Q&A with Postdoctoral Fellow Angelica Ferrara
Angelica Puzio Ferrara joined the Clayman Institute as a postdoctoral fellow in September 2022. She is a mixed-methods developmental and social psychologist with a PhD from New York University. She recently spent a year completing research and public scholarship as a Global Research Fellow at New York University’s London research center.
Ferrara plans to continue her research on the impact of patriarchy on human development while at the Clayman Institute. Her current book project examines the effects of masculine norms on boys’ and men’s friendships throughout history and across cultures. Prior to joining us, some of her publications include a chapter in Queer Psychology: Intersectional Perspectives with Alexis Forbes titled “Gender Development as a Social Developmental Process,” where they describe the process of gender development through centering trans and gender-expansive children. She has written for Psychology of Men and Masculinities as well as The Washington Post and FiveThirtyEight. Ferrara also took part in a cross-cultural collaboration with the Towards Gender Harmony Project, publishing in Social Psychological and Personality Science, The Journal of Cross-Cultural Psychology, and The European Journal of Social Psychology. She is also a visiting fellow at the London School of Economics and Political Science, where she partners with The Inclusion Initiative. Learn more about Ferrara and her research through the following questions and answers.
How did you become interested in developmental psychology? When did you know you wanted a career in academia?
I started my journey in academia at a community college. My fascination with developmental science began there when taking courses for a career as a preschool teacher, the job I desired at the time. My professor exposed me to ecological systems theory, or the notion that humans develop through complex, bidirectional relationships between “proximal” and “distal” layers of their environments. After transferring to a four-year university, I later took Psychology of Women with Dr. Marianna Carlucci, whose radical and loving mentorship altered the course of my life—and turned me into a feminist. It was the combination of coursework in developmental psychology and the psychology of women that allowed me to see connections between core processes of human development and the larger ideological systems in which people are embedded. These insights gave me a language to describe the conditions of my own life more vividly, linking structural conditions to individual experience. Through the additional mentorship of Dr. Deborah Best and Dr. Niobe Way in graduate school, as well as my experiences in feminist movement building and teaching, I have come to see an academic career as a way to continue the research and community building that is critical for a feminist future.
Your current book focuses on boys’ and men’s friendships in different cultures. Why do you include both boys and men in this project?
Childhood is an incredibly rich developmental period for understanding friendships. It is unique both in that children commonly defy gender norms with their friends, but also in the intensity of social learning about relationships that takes place during childhood. This learning stretches from the development of mental models about what we can expect from others, to skill building in areas like listening, asking questions about another person, and showing affection and support for the people we love. Nowhere is this clearer than in the work of Judy Chu and Niobe Way. Contrary to the impoverished opinion that boys don’t need or desire friends, their research shows the opposite. Although Chu and Way highlight how masculine norms can sometimes get in the way of boys’ close friendships, they also reveal the incredibly deep and interdependent bonds that are ordinary parts of boys’ development. In my book, I argue that adult men have much to learn from the giggly, wonderfully unrestrained, and mutually dependent friendships of boys.
What are some of your early findings from your interviews?
One section of my book examines the socially sanctioned “practices” or “containers” that allow heterosexual men to experience emotional intimacy and support from other men. In other words, what are the conditions that allow men to experience vulnerability without betraying norms of masculinity? I find that certain contexts facilitate intimate disclosure between men, such as experiences of shared trauma (e.g., exposure to war and violence), vast quantities of time (e.g., being childhood friends), or via excessive use of substances (e.g., consuming large quantities of alcohol on a night out together). And as others have noted, the socially “normative” places where men once bonded are disappearing, such as Britain’s working men’s clubs. The dwindling of acceptable places to engage in deep forms of friendship, along with the extreme conditions required for many men to feel safe in seeking social support, is part of an ongoing crisis of increased isolation among men. The consequences of men’s thinning social support networks are far reaching and damaging, especially for women. However, some of my interviewees form nourishing friendships through defying the constraints of masculine norms. Guided by these hopeful narratives, I lay out a positive vision of what men’s friendships could become.
Building on your recent work, what are some other opportunities for research that you would like to pursue?
I am particularly interested in helping my field build a more fine-tuned understanding of the racialized and classed features of gender norms. Although scholars recognize that there is an overarching or “hegemonic” set of gender norms, the recognition of the ways these norms are reflective of a white middle- and upper-class is under theorized within psychology. Many of the studies I conducted in graduate school hinted at this—for example, many of the participants in my studies indicated that the pressure for girls to be constantly “pleasing,” “pretty,” and “polite,” was most prominently reflective of the experiences of white middle- and upper-class girls and failed to fully capture the experiences of working-class girls and girls of color. There are several areas of research that I am interested in continuing while at the Clayman Institute, such as my work on how to increase men’s representation in stereotypically “feminine” careers—but pushing the field toward a balanced theorization of the ubiquity and class/race specificity of gender stereotypes is high on my list.