Sex Roles [sers] pp1156-sers-483665 March 24, 2004 15:34 Style ﬁle version June 3rd, 2002
Sex Roles, Vol. 50, Nos. 7/8, April 2004 (
The Differences That Norms Make: Empiricism,
Social Constructionism, and the Interpretation
of Group Differences
and Felicia Pratto
We offer norm theory as a framework for developing some common ground within both
feminist psychology and lesbian and gay psychology about the meaning of empirical differences
between social groups. Norm theory is a social cognitive theory that predicts that empirical
differences will be consistently explained by taking more typical groups (e.g., men, straight
people) as implicit norms for comparison and by attributing differences to less typical groups
(e.g., women, lesbians, and gay men). Results of an experiment (N = 114) are presented
to show that norms shape interpretations of empirical differences between lesbian/gay and
straight persons by (1) leading explanations to focus on attributes of lesbian/gay persons, and
(2) leading to judgments that straight persons have less mutable attributes. Stereotypes also
affected interpretations; stereotype-consistent results led to more essentialistic explanations
and, when targets were female, to higher ratings of the results’ importance and fundamentality.
We highlight how experiments can be used to understand the process of constructing the
meaning of scientiﬁc data, and make recommendations for empiricists’ interpretive practices
and constructionist theories in feminist psychology and lesbian and gay psychology.
KEY WORDS: essentialism; social constructionism; sexual orientation; norm; stereotype.
One of the most pervasive approaches to the
study of both gender and sexuality in modern psy-
chology is the detection of psychological differences
between men and women, or between straight peo-
ple and lesbian/gay people. The present article con-
cerns the meanings that people make of such research,
and we report an experiment to show how norms and
stereotypes affect the process of meaning-making. We
locate this experiment both within social cognitive
theories of meaning-making and “metatheoretical”
discussions about the social construction of psycho-
logical knowledge (c.f., Wittig, 1985).
Feminists have often debated descriptions of
group differences (e.g., Baumeister, 1988; Eagly,
University of Surrey, Guildford, Surrey, United Kingdom.
University of Connecticut, Storrs-Mansﬁeld, Connecticut.
To whom correspondence should be addressed at Department of
Psychology, University of Surrey, Guildford, Surrey GU2 7XH,
United Kingdom; e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.
1995; Favreau, 1997; Hare-Mustin & Marecek, 1990;
Jacklin, 1981; Kitzinger, 1994; McHugh, Koeske,
& Frieze, 1986; Mednick, 1989; Rothblum, 1988;
Scarr, 1988), which are sometimes understood as
possible justiﬁcations of existing sexist inequalities
(Baumeister, 1988; Hare-Mustin & Marecek, 1990;
Mednick, 1989). However, advice for researchers on
how to avoid the perpetuation of sexism has not
been consistent. Psychologists have been advised to
avoid accounts of sex differences (Baumeister, 1988),
to publish small differences to emphasize similarities
(Rothblum, 1988), to attend to the context in which
differences are observed (Herek, Kimmel, Amaro, &
Melton, 1991; McHugh et al., 1986), to conduct meta-
analyses (Hyde, 1994; Hyde & Plant, 1995), and simply
to practice science in a rigorous fashion (Eagly, 1995;
Halperin, 1994; Scarr, 1988).
The present article differs from past commen-
taries in three principal regards. First, few researchers
have brought experimental data to bear on these
2004 Plenum Publishing Corporation