Field-Dependent or Field-Astute? By Charlene Spretnak

Charlene Spretnak is one of the Founding Mothers of the Women’s Spirituality movement. She is the author of eight books, including most recently Relational Reality. She is a professor in the Women’s Spirituality graduate program in the Philosophy and Religion Department at the California Institute of Integral Studies. For further information about her books, see 

Field-Dependent or Field-Astute?

While listening to an NPR station a few months ago, I heard a man – apparently a marketing whiz – say, “Teenage girls are a field-dependent market for us.” Hmmmm. There it is again, the long arm of Herman Witkin’s influence decades after his famous experiment in the psychology of visual perception in 1954, which found that male subjects tend strongly to focus on a foreground figure, while female subjects tend strongly to perceive figure and ground as a gestalt, or holistic totality. (These results have been replicated thousands of times since then, including cross-culturally.) However, following the experimental findings themselves, then came the patriarchal spin. Witkin assigned the positive, admirable label “field-independent” to men and the less admirable “field-dependent” to women. He and other psychologists extrapolated from his findings that women’s cognitive style is “conforming,” “child-like,” and “global,” being similar, as Witkin added in 1962, to the [supposedly] undifferentiated thought processes found in “primitive” cultures. He added that women’s “field-dependence” renders us unable to maintain a “sense of separate identity,” unlike “field-independent males,” whose cognitive style was seen as “analytical” and “self-reliant.” In more recent decades female psychologists have suggested that women’s cognitive style might well be re-labeled “field-sensitive.” But is that really sufficient? After all, it carries the connotation of women’s being supposedly “over-sensitive.”

Why does this matter now? Because the ground is shifting fast under the old view of reality as an aggregate of discrete entities (foreground figures, as Witkin would say), which may or may not relate to one another.  On the contrary, numerous discoveries in recent years indicate that the entire physical world, including humans, is far more dynamically interrelated – in both structure and functioning – than had been imagined (except by indigenous cultures and Eastern philosophy). Even as someone who’s been tracking the Relational Shift for decades, I was amazed by many of the recent discoveries – as well as the fact that this shift is now decidedly mainstream.

For example, consider the following assumptions, each overthrown by recent findings:

  • that one’s IQ is a given in life (Wrong: a particular set of relational dynamics within the family setting, related to but different from birth order, consistently affected IQ in a study of 240,000 young men)
  • that spanking a child’s bottom has no effect on mental development (Wrong: this relational violation consistently lowers IQ scores)
  • that doing “mental calisthenics,” such as crossword puzzles, is the best defense against dementia (Wrong:  Having or lacking good relationships is a stronger predictor.)
  • that having friends has a positive but modest effect on the immune system (Wrong: Even when a virus was sprayed directly into the nasal passages of volunteers, those who had noted on a survey that they have a lot of friends were four times less likely to get sick.)
  • that class size and money spent per student are the main factors in successful urban public schools (Wrong: “Relational trust” was found to be a far more significant factor, in a recent study of public schools in Chicago.)
  • that nature is a nice backdrop for human activity but has no real and quantifiable relationship to human health, healing, and moods (Wrong: The correlation is so strong that new hospitals are designed to maximize patients’ views of nature [windows, murals] and to include in hallways several fountains with water running softly over stones.)
In short, reality is dynamically interrelated in every way, and the mechanistic worldview, which caused our systems of knowledge and our institutions to get so much wrong, is finally on the wane. So, here’s the deal – society desperately needs people in positions of leadership in every field who have a talent and tendency to perceive that dynamic interrelatedness, the gestalt. It’s been widely noticed that most women tend to think holistically and to grasp the many implications of a particular situation or a proposed solution. Ergo, women should constitute at least half of every governing body from the neighborhood to the international level.
What does this mean for women and religion? More than any other field, religion is the human endeavor that seeks to engage with the sacred whole, the ultimate interrelated complexity and the unitive dimension of existence. It is completely irrational that women, being demonstrably “field-astute,” should ever be considered outsiders who are not really suited to be deacons, priests, bishops, popes. The very field that clings most stubbornly to excluding women has amply demonstrated its need for field-astute leadership.

Categories: Major Feminist Thinkers in Religion, Relationality

Tags: , , ,

3 replies

  1. Perhaps instead of “field-independent” the term for men should be “field-blind”? :)


  2. “… those who had noted on a survey that they have a lot of friends were four times less likely to get sick.”

    What do you mean, four times less likely? How much is one time less likely?


  3. Dear Charlene, thanks for this brilliant and timely policy proposal that “women should constitute at least half of every governing body from the neighborhood to the international level.” YES!


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