Academic journal article Journal of Economic Issues

Gender Norms as Asymmetric Institutions: A Case Study of Yoruba Women in Nigeria

Academic journal article Journal of Economic Issues

Gender Norms as Asymmetric Institutions: A Case Study of Yoruba Women in Nigeria

Article excerpt

For the modern man the patriarchal relation of status is by no means the dominant feature of life; but for the women on the other hand, and for the upper-middle class women especially, confined as they are by prescription and by economic circumstances to their 'domestic sphere,' this relation is the most real and most formative factor of life.

(Thorstein Veblen [1899] 1931, 324)

While a century ago, institutional economists like Thorstein Veblen recognized gender norms as important institutions in the economy, today this particular type of institution receives less attention in institutional analysis. At the same time, feminist economists have found the notion of an institution useful for the analysis of the relationships between gender and the economy. We will argue that the understanding of gender norms as institutions necessitates a distinction between institutions that have similar effects for everyone and institutions that have asymmetric effects, that is, systematically different effects on different groups. We will illustrate our argument with a case study on the livelihoods of Yoruba women in Nigeria. The case study will show how gender norms result in an asymmetric institutional setting for women and men, even when norms about women's labor force participation, individual control over income, and partners' contribution to the household budget are symmetric. The article will conclude that an understanding of some institutions as asymmetric will enable both institutional analysis and household analysis to include attention to power, ideology, and change more systematically.

The structure of the article is as follows. First, we discuss gender norms as institutions, and link Veblen's path-breaking work on patriarchal institutions to more recent feminist economic work. The next section elaborates the distinction between symmetric and asymmetric institutions, followed by a brief discussion of intersections of gender norms and ethnicity, culture, and class. Then we introduce our case study with primary data collected among poor Yoruba women in the city of Ibadan, Nigeria. The next two sections present our findings on economic norms and family norms among the Yoruba. This is followed by a section that analyzes the interaction between both types of norms. We end with a conclusion.

Gender Norms as Institutions

Whereas a century ago, Veblen recognized gender norms as exemplary for how historical and cultural patterns influence the economic process of provisioning, today, institutional economics seems to be less concerned with gendered institutions. Certainly, today, gender norms are recognized as influential institutions, but Veblen's deep concern with patriarchal institutions does not play a key role in institutional analysis anymore. Explicit concerns with gender norms seem to have become one specialized area among others. This was not so for Veblen, who did not merely analyze the role of patriarchal norms out of an exclusive interest in women's disadvantaged position, (1) but rather studied these norms in order to understand how power and ideology affect the economy. As Ann Jennings (1993, 113) has argued when referring to Veblen (1964): "Veblen's views of the 'Barbarian status of women' were linked to a larger opposition to social hierarchy rooted in invidious distinctions." This integrated attention to gender norms has led Veblen to various important insights, for example, on the role of the household in late nineteenth century United States, with middle class women expressing men's status through their (supposed) leisure. In The Theory of the Leisure Class, he notes that:

   ... the position of woman in any community is the most striking
   index of the level of culture attained by the community, and it
   might be added, by any given class in the community. This remark is
   perhaps truer as regards the stage of economic development than as
   regards development in any other respect. … 
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