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Gilligan's Call for a New Interpretive Lens Through the Imagery of Girls

  • 02 Pages
  • Published On: 04-12-2023

Gilligan begins her article on the premise that the problem of interpretation that comes in the way of understanding issues related to women’s development arises from the differences observed in their experience of relationships; female relationships seem increasingly mysterious, difficult to discern, and hard to describe and this also affects the theorising or observation related to women development. The principal argument that the article makes is that there is a need to add a new line of interpretation to understand women’s development which is based on the imagery of the girl's thought. It is argued that doing so would help to discern differences in the understanding of relationships and to use that to understand women’s development. Therefore, Gilligan argues that it is not appropriate to explore the development of girls based on the male experience because in this situation there will be girls that do not fit the categories of relationships derived from male experience.


Gilligan traces the development theories including those by Piaget and Kohlberg to explore how these theories explain girls’ development. Gilligan demonstrates that although these theories may help explain the responses of a boy of a certain age according to the developmental age, it does not do so for girls of the same age. Gilligan uses a case study of a girl and a boy aged 11 years to demonstrate the differences in how girls and boys may approach moral dilemma and the inability of the current developmental theories to interpret the girls’ responses. Piaget’s theory can be affirmed in a test involving an eleven year old boy’s responses to a given moral dilemma where the boy is able to use the factual parameters of his childhood world and his emergent capacity for formal thought and to reason things out in a logical way, the same cannot be said of the girl’s responses to the same moral dilemma. Similarly, the autonomy of the boy’s response follows the trajectory of Kohlberg's six stages of moral development from an egocentric understanding of fairness based on individual need to a more principled understanding of fairness based on individual logic of equality and reciprocity.

The difference between the boy’s and the girl’s responses to the same moral dilemma is explained by Gilligan as being based on the different approaches to how the agreement in the case can be mediated in different ways; for the boy the response is mediated through systems of logic and law, and for the girl through communication in relationship. The point that Gilligan is making is that the development theories are not constructed in the way to understand the different trajectory taken in the case of girls and where the responses of the girl’s to the same moral dilemma are different from a boy’s, the latter being reliant on systems of logic where the former is on relationships, the difference should not be explained as one that shows girls to be cognitively inferior. In the case study that is used by Gilligan, the interviewer’s frustration with the girl whose cognitive responses are different from the boy is according to Gilligan due to the interviewer's failure to imagine a response that does not align with Kohlberg's moral philosophy. Due to this failure the interviewer fails to understand the logic in the girl’s response.

There are other differences that are noted by Gilligan based on other case studies that demonstrate how the responses of girls and boys can be different in the case of given moral dilemma and how the responses of boys can be more in tune with the hierarchical ordering that is generally a part of development theories while the responses of girls can be more in tune with the network of relationships. Gilligan shows that at different ages, the responses of the boy may be more in line with the known and recognised developmental models that are based on hierarchical ordering while the girls’ responses are more in line with the way the person may locate themselves in relation to the others. Gilligan also shows how the responses by girls can be more often than not contextual in nature, with the respondent figuring out the responses to dilemmas in a contextual sense. Based on the responses of the children in the case studies, Gilligan surmises that the trajectory of development of the girls and the boys would seen to take different routes with the boy equating development with coming to understand equality as making a way of making connection safe and the girl equating development with inclusion of herself in an expanding network of connection. This, Gilligan says makes for the argument that there cannot be a representation of development from the perspective of the boy's development as the single line of growth for both sexes because this perception comes in the way of interpreting the development of the girl. Finally, based on the evidence produced in the article, Gilligan concludes that the different responses by the girls in the study that do not align with the development theories only call our attention to the assumptions about relationships that have informed the account of human development and which are based on male experiences.

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The main assumptions of Gilligan that are presented in the article are related to the differences in the girls and boys in terms of their development which are not appropriately addressed by developmental literature. The evidence that is used by Gilligan to illustrate this point consists of interviews conducted with girls and boys of a certain age and the differences in the responses to the same questions by them. These responses are used to illustrate the point that the developmental theories are not considering of the ways in which female experience may differ from the male. The main point of difference as noted by Gilligan is that while the male experience may generally depict the developmental stages by being informed by more hierarchical ordering, the female experience may not fall in line with such stages and may be more informed by meaning making through relationships, which is something that has to be added into the literature on development in the adolescence stage.


Gilligan C, In a Different Voice: Psychological Theory and Women’s Development (Cambridge: Harvard University Press 1982)

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