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Living against the norm : young women talk about role models

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posted on 31.10.2013, 12:17 by Meredith M. Cohen
References to role models have become common within both academic and lay literature, and claims appear repeatedly regarding the 'need' for 'strong' role models for today's youth and specifically for young women (Basow & Howe, 1980; Defour, & Paludi, 1995; Fine & Asch, 1985; Q'Connell & Russo, 1980). In addition, several agencies such as the British Government Women's Unit have identified particular individuals (mainly celebrities) as role models for young women to 'look up to'. Although It appears as if theorists have extrapolated and combined concepts from role theory (see Biddle, 1986) and social learning theory (Bandura, 1977) to create an implied meaning, a formal definition for the term 'role model' does not exist within psychological literature. As a result, it appears as If this is more of a 'buzzword' than an actual psychological concept, yet it is used by both feminist and mainstream psychologists repeatedly to make claims and prescriptions for young women. In addition, little if any literature exists regarding how young women perceive and understand the term role model or how role models have (or have not) been a part of their lives. This study uses a feminist qualitative methodological approach, specifically a feminist standpoint approach (Hardlng, 1989, 1991; Hartstock, 1987; Stanley & Wise, 1990), to explore how young women make sense of role models in regard to their own experience. Data were collected through nine focus groups with 30 participants in total. Participants were primarily undergraduate students opportunistically recruited while studying at Loughborough University. The focus groups ran for approximately one hour and during this time, I asked the group a series of questions to facilitate conversation about role models including who has been influential in their lives thus far, whether celebrities have been influential figures and whether controversial individuals can be influential. Data were analyzed through a combined content and thematic analysis and results of this study provide three conclusions in regard to young women's perceptions of role models that have implications for both feminist and mainstream psychology. First, the ambigUity behind term 'role model' despite its frequent use, is supported by the difficulty participants had defining and applying it to their own experience. Second, despite their inevitable presence, in most cases celebrities are not the most influential figures in young women's lives. Rather, it is individuals whom these young women have been exposed to within their own environments such as home, school and within recreational environments (Le. sports teams) that have been most influential. Finally, those individuals who are influential to these young women vary according to personal experience and circumstances and therefore prescribing a set of role models, specifically celebrity role models, cannot adequately represent and reflect their diverse experience. I will review the implications of these findings in relation to both feminist and mainstream psychology as I question whether the idea of a role model is actually counterintuitive for women, and specifically young women overall based on participants depictions of their own experience.



  • Social Sciences


  • Communication, Media, Social and Policy Studies


© Meredith M. Cohen

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A Master's Thesis. Submitted in partial fulfilment of the requirements for the award of Master of Philosophy of Loughborough University.




Communication and Media Theses