Expanding the Circle - Kate Thomas
Agency and Communion as Conceptual Coordinates for Measuring Masculine and Feminine Behavior
I have recently taken two occasions to talk to undergraduate students about agency and communion as integrative meta-constructs using Wiggins’ (1991) seminal article to anchor our discussion. In both my large lecture class and my small lab discussion, among the first ideas students wanted to discuss involved the overlap and distinctions between agency/communion and masculinity/femininity, respectively. Whereas students in both groups seemed intrigued by the idea that agency is typically a more masculine trait and communion a more feminine trait, Wiggins (1991) argued that the Bem Sex Role Inventory (BSRI; Bem, 1974) measures dominance and nurturance, and seems to do so with greater validity after removing the items “masculine” and “feminine” from the measure. In our lab meeting, students and I wondered whether stereotypes exist such that women higher in masculine traits, and/or men higher in feminine traits, are viewed more negatively. Some students argued passionately that such biases clearly exist and have very real implications, like how our expectations and judgements differ for male and female professors and presidential candidates. Interesting and important as these ideas may be, I would rather talk meta-analyses than politics in this column. In particular, I want to expand the circle by considering how recent results from a meta-analysis on masculine and feminine traits (Donnelly & Twenge, 2016) build upon Wiggins’ (1991) argument regarding how these domains relate to agency and communion and provide potentially ripe hypotheses for future research rooted in interpersonal theory.
For their study, Donnelly and Twenge (2016) collected two samples to examine the stability of young adults’ scores on the BSRI, and thus their potential changes in self-reported masculinity and femininity in recent decades. Combining data from 34 samples (n = 8,027 participants) collected between 1993 and 2012, they found that men’s self-reported masculinity and femininity scores have not changed. In contrast, women reported significantly lower levels of femininity over time (d = -26), but did not change in their self-reported masculinity. Additional results from an expanded meta-analysis including 94 samples (n = 24,801 participants) collected between 1974 and 2012 also suggested that men’s self-reported masculine and feminine traits have remained stable over the last four decades, whereas women’s self-reported masculinity has increased during this time period (d = .23). These effect sizes are small, but they suggest that young adult women are significantly less likely to endorse feminine traits and more likely to endorse masculine traits than in prior decades.
Given Wiggins’ (1991) argument and his results from prior studies (Wiggins & Broughton, 1985; Wiggins & Holzmuller, 1981) indicating that the BSRI measures the core interpersonal dimensions of agency and communion, results from Donnelly and Twenge’s (2016) meta-analysis may suggest that women report higher levels of dominance and lower levels of nurturance now than they reported in prior decades. The authors discuss the possibility of updating the BSRI to measure more current conceptualizations of masculinity and femininity; however, an alternate approach is to consider, as Wiggins’ suggested, separating rather than integrating the assessment of masculinity and femininity from the assessment of dominance and nurturance. For instance, does research using explicitly interpersonal measures (e.g., the Interpersonal Adjectives Scale) also similarly indicate that women report more dominance and less nurturance now than they reported twenty years ago, and that men’s scores on these traits have remained stable?
Academics are often accused of talking mostly to themselves and not about “real-world” problems. I think as interpersonal theorists we are uniquely well-positioned to connect our ideas and research to both lay audiences and to “real-world” issues, given the relative simplicity but comprehensiveness of our theoretical model. Bem, Wiggins, and many others have questioned and studied the extent to which agency and communion capture masculine and feminine qualities. Using the interpersonal circle, we can continue to ask variants of this basic question across multiple domains of interpersonal functioning. For instance, do men and women differ in their typical levels of dominance, or of warmth? Do people expect men and women to differ in their typical levels of dominance and warmth? Do men and women differ in the extent to which they value dominance and warmth, or in the extent to which they expect members of each gender to value dominance and warmth? These questions and countless others are at the heart of our ability to expand the circle by continuing to connect interpersonal theory with relevant research across multiple domains of science and society, a goal central to much of Wiggin’s work and instantiated in his 1991 paper.
Bem, S. (1974). The psychological measurement of androgyny. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 42, 155–162.
Donnelly, K., & Twenge, J.M. (2016, April). Masculine and feminine traits on the Bem Sex-Role Inventory, 1993-2012: A cross-temporal meta-analysis. Sex Roles. Advance online publication. doi: 10.1007/s11199-016-0625-y
Wiggins, J. S. (1991). Agency and communion as conceptual coordinates for the understanding and measurement of interpersonal behavior. In W. Grove & D. Cicchetti (Eds.), Thinking clearly about psychology: Essays in honor of Paul E. Meehl (Vol. 2, pp. 89-113). Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.
Wiggins, J.S., & Broughton, R. (1985). The Interpersonal Circle: A structural model for the integration of personality research. In R. Hogan & W.H. Jones (Eds.), Perspectives in Personality (Vol. I, pp. 1-47). Greenwich, CN: JAI Press.
Wiggins, J.S., & Holzmuller, A. (1981). Further evidence on androgyny and interpersonal flexibility. Journal of Research in Personality, 15, 67-80.