Gilligan's In a Different Voice

Reading Questions

If there is such a thing as a current classic, this text is one of them. Gilligan's book is a complaint against the male centered personality psychology of Freud and Erickson, and the male centered developmental psychology of Kohlberg. Her complaint is not that it is unjust to leave women out of psychology (though she says that). Her complaint is that it is not good psychology if it leaves out half of the human race.

Gilligan proposes a stage theory of moral development for women. If you know anything about developmental psychology, you know stage theories are important. But in fact there are alternatives to stage theories that we will not cover in this class. Much of the research in current developmental psychology is not focused on stages, and does not assume their primacy in explaining developmental progress. Instead, many developmental psychologists look carefully at how some particular skill (e.g. drawing, abstract thinking, thinking about other people, making excuses, helping others) develops over time. Much of this research suggests that the stage theories are too simplistic in their picture of changes in skills, attributes, and competencies over time.

Piagetian Stages of Cognitive Development
Age Rang
Typical Developments
Birth to age 2

Children develop the concept of object permanence and the ability to form mental representations.

Age 2 to 7

Children's thought is egocentric; they lack the concept of conversation and the ability to decenter.

Age 7 to 11
Concrete Operations

Children can decenter; they acquire the concept of conversion; but they cannot reason abstractly or test hypotheses systematically.

Starts at age 11 or 12
Formal Operations

Children begin to reason abstractly.

source: Adapted from Piaget & Inhelder (1968).

So where did the whole idea of stages come from? Switzerland and Jean Piaget. Piaget was a careful observer of children's thought and behavior in a wide variety of circumstances. His work is so vast that any claim to describe it in a few pages must fail. So I won't. I will instead talk about Piaget-for-us, which is fine, since American psychologists have regularly borrowed from Piaget what they liked and left much behind. For us, Piaget's central claim was that increases in reasoning skill over time were punctuated by shifts in perspective that could only be called qualitative change from one stage (or "type," if you will) of thinking to another. This is a thoroughly cognitive theory; Piaget could ignore the behaviorists from his mountain fastness in Switzerland. For Piaget, children start out as concrete and egocentric thinkers (infants even have to learn that objects persist when they are out of sight). As they gain more cognitive ability with age, they begin to be able to "decenter" and see things from another perspective. But they are still concrete in their approach to things. More experience and (here is a key) some cognitive reorganization eventually allow most people to become abstract thinkers.

So what does this have to do with Carol Gilligan and women? We are getting there. Gilligan was a student of Lawrence Kohlberg. and Kohlberg applied Piaget's theory to the development of moral thinking. Borrowing from Piaget's "preoperational/concrete/formal" distinctions Kohlberg came up with the stage theory you see here.

Kohlberg Stages of Moral Development
Approximate Age Range
Birth to 9

1) Avoid punishment
2) Gain Reward

Age 9 to 20

3) Gain Approval & Avoid Disapproval
4) Duty & Guilt

Age 20+ maybe never

5) Agreed upon rights
6) Personal moral standards

The preconventional moral stage, says Kohlberg, is based on the cognitive abilities of a person in Piaget's concrete operational stage. Moral decisions are egocentric (based on me) and concrete. So you can see how reward and punishment are the typical bases of reasoning in this stage. The conventional stage is based on the children's ability to "decenter" their moral universe and take the moral perspective of their parents and other important members of society into account. The postconventional stage is based on the adult's ability to base morality on the logic of principled decision making based on standards that are thought to be universalizable and not dependent on culture. Kohlberg's system was based on extensive research he and his students did with interviews in which they asked children and adults to give the reasons they had for moral decisions Kohlberg presented them with. So his stages and ages do not correspond exactly from Piaget, but you can see a tantalizing similarity.

Now we finally get to Gilligan. As a student of Kohlberg's, Gilligan was taken by the stage theory approach to understanding moral reasoning. But she disagreed with her mentor's assessment of the content of the moral system within which people developed. If you look at the table of Kohlberg's stages, you can see the question being answered in the third column is one of justice - the fourth stage gives this away with talk about duty and guilt. "What are the rules of the game?" seems to be the issue at hand. From her careful interviews with women making momentous decisions in their lives, Gilligan concluded that these women were thinking more about the caring thing to do rather than the thing the rules allowed. So she thought Kohlberg was all wet, at least with regard to women's development in moral thinking.

What set her off in thinking this was the fact that in some of Kohlberg's investigations, women turned out to score lower - less developed - than did men. Were women really moral midgets? Gilligan did not think so. In taking this stand, she was going against the current of a great deal of psychological opinion. Our friend Freud thought women's moral sense was stunted because they stayed attached to their mothers. Another great developmental theorist, Erik Erickson, thought the tasks of development were separation from mother and the family. If women did not succeed in this scale, then they were obviously deficient.

Gilligan's reply was to assert that women were not inferior in their personal or moral development, but that they were different. They developed in a way that focused on connections among people (rather than separation) and with an ethic of care for those people (rather than an ethic of justice). Gilligan lays out in this groundbreaking book this alternative theory.

Gilligan's Stages of the Ethic of Care
Approximate Age Range
not listed
Goal is individual survival
Transition is from selfishness -- to -- responsibility to others
not listed
Self sacrifice is goodness
Transition is from goodness -- to -- truth that she is a person too
maybe never
Principle of nonviolence: do not hurt others or self

Thus Gilligan produces her own stage theory of moral development for women. Like Kohlberg's, it has three major divisions: preconventional, conventional, and post conventional. But for Gilligan, the transitions between the stages are fueled by changes in the sense of self rather than in changes in cognitive capability. Remember that Kohlberg's approach is based on Piaget's cognitive developmental model. Gilligan's is based instead on a modified version of Freud's approach to ego development. Thus Gilligan is combining Freud (or at least a Freudian theme) with Kohlberg & Piaget.

In reading Gilligan and understanding her place in psychology, you may yourself come face to face with an intellectual difficulty. The momentous life decision that Gilligan looks at in her central study was that of whether or not to get an abortion. It seems clear from Gilligan's comments in her text that she is a supporter of a women's right to choose. Those of you who agree with her will have less trouble seeing the logic of her system. Those of you who disagree will have to get past the disagreement on this important ethical issue to see if there is anything interesting psychologically in what Gilligan has to say.

Here is my pitch for the psychologically interesting. Gilligan has shown that Kohlberg's (and Freud's, and Erickson's) systems are based on a male-centered view. Kohlberg built his theory based on interviews with males only. She has certainly shown us the inadequacy of that. In addition, she has broken the idea that there is only one dimension of moral reasoning. If there can be two, why not three? Why not several? Finally, she has connected moral decision making back into concerns about both the self and the social environment in which the self lives.

One more item before we get to the book itself. Most psychologists now disagree with the empirical claim that men and women differ in their moral reasoning in the way Gilligan outlines. Several studies have now found both men and women using both justice and care dimensions in their moral reasoning. There have also been criticisms of the rigor of her interview method of research. More careful researchers are now cleaning up behind the trail she blazed.

Gilligan's argument in the text

The first chapter is the most dense and will require the closest attention. But you will find choice tidbits here about her opinion of Freud and Erickson. And you will find what she uses of Freud's approach and what she discards. Her basic claim is that women have no place in these earlier theories and that this is why women's development has been considered an aberration from the normal. Make sure you follow the logic of her critique of the "fear of success" issue. This is a classic critique of psychological theory: women are different, but they are not thereby inferior. Toward the end of the chapter she introduces us to a favorite form of argument: extensive quotes from interviews with interspersed comment. As you read these quotes try to decide if you see the same thing in them that Gilligan sees.

Images of relationship introduces us to a central claim that Gilligan wants to make: men and women view relationship differently. Current research agrees with Gilligan that there is a difference, but the difference is more complex than Gilligan suggests (or can suggest) in this chapter. The TAT study is a classical social science style experiment. Different conditions produce a difference in the measured variable. However take a close look at the percentage differences she reports. How large are they?

In concepts of self and morality Gilligan introduces the abortion study and lays out the sequence of development you saw in the table above. You have two basic issues to grapple with here. First, make sure you understand how Gilligan's system is both similar to and different from Kohlberg's. How does the meaning of conventional change from one system to the other? Second, make sure you understand how the woman's self concept is involved in each of the stages and in the transition from each stage to the next.