Women's Intellectual Contributions to the Study of Mind and Society

Students, as part of an advanced seminar, examined and wrote about the lives of these women, their intellectual contributions, and the unique impact and special problems that being female had on their careers.

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Dr. Carolyn Wood Sherif:


by Marie Koesterer

Photograph from Models of Achievement: Reflections of Eminent Women in Psychology

"To me, the atmosphere created by the the women's movement was like breathing fresh air after years of gasping for breath. If anyone believes that I credit it too much for changes in my own life, I have only this reply: I know I did not become a significantly better social psychologist between 1969 and 1972, but I surely was treated as a better social psychologist" (Sherif, 1983, p. 280).

Dr. Carolyn Wood Sherif was a pioneering social psychologist whose multidisciplinary approach to psychology significantly effected the field. Her work with her husband, Muzafer Sherif, lead to the creation of social judgment-involvement theory. Sherif was also an active member and president of the APA's Division 35, The Psychology of Women. Sherif wrote several influential articles regarding the importance afforded gender in society and the role of gender in self-reference. Sherif also argued convincingly and eloquently for the responsible study of gender in the sciences.

Biographical Information

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Carolyn Wood was born on June 26, 1922 in Loogootee, Indiana (Vegega & Signorella, 1990). Her father was a supervisor for teaching training in agriculture at Purdue University and a high-school science teacher (Sherif, 1983). Her mother was a dedicated homemaker whose skills helped sustain the family during economic difficulties. Sherif was the youngest of three children. Her older brother studied chemical engineering and her older sister was a mathematics scholar and a beauty queen. Her parents encouraged all three of the children to achieve academic success and all three were expected to graduate from college.

During her high school years, Sherif sang on a fifteen minute radio show on WBAA, the Purdue University radio station (1983). Sherif had many academic interests, although she was primarily interested in science. She was also a talented writer. An English teacher encouraged her to compete in three essay contests: a contest sponsored by the Indiana Chamber of Commerce, another sponsored by the Daughters of the American Revolution and a contest sponsored by the Chicago Tribune. Sherif won all three contests (1983). Although the contests allowed for outside recognition of her writing abilities, they did not provide enough money for college tuition. As her older brother and sister had done, Sherif attended Purdue University, where her father's position on the faculty mitigated the expense.


Sherif was enrolled in an experimental program at Purdue for female science majors (1983). The program was designed to place science in the context of history and humanism and to encourage students to pursue careers in the sciences. Sherif's other courses were primarily in history and literature. To finance her college education, she worked part-time at the Purdue bookstore, scheduled music for the campus radio station, and was paid to sing as a contralto in a quartet at the Methodist Episcopal Church. Her high grades each semester also earned her tuition refunds. In addition to a productive work life, Sherif pursued extracurricular activities in music, radio and theater. In her Junior year, she wrote a play that the U.S. Treasury Department published for use in community programs to sell War Bonds. Sherif, who had previous had no interest in psychology, began to wonder what effect the play would have on audiences. A psychology professor encouraged her to study social psychology to see how the question might be researched. Sherif's interest in psychology was a result of this experience, the sudden attitude changes that she saw in others as a result of the war, and her own desire to make positive changes in the world.

Sherif believed that the war helped create opportunities for her in graduate school because fewer male candidates were available (1983). She attended the University of Iowa to earn a Master's degree. Her education was funded by an assistantship to Dr. Wendell Johnson and a sorority scholarship. Her work at Iowa includes her earliest work on the study of attitudinal constructs and reactions to opposing views. Sherif worked with Leon Yarrow on a field study examining female graduate students' negative reactions to the opinions of a visitor who supported the Morgenthau plan for postwar Germany (1983). She wrote her master's thesis on the effects of a racially biased attitudinal schema on serial recall. The thesis was published under her supervisor's name, as was common practice in psychology at the time.

Sherif was interested in the possibilities of synthesizing social psychology, the study of human cognition, and the study of social behavior as related to culture (1983). In preparation for her thesis, Sherif read The Psychology of Social Norms by Muzafer Sherif. She found that the combination of disciplines prevalent in Muzafer Sherif's work reflected her own interests and she proclaimed to friends and colleagues that Muzafer Sherif represented "the kind of social psychologist I want to be" (Sherif, 1983, p. 283).

After graduating with her Master's degree, Sherif began to look for work as a psychologist (1983). She was offered a job at an RCA plant. Her job would have been to decrease turnover and increase attendance. Sherif declined the offer because she felt that the reason for the employment problems was rooted in the worker's needs for child care and other family support services that the plant had no intention of offering. Sherif's first job as a psychologist was as a researcher at Audience Research, Inc. in Princeton. She was disappointed with the work, which consisted of collecting data on potential movies. She was also disappointed with the behavior of the director who felt it necessary to offer Sherif a "Monday morning declaration of love in his office" (Sherif, 1983, p. 284). As a result of her unpleasant early work experiences, Sherif decided to pursue who doctorate.

Sherif wrote to Dr. Hadley Cantril, a Princeton professor whom she knew only through his work, and asked for his advice on selecting a graduate school (1983). One week later, Cantril called to ask her if she'd like to apply to work for Muzafer Sherif as a research assistant. However, Princeton did allow women to enroll as students during that time. Cantril and Sherif arranged for Carolyn Wood to work for Sherif at Princeton, and commute to Columbia University in New York. While working with Sherif, her focus shifted from her courses to her work with him. Working with a psychologist of Sherif's caliber allowed Carolyn to learn more about psychology than she felt she could learn in graduate school. In addition to forming a successful working relationship, Carolyn Wood and Muzafer Sherif became involved in a personal relationship. The growing importance of this relationship culminated in their marriage in December of 1945 (Vegega & Signorella, 1990).

Marriage and Family Life

Carolyn Wood Sherif and Muzafer Sherif faced special difficulties in their marriage (Sherif, 1983). In addition to the normal stressors of married life, they came from drastically different backgrounds (Muzafer was raised in Turkey) and were in different stages in their professional lives. However, Sherif had decided that she wanted to have a marriage of equals where her career ambitions would be supported. She characterizes this as a desire based on fictional portrayals and not reflected in the reality of any of the relationships she observed. When she met Sherif, an outspoken advocate for gender equality, who supported her desire to achieve the highest levels of success in social psychology, Carolyn Wood felt that she had found a way to achieve her dream. Sherif believed that their shared contributions to the field of social psychology, their shared values and their shared joy in their children helped to make their marriage successful. When their joint work was solely attributed to Muzafer, Sherif notes that Muzafer's indignant reaction to this injustice, equal to her own, helped temper the blow (Shaffer & Sheilds, 1984; Sherif, 1983).

Their marriage produced three daughters (Vegega & Signorella, 1990). The oldest, Sue, was born in 1947. The middle daughter, Joan was born in 1950 and the youngest daughter, Ann, was born in 1955. Sherif believed that although the children received outside care throughout their lives, the time that they spent with their mother and father probably exceeded the time spent by other mothers who were active in hobbies and almost all contemporary fathers (1983).

"A careful historian will recognize that both of us were involved in everything published under the name of Sherif after 1945. In several instances, when Muzafer asked me to appear as co-author, instead of in footnote or preface, I declined, a tendency that persisted into the 1960s. I would not do so again. I now believe that the world which viewed me as a wife who probably typed her husband's papers (which I did not) defined me to myself more than I realized." (Sherif, 1983, p. 285-286).

From 1947 to 1958, Carolyn Wood Sherif worked with Muzafer Sherif on research conducted while Muzafer's worked at Yale and the University of Oklahoma (Vegega & Signorella, 1990). Sherif believed that this was among the most exciting times in her career (1983). However, because she was not affiliated with any university, because she did not have her Ph.D., and because of his prominence, her work was often falsely attributed solely to Muzafer (Sherif, 1983; Vegega & Signorella, 1990). Carolyn Wood Sherif was, in fact, actively involved in the pioneering research done during this time, including the famous Robbers Cave experiments on intergroup conflict and conflict resolution. During this time, Sherif felt as though other social psychologists regarded her as a wife and not a colleague and she felt that she belonged nowhere but in her family and with her work (1983).

In 1958, Sherif began her doctoral education at the University of Texas (Vegega & Signorella, 1990). Muzafer and Sherif felt that obtaining her Ph.D. would help Sherif to achieve the recognition that she deserved. Muzafer even referred to it as her "union card" (Sherif, 183, p. 286). She refused to attend the University of Oklahoma because she didn't want the fact that her husband was a member of the faculty to detract from the perception or reality of her accomplishment (Sherif).

Sherif was a full-time student at the University of Texas while also being the mother of three children and the wife of a visiting professor (Sherif). She found the questions of her status and issues with time management to be frustrating but also amusing. She notes that she was feeling very low after a difficult examination in advanced statistics, only to have a fellow student ask her for her autograph in the social psychology book she had recently written with Muzafer. Sherif spent one year as a resident doctoral student at the University of Texas, then returned to Oklahoma to finish exams and her dissertation (1983). During the remaining years spent working on her dissertation, Sherif was also asked to rewrite the manuscript for Social judgment: assimilation and contrast effects in communication and attitude change and did so with grant money as payment. Sherif also finally became a funded research associate at the Institute of Group Relations in 1959 (Vegega & Signorella, 1990).

Sherif earned her Ph.D. in 1961 (Vegega & Signorella, 1990). Between 1961 and 1965 Sherif published four books with Muzafer: Intergroup Conflict and Cooperation: The Robbers Cave Experiment in 1961; Reference Groups: Exploration Into Conformity and Deviation of Adolescents in 1964; Problems of Youth: Transition to Adulthood in A Changing World in 1965; and Attitude and Attitude Change in 1965. Sherif is first author on Attitude And Attitude Change: The Social Judgment-Involvement Approach, the book in which the social judgment-involvement theory is detailed. Although, authorship of this book is often misattributed to Muzafer. As Sherif notes, "My senior authorship...is to be found 'corrected' in several reference lists by listing Muzafer first." (Sherif, 1983, p. 287).

As predicted, having her Ph.D. did open doors for Sherif (1983). She was offered a teaching position at the Oklahoma Medical School then the sociology department at the University of Oklahoma. The latter position was only offered after a form had been completed indicating that although her husband was a professor, nepotism was not involved in the hiring decision. In 1965, Pennsylvania State offered both Muzafer and Sherif tenure track teaching positions due to their successful past performance as visiting professors. Although, the decision was a difficult one for Muzafer, he left the University of Oklahoma to become a sociology professor. Sherif became a psychology professor and, despite visiting professorships at Cornell and Smith College, she remained at the University of Pennsylvania until her death (Vegega & Signorella, 1990).

Sherif felt like an outsider at the University of Pennsylvania because of the marginal importance of social psychology in the department and because she was one of only two women on tenure track positions (1983). Sherif felt like a token woman in the department, a status she commented on at a symposium at Rice University in 1963. Sherif helped create the first women's studies course during her visit to Cornell and was asked by students to create a women and psychology course at Pennsylvania.

Although she had been a member of the Association for Women in Psychology and had joined Division 35 of the APA, the division for Psychology of Women, with Muzafer when it was founded, Sherif had not been active in either organization (1983). When she referred to herself as a "woman psychologist" and a friend told her that she didn't want to label herself that way because it inferred that she wasn't a good psychologist, Sherif felt that it was time to become involved (Sherif, 1983, p. 289). Sherif served first as a willing worker and then as the President of Division 35 in 1979. As Sherif began to learn more through her association with Division 35 and her study and dialogue with other psychologists, she strove to create a social psychology where the problems of one's status in society were recognized and assumed the importance that they do in the lives of individuals, and in the form and purpose of social groups and institutions. This informed the content of her book, Orientation in Social Psychology, in 1979.

Sherif also wrote a number of articles that addressed the important role that gender has in self-esteem, group behavior, status and roles in society (Vegega & Signorella, 1990) Sherif also addressed the importance of a careful scientific study of gender. In "Bias in Psychology", written in 1979, she addresses methodological and theoretical biases in contemporary psychological practice (1983). Sherif also worked outside of her field to conduct research on moods and the menstrual cycle that correct past methodological errors (Vegega & Signorella, 1990). By using a control group of male subjects and keeping the subjects blind to the purpose of study, the research improved upon past techniques. The study indicated that everyday events had a much more powerful effect on moods than the menstrual cycle.

Toward the end of her life, Sherif's contributions began to be recognized (Sherif, 1983; Vegega & Signorella, 1990). Sherif felt that this was due in large part, to the women's movement. (1983). She became a Fellow in the American Psychological Association in 1976, and was awarded the Distinguished Publication Award in 1980 by the Association for Women in Psychology (Vegega & Signorella, 1990). She won the Distinguished Contributions to Education in Psychology award in 1982, but died of cancer before it could be presented to her. Sherif believed that there was no one way to live, but felt that the possibilities available in each lifetime could be strongly influenced by working with others to achieve greater opportunity (1983). Carolyn Wood Sherif spent her life working to increase the number of options open to people of all races, classes and genders, believing that "If such goals fade, the harsh realities of a world which regards such goals as merely 'visionary' will restrict the possibilities in individual lives, especially women's" (Sherif, 1983, p. 290.).

Needed Concepts In The Study of Gender Identity

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On September 3, 1980, Carolyn Wood Sherif gave her presidential address to the Psychology of Women (Division 35), of the American Psychological association. This address was later edited and, an updated version, titled "Needed Concepts In The Study of Gender Identity" was included in the Psychology of Women Quarterly, Vol. 6, Summer 1982.

Sherif's (1982) presidential address details different aspects of gender identity that she believes need to be included in social psychological studies on gender. Among these are the recognition that gender is a social categorization, the integration of the concept of a self-system, the link between an individual and the people, groups and categories that he or she belongs to or supports, and the study of social power and an understanding of it's relationship to gender disparity. Sherif begins her address by asking what gender is and noting that psychology contains a wide variety of proponents who argue for differing definitions of "gender".


Sherif argued that gender should be understood to be a sociological term, reflecting a set of social categories, usually treated as mutually exclusive (1982) . She believed that the study of gender identity should reflect a knowledge that an individual is aware of the gender scheme in their culture and has developed a psychological relationship to this existing scheme. Because this gender scheme always exists, and influences the individual's gender identity, psychologists need to be aware of social categories and social norms regarding gender before they can begin to study gender identity.

Gender and Categories

Although gender categories are derived from biological differences, they are not derived solely from biological differences (Sherif, 1982). Sherif indicates that anthropological research has discovered that cultures use multiple way of coding the cultural categories of "male" and "female". She believed that this helped underscore the importance of recognizing the difference between "sex" and "gender". Sherif also believed that the complexity of cultural schemes for gender meant that the study of gender identity would need to place individuals within their correct cultural context and recognize the true complexity of gender identity.

Sherif (1982) also addressed the question of whether the inevitability of gender categorization leads inexorably toward stereotyping and hierarchy. In reply, she refers to insights from her work with Muzafer on group conflict. Sherif indicates that individuals can recognize which category they belong to, and prefer the category which includes them, without denigrating those in the other category. Alternately, people can be in different, yet very similar groups, and still produce negative stereotypes about each other. The key to the difference lies in the relationship between the groups, not in their similarity or difference. If groups are considered equal, and are working cooperatively toward interdependent goals, then members of each group will view each other positively. Sherif also addressed the question of how both men and women would come to devalue women through negative stereotyping. She suggested that it was related to the extreme power differential between males and females and cites inter-group research that supports this assumption.

Gender and The Self

Sherif (1982) believed that effective studies of gender could not rely on individuals self appraisal of gender but must include a comprehensive view of how gender identity is related to the complex social environment of the individual. Sherif characterizes this as the "self-system", a collection of attitudes that has been formed through the individual's development and interactions with others and focuses on what the "self" is in relation to the body, social relationships, cultural activities, social status, and cultural values and norms (1982, p. 381). Sherif believed that this concept was important in the study of gender identity, because it provided a framework for evaluating supposedly inconsistent reactions. For example, a person could be "psychologically androgynous", but display a strong belief in female inferiority because the individual may have a strong religious affiliation that supports those beliefs. Thus, according to Sherif, the part of this person's self-system that is related to gender is religion. The concept of a self-system provides a way to examine the individual's concept of gender identity as a whole, including links that researchers may not have previously explored and the cohesion or fragmentation of gender identity within the individual. Sherif's past work is further reflected in her belief that the inclusion of a self in the study of gender identity also provides for the evaluation of the level of self-involvement an individual has involved in gender identity, or has involved in a social institution that leads to their high involvement in a particular gender identity.

Reference Groups

In gender identity, an understanding of reference persons, groups and categories is important, because they provide a complete picture of what values and norms an individual links to gender (Sherif, 1982). The recognition of the role of reference groups helps to provide a parsimonious view of human behavior, which sometimes may appear to be random. If one understands the values and norms of a person's reference groups, one can predict what ideas and behaviors will be more or less self-involving to the individual and how they may perceive a situation. Therefore, when an individual appears to be behaving in unrelated ways to some, an observer who is familiar with the individual's reference group will see the consistency. Additionally, an understanding of a person's reference groups will provide a key to what threatens or sustains their self-esteem. Understanding the role of reference groups can also help researchers to understand the complexity of gender identities, particularity where reference groups and gender identities conflict. As an example, Sherif discusses women who feel that they must be two different people at work and at home, or "token women" who identify fully with a sexist institution and offer no support to women who wish to produce change.

Gender and Social Power

Sherif believed that both the social science definition of social power which relates to the control of resources, and humans; and the social psychological definition of social power, which focuses on social persuasion were too narrow and too broad to adequately address gender identity as relates to social power alone (1982). This is true because the context of the relationship is not defined. Sherif suggested that in the study of gender, the power of individuals or groups relative to each other had to be taken into account first in terms of the social science definition of power. Sherif believed that the term "status" was then best used for understanding the combination of social power with social position (1982, p. 389). She noted the phenomenon of women sometimes receiving high respect, or prestige but not simultaneously receiving status-- no real social power.

Once the social power differential is understood, differences in persuasion between those with power and those without could be more clearly understood. For example, acting helpless to receive assistance could be seen as a persuasion strategy for someone with low social power. The understanding of the difference between social power and persuasion also helps ameliorate confusion between limited social persuasion and true social power. Unlike persuasion, social power is consistent over long-term interactions. Although social power is difficult to accrue, it is not a fixed entity. Different groups can lose or achieve social power over time. Social power also does not belong equally to all members of socially powerful groups.

Status, like social power is relative in intragroup relationships as well as relationships to non group members (Sherif, 1982). Although women may all be lower in status than men in most societies, some women are afforded greater status than other women. While acknowledging women's shared powerlessness, Sherif believed it was also important to have clarity about the genuine differences in power afforded to a rich, white women and poor, black women. Sherif cautioned that researchers should understanding the relative nature of status. She suggested that women's status be understood in terms of the individual woman's place in overall society, her social class, ethnic group, neighborhood and family. She argued that understanding women's status in these contexts, and then comparing them to men's status would provide greater understanding of gender identity. Sherif disliked the term "sex roles" because she felt it mistakenly combined a biological and sociological concept. She also felt that the concept of sex or gender roles, as popularly defined, obscured the importance of social interaction in gender definition, ignored the status differential in contemporary gender construction, and presumed the validity of gender stereotypes.


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Shaffer L. S. & Sheilds S. A. (1984) Carolyn Wood Sherif (1922-1982). American


Sherif, C. W., Sherif, M. & Nebergall, R. E. (1965). Attitude and attitude change:

The Social Judgment-Involvement Approach. Philadelphia, PA: W. B.

Saunders Company.

Sherif, C. W. (1982). Needed concepts in the study of gender identity. Psychology

of Women Quarterly, 6, 375-395.

Sherif, C. W. (1983). Carolyn Wood Sherif. In O'Connell, A. N. & Russo, N. F. (Eds.), Models of

achievement: reflections of eminent women in psychology (pp. 279-293). New York:

Columbia University Press.

Vegega, M. E. & Signorella, M. L (1990). Carolyn Wood Sherif (1922-1982). In O'Connell, A. N.

& Russo, N. F. (Eds.) Women in psychology: a bio-bibliographic sourcebook. New York:

Greenwood Press.


List of Other Works by Carolyn Wood Sherif

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Sherif, C. W. (1994). Bias In Psychology. In Hermann, A. C. & Stewart, A. J. (Ed.).

Theorizing feminism: parallel trends in the humanities and social

sciences. 117-135.

Sherif, C. W. (1979). Social values, attitudes, and involvement of the self

and somatic changes during the menstrual cycle.

Nebraska Symposium on Motivation, 27, 1-64.

Sherif, C. W. (1976). Orientation In Social Psychology. New York: Harper & Row.

Wilcoxon, Linda A., Schrader, S. L, Sherif, C. W. (1976). Daily self-reports on activities,

life events, moods, and somatic changes during the menstrual cycle.

Psychosomatic Medicine, 38, 399-417.

With Dr. Muzafer Sherif:


Sherif, M. & Sherif, C.W. (1953). Groups in harmony and tension : an integration

of studies on intergroup relations. New York : Harper.

Sherif, M. & Sherif, C.W. (1956). An outline of social psychology. New York: Harper.


Sherif, M., Harvey, O.J., White, J., Hood, William, & Sherif, C. W. (1961). Intergroup

conflict and cooperation: the robbers cave experiment. Norman, OK:

University Book Exchange.

Sherif, M. & Sherif, C.W. (1964). Reference groups: exploration into conformity

and deviation of adolescents. New York : Harper and Row.

Sherif, C. W., Sherif, M., & Nebergall, R. (1965). Attitude And Attitude

Change; The Social Judgment-Involvement Approach. Philadelphia: Saunders.

Sherif, M. & Sherif, C. W. (Eds.). (1965). Problems of youth: transition to

adulthood in a changing world. Chicago: Aldine Publishing Company.

Sherif, C. W. & Sherif, M. (Eds.). (1967). Attitude, ego-involvement, and change.

Westport, CT: Greenwood Press.

Sherif, M. & Sherif, C. W. (Eds.). (1969). Interdisciplinary relationships in

the social sciences. Chicago: Aldine.

Sherif, M. & Sherif, C. W. (1969). Social Psychology. New York : Harper & Row.

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