Sherif, Carolyn Wood (1922–1982)

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Sherif, Carolyn Wood (1922–1982)

American social psychologist who, with her husband, pioneered research methods, particularly in the study of the psychology of women. Name variations: Carolyn Wood. Born Carolyn Wood on June 26, 1922, in Loogootee, Indiana; died of cancer in 1982; graduated from West Lafayette High School, 1940; Purdue University, B.S. with highest honors, 1943; State University of Iowa, M.A., 1944; attended Columbia University; University of Texas, Ph.D., 1961; married Muzafer Sherif (a social psychologist), in 1945; children: Sue (b. 1947); Joan (b. 1950); Ann (b. 1955).

Born in Loogootee, Indiana, in 1922, Carolyn Wood Sherif was the youngest of three children in a family which promoted academic excellence. While many girls at the time received little encouragement in aspiring to a professional career, Carolyn's parents applauded her ambitions to enter Purdue University after her high school graduation in 1940. She rejected her father's wishes that she pursue the field of home economics, opting instead to enter an experimental program for women science majors which provided a historical and humanist perspective on the study of science. Although it offered little in the way of psychology, the program's interdisciplinary approach profoundly influenced her later research in that field.

Carolyn's outstanding academic record upon her graduation in 1943 won her a place in the master's program at the State University of Iowa. There, she began reading the works of acclaimed Turkish social psychologist Muzafer Sherif, then a professor at Princeton University, and became a great admirer of his research. After completing her master's degree, she moved to Princeton, New Jersey, where she found a job with a Gallup subsidiary. The research—conducted primarily for commercial purposes such as data collection on upcoming films—did not satisfy her professional ambitions, and an unwanted romantic advance by the research director cemented her plans to return to graduate school. She received an assistantship with Muzafer Sherif at Princeton, but had to commute to Columbia University in New York City for her doctoral courses because Princeton did not accept women students. This assistantship with Muzafer was the beginning of a long relationship that would encompass both their professional and their personal lives. The two were married in 1945.

For the next 16 years, Carolyn Sherif was an unrecognized, essential part of Muzafer's research, and often co-wrote articles with him in addition to raising their three daughters. The climate of the times resulted in academia's failure to recognize her contributions to her famous husband's findings on intergroup relations, and her role in their work, despite her credits as coauthor, was largely ignored. She did not hold any academic positions of her own during these years, but moved with Muzafer to Yale and to the University of Oklahoma, collaborating on his research there. In 1958, she renewed her doctoral studies, at the University of Texas, and the following year finally earned an official position, as a research associate at the Institute of Group Relations at the University of Oklahoma.

Sherif's years as a research associate were tremendously productive, and it was during this time that she published, in conjunction with her husband, some of her most influential books: Intergroup Conflict and Cooperation: The Robbers Cave Experiment (1961, which for over 20 years remained one of the most cited studies in the field), Reference Groups: Exploration into Conformity and Deviation of Adolescents (1964); Problems of Youth (1965), and Attitude and Attitude Change (1965). In the course of their research, the Sherifs argued that human behavior needed to be studied in the context of the environment in which the behavior occurred, taking into account setting, the presence of other individuals, and cultural values and norms. Their incorporation of what previously had been regarded as peripheral factors into the study of social behavior was unique in its interdisciplinary approach. Sherif's research into attitudes within the framework of the self-system in Attitude and Attitude Change is considered her most important contribution to the field of social psychology. She proposed that the understanding of the "self" was necessary to any study on attitudes and behavior, although this idea did not become fully accepted until the late 1970s.

Four years after completing her doctoral thesis in 1961, Sherif accepted a position as a visiting faculty member in the psychology department at Penn State University; her husband became a visiting faculty member in the sociology department. She graduated from "visiting faculty" to a tenure-track position the following year, but her promotion to full professor was slow in coming. Despite her impressive research credentials, Sherif might have remained only an associate professor had the women's movement not raised awareness about gender inequality within the university system. She earned a full professorship at Penn State in 1970, and a few years later, after the U.S. Department of Health, Education, and Welfare began investigating the university for alleged discriminatory salary practices, began earning as much as a man with her credentials would have received. Sherif credited the women's movement with leading to improvements within academia—"I know I did not become a better social psychologist between 1969 and 1972," she once noted, "but I surely was treated as a better one"—and devoted much of her research in the 1970s to the study of the psychology of women. In her famous study "Bias in Psychology," published as a chapter in The Prism of Sex (1979), she argued that the field of psychology had reinforced myths about the inferiority of women by setting up narrowly focused studies designed to support the prejudices of the male-dominated establishment. She applied her findings on intergroup relations to her study of gender identity in her noted paper, "Needed Concepts in the Study of Gender Identity." A consulting editor of Psychology of Women Quarterly from its founding in 1977, she also was a key figure in the creation of both a course on women and psychology and a women's studies program at Penn State.

Well-deserved honors finally started coming Sherif's way in the mid-1970s, beginning with her election as a fellow in the American Psychological Association in 1976. The association greatly benefited from her service on a variety of committees and her leadership of the Division on the Psychology of Women. She was also honored by the national honor societies Psi Chi and Sigma Xi, acting as the national lecturer for the latter from 1981 until her untimely death from cancer in 1982. At the time, she had been appointed editor of the Journal of Social Issues, and was slated to receive the American Psychological Foundation's Award for Distinguished Contributions to Education in Psychology (it was awarded posthumously). After her death, the Division on the Psychology of Women sponsored the Carolyn Wood Sherif Award as the highest honor given for research and teaching on the psychology of women.


Bailey, Brooke. The Remarkable Lives of 100 Women Healers and Scientists. Holbrook, MA: Bob Adams, 1994.

O'Connell, Agnes N., and Nancy Felipe Russo, eds. Women in Psychology: A Bio-Bibliographic Source-book. NY: Greenwood Press, 1990.

Ginger Strand , Ph.D., New York City

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Sherif, Carolyn Wood (1922–1982)

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