Gender as Soft Assembly (Hardback) book cover

Gender as Soft Assembly

By Adrienne Harris

© 2009 – Routledge

320 pages

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Gender as Soft Assembly weaves together insights from different disciplinary domains to open up new vistas of clinical understanding of what it means to inhabit, to perform, and to be, gendered. Opposing the traditional notion of development as the linear unfolding of predictable stages, Adrienne Harris argues that children become gendered in multiply configured contexts. And she proffers new developmental models to capture the fluid, constructed, and creative experiences of becoming and being gendered. According to Harris, these models, and the images to which they give rise, articulate not only with contemporary relational psychoanalysis but also with recent research into the origins of mentalization and symbolization.

In urging us to think of gender as co-constructed in a variety of relational contexts, Harris enlarges her psychoanalytic sensibility with the insights of attachment theory, linguistics, queer theory, and feminist criticism. Nor is she inattentive to the impact of history and culture on gender meanings. Special consideration is given to chaos theory, which Harris positions at the cutting edge of developmental psychology and uses to generate new perspectives and new images for comprehending and working clinically with gender.


"In this dazzling tour de force, Adrienne Harris reminds us why she is a leading relational thinker and theorist of gender, even as she goes one enormous step further in presenting an original theory of development worthy of the complexity and nonlinearity of psychic life. Harris's range is breathtaking, as she moves the reader beyond perspectives on development that tended to stages and linear paths to a theory that incorporates recent findings in psychoanalysis along with developmental psychology research bearing on language, intentionality, experiences of self and other, temporality, and cognitive modalities. And throughout we find a profoundly humane, brave, and gifted analyst at work."

- Nancy J. Chodorow, Ph.D., San Francisco Psychoanalytic Institute

"This is a landmark study of the development of mind and subjectivity, the culmination of 30 years of interdisciplinary research, teaching, and psychoanalytic practice. With an unfailingly keen eye for the ideological dimensions of theory and the hidden undercurrents of values and power, Harris constructs a sophisticated relational approach to development that gives weight to the intrapsychic and the interpersonal, to mind and body, to social and historical forces. If, as Harris observes, psychoanalysis is now at 'the edge of chaos,' with the field poised to change and readjust in unpredictable but patterned ways, then Gender as Soft Assembly will itself be a significant catalyst shaping this reorganization."

- Lewis Aron, Ph.D., Director, NYU Postdoctoral Program in Psychotherapy and Psychoanalysis

"In Gender as Soft Assembly Adrienne Harris has created a brilliant synthetic work in which she challenges us to reconceptualize development through the lens of relational psychoanalysis, context specificity, and nonlinear dynamic systems theory. Drawing on chaos theory as a vehicle for apprehending development along multiple, sometimes intersecting, time lines, she provides a capacious framework for understanding the multiple, complex ways that gender and symbolization are constructed in our deepest attachment relationships. This outstanding and scholarly tour de force, which integrates gender, complexity theory, developmental psycholinguistics, relational psychoanalysis, and attachment theory, will surely become a transformative text of our times."

- Susan Coates, Ph.D., Columbia University Center for Psychoanalytic Training and Research

"Psychoanalytic theory has been in dire need of thinkers who can bring to bear, on the essentially complex psychoanalytic models of mind, the theories of complexity already extant in the worlds of philosophy and science. Adrienne Harris has produced an elegant and wide-ranging discussion bringing together and integrating psychoanalytic theory and practice, non-linear dynamic systems theories, developmental psychology, and gender theory. She goes one more; she shows with many evocative clinical vignettes how these models really do have things to teach us about what happens in the analytic process. Ranging from the nuts and bolts of practice to an engaging and cutting-edge account of complex models of mind, this book will be of interest to practitioners and theoreticians alike."

- David Olds, M.D., The Psychoanalytic Connection

"This book is a primer in chaos theory and nonlinear thinking and represents a compendium of relational thinking in psychoanalysis. It offers the challenge of an articulate and thoughtful presentation of a relatively radical revision of anaylytic thinking."

- W.W. Meissner, S.J., M.D. in Bulleting of the Menninger Clinic, Vol. 71, No.3 (Summer 2007)

"The presentation of nonlinear dynamic systems theory to psychoanalysis is a major original contribution….Harris' incorporation of material…and her awareness of diversities and of the importance of multiple contexts in development are long overdue. This work is an ambitious enterprise in which Harris presents and integrates a vast amount of complex material. She is clearly well informed and well read….has provided an important service to psychoanalysis by broadening psychoanalytic inquiry and discussion through bringing in new sources of information from a variety of disciplines."


"This is an extremely well researched book in which Harris has set herself the steep task of reworking developmental theory by looking at language and gender development at a time when many theorists have given up on developmental theory altogether. Harris challenges her readers to engage in their own thinking with the detailed information she provides on developmental theories, chaos theory, gender development, psycholinguistics, attachment theory and developmental psycholinguistics….but she also strives to provide a theoretical model that still works within the psychoanalytic domain, yet one that can shed the antiquarian skins which perspire scents of linearity and determinism."

- Psychologist-Psychoanalyst

"One of the most valuable aspects of Gender as Soft Assembly is Harris's well researched and meticulously referenced style of writing. It is richly academic, providing a wealth of resources for those wanting further depth in any of the myriad areas she addresses… Overall, this is an extremely valuable book on the cutting edge of gender theorizing and contemporary relational psychoanalysis."

- Susan McKenzie, Journal of Analytical Psychology, 54, 2009

Table of Contents


I. Relational Developmental Theory

1. Multiple Selves, Multiple Codes

2. Timelines and Temporalities

3. Chaos Theory as a Theory of Development

II. Gender as a Soft Assembly

4. Gender Narratives in Psychoanalysis

5. Tomboys' Stories

6. Gender as a Strange Attractor: Gender's Multidimensionality

7. Genders Emerge in Contexts

8. Clinical and Theoretical Approaches to Gender As a Soft Assembly

III. Developmental Theory and Research

9. Developmental Applications of Nonlinear Dynamic Systems Theory: Learning

How to Mean

10. Dynamic Skills Theory: Relational Mourning as Shared Labor

About the Author

Adrienne Harris, Ph.D., is Clinical Associate Professor at the New York University Postdoctoral Program in Psychotherapy and Psychoanalysis, and an Associate Editor of Psychoanalytic Dialogues and Studies in Gender and Sexuality.

About the Series

Relational Perspectives Book Series

The Relational Perspectives Book Series (RPBS) publishes books that grow out of or contribute to the relational tradition in contemporary psychoanalysis. The term relational psychoanalysis was first used by Greenberg and Mitchell (1983) to bridge the traditions of interpersonal relations, as developed within interpersonal psychoanalysis and object relations, as developed within contemporary British theory. But, under the seminal work of the late Stephen Mitchell, the term relational psychoanalysis grew and began to accrue to itself many other influences and developments. Various tributaries—interpersonal psychoanalysis, object relations theory, self psychology, empirical infancy research, and elements of contemporary Freudian and Kleinian thought—flow into this tradition, which understands relational configurations between self and others, both real and fantasied, as the primary subject of psychoanalytic investigation.  

We refer to the relational tradition, rather than to a relational school, to highlight that we are identifying a trend, a tendency within contemporary psychoanalysis, not a more formally organized or coherent school or system of beliefs. Our use of the term relational signifies a dimension of theory and practice that has become salient across the wide spectrum of contemporary psychoanalysis. Now under the editorial supervision of Lewis Aron and Adrienne Harris with the assistance of Associate Editors Steven Kuchuck and Eyal Rozmarin, the Relational Perspectives Book Series originated in 1990 under the editorial eye of the late Stephen A. Mitchell. Mitchell was the most prolific and influential of the originators of the relational tradition. He was committed to dialogue among psychoanalysts and he abhorred the authoritarianism that dictated adherence to a rigid set of beliefs or technical restrictions. He championed open discussion, comparative and integrative approaches, and he promoted new voices across the generations.  

Included in the Relational Perspectives Book Series are authors and works that come from within the relational tradition, extend and develop the tradition, as well as works that critique relational approaches or compare and contrast it with alternative points of view. The series includes our most distinguished senior psychoanalysts along with younger contributors who bring fresh vision.

Learn more…

Subject Categories

BISAC Subject Codes/Headings:
PSYCHOLOGY / Human Sexuality
PSYCHOLOGY / Mental Health