Thursday, September 20, 2012

gender roles: other explanations?

In the previous post, I mentioned recent research highlighting how economic historians think about gender roles and labor. Regardless of any problems that may exist with their econometric technique, it's clear that their overall framework is more economic than historical.One could even say that the economic historians' creed -- at least in modern research -- is path dependence, which is mainly a mathematical concept which has been criticized for its ahistorical characteristics by many historians.

Labor or legal historians are generally more interested in the details behind why cultural norms and beliefs persist, even in the presence of economic change. Intuition for why we might go this route: 1. institutions have significant inertia; 2. economic change does not necessarily lead to political changes given the existing power structure in society as a coercive force; and (similar to 2) 3. pre-existing political structures have been shown to determine the trajectory of economic change, particularly the choice of technique (i.e. technological change). All of these factors are things that economic historians can learn from historians and represent a way that they can strengthen their  own arguments.

(1) is something that even mainstream economic historians would probably agree with, though they would still want to assert that the adjustment mechanism is largely driven by material (market) forces. Intuition behind (2) can actually be found in the frontiers of research on political economy, most notably the work of Daron Acemoglu (see his Political Economy lecture notes , for example). (3) Is somewhat more radical but has been a mainstay in the political science and history literature for many years -- see for example Robert Brenner's explanation for the transition from feudalism to capitalism. (3) is, without a doubt, an extremely important idea.

To see how these ideas work, consider a recent example from economic history.

A classic example of the "gender roles" debate among economists and legal/labor historians in the American context highlighting the relevance of both (1) and (2) above is Geddes and Lueck's (2002) article, published in the American Economic Review, on the growth of women's rights in the 19th and early-20th centuries. They attempt to explain the emergence of women's rights using the fact that their increasing participation in the market economy increased their relative bargaining power in the household, leading to political change in the form of the decline of femme covert. Geddes and Lueck, both being economists, are rather ahistorical in their account, trying to place some economic forces regarding bargaining power at the forefront of historical change.

Geddes and Lueck fail to mention -- both in their paper and in their bibliography -- Norma Basch's (1979) work, Invisible Women, in which she uncovers significant historical detail to show how gender norms actually persisted throughout the 19th century. For example she cites the institution of judicial review, representing the power of courts and law more generally to overturn statutes which may have been passed to improve women's condition, as a means by which  the gender system was maintained and propagated throughout society. In other words, the courts were a key reason why many legislative attempts to overturn femme covert ended in failure. So while some laws did change, the underlying application of those laws maintained considerable inertia and was influenced by political forces clearly against expanded political power for women.

As a final side note: in my critique of Alesina et al.'s paper, I mentioned the issue of endogeneity. That mainly addresses point (3) above, regarding the importance of pre-existing political structures in the direction of material (technological) change. Essentially, I would like to know how the adoption of the plough or other technologies may actually have been explained by pre-existing gender norms in select cultures, or how pre-existing gender norms may have prevailed regardless of the adoption of technology. As I mentioned in my review, I believe the weakness of the authors' geography instrument and its failure to capture the variables I suggested above means more work needs to be done.

But regardless of these failures, legal or labor historians are simply not interested in "origins"-types of theses. At any point in time, many paths could have been taken by society. Understanding that variation should be under the purview of the economic historian's craft.

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