SSHRC funds critical studies of race and gender in psychology

Three York researchers have just received hefty grants to examine race and gender issues in psychology.

Professors Alexandra Rutherford and Thomas Teo, and graduate student Laura Ball have received a total of $265,000 from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC) to investigate the impact of feminism on psychology, how data is interpreted in race psychology, and the notion of male intellectual superiority in academia.

For 25 years, York’s innovative Department of Psychology has offered the only formal graduate program in Canada where students can pursue the advanced study of historical, theoretical, and metatheoretical topics in psychology. With three primary faculty members and over a dozen active graduate students, the program has its roots in the influential work of faculty pioneers David Bakan, Kurt Danziger and Ray Fancher.

This year, SSHRC has expressed its support of this unique approach by funding these three researchers in the History and Theory of Psychology Program for studies that critically examine race and gender issues in psychology.

Alexandra Rutherford

Prof. Alexandra Rutherford (right), along with Wade Pickren at Ryerson University, has been awarded $81,000 in SSHRC funding over the next three years to examine the history and impact of feminism on psychology.

She plans to trace the history of how psychologists have merged their feminist values with their work, and where psychology has been particularly resistant to feminist incursions. She intends to create a Web site and publish a book based on interviews with feminist psychologists about their history and contributions as feminist psychologists.

Rutherford hopes that by having contemporary feminist psychologists tell their own stories in their own words, she will be able to address a number of questions: How have feminists meshed feminism with psychology? How have they balanced the personal, the professional and the political? How have they served as gatekeepers and mentors, and forged relationships with both allies and antagonists of feminism? What roles have gender, ethnicity and sexual orientation played in their own work, and how have others perceived them and their work?

"It is important that these interviews, as well as informing my own work, reach a wider audience," says Rutherford. "Even in psychology, where women are beginning to exert important influence, it is almost taboo to declare oneself a feminist. Young women especially need to hear these stories of self-declared feminists, and how they have found a place – albeit sometimes uneasily – within psychology."

This project diverges from other scholarship addressing the relationship between feminism and psychology by asking feminist psychologists to turn the reflexive gaze on themselves and on psychology as a social practice. "From their stories we will gain insight into the diverse ways being a feminist, in all of its multiplicities, influences how and what we come to know in psychology," says Rutherford.

Thomas Teo

Prof. Thomas Teo (left) has been awarded $79,362 in SSHRC funding for a study called the History and Theory of Epistemological Violence in Race Psychology. Concerned with the quality of data interpretation in race psychology, Teo will address how data is interpreted throughout the history of race psychology. He bases his approach on the concept of epistemological violence – a concept he developed – in which researchers interpret the "Other" as problematic or inferior though data allow for meaningful alternative interpretations.

Teo’s research program has not only historical and theoretical significance but also draws attention to methodology. Interpretations allow data to be understood better than they present themselves. The problem is that data do not determine interpretations. Even the widely used Publication Manual of the American Psychological Association promotes speculation. Instead of criteria to determine what constitutes valid discussions, interpretations or speculations, the manual suggests that one is free to examine, interpret, and qualify the results, as well as to draw inferences from them.

From an educational point of view, Teo’s project will address a significant omission in psychology: Despite the huge number of didactic tools pertaining to method and methodology, empirical psychology has not developed textbooks, courses or training manuals for distinguishing good from bad interpretations of data, nor has it provided students and academics with clear criteria to evaluate their own interpretations. Using examples from the past and present, legitimate and illegitimate interpretations of data will be identified. Teo’s research will also provide a methodological reflection on guidelines for interpretations.

Laura Ball

Laura BallLaura Ball (left), a second-year master’s-level student in the History and Theory of Psychology Program, has been awarded $105,000 from SSHRC for a three-year study called The Gender Similarities Hypothesis and Tests of Equivalence. She aims to provide the first direct statistical evidence that genders are more similar than they are different.

Ball is challenging former Harvard University president Lawrence Summers suggestion that under-representation of women in academia and the sciences may be due to differences in innate ability. Ball’s research not only begins to provide empirical evidence to the contrary, but will also draw attention to the theoretical and methodological issues that have traditionally been ignored by researchers attempting to substantiate a male intellectual advantage.

Ball’s project will provide feminist psychologists doing empirical research with statistical support for their positions. In addition, it should encourage psychologists, particularly those involved in the gender-differences debate, to critically examine their theoretical assumptions and their methodology.