A Postcolonial Feminist Critique of Harem Analogies in Psychological Science


  • Natasha Bharj
  • Peter Hegarty


Since the 1930s, psychologists have used the term harem as an analogy for social relations among animals. In doing so they draw upon gendered and racial stereotypes located in the history of colonialism. We present an experimental study on the harem analogy as a means of confronting and challenging colonial undercurrents in psychological science. We investigated whether the use of this colonialist image in studies of animal societies could subtly affect thinking about Middle Eastern Muslim people. Two-hundred and forty-nine participants read about animal societies; in the experimental condition these were described as “harems” and accompanied by the analogy of harems in Middle Eastern Muslim societies. In the two control conditions, animal societies were either described as “groups” or “harems”, with no mention of the analogy. In the experimental condition, participants falsely remembered descriptions of Muslim people of the Middle East as applying to animals. This finding replicates the “resistance is futile” effect (Blanchette & Dunbar, 2002; Perrott, Gentner, & Bodenhausen, 2005) by which false remembering of analogical statements as previously seen literal descriptions is taken as suggestive of analogical mapping between two disparate concepts. As such, the study contributes to debate between feminist and evolutionary psychology about the value-neutrality of psychology, and to postcolonial critique of the partiality of mainstream psychological accounts of the universality of nature and society.