MACCOBY, ELEANOR (Social Science)

1917-

Eleanor Emmons Maccoby is a leader and innovator in theory and research on the social development of the child. The Barbara Kimball Browning Professor of Psychology Emerita at Stanford University, she received her BA from the University of Washington and her MA and PhD from the University of Michigan. After working at Harvard University for several years, she joined the Stanford faculty in 1958.

Maccoby’s wide-ranging interests include theories of socialization, gender differences, and the effects of divorce on the child. She has examined the socialization process from early childhood through adolescence. With John Martin (Maccoby and Martin 1983) she has provided a virtually book-length review of the history of theories of child development within the family, relating these theories to current issues in socialization. In a highly influential early work, Maccoby and Carol Nagy Jacklin (1974) concluded that, contrary to popular conceptions, the evidence does not support the notions that girls, relative to boys, are more social, have lower self-esteem, are better at rote learning and repetitive tasks, are less analytic, are more affected by heredity, lack achievement motivation, and are more auditory. They did find preliminary evidence that girls have a greater verbal ability than boys, that boys excel in visual-spatial and mathematical ability, and that boys are more aggressive.

Basic to Maccoby’s approach to socialization is the notion of interaction, taken in two senses: (1) face-to-face interaction in the process of socialization and (2) systemic interaction between biological factors and socialization. With respect to face-to-face interaction, Maccoby rejects the notion that socialization is a top-down process in which adults mold the essentially passive child. Rather, from the beginning there is true interaction between child and caregiver in the sense that each participant’s actions are contingent, at least in part, on the actions of the partner. She expands significantly on the notion of bidirectionality most frequently attributed to Richard Bell (1968). The implication of bidirectionality is that the child is an active participant in his or her own socialization.


A second basic influence on socialization is the biological endowment of the child. In this context, Maccoby cites potential constitutional differences between boys and girls. These differences, in turn, influence the interaction of the child with others. An example would be the play separation of boys and girls in relatively unsupervised settings. Maccoby (1990) provides evidence that boys have a more rough-and-tumble style of play, termed a restrictive or constricting interaction style. This is aversive to girls, who have a more enabling or facilitating style (Leaper 1991). The result is play separation and contrasting socialization within these separated peer groups.


Maccoby and Robert Mnookin (1992) surveyed the effect of the current process of divorce on the child. They regard the institution of no-fault divorce as introducing a new social regime, the social and legal implications of which continue to emerge. They conclude that, under the proper circumstances, the experience of divorce is not necessarily damaging to the child and that it is possible for life to proceed in a relatively normal fashion in these families.

Next post:

Previous post: