrative Play-Acting" develops some aspects of the analysis in the "Gender Differences" piece more fully. It also breaks new ground by doing a more systematic job of situating the gendered patterns in the children's storytelling in the context of their group life and the dynamics of peer-group socialization. (Some recent pieces by Ageliki explore these dimensions of the subject even more fully and deeply ... but I figured enough is enough for the moment.)

=> I might mention that working with this stuff has strengthened a long-standing suspicion of mine that (at least in a considerable range of cultures and subcultures) the cognitive and emotional life of boys really is more chaotic and disorderly than that of girls, and therefore that imposing order on it is a more strenuous and violent experience. (I.e., Freud's account captures boys' experience more fully in this respect--as in various others.) On the other hand, if you look at the image of the world underlying these four-year-old girls' stories and compare it with that of the boys, what is striking is the extent to which, for the girls, (1) order is taken as largely achieved (so that it is not so urgent a problem) and (2) cognitive order is social order (or vice-versa).

(When I was at the European University in 1991-1992, I was talking about this with another visitor there who teaches in a law school in England, and who was trying to grapple with the latest agitations in feminist theory. She asked me: If girls are so preoccupied with order, why aren't all the judges women? Well, that's where some acquaintance with Freud's emphasis on the ambivalence and polarity of emotional life could be illuminating. I responded, only half-facetiously: If you look at the criminal courts, whom do you see? The judges are boys, by and large, and so are the criminals. That whole game of order and disorder is largely a boys' game. Meanwhile, girls seem to deal with it differently.[4])

[4] Which does not mean, by the way, that I think girls are necessarily 'nicer' than boys, on the whole. Even at very young ages, for example, girls are generally more effective at being sneaky, manipulative, and backstabbing than boys (which is partially a side-effect of the fact that they have better verbal and interpersonal skills and are more sensitive to the nuances of emotional interactions, about which boys tend to be pretty clumsy); and there is a remarkable amount of psychological cruelty in the processes by which girls form cliques, exclude 'unpopular' girls, and jockey constantly to see who is 'friends' and 'not friends' with whom. (In this connection, Christopher Lasch once wrote a brilliantly devastating review essay about the work of Carol Gilligan and her disciples dealing with adolescent girls, which appeared in the New Republic in 1992 or 1993 with the title "Gilligan's Island"--and I suspect from reviews that it may have been included in the posthumous collection of Lasch's essays, Women and the Common Life.) What I'm saying is that the ways that boys and girls handle aggression and conflict seem to be characteristically different. (And some of these differences seem to persist into adulthood. For example, women are still--in general, with due exceptions and qualifications--characteristically less enthusiastic about wars, violent crimes, and competitive team sports.)

(And here is a revealing and comical anecdote: One of the first occasions on which Ageliki publicly discussed this subject was a talk at the Ethnography in Education Association convention in Philadelphia back in 1990. The meeting was dominated by education people and other child-serving professional types, and the audience at the talk was about 80% women. When Ageliki had finished laying out the main argument, together with examples of the stories, one of the men in the audience stood up and made the following intervention--without any trace of irony or self-consciousness, as far as Ageliki could tell: He couldn't help noticing that the boys' stories were much more interesting than the girls' stories. How did she explain this? From all the women in the audience, silence. But after the question-and-answer period was over, a number of them came up to Ageliki and said they certainly hoped she didn't agree with him. They thought the girls' stories were much more interesting. So it almost seems, discouragingly enough, that the basic patterns are all fixed by the age of four. We need to figure out what we can do about this....)

=> Of course, dealing with these kinds of issues is extremely touchy and delicate, and talking about them is a little like negotiating a minefield. While "diversity" and "difference" are nowadays Good Things that one is supposed to favor, people often tend to get extraordinarily upset if you actually find any differences (especially in the circles to which Ageliki has to be sensitive).[5]

[5] Even someone like Barrie Thorne, who has done some really useful and interesting work analyzing the ways in which boys and girls build up and elaborate gender-segregated subcultures on their own initiative, and carefully police the symbolic boundaries between them, devotes a great deal of effort to complicating, muffling, obfuscating, explaining away, and generally backing away from some of the implications of her own findings. The kind of twisting and turning that's going on under the surface of the argument in, e.g., Gender Play (a very nice book) is actually quite fascinating to observe in terms of what it reveals about the ideological tensions involved.

And one of the reasons for this reaction is that people assume that, if such striking gender differences show up at such a young age, then this must prove that the differences are genetically hard-wired (so they don't want to accept the results, because of what they take to be their implications--while other people do want to accept them, for similar reasons). But, in fact, the inference is unwarranted.

What these patterns signify to me is that socialization starts very early, and in some ways goes very deep--all of which would be less mysterious to people if the insights of Freud, and of psychoanalysis more generally, hadn't been so thoroughly repressed in the last few decades. Actually, a lot has happened by the time children reach the age of four.[6]

[6] Of course, given what we know from the best ethological writing on our closest primate relatives (by people like Jane Goodall or Frans de Waal, for example), it would be remarkable if there weren't some genetic element in the mix that produces gender-linked tendencies in temperament and inclination. But I remain convinced that we are fundamentally social and cultural animals to a degree that makes us qualitatively different even from chimpanzees and bonobos.

=> If the "Gender Differences" piece had been directed at a different audience, we would have raised some of these larger issues more fully and explicitly, and done more than gesture vaguely at the extensive body of work that addresses them. But, under the circumstances, Freud--and Durkheim and Geertz, etc.--had to be smuggled in largely implicitly and administered in small and manageable doses; and, as it is, we may have strained our audience's ingestive capacity.[7] Ageliki will have to carry this further.

[7] Durkheim got his due, to some degree, in our article on "Individual and Collective Representations," of which he was the theoretical hero (though the thinker who got the most extensive discussion there was actually Piaget).

=> I've also enclosed a more recent article that Ageliki did with one of her graduate students, Liz Richner: "The Narrative Construction of Differing Conceptions of the Person in the Development of Young Children's Social Understanding." The analysis there builds on her previous work, including "Gender Differences," but it also accomplishes some genuinely new and interesting things--not least by going deeper into young children's gendered conceptions of the self or person than she was able to do before and, in particular, by starting to delineate their developmental pathways systematically. In its own way, this article is intended as a contribution to the project of developing a "morphology of persons" that Jerome Bruner called for in Acts of Meaning; and it pursues this enterprise through an interpretive and socio¬cultural analysis of young children's narrative construction of reality and identity. Actually, I think this is quite an important and pathbreaking piece.


This letter has gotten more than long enough, so I'll leave it at that. I do expect that you will find these pieces interesting and intellectually sympathetic. For a start, as I said, have a look at "Gender Differences." Take my word for it: Once you get into it, it will be hard to stop reading. And if it doesn't make you laugh at least once, I'll be surprised.

Best of luck in your life & work,
Jeff Weintraub