The Observer Effect: How it Ties to Feminism—or Does it?

Binoculars, observer effect and feminism

The observer effect: What do you see? faungg’s photo, CC BY-ND 4.0, via Flickr.

The observer effect is one topic covered in David Castro’s Genership 1.0: Beyond Leadership Toward Liberating the Creative Soul. In Chapter 2 of the book, Castro talks about the observer effect:

“A person perceiving something affects what he or she sees through the effort to perceive. Relying on someone else’s perception or even instruments still entails knowledge. Knowledge demands perception.” (p. 64).

If you think that we live in a purely objective world, think again. The reality is that we see layers with pieces of opinions and perceptions. We hear things, and that affects how we view and respond to situations. We read things, and that affects…Well, you get the point.

While Castro does not make direct references in this section of the book to feminism, I will do so for one main reason. That reason is to start a conversation that might help us one day reach a state of gender equality, or at least come close to it. Different views exist— still!—on what qualifies as “women’s work” and what is “men’s work.” Slowly those views are changing, thanks to campaigns such as the Made with Code initiative, but gender bias still exists around the world.

How did the notions of what men and women “should” do come about if our world is truly objective in nature? The answer is that the world is but a mix of our perceptions, and certain genders are perceivable in certain (different) ways. There are norms, desires, tastes and so much more that people categorize or associate with one gender or another.

So, do we accept these judgments and hide within a group consensus, hoping other people in the group will like us and the sea will stay calm? Or, or do we rise to the top of the water and paddle like mad to achieve a place where we can finally change perceptions about gender?

Of course, there is a third choice. Do we say there is no observer effect, and there is no gender bias? Ah, you may say, don’t be silly! But I’ve received comments out there in Social Media Land that insist feminism has no use and there is no gender inequality. That would mean that all of the work of feminists and any drive for female empowerment are for naught.

Doesn’t that mean, then, that the person who holds that third viewpoint thinks differently than a feminist? Isn’t that, ironically, support for the observer effect that says we project our perceptions onto the world? Perhaps…depending on your viewpoint.

Ironic, indeed.

What are your views on the observer effect and how it ties to feminism?

©2014 Christy Birmingham

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41 thoughts on “The Observer Effect: How it Ties to Feminism—or Does it?

  1. I think gender bias still exists even in little ways. Even today a boy is ridiculed when he plays with dolls, and it is expected that a girl will do badly at Math.

  2. “How did the notions of what men and women “should” do come about if our world is truly objective in nature? The answer is that the world is but a mix of our perceptions, and certain genders are perceivable in certain (different) ways. There are norms, desires, tastes and so much more that people categorize or associate with one gender or another”
    The question and your answer made me think of Kant’s categories, which are defined as characteristics of the appearance of any object in general, is a characteristic of the appearance of any object in general.
    By that we assume that those features are absolute but as soon as the subject percibes and object they stopped being that way… therefore later on they unavoidably become relative or subjective.
    The gender problem and its further “perceptions” are somehow similar.
    Cultural identities, social surroundings and other variables might define them.
    The observer effect is probably collective… Thus culturally defined and by that we can also say it is relative, despite including a common groupal perception

    A great, clever post dear Christy and truly well penned, dear Christy! ⭐

    Sending you all my best wishes!. Aquileana 😀

    • Aqui,
      Thank you for such a thought-provoking answer that takes the post to new heights of reflection! So kind that you took time to really process the post and respond to me like this. I appreciate it!

      Yes, you are so right that even the “observer effect” is a culturally created construct, and so it needs to be analyzed even beyond the level I went with the post. Thanks for helping me to see that! See, my perceptions and musings about what are objective or not are something I am needing to look at too!

      Your response here is wonderful, thanks so much!

      Wishing you a great day, and will talk soon 🙂

  3. Great post Christy!

    I think the Observer Effect is interesting, but I think the majority are unthinking, and don’t realize what they see beyond unconsciously mirroring popular opinion if they’re comfortable with the particular view, or dissenting with it if it ruffles their feathers.

    So many people don’t actually spend time thinking through things except when they are waiting in lines or in waiting rooms, and more often than not, they are uncomfortable with thinking and so defer constructive thought about their lives and the world around them, by constructing for themselves personal high scores in mobile games.

    I am not a Luddite in my heart, I actually use technological devices in logical ways, doing a lot of research to refine and cross-pollinate my ideas with those of others, to reap the benefits of their thoughts that they spent their time thinking out, to help me grow in my own thinking. Sometimes I will play video games, but very minimally, and usually to just give myself a change of pace with an alternative activity, rather than as an actual hobby.

    The average joe and jane, I think are so stressed out by this economy, and their personal lives, that unless women’s issues are personally important to them, they are not likely on their own to spend very much time thinking out intelligent views on them, or spend time fact-checking stats they heard, as for most people it’s easier to settle for hearsay as indisputable fact, than to have to lift a finger and use google to search for something other than porn-stars and pop-music.

    It’s a sad reality, we can’t make people care about issues, we can only try to help them try to care on their own. Often people are so focused on their own lives, and their own objective reality, that they think that their subjective views are objective facts.

    A lot of people just don’t care about things that bore them, hence all the money ad companies pour into TV commercials with shiny flashing lights and catchy rhythms, because they know that people’s interests are easily manipulated by entertainment, sort of like monkeys in labs, only in living rooms. I’m sad that I think that, but not sorry I said it.

    The media manipulates the news to be amusing, dramatizing things and manipulating perception, as seen with the recent Ferguson issues. I’ve heard that the man who was shot, had just robbed a store, and I’ve heard a lot of other things. Not everything that has been said about it was fact-checked, and much of it was presented in calculated precision to keep people watching. People are easily manipulated, because in the modern free-thinking world, we enslave our thoughts to diversions, and protest views we have as if they are held strongly, even when they aren’t views we may personally care an iota about, and are voicing them for the sake of thinking we have something to say for the pride it gives our delicate egos in thinking we have the power of knowledge, when we haven’t even thought out our thoughts, and just spout mindlessly things we think as we think them.

    People who don’t progress in their thinking, stagnate and become immature in comparison with other people who spend more time thinking. Most everyone loves to hate someone they think is arrogant, often simply out of their own arrogance in thinking that if they argue loudly enough they can win, thinking brutish arguments will trump a more refined mind every time, thinking that when people who know what they are talking about give up trying to convince others, it’s some kind of forfeiting some kind of conflict instead of merely a conversation. When that happens, the silly ones, in their minds think they they’ve won something, and because the other person seemed to concede defeat, it in some way affirms the silly one’s baseless views. That’s just how a lot of people are.

    With ad campaigns and clever wording of feminist views in ways that are interesting and easy to see the benefits of in confirming to, I think enlightened views like much of feminism, can eventually undo a lot of the chauvinistic mentality in the world. Will that make the majority, actually, personally care about it though? Probably not. People are inherently self-centered and think that occasionally donating to a cause they are personally interested in, often simply under the influence of whim and clever advertising, they are enlightened humanitarians. It’s sad, but we live in a world where more and more people are reading less and less and thinking their own thoughts less and less. I don’t really see that changing, as technologically is so focused on instant gratification and making being more entertained more and more convenient, and technology is only getting better and better at making people more and more distracted.

    Sorry for the long response, kind of. I thought it would be kind to leave thought out thoughts though, as based on your comment on my post from yesterday, I can tell that you actually took the time to read and process what I said. So few have the patience or desire to leave intelligent responses, so I thought I would reciprocate in kind 🙂

    Ry

    • Ry,
      Absolutely, positively, tremendously, I appreciate your comment here and, like you, enjoy when someone takes time to intellectually process something I have written. Actually, when I am tired then I won’t read a blog post because I won’t be able to give it the time it deserves to be read/viewed/heard, depending on the type of medium held in the particular post.

      In other words, I value your comment here and appreciate it.

      I totally understand what you mean about many people avoiding thinking deeply about issues when it makes them uncomfortable. The problem, of course, with that that is that it is precisely the time when one ought to do so, as that is the way to evoke change, get people thinking in new ways and truly make a difference in the world.

      Your comment has me thinking so much, and isn’t it ironic that ‘waiting’ rooms are when people start to let their minds wander,, as they are normally so caught up in the hustle and bustle of the world!

      Thanks for your insights here and I know I will return to reflect more soon. Learning from one another is such a valuable part of blogging.

      Talk with you soon,
      Christy

      • Wow, thank you for the reciprocal response! I wasn’t trying to be too deep, but I suppose I was anyway. I’m glad my comment wasn’t seen as rude by you. I know I sounded pretty cynical about the majority of people, almost like I don’t respect them, but it’s not that simple.

        I believe we are all responsible for our personal decisions and how we spend our time, but at the same time I know popular culture and the subcultures we live in have massive influences on our world views, and that stress is an overwhelming reality for many, and that the economy can be quite depressing. So many people are on anti-depressants to help themselves cope, and it can be very stressful to think deeply about ones life.

        Introspection can be hard to do with self-respect, hence my post series titled “Morbid Introspection, or Braving a Brainstorm” that show how confusing it can be to try to figure one’s self out. It is very difficult, and while I wish more people would figure themselves out, I know first-hand how difficult it can be to come to terms with what one actually believes, especially if one has serious doubts about what is most comfortable for them to believe. It can be difficult to be the odd-man (or woman) out and not believe what is popular to believe, and while you complimented me recently on being courageous in what I speak, I assure you, it has not always been that way, and I am still figuring myself out, and developing my own world views, many of which I haven’t put a ton of time into thinking through, because like the masses, it’s easier to defer thought and stress to entertainment.

        My comment on your blog, was as much a partial commentary on my own recent history, and not actually meant to be a clear grouping of “them” and “us thinkers” with me in the later category. The lines can blur and thinkers often choose to go off into distractions when they get really stressed out as well. I consider myself in both groups, both a devil’s advocate, and really, actually identifying with both sides at times.

        I am wanting to be more aware of myself though, and wanting to be more intentional and world-view conscious than I actually am. I can be very whimsical, and very deliberate at the same time. There are many sensitive issues that I am honestly largely desensitized to, that I wish I cared more about, and am sad that do not stir the kind of humanitarian heart I wish I had for the issues. I have been hurt, and I care about other people’s hurts, but I know I would never be nominated for the Nobel Prize. I want to make friends with people who care, and be influenced by them to be brought more outside of myself as well, as I know that introspection alone is not enough to bring about inner maturity!

        • Hi Ry,
          Great reflections here and they are appreciated. I understand what you mean too about introspection being important but not being able to grow completely from it. It is with insights we gain in relations with others that we grow. As well, I understand you were never an “us” vs “them” kind of person, and that is good. I wish you a nice day, my friend!

  4. I know that during the U.S. Great Depression, some women had to dress like men in order to work. Nevertheless, professions such as nursing flourished during WW I and WWII because of the increase in number of war veterans. Nursing enhanced the female “motherhood” stereotype which had prevailed for long. I would say that yes, the observer effect does continue. Makes me think of the psychological term “projection” which is seen through the action of “Bullying” others, a very typical male to female attitude:
    “A bully may project his/her own feelings of vulnerability onto the target(s) of the bullying activity. Despite the fact that a bully’s typically denigrating activities are aimed at the bully’s targets, the true source of such negativity is ultimately almost always found in the bully’s own sense of personal insecurity and/or vulnerability. Such aggressive projections of displaced negative emotions can occur anywhere from the micro-level of interpersonal relationships, all the way up through to the macro-level of international politics, or even international armed conflict”-
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Psychological_projection

    How does a bully pick his victim, by his/her ‘perception’ of them. Bullies therefore “project” their own insecurity towards their victims in order to “control” them. Every time I feel a blame from someone coming my way, I know it’s an act of “bully”, because people who are secure of themselves don’t need to go around blaming other people. This insecurity may be the source of conflict and violence between many couples.

    There also tends to be a lot of bulling at work. Victims are usually innocent employees who are not in the position to “argue” with the bully, because they might lose their jobs. Bosses who are bullies eventually get caught however, because of the general discomfort they cause. A man’s physical “strength” has also dominated the workforce for many years. Now with the right tools and machinery, women can also do the physical “strenuous” work once thought she was incapable of doing. So both “physical strength” and “intellectual abilities” are out there with this ‘observer effect’ and how both men and women project and perceive themselves.

    Good topic!

    • Maria,
      Thank you for such a thoughtful discussion here! I think it is so useful the way you have applied the concept of bullying to the post. Indeed, it is a form of control when someone bullies and it stems often, ironically, from a personal feeling of unworthiness.

      The application of women’s values and men’s values in the workplace is also interesting, isn’t it? While many people would deny it happens, there undoubtedly are stereotypes about the role of each gender at the meeting, event or other function that is held by a corporation.

      It is interesting to explore these topics and I value your input. Observer effect is alive and by realizing it we can begin to determine how to equalize the playing field between men and women. I like your openness to the issues!

      • What’s interesting about bullying from men is that it’s so ancient and multicultural. It stems basically from the “physical strength” that most men undoubtedly have, given that by nature their genetics and physiology has favored them with physical strength that undoubtedly allows them to handle physically strenuous tasks. Nevertheless, even all that is changing, although most men will continue to be physically stronger, in countries such as Israel, women have very high rankings in the military and have participated in battlefronts along with men. So even “physical strength” is acquiring new meaning implying that it goes along with astuteness, just as with the “David and Goliath” story. Brute force is no longer ‘beautifying’ men, although some women like it, it’s actually making them lose the battle against the intellect of women at the workplace as well as in relationships.

        What’s fascinating is that the same concept of bullying can be applied to some women. The fact that some women may share battlefronts with men makes them use the same “brute force” that some of them condemn in relationships. So there you have the “soft spot” of feminism, women wanting to be like men, and doing it by assuming the standpoint that the “roles” can be reversed. Of course they can! I’m not against it! Nevertheless, it tends to be a ‘soft spot’ for feminists in the sense that instead of promoting that women go to college and become more educated, they seek to promote equality in professions with the military and other male dominated careers such as aviation and submarine warfare, among others, just to “show them” that yes, “women can”. This is ‘brute force’ all over again.

      • Feminists have then chosen the military to promote equal rights for women, instead of focusing on careers such as engineering, medicine and law, among others, that still have more men and may hold bias. There’s nothing wrong with a female being trained as an air force pilot. The difference is that it’s training based on having chosen the military framework of warfare as a standard. If a woman wants to be a pilot, she can train with the Federal Aviation Administration; if she wants to fire arms she can train with the police department, but using the military as a baseline for equal rights between men and women may be missing the point of where the real need is; out in the community and not in a battlefield.

        • Ah, Maria. How wonderful your words are at the end of the comment about putting focus into the community rather than in the battlefield. May peace and equality be goals we see met within our lifetime, or at least see a lot of progress… and only through sharing stories and offering suggestions for change will this happen. Thank you so much.

  5. I lived through the 60’s and have done studies of how gender has created a great deal of controversy. I learned that the best way to embrace gender diversity is to live in accordance with the principle of fairness and equity. Even more importantly, we need to celebrate those women and men who worked diligently to give women more choices. There is much more work to be done. May we have the courage to boldly step forward. We have big shoes to fill. I am hoping that we all have big feet.

  6. Hi Aquileana,

    Thank you for the thought-provoking post regarding women empowerment. When I grew up in the 60’s, women’s issues were at the forefront. As I’ve researched ancient history and mythology, it is interesting to note that women were actually held in higher esteem in ancient civilizations where their roles and ability to give birth were more valued, based on the rich mythology and diverse deities. Historically, women have also been rulers, warriors, and priestesses who have presided over rituals and ceremonies which help formed the basis of their culture and identity. Unfortunately, a lot of our modern-day biases are ingrained in our cultural and religious beliefs. For example, the failure for the passage of the Equal Right Amendment in the 1970’s was, in part, based on the reasoning that women could only serve traditional roles and the enactment of this amendment would force them to serve in military combat which they are not equipped to do. Equal rights for women was somehow associated with an attack on family values. Although there have been some positive changes since I was a little girl, the specter of stereotyping and the push to control social norms is still there.

    Best regards,
    Linnea

    • Hi Linea,
      How interesting to read about the perceptions of women and their elevated roles in ancient civilizations. That is enlightening, indeed. Perhaps you could write a related post here as a guest blogger in the future? If that interests you, simply let me know.

      And your thoughts about the failure of the Equal Right Amendment are certainly interesting. I think change at any level leaves people feeling uneasy and certainly a change that would impact half of the population would lead to squirming on a large scale. People may think that ‘so far so good’ is the way to go. But I am glad to see women such as you, with this intellectual comment here, illustrating that females are capable of so much more than the roles that have been put onto us without our approval. Many thanks for such a great comment and for contributing value to the conversation!

  7. One of the biggest revelations of my life was when I was studying theories of rhetoric and comp. The tenets of subjectivism really helped open my eyes to understanding how “objective” reality really isn’t possible. Power is always in play in some shape or form, and yes, men still tend to have more power than women in our hegemonic society. Feminism is definitely alive and well and will continue to be in order to fight gender bias. Try living in idaho that pays some of the lowest wages to women in the entire country.

    • Jeri,
      I hadn’t realized about the wages in Idaho being that way. That alone would be an eye opener. It’s interesting how many people are content to passively accept the world is fine the way it is… or could it be that perhaps they don’t know that they are feeding into perceptions put onto them by society as a whole? It’s interesting to reflect on. Thank you for your comment here!

  8. Enlightening post Christy. Many people lost in the kafuffle of todays world surrender themselves to what is because they can’t be bothered fighting or think their opinions don’t matter. It’s like a lost sheep syndrome, follow the flock. Feminism is alive and we have only to stand and be counted instead of crouching behind others.

    • Great point Deb about many people thinking their opinions don’t matter. We see that in the low rates of voters for elections here in Canada. I worry though about the “lost sheep” being led into places that set women back decades rather than advancing females. Hugs!

      • You are correct. In this world of misleading promotion it’s easy for people to be led astray. As for voting, if they ever gave us someone honest and worth voting for, perhaps many more of us would vote. Sorry, just my opinion on politics, don’t get me started! 🙂 ((hugs to you))

  9. Thoughtful and thought provoking Christy. I think some of our great divide came from a point in time when there was a ‘necessity’ of gender division of labor, physical divisions were based on strength and capacity, more than anything else. It wasn’t so much what one gender could do, it was what they were better suited to do. These then become part of our social structure, defined by religion and social engineering.

    • Thanks Val for explaining that point about the physical capabilities being the original point of divide. While that made sense for practical reasons, it is too bad that it has now infiltrated our social system. Your clarity is appreciated.

  10. Dear Christy,

    I want… need… to turn things around here!
    I say:
    Perception demands knowledge.
    I know women are paid less than men for same work in the world. Is there anywhere this is not true? I’d love to know!
    I know women still bump into “the glass ceiling” most of the time in the world.
    I know women are treated as chattel in much of the world.
    I know women are beaten and raped to a much, much larger degree than men in all of the world.
    I know only women give birth.
    I perceive men think they are better than women, therefore should be paid more.
    I perceive men have lost the ability to keep a cement ceiling to prevent women from being equal, so have slowly been made to degrade their protection to a glass ceiling.
    I perceive women are equal to cows, goats, sheep and property in many places by many men.
    I perceive that more women are raped and beaten by men because men are, in general, physically stronger.
    I perceive many men are either jealous, threatened or hating the need of the fact that women bear the children.
    I know women are equal in many eyes and minds of both sexes.
    I perceive very slow changes.
    Thank you for this enticing article, and allowing all of us people (women and men) to express our opinions.

    • Thank you Resa for the ‘garage door’ of hope you open here! Truly. I think that there are so many ways to look at the roles of men and women in society, and I never want to say women are always inferior to men. Absolutely not! It’s just that society needs a bit of a kick in the behind to make sure there are even more opportunities for women to have equal footing. And I think great comments such as yours are helping to move the conversations forward toward change and away from misconceptions about gender. Thanks honey for all of your support in 2014 and I can’t wait for more communications in 2015! 🙂

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