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The History of Harvard's Commencement, Explained

Gilligan's Answers to Atlantic Attack Leave Critics Guessing

By Andrew K. Mandel and Zachary R. Mider, Crimson Staff Writerss

Carol Gilligan is Harvard's celebrated gender studies professor, Ms. Magazine's 1984 Woman of the Year and winner of the prestigious $250,000 Heinz award.

She is also a shoddy social scientist whose landmark work is "an extravagant piece of speculation" based on elusive empirical evidence, according to the Atlantic Monthly's May cover story.

In the past, Gilligan has answered her critics by emphasizing that her work rings true with readers--and dismissing claims that psychologists have been unable to replicate her findings.

Now, the 63-year-old Graham professor of gender studies emphasizes that her work is grounded in empirical research.

"I have accountability up the wazoo," she says. "My work is based on evidence, not orthodoxy."

And she is assailing the Atlantic's cover story and its author, Christina Hoff Sommers, whose attacks, she says, ignore the studies Gilligan published to back up her 1982 best-seller, In a Different Voice.

But Sommers stands by the Atlantic article, an excerpt from her upcoming book, The War Against Boys, and claims Gilligan is a "clever illusionist" who has not produced the studies that actually prove her controversial assertions about sex differences in moral reasoning.

At the crux of this she-said, she-said debate is a stack of interviews locked in the Harvard Archives, accessible only to those with Gilligan's expressed permission. Releasing this raw data may finally put an end to two decades' worth of scholarly speculation about the validity of In a Different Voice.

But, for now, Gilligan continues to keep her controversial research under wraps--and the accusations continue to fly.

Allegations From the Atlantic

Many psychologists have long considered Gilligan's In a Different Voice, which purported to uncover differences in moral judgment between men and women, to be extremely well-written--but scientifically unfounded.

"There are now dozens of studies regarding this claim, and I think it's fair to say that the vast majority do not find that these moral orientations are gender-related," says Lawrence J. Walker, a University of British Columbia professor of psychology who wrote a definitive study in 1984 casting significant doubt on Gilligan's theories.

"What has been frustrating for many scholars is Gilligan's unwillingness to deal with the psychological research, finding that she tends to dismiss it out of hand."

Some scholars examining In a Different Voice found Gilligan's work to be strong on style, but weak on solid evidence. Thick with references to classical literature, the book quotes from only a small group of interview subjects.

And those who wish to challenge Gilligan's conclusions by examining her raw research find her data "tantalizingly inaccessible," claims Sommers in May's Atlantic Monthly. Sommers cites an e-mail message from Gilligan's assistant, Tatiana Bertsch, last September stating that "none of the In a Different Voice studies have been published."

Gilligan and Bertsch now say the e-mail sent to Sommers' assistant, Hugh P. Liebert '01, was a misunderstanding.

Bertsch says she thought Liebert was writing a term paper and wished to examine Gilligan's confidential transcripts, which include 144 interviews with children, students and adults regarding moral decisions.

"The idea that this was going to be published in anything other than his homework--or maybe possibly his senior thesis--was never communicated," Bertsch says. "The words 'Atlantic Monthly' and 'book' were never mentioned."

Sommers says she told Liebert to identify himself only as a Harvard student--and never called Gilligan herself--because she assumed she'd be turned down.

But Sommers' failure to contact Gilligan personally even once spurred The Boston Globe's Alex Beam to dub the Atlantic Monthly's article an "attempted drive-by character assassination" in his column last Friday.

"You have to ask yourself, why is someone taking on a giant?" says Jean E. Rhodes, an associate professor of psychology at University of Illinois.

"There's an agenda here," she says, noting that both Sommers and Newt Gingrich are scholars at the same think tank, the American Enterprise Institute (AEI). "They get paid to defend the patriarchy."

The Devil's in the Details

But Gilligan admits that she would not have let Sommers, a former Clark University professor and current fellow at the AEI, see the data even if she had asked.

"First of all, I would say that she's not a psychologist," Gilligan says. "Second, what's her study?"

Indeed, only a select few have seen the interview transcripts that Gilligan interpreted when writing In a Different Voice.

Gilligan says she only gives researchers access to the transcripts if they have what she deems a legitimate research goal.

This includes, according to Gilligan, "20 to 30" dissertations and theses based on the work, and a few other published studies by colleagues.

Most of these studies confirm her findings, Gilligan says.

But Debra Nails, now an associate professor of philosophy at Mary Washington College, wrote in a 1983 Social Research article that Gilligan gave her access to some of her interview transcripts--and she found Gilligan's extrapolations highly subjective. "However prettily the literary criticism disguises itself as science, one cannot trust its conclusions," Nails wrote. "This type of research is social science at sea without an anchor."

John M. Broughton, an associate professor of psychology and education at Columbia and former Gilligan colleague, helped compile the raw data for In a Different Voice. He subsequently wrote a scholarly article finding fault with the book's conclusions.

"There was a tacit assumption that you would never say anything critical of the party line," Broughton says. "I broke that rule."

But Gilligan says that Broughton's study endangered the anonymity of subjects by quoting long passages from the transcripts without the subjects' permission.

Gilligan says the incident has heightened her diligence in guarding the sensitive transcripts-- she wouldn't let Sommers see her work for the same reason.

"I would not like to see paragraphs of some woman's abortion decision quoted in the Atlantic Monthly," she says.

Under Wraps

Meanwhile, in a letter to the editor to the Atlantic Monthly, Gilligan writes she is in the process of making her work more public, donating it to Radcliffe's Murray Research Center.

Murray Associate Director Jacquelyn B. James confirms that Gilligan has formally agreed to transfer much of her data to the Murray next month. But Gilligan will maintain oversight over who can access the research.

And the professor will not be handing over two of the three data sets from In a Different Voice.

"The discussion about the acquisition of her data has been going on for a long time (with long periods of dormancy), but Dr. Gilligan has said that confidentiality concerns prevented the sharing of her materials," James writes in an e-mail message. "She still has this view of In a Different Voice, and that is why she is not donating those materials."

Experts disagree over whether Gilligan ought to have released the data by now. Brendan A. Maher, Henderson professor of the psychology of personality emeritus, says he is "at a loss" to understand why the data hasn't been handed over already. "It is quite unusual," he says.

But Broughton says that roughly half of psychologists who do similar work never release their transcripts.

Paper Trail

Gilligan told The Crimson that the more detailed analysis of the transcripts, which she felt was irrelevant to the book's larger point, are available in seven smaller, separately-published studies.

If Sommers wants to question those studies, Gilligan says, go right ahead. She says her work is widely regarded.

"It has passed peer review and peer review and peer review and Harvard tenure review."

But Sommers counters that the majority of these articles were not "peer-reviewed," or scrutinized by colleagues before publication--not a small point, according to leading psychologists.

"The value of scientific communication and peer review is that...the data warrant the conclusions drawn," Walker says. "Gilligan is absolutely brilliant in interpreting and writing about these interview excerpts, but scholars in the field have no idea regarding the scientific integrity of the research that underlies these interpretations."

Three of the seven articles cited by Gilligan are, in fact, not peer-reviewed, according to research standards. One was a conference proceeding, and two others appeared in a publication called New Directions for Child Development.

"[That journal is] meant to be a sourcebook for just what it's called--new directions. It's for trying out untested ideas," says New Directions editor William V.B. Damon '67, also director of the Stanford Center for Adolescence. "I'm the only one who reads it for quality."

Sommers says three of the other articles Gilligan cites do not support the thesis of In a Different Voice.

But the final of the seven articles, published in 1988, is both peer-reviewed and supportive of the In a Different Voice argument.

That article also contains a description of Gilligan's methodology, which the Atlantic Monthly story claims has never been published. Gilligan says Sommers completely ignores this study.

Like much of Gilligan's work, however, the article has been challenged for its lack of conclusive evidence.

Reader Resonance

When her work was attacked in 1987, Gilligan said that even if scientists have challenged the book, its findings made sense to many readers. Many agreed that men and women might use two different styles of moral reasoning--"justice" and "care"--roughly divided along gender lines.

"The proof of the pudding is that her findings are meaningful to so many people," says Professor of Psychology Ellen Langer. "There are so few people that have made a contribution to the order that Carol has--regardless of any minor, or even major, experimental gap,"

"At the time, [Gilligan's work] was revolutionary. To nit-pick at it is to miss the point," agrees Rhodes.

Even some critical scholars are willing to ignore perceived empirical flaws and applaud Gilligan's contribution.

"She has been speaking a larger truth," says Stanford Professor of Psychology Eleanor Maccoby, who has criticized In a Different Voice for its weak empirical foundations. "Men and

women do have somewhat different orientations, different agendas, different modes of enactment, in their relationships with other people, and it is this side of her work, rather than the moral judgment issues, that she has been following up effectively in her more recent teaching and writing."

But some of Gilligan's colleagues say reader resonance is no substitute for hard data.

"Ideology--even ideology in the service of the oppressed--is a poor underpinning for research," Nails wrote in her 1983 study. "Let us beware most of all and criticize most effectively those with whom we yearn to agree."

And some feminists warn that Gilligan's assertions of differences between the sexes has actually encouraged a dangerous backlash toward biological determinism and traditional gender roles.

"It became easy to appropriate Gilligan's theories on behalf of discriminatory arguments that could cause real harm to women," writes Backlash author Susan C. Faludi '81, also a former Crimson editor.

A Cultural Blind Spot

But Gilligan says such arguments miss part of the point of her book. Many women's distinct moral outlooks--long considered deficient--should be seen instead as strengths.

Even more importantly, she says, her work leaves a larger legacy of expanding psychological theory, long reliant on male-only research, to include women's voices.

"It exposed a cultural blind spot," says Gilligan, pointing out that generations of psychological theory prior to her work had ignored female research subjects.

Gilligan has brought that legacy to New York University Law School, where she has been co-teaching a seminar on "issues of developing and expressing dissenting voice against the stereotypes of gender and sexuality" for the past two years, according to NYU Law Professor David Richards.

In fact, Richards says Gilligan will be relocating permanently to NYU soon, though Gilligan says she has not relinquished her Harvard post and plans to work at both schools half-time next year.

Walker agrees that Gilligan's work has changed the face of psychological debate today.

"Gilligan's theorizing has been very effective in drawing our attention

to a re-examination of gender differences and their significance, and to broadening our understanding of morality," Walker says. "In my view, however, her contribution to the field would be even much greater if she were willing to revise her ideas in light of other scholars' valid criticisms and the accumulated empirical evidence."

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