Understanding Sexual Differentiation:

A New Paradigm for Psychology

A research roundtable sponsored by the Pembroke Center, with support from the Ford Foundation, the Center for the Study of Human Development, and the Wayland Collegium

November 5 & 6, 2004 • Crystal Room, Alumnae Hall (194 Meeting Street), Brown University [Map]

Introduction Schedule Invited Participants Papers


The Research Roundtable on “Understanding Sexual Differentiation: A New Paradigm for Psychology” will address questions of gender differentiation outside the current paradigms of biological determinism, cognitive modules, and externally imposed (but poorly defined) socialization. The roundtable will give serious thought to devising entirely different sets of developmental questions, and it will be the job of the roundtable participants to begin to sort through such questions. For example, how significant would reports of sex differences in nervous system development at birth be for the emergence of sex differences in early childhood? We know relatively little about the spatial and physical world of the infant. How do factors such as crib shape, mobiles, lighting, types of toys, movement and manners of physical handling, swaddling, carrying on the back or front of the mother, types of noise, or modes of talking, shape the sensory, motor, and ultimately cognitive worlds of the infant? Are there gender differences in these worlds and to what extent are any possible differences cooperatively constructed from the nervous system needs of the infants and the preconceptions of adult care-takers? Are there cultural differences in these worlds and how might such differences affect different developmental pathways in different societies? Obviously, comparative studies become essential in this process of making new forms of knowledge about early infant development.

This roundtable brings together systems theorists, experts in infant development in a variety of cultural settings, gender theorists, biologists, comparative psychologists, and experts in human development to talk about these questions in a structured setting. We hope to arrive at approaches that will begin to alter existing research paradigms in contemporary psychology, moving them away from the nature-nurture divide into a more contextual mode of understanding. Some, but not all of the participants work directly on sex and gender, but each participant’s work offers methods and theoretical structures that can be fruitfully applied to studying the emergence of sex differences.

At the roundtable we aim to intervene in some knotty methodological problems: Our literature review (Garcia Coll, Fausto-Sterling and Lamarre) suggests that sex differences in physiology and behavior as well as differences in caretaking behavior probably both begin at birth or earlier. There is never a moment when nature precedes nurture or vice versa. Rather, from the very beginning, nature and nurture act simultaneously to differentiate the sexes; we argue therefore, the futility of trying to separate their influences. Rather, we would like to seek answers to questions such as:

What are the mechanisms that allow one’s experiences and/or one’s environment to influence one’s biological makeup? How do these biological changes, in turn, become part of behavior and influence future experience?

  • How can we incorporate knowledge about experience-dependent neural plasticity into studies of gender differentiation?
  • How might dynamic systems theory and scalable networks theory be used to understand the emergence of sex differences?
  • What are some research programs or paradigms that might address these questions?

We look forward to lively discussions while working together to answer these questions.

Anne Fausto-Sterling,
Professor of Biology and Medicine

Cynthia Garcia Coll,
Charles P. Robinson and John P. Barstow Professor of Education, Psychology, and Pediatrics

Meaghan Lamarre,
Research Assistant, Center for the Study of Human Development

To register for the Roundtable, or for more information, please contact Alisa Hartz (Alisa_Hartz@brown.edu).