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Book Review   |    
Gender, Emotion, and the Family
Malkah T. Notman, M.D.
Psychiatric Services 2000; doi: 10.1176/appi.ps.51.7.946
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by Leslie Brody; Cambridge, Massachusetts, Harvard University Press, 1999, 359 pages, $45

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In the past two decades our understanding of gender issues has grown considerably. Questions such as whether gender differences are "essential"— that is, due to biological determinants— or are largely culturally determined, or whether there might be intermediate genders between male and female, have been widely discussed in the literature. This volume summarizes an enormous amount of the research about these issues, providing a valuable resource for those seeking to understand the current state of thinking in this provocative area.

The book is divided into three major parts: Nature and Extent of Gender Differences; Gender, Biology, and the Family; and Cultural Origins and Consequences of Gender Differences. In each part the author, an associate professor of psychology at Boston University, critically reviews and summarizes the literature. Dr. Brody argues that family and cultural context are critical for understanding the research findings, and that gender differences depend on the context— an important point that the author makes well. She brings together different frameworks to examine the expression of emotion and gender variables. Although some of these points are presented as though they are being made for the first time, in fact they have been in the literature for some time. For example, the interrelationships between biology, temperament, and socialization are well known; a child of a particular temperament and gender evokes particular reactions in his or her caretakers, and these reactions in turn further affect the child's development.

Dr. Brody does an excellent job of critically reviewing the literature on studies of emotional expression and the assessment of emotion by means of facial expression, verbal expression, voice quality, and behaviors. However, I wish she had addressed one particular problem with this research. Studies often are based on isolated measures or descriptions of subjects' reactions to particular stimulus situations, such as hearing about an episode of violence or seeing a provocative film. The subject's individual history is not taken into account, and the possible effects of differences in life experiences on responses are not considered.

For example, a woman who has experienced personal violence might have a different reaction to seeing a film of violence than would someone without such a history. The respondent's individual context might provide specific clues that would further clarify the meaning of the findings, and the findings' limitations could be recognized.

The book has some other specific gaps, such as instances in which the question of causality between correlated findings is not adequately explored. Also, cultural stereotypes sometimes enter the argument. The author is explicitly aware of both pitfalls, however.

The text would be enriched by some consideration of possible unconscious processes or other determinants of the emotions that are noted in self-reports. For example, someone who is asked to describe feelings and behaviors that may involve aggression, hostility, anger, competition, or fear may be uncomfortable acknowledging these feelings; some people may in fact have developed lifelong patterns that cover over such conflicted feelings or that shield their awareness of them. The underlying feelings may be recognized only in certain circumstances, or only if the subject feels comfortable. This complexity usually does not emerge on a rating scale or in a self-report. We depend on ratings and self-reports for research, but it is important to recognize the limitations of the data.

Gender, Emotion, and the Family offers a rich and thoughtfully presented review of a broad range of literature. The author's major points about the importance of context for assessing emotional experience and expression and the many dimensions of emotional expression are critically important in this area of inquiry.

Dr. Brody's conclusions are measured and comprehensive. "In brief," she remarks, "there are many provocative theories about why men and women have different motives, social roles, power, and status. No one of these theories can fully explain the complexities of sex differences in these processes, and we are forced to come back around to the idea that the origins of gender differences in emotional expressions lie in multi-dimensional interacting processes, including biological, cultural, and social forces." I strongly support this conclusion as well as Dr. Brody's point that complexity should not be simplified, and that the many variables in gender and emotional expression need to be considered and in some way integrated. We may be far from a final integration, but this book takes us a long way toward knowing and understanding the evidence. It will be extremely useful for any serious student of gender and emotion.

Dr. Notman is clinical professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School at Cambridge Hospital in Cambridge, Massachusetts.




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