A woman pours water into a man's dish

A note on the ethics of changing norms

Gender, Her Series, Women's Economic Empowerment Leave a Comment

In this addition to our Her Series Dr. Elise Klein, a Lecturer of Development Studies at Melbourne University, shares with us with her views on how we should be tackling gendered norms as part of women’s economic empowerment. This blog post draws on a background paper being prepared by Dr. Klein for the UN High Level Panel for Women’ s Economic Empowerment. 

Zakayo, who takes part in Oxfam's We-Care programme, playing with his child.

Zakayo, who takes part in Oxfam’s We-Care programme, playing with his child. Credit: JuliusCeaserKasujja
/Oxfam

Changing gendered norms is fast becoming an important area for policy and practice in addressing Women’s Economic Empowerment. Yet critical attention on the role of power can be obscured through social norm change. It is therefore essential to examine; firstly how norm change can obscure the norms inherent within the development industry that may reproduce coloniality and economic inequality; secondly how norm change may reduce diversity and complexity within particular social groups or social settings, and thirdly, norm change may overlook ontological differences and world views. This blog entry will review each of these issues.

Western definitions of terms are hegemonic in development policy, and so Indigenous notions of development can endure alterity

Firstly, focusing on social norm change can obscure the norms inherent within the development industry and related actors who are usually presented neutrally. It can also cloud issues involved in what norms are promoted as favourable or unfavourable.  Critical development scholars, however, assess the discourse promoted and programs exported as gender equality which can be a cover for hegemonic western ideas of progress and improvement (Mohanty 2003; Bernstein 1971). Development intervention is a site where relations of power and knowledge intersect with lived realities of those “being developed”. In this sense, the development intervention is never neutral; rather, it is a tool that privileges particular norms over others and can reproduce embedded systems of power, which directly affect the lived reality and wellbeing of the “recipients of development assistance”.

Anthropologists of development have long held this view. Specifically, Olivier de Sardan (2005) argues that development policy and programmes support some groups’ norms and logics while simultaneously reducing space for the expression of the logics and meanings of other groups. In the case of development policy, “progress”, “development” and “wellbeing” are all contested terms, especially because they are usually defined through a Western lens which often conflicts with other norms underpinning such terms. Yet Western definitions of terms are hegemonic in development policy, and so Indigenous notions of development can endure alterity. Whether disciplinary or supportive in intent, the process of development policy and related interventions can involve control over the interpretation of events and provide opportunities for some aspirations and norms while blocking others (Mosse 2004).

Secondly, it is important to examine the intersectionality of social norms without assuming women as a homogenous group suffering from or sharing the same sets of social norms (Brown 2000; Kapur 2005; Mohanty 1988). Relations of power also include thinking about the intersection between multiple relations of power such as ethnicity, sexual orientation, coloniality, and gender. Thinking about intersectionality helps to reduce coloniality and reproduction of global northern hegemony within development programs and projects trying to enhance gender equality (Pearse and Connell 2016).

It is important to examine the intersectionality of social norms without assuming women as a homogenous group suffering from or sharing the same sets of social norms

Thirdly, norm change focused on individuals can also overlook the ontological differences between groups, particularly in conceptualising the “self” and how social norms relate to this. In behavioural economics and other social science disciplines, the idea of the “self” promotes a definitive line between the “self” and the “other”.  Yet this can be at odds with anthropological work that shows that relational understandings of agency and personhood are important (Karp and Jackson 1990; Riesman 1990). Focusing on individual norm change can obscure ontological differences in self, which can further coloniality.

One possible way to deal with the contentious nature of norm change is centralising the role of agency in any norm change process, intervention or policy (Sen 1999; 2009 ). Public deliberation and scrutiny is crucial as it allows the people to be impacted through social norm change to engaged and debate their concerns regarding relations of power in such an intervention. While many participatory approaches in development policy and practice claim to be emancipatory in having ‘the people’ as part of the development process, there is a growing realisation that this may not always be the case, and that much of the deployment of information is more about continuing the status quo than contesting it (Kothari and Cooke 2001). What is important in these deliberation processes is that relations of power are aired and contested. Brazilian educator Paolo Freire (1970), developed a powerful process in doing this which he called conscientisation. Conscientisation is a process that makes it possible for an agent to become aware of relations of power and oppression, thus enabling women to articulate these issues and propose actions to take to counter such relations (Summerson Carr, 2003). Conscientisation supposes that persons change in the processes of changing their relations with the surrounding environment and, above all, with other people (Martín -Baró, 1994). Such a process would be useful for deliberating and operationalizing any interventions proposing to challenge gendered norms.

Moreover, targeting gendered norms should be seen as a part of the broader women’s economic empowerment agenda and not in isolation. This means that great attention and shifts need to be made to structural inequalities and relations of power, not just the agency of peoples.

References:

  • Bernstein, Henry. 1971. “Modernization theory and the sociological study of development.” The Journal of Development Studies no. 7 (2):141-160. doi: 10.1080/00220387108421356.
  • Brown, Wendy. 2000. “Suffering Rights as Paradoxes.” Constellations no. 7 (2):230‐241.
  • Carr, E. Summerson. 2003. “Rethinking Empowerment Theory Using a Feminist Lens: The Importance of Process.” Affilia no. 18 (1):8-20.
  • Cooke, Bill, and Uma Kothari. 2001. Participation: the New Tyranny? London: New York: Zed Books.
  • Freire, Paulo. 1970. Pedagogy of the Oppressed: Penguin Books.
  • Jackson, Micheal, and Ivan Karp. 1990. “Introduction.” In Personhood and agency: the experience of self and other in African cultures, edited by Jackson Micheal and Karp Ivan, 1-33. Acta Universitatis Upsaliensis.
  • Kapur, Ratna. 2005. Erotic Justice: Law and the New Politics of Postcolonialism. London: The Glass House Press.
  • Martín-Baró, Ignacio. 1994. Writings for a Liberation Psychology. Edited by Adrianne Aron and Shawn Corne. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press.
  • Mohanty, Chandra. 2003. “”Under Western Eyes” Revisited: Feminist Solidarity through Anticapitalist Struggles.” Signs no. 28 (2):499-535.
  • Mohanty, Chandra Talpade. 1988. “Under Western eyes: Feminist scholarship and colonial discourses.” Feminist review:61-88.
  • Mosse, David. 2004. “Is Good Policy Unimplementable? Reflections on the “Ethnography of Aid Policy and Practice “.” Development and Change no. 35 (4):639-671.
  • Olivier-de-Sardan, Jean-Pierre. 2005. Anthropology and Development: Understanding Contemporary Social Change. Zed Books.
  • Pearse, Rebecca, and Raewyn Connell. 2016. “Gender Norms and the Economy: Insights from Social Research.” Feminist Economics no. 22 (1):30-53.
  • Riesman, Paul. 1990. “The Formation of Personality in Fulani Ethnopsychology.” In Personhood and agency: the experience of self and other in African cultures, edited by Jackson Micheal and Karp Ivan, 169-190. Acta Univesitatis Upsaliensis.
  • Sen, Amartya. 1999. Development as freedom. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  • Sen, Amartya. 2009. The idea of Justice: Allen Lane of Penguin Books.
Author
Elise Klein

Elise Klein

Elise is a lecturer in Development Studies and Deputy Director Masters of Development Studies School of Social and Political Sciences at The University of Melbourne.