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J Pers Soc Psychol. 2009 Mar;96(3):653-64. doi: 10.1037/a0012966.

Theorizing gender in the face of social change: is there anything essential about essentialism?

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School of Psychology, University of Exeter, Exeter, UK.


The authors examine how beliefs about the stability of the social hierarchy moderate the link between sexism and essentialist beliefs about gender and how the expression of essentialist beliefs might reciprocally affect the social structure. Studies 1 (N = 240) and 2 (N = 143) presented gender-based inequality as stable, changing, or changed. In both studies, sexism was positively associated with essentialism only among men and only when inequality was presented as changing. Study 3 (N = 552) explored the possible consequences of expressing essentialist theories for social change. Exposure to essentialist theories increased both men's and women's acceptance of inequality. Exposure further increased men's support for discriminatory practices and boosted their self-esteem. These patterns demonstrate that although essentialism is linked to prejudice, this link is itself not essential. Rather, essentialism may be invoked strategically to protect higher status when this is threatened by change and may be successful in so doing.

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