Development, Gender, and the Environment: Theoretical or Contextual Link? toward an Institutional Analysis of Gender

By Zein-Elabdin, Eiman | Journal of Economic Issues, December 1996 | Go to article overview

Development, Gender, and the Environment: Theoretical or Contextual Link? toward an Institutional Analysis of Gender


Zein-Elabdin, Eiman, Journal of Economic Issues


The current discourse on development, gender, and the environment has emerged from a convergence of feminist and environmentalist critiques of economic development.(1) This discourse is dominated by two paradigms: Women in Development (WID) and ecofeminism.(2) Although the two paradigms have been influential in advancing women's issues in economics, this influence has been limited by the lack of understanding of the institutional nature of gender among the proponents of the paradigms. This lack of recognition is due to the essentialist characterization of women that underlies both paradigms. In WID, women are treated as rational beings who readily respond to economic incentives within any cultural setting; in ecofeminism, women possess a supra-material bond with nature that endows them with a privileged understanding of the environment and an innate ability to care for it regardless of the specific institutions at work. This oversight of the institutional nature of gender obscures its economic significance, its path dependence, and its resistance to change. It also obscures power implications, thereby depriving the issue of gender of one of its most important elements.

In this paper, I propose an alternative conceptual framework for redrawing this discourse, particularly with regard to the treatment of gender. This framework is predicated on two related points: (1) Any discussion of gender or women must be firmly grounded in an institutionalist understanding of economic and social processes. I use the term gender specification to refer to the social designation of individuals to a particular gender and the historically and culturally circumscribed economic and social roles contingent upon that designation. Gender specification defines the relative positions of women and men in the economy and in relation to the environment. (2) Because of the historical and cultural specificity of institutions and processes, there is no basis for a theoretical discourse on development, gender, and the environment, but only a contextual analysis of the multiple points where development, women, and the environment meet and interact. That is to say, the relationship between women and the environment can be understood only within the institutional contexts in which the two interact and in which development takes place.

So far, institutionalists have considered the convergence of institutionalist and feminist epistemologies [Waller and Jennings 1990] but not the pertinence of institutional economics itself as a conceptual framework for discussing gender.(3) I argue here that institutional economics is poised to make important contributions to a substantive analysis of gender as well. This argument has significant implications not merely for development economics, but for economic analysis in general.(4)

I briefly review the WID and the ecofeminist paradigms and the relationship between women and nature that underlies this discourse. I then discuss the significance of the institutional element and develop a framework for redrawing this discourse along different lines from the present ones. I conclude with some suggestions for further research.

The Discourse on Development, Gender, and the Environment

WID and ecofeminism come from different historical and philosophical origins. They differ drastically in their conception of women and women's relationship to the environment and present almost antithetical views on economic development. Yet, the two approaches share more in common than first impressions suggest. Both categorize women as a monolithic group and universalize their experiences across class, culture, and other differentiating variables. Neither approach perceives of gender specification as an institution fundamental for understanding the economic and social conditions of women in the Third World and their relation to the environment. In this paper, the World Bank literature, particularly in the area of forestry in Sub-Saharan Africa, is taken as the leading example of the WID approach, and the work of Vandana Shiva is taken to represent the ecofeminist one. …

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Development, Gender, and the Environment: Theoretical or Contextual Link? toward an Institutional Analysis of Gender
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