Mary Gergen, 1938-2020: Pioneer in Social Constructionism and Feminist Psychology

Mary Gergen portrait
Mary McCanny Gergen

Social psychologist Mary Gergen, whose career explored the intersection of social constructionism, narrative studies, and feminist theories, and who was one of the founders of the Taos Institute, died of cancer on September 22. She was 82.

An innovator in connecting psychology and feminism, she forged a way for future generations entering academia. Encouraging young feminists and academics, she reminded them to “always keep a sort of a creative, rebel, spirited, backburner thing going that is alive in you.” Gergen served as a role model for many – even after her “retirement” in 2007 she taught a course in feminist theory at her local university – and her work continues to live on in her innovations and commitment to the field of social science.

Her drive and desire to change the academic world for all began at a young age. “I spent my whole childhood being the oldest female, sort of the boss of the tribe,” she recalled in a 2007 interview for Psychology’s Feminist Voices Oral History Project. And while at the start of her schooling she didn’t have “huge aspirations,” her early experiences nonetheless “started me out in thinking that I was a special, smart person who could be, you know, an independent person.”

Mary McCanny Gergen was born on December 12, 1938, in Balaton, Minnesota, a small town on the prairies where, as her obituary states, “Saturday afternoon at the movies fired her imagination of what life could become.” Her family moved to a Minneapolis suburb when she was 12, and Gergen’s first step into higher education saw he attend the University of Minnesota, receiving a bachelor’s degree in English and education and a master’s in educational psychology, studying part-time and raising two children from her first marriage..

When her husband took a job at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the family moved to Boston and she worked as a research assistant for social psychologist Kenneth Gergen at Harvard University for two years until he took a job at Swarthmore University.

Ken Gergen had encouraged Mary to finish her master’s degree, which she did over seven years and which she reflected in the oral interview that she had gotten “with my, sort of, left hand.” And while she and Gergen would eventually marry, and the Gergens would work jointly on experimental projects, Mary Gergen felt her own potential was not being fulfilled.

“I had hopes that when my children were a little older I would become, like a counselor, or something. But I didn’t do that.” While at Harvard, “I began going to psychology meetings and realizing that the times had changed and women were getting their PHDs and women were having jobs as professors.”

She recalled crying while on the way to the American Psychological Association conference in Toronto, “thinking I’m a failure… I’m just this, you know, sort of wannabe Psychologist, I don’t have any status or position. I’m just this little housewife, helper, part-time worker person.” She drew from her on spirit and decided to get a PhD in social psychology, studying at Philadelphia’s Temple University.

Happy for the support of her prominent husband, she still felt she was growing “in the shadow of the big tree.” Through her doctoral studies, Gergen’s interest in feminist identities and narratives came to life as she began studying women’s stories in literature through the lens of her psychology background. She began innovative research on gender creation and constructs and remained fascinated in comparing the stories of men and women in their cultural forms.

“You know, because I do social constructionist work and work in narratives, I realize I have choices about the story I want to tell,” she explained in the interview. “So when I became involved more deeply, in feminist studies, feminist theory, women’s studies, that was mine, you know…and I just loved the literature, I loved the exploration, I loved enriching psychology with these issues, I loved bringing it into narrative study.”

Gergen started sharing her research and teaching at Pennsylvania State University, Brandywine in 1984 for both the Psychology and Women’s Studies departments where she emphasized her interest in the connections between social constructions, narratives, and feminism.

“In the 80s, I became interested in narratives and narrative forms. And from a constructionist perspective, your narratives, whatever you tell about yourself…is not really your story, because your story is already preempted in a sense by cultural forms that you must fit into,” she said. “And as a woman there are sets of stories you have to tell about yourself and if you don’t tell them a certain way it will seem weird.”

But never one to conform to the academic standards of the time, Gergen began examining a new way of studying and sharing feminist theories. She focused on the narratives of positivity and strength during a women’s lifetime, a common theme throughout all her work. “You know, I thought why not a little celebration of being a woman, and a little, like, comfort and a little cheer, a little optimism about what it was? Not always a doom and gloom scenario.”

Gergen pioneered several research methodologies combining narrative and later performative techniques into largely qualitative approaches. Mary and Ken co-wrote Playing for Purpose: Adventures in Performative Social Science, in 2012. (Social Science Space contributor and performative social scientist Kip Jones created a biography of Gergen, “Thoroughly Post-Modern Mary,” about Gergen for Forum: Qualitative Social Research, in 2004. As he wrote just after learning of Gergen’s death, “My first reaction to Mary Gergen’s death was 1. to find photos; 2. to find music.”)

In addition to her teaching and research, she and six others co-founded the Taos Institute in 1993, an organization focused on building community around the studies and practical application of social constructionism across diverse fields of academia. Through the TAOS institute, Gergen launched a newsletter read by thousands, Positive Aging, highlighting aging as a period of growth and strength. Today, the institute includes 22 faculty members and offers a PhD program.

Gergen received Penn State’s George W. Atherton teaching award in 1996. She was a founding member and fellow of Division 35, The Society for the Psychology of Women and a fellow at the Netherlands Institute for Advanced Study from 1988-89. In addition to works she co-authored with Ken Gergen, notable pieces of her published work include Feminist Reconstructions in Psychology (published in 2001 by SAGE Publishing, the parent of Social Science Space), Narrative, Gender & Performance, Social Constructionism: A Reader (2003), and Paths to Positive Aging: Dog Days with a Bone (2016). She was also an editor of The SAGE Handbook of Social Constructionist Practice, which comes out this month.

She spoke internationally, served on PhD theses examination committees, and even after retirement, continued to further develop the field of feminist social constructionism by teaching, mentoring PhD students, and supporting the TAOS institute.

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Joy Wada

Joy Wada is the corporate communications intern at SAGE Publishing where she creates content for social media channels and blog sites. She currently studies communication and business at the University of Southern California. When she isn’t working, she may be spotted skateboarding around campus, Yelping a new restaurant, or baking on her quest to find the perfect chocolate chip cookie recipe (if you ask nicely, she will share).

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Thank you for this important piece of history of psychology – and beautiful feminist story.

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