Theory-based practice and research in psychology are essential for testing specific hypotheses and conceptualizing relationships between variables. The utilization of theory is particularly important in understanding gender differences during development, as this developmental period plays a critical role in the thoughts, feelings, and perceptions of individuals during their adult years. Psychoanalysis and systems theory are two conceptual frameworks that have had substantial influence on the way in which these gender differences are perceived amongst psychologists. The purpose of this paper is to explore these two theories in more detail. The psychoanalytic and systems perspectives will first be compared and contrasted based on their views on the theory of development. Roles of caretakers during early development and this relationship's influence on different genders will then be explored. Finally, personal views related to the validity of each theory will be presented. This paper concludes with a brief summary and outline of key points.
Perhaps no other theory has had as much of an impact on psychology as the psychoanalytic perspective. While this theory has largely given away to more modern frameworks, such as cognitive theory and cognitive neuroscience, the psychoanalytic and psychodynamic theories remain a foundational developmental perspective within the field (Hansell, 2011). Originally developed by Sigmund Freud, the psychoanalytic perspective on gender development is primarily oriented to the physiological growth of the male or female sex organs, combined with the psychological development of sexual drive (Hansell, 2011). As with all aspects of development, gender identities are based on the successful navigation through five stages, including: oral, anal, phallic, latent, and genital. These stages are progressive in nature, and fixations occurring at one of these stages can result in lifelong behavioral differences (Martin & Ruble, 2011). According to the psychoanalytic perspective, maturation occurs through developing health outlets for one's biological and gender-oriented sexual urges (Martin & Ruble, 2011).
Systems theory, or systems psychology, has had a somewhat lesser impact on gender development (Leaper, 2011). According to systems theory, human behavior is a result of the interaction between multiple complex systems occurring both within, and outside, the individual (Leaper, 2011). Although systems theory is an umbrella term that encompasses sub-disciplines such as cognitive and family systems theories, some inter-theoretical consistencies can be found (Martin & Ruble, 2011). With respect to gender development, systems theorists contend that differences occur as a result of variations in how the systems that impact a particular individual interact (Leaper, 2011). The family is an example of a system that has a profound impact on one's gender identity, and systems theorists would suggest that the acquisition of varying gender roles is dependent on relationships occurring within this family unit (Leaper, 2011). For example, a young female's gender identity is likely formed through a healthy relationship with her mother or primary female caretaker (Martin & Ruble, 2011). However, as opposed to psychoanalytic theory, systems theory attempts to examine how individuals function within an entire system, rather than concerning itself with individual intellectual phenomena (e.g., the Oedipus complex).
Both psychoanalytic and systems theories place a high degree of importance on the caretaker in terms of fostering gender identities and developing gender differences (Martin & Ruble, 2011). In the psychoanalytic perspective, the caretaker essentially becomes the initial target of one's sexual desires, and gender identities are formed through the relationship that occurs between the caretaker and child (Martin & Ruble, 2011). The Oedipus and Elektra Complexes, in which boys develop sexual desires for their mothers and girls for their fathers, represent the quintessential psychoanalytic viewpoint of the caretaker's role in promoting gender identity (Hansell, 2011). Conflicts regarding these relationships may be the source of gender differences later on in life, according to the psychoanalytic perspective (Hansell, 2011). On the other hand, systems theorists would view the caretaker as just one component (albeit an important one) of a complex and dynamic network that impacts gender (Martin & Ruble, 2011). According to this perspective, an individual has an inherent need to self-regulate and seek homeostasis (Martin & Ruble, 2011). As gender identity develops in a young child, he or she will seek to minimize unwanted or unhealthy states in order to successfully balance the multiple interacting networks within his or her life (Martin & Ruble, 2011). Gender differences become natural responses to imbalances in the family network that ultimately become expressed biologically (Martin & Ruble, 2011).
Similarly, culture plays a critical role in the formation of gender differences according to each of these developmental theories. While the psychoanalytic theory is predominantly concerned with direct familial relationships and individual responses to each of the five developmental stages, cultural influences may still have an impact on gender differences (Hansell, 2011). For example, psychoanalysts would suggest that cultural conflicts related to one's sexual identity are likely to result in developmental fixations (Hansell, 2011). The degree to which an individual develops a health gender identity may be a direct result of these cultural conflicts (Hansell, 2011). From the systems perspective, widely shared cultural views related to gender are likely to influence an individual's social relationships and the manifestation of his or her gender identity (Martin & Ruble, 2011). As this individual seeks to self-regulate, cultural views and perceptions about his or her gender will have a high degree of salience and may substantially impact the resulting behaviors and attitudes about gender (Martin & Ruble, 2011).
In my view, no one theory is more valid than the other in terms of explaining gender differences and how gender identities are formed. While psychoanalytic theory aims to explore the unconscious and biological drives that impact gender, systems theory views how gender differences occur as a result of complicated systemic networks (Hansell, 2011). These theories are not in opposition to each other. Rather, they attempt to view gender from two relatively unrelated conceptual frameworks. One could easily share both psychoanalytic and systemic views of gender. Therefore, I feel that both psychoanalytic and systemic perspectives are equally valid for explaining the development of gender differences. For example, a psychoanalyst may view a young girl who possesses a fairly strong male-oriented gender identity as having experienced conflict with a female caretaker. The systems theorist may view this conflict as one element of a complex dynamic of networks that combine to shape this individual's gender identity.
The purpose of this paper was to compare and contrast psychoanalytic and systems perspectives on gender differences during development. While these two perspectives appear to differ, they are both equally valid in terms of explaining how gender identities form. While the psychoanalytic perspective is concerned with the individual, biological factors, the systemic perspective is oriented toward the complex relationships that occur between the multiple networks within an individual’s life. Each theory provides numerous avenues for future research and should be equally valued by researchers and practitioners within the field.
Hansell, J. (2011). Where sex was, there shall gender be? The dialectics of psychoanalytic gender theory. The Psychoanalytic Quarterly, 80(1), 55-72.
Leaper, C. (2011). Research in developmental psychology on gender and relationships: Reflections on the past and looking into the future. British Journal of Developmental Psychology, 29(2), 347-356.
Martin, C. L. & Ruble, D. N. (2010). Patterns of gender development. Annual Review of Psychology, 61, 353-381.