This publication is the result of a project jointly funded by the International Development Research Centre and the Rockefeller Foundation




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6 Conceptual Problems in the Study of Women in Development

Introduction

The WID literature on Africa has explored the negative consequences of contemporary trends in national and international political economy and of development activity in particular, and it has also generated prescriptions for the amelioration of these consequences. As previously suggested, the literature is tied, not always firmly, to a much smaller body of more theoretical writing, largely by anthropologists and historians, who have sought to explain the culture and political economy of gender in Africa (for reviews, see Robertson 1987; Strobel 1982). However, the increasing visibility of WID discourse and the growing challenge to conventional social science assumptions have not generated a coherent approach that overcomes past theoretical errors and asks the right empirical questions. There are two reasons for this:

• the relationship between WID and feminist literature and

• the relation of WID literature to the wider body of literature on the Third World.

WID/feminist literature relationship

With few exceptions, conceptual problems inherent in feminist literature have been incorporated into the African material. Far from breaking with conservative problematics, as they hoped to do, many feminist scholars argue from the same assumptions that underlie the arguments they are challenging. For example, many feminists accept the idea of women’s universal subordination.

Some feminist analyses…come to social darwinist conclusions in spite of themselves.… Feminists and marxists seem haunted by an unrealistic fear: What if the social darwinists are right when they assert that women have never been the social equals of men? I think this fear has retarded inquiry into the question of women’s position. Instead of tackling the problem head on, many have often found it easier to make end runs or apologies, conceding that women are subordinate but reasoning that culture, not biology, has put us in that position or that the conditions for equality have not yet been created.

(Sacks 1982:5)

Sacks (1982:60) demonstrates her point through a critique of the still-influential article of Ortner (1974). Sacks argues that in studies such as Ortner’s,

The essence of culture…as it pertains to women, is to select those themes and attributes that reinforce female subordination and to project them as the totality of femaleness and maleness. And so the concept of culture becomes the science of stereotyping; culture becomes the enemy of women; and we are led by this logic back to [the 19th century writer] Bachofen where women really are rooted in nature, and hierarchy, or culture, is a male creation reflecting reality. There is not much to recommend this logic.

Rosaldo (1983:76-77), in a critique of her own earlier work as well as other studies, makes a similar point, targeting the nature/culture duality as the central “biased dichotomy” in need of redress.

Few social scientists writing today would deny the fact that feminists have changed our intellectual horizons. At a minimum, we have “discovered” women. More important, we have argued that certain categories and descriptions that at one time made good sense must be reformulated if we are to grasp the shape and meaning of both men’s and women’s lives…[but] feminist scholars over the past ten years provided challenges to certain biases in traditional accounts without supplying the conceptual frameworks necessary to undermine them. While recognizing enemies and blind men among teachers and peers, we failed to recognize ourselves as heirs to their traditions of political and social argument Simultaneously, we embraced and were at pains to redefine some of the gendered dualisms of past work. We found a source for questions in the most egregious errors of the past. But at the same time we stayed prisoners to a set of categories and preconceptions deeply rooted in traditional sociology.

WTD/Third World literature relationship

The problem of unexamined preconceptions in the feminist literature is related to the second problematic connection for WID literature: the wider realm of Third World scholarship from which WID also draws inspiration. In this academic tradition, scholars have again been unsuccessful in breaking free of Western discursive practices, in spite of radical attempts to do so. An example of this is the failure of Marxism to escape Western economic concepts in its intensive effort to theorize non-Western class relations and precapitalist modes of production. For instance, the debates in ROAPE discussed in Chapter 1 reflect a preoccupation with Western categories of understanding (e.g., see Kaplinsky et al. 1980). Furthermore, in their productivist emphasis, Marxists accept the privilege accorded to the economic realm by the “modernization” or “developmentalist” school of thought both developmentalists and orthodox Marxists view noneconomic motivation as irrational. In the first case, it is seen as backward tradition; in the second, as a superstructural chimera or, at best, a mystified, ideological representation of relations of production.

Baudrillard (1975) asks whether capitalist economy can illuminate earlier, non-Western societies. His answer to this question is an emphatic no. “Starting with the economic and production as the determinant instance, other types of organization are illuminated only in terms of this model and not in their specificity or even…in their irreducibility to production. The magical, the religious, the symbolic are relegated to the margins of the economy” (Baudrillard 1975:86-87). The dilemma, according to Baudrillard (1975:88-89), is that “Western culture was the first to critically reflect upon itself (beginning in the 18th century). But the effect of this crisis was that it reflected on itself also as a culture in the universal, and thus all other cultures were entered in its museum as vestiges of its own image.”

The work that I have identified as feminist political economy comes closest to addressing the epistemological dilemmas raised here. Nevertheless, there has not yet been a coherent, sustained critique of the conceptual problems embedded in WID and other literature on the Third World. I have organized my discussion of the problems into six interrelated categories. If future development efforts are to help rather than harm African women and African communities, each of these categories requires investigation and correction.

The public/private dichotomy

A component of most conceptual frameworks for the consideration of women in the development process is the identification of “public” and “private” social spheres, the domain of men and of women, respectively. This division is the basis for the “welfare” approach and the emphasis on “income generation” to the neglect of women’s productive role (discussed in Chapter 4). The division is also a powerful component of sexist ideology and policy. Few liberal studies, including most WID literature, however, challenge the dichotomy. Rosaldo (1974:35), in her earlier work, exemplifies the theorization based on the public/private concept:

Characteristic aspects of male and female roles in social, cultural, and economic systems can all be related to a universal, structural opposition between domestic and public domains of activity. In many ways this claim is far too simple.… Yet the complexities of particular cases do not undermine our global generalization, which points not to absolute, but to relative orientations of women and men. Furthermore, by using the structural model as a framework, we can identify the implications for female power, value and status in various cross-cultural articulations of domestic and public roles.

While Rosaldo went on to become her own best critic regarding this analysis, as her reflections cited on p. 112 demonstrate, the influential textbook in which the analysis appears (Rosaldo and Lamphere 1974) continues to inform most liberal thinking on the subject. Many argue that the solution to women’s disadvantage vis-a-vis development programs is either a more active role in the “public” sphere or a better recognition of the potential contribution of the “private” sphere. That the public/private dichotomy is an inaccurate conceptualization of present and, even more so, past African life needs asserting in the strongest possible terms.

Some Western feminist theorists have focused on the public/private dichotomy (for an overview, see Jaggar 1983). Spender (1980:191-197), for example, links the public sphere to the written, male-dominated word. She argues that the private world and language of women are subordinated to the dominant world of men. There are some interesting insights for Western women in Spender’s (1980) analysis; however, the study displays both the problems of radical feminism’s atheoretical approach and the ethnocentrism that characterizes much feminist writing. (Spender universalizes from Western experience, without acknowledging that she is doing so.)

Armstrong (1978) argues that the growth of a public/private distinction is due to the growth of the state and the declining ability of women to control and distribute resources: features characteristic of Western society and African nations today. Western theory, however, does not explore the possibilities of a world where the distinction between public and private is absent; indeed, where such realms are not perceived. Such therapy, therefore, cannot speak to the African past, when women controlled and distributed resources and when state structures, where they existed, did not “privatize” women. Even under present, adverse conditions, women retain a measure of control over the distribution of resources that has been absent from Western society for centuries.

The feminist literature on the Third World, with a few notable exceptions (e.g., March and Taqqu 1986), has not systematically debated the dichotomy. Many studies on African gender relations, however, including some WID studies, do implicitly challenge the public/private dichotomy. The best of them document the porous boundary between what is kept from general view (the “private”) and what is out in the open for all members of the community to see. The world of women is indeed separate from that of men, marked by a sexual division of labour and gender-specific ideological discourse. It is far from private, however, in the sense Westerners understand the concept (where a private world of the home is supported by law, residential patterns, and political practice). The community of women is as full a participant in the decision-making structure of village life as the community of men.

Even Muslim societies, which practice the seclusion of women and appear to lend themselves most readily to Western notions of public and private, challenge our understanding of these concepts. Callaway (1984:430) uses Ardener’s (1975:vii-xxiii) concept of the “muted group” to explore the ways in which women in some societies, seemingly silent with regard to their own interests, are able to have an active community life (see also Dwyer 1978).1 Indeed, “the ’muted group’ construct implies that the seeds for total independence exist within the women’s experience of total suppression” (Callaway 1984:430). Under conditions that may appear unbearable to a Westerner, the value system of a separate world for women, within which women are fully autonomous and active social agents, “stimulates and sanctions an assertiveness which could ultimately be the foundation for political efficacy” (Callaway 1984:430-431). It is precisely upon such ideological and structural foundations that it was possible for the Muslim Hausa women in the Kano River Irrigation Project of Nigeria to mount a successful strike for higher wages in 1977. The success of this action was a good example of political efficacy (see review of Jackson [1985] in Chapter 3).

For the great majority of African women who are not secluded on religious grounds, the distinction between a public and private world is even less valid. Wipper (1982), Van Allen (1976), Mackenzie (1986), and Mackenzie (1986) are among the many scholars who have documented women’s resistance movements during the colonial era. They have demonstrated the ability of women to mobilize for political action. The importance of such action in colonial history has, outside such studies as these, remained invisible, however (Mbilinyi 1986).

1In criticizing Ardener’s concept of “the muted group,” one can ask the question, silent to whose ears? Women are neither silent to each other nor to men in the local community (Dwyer 1978; Etienne 1982). Much of the feminist writing that sees women as ideologically dominated fails to recognize the tautology of their argument: the voice of women is absent from the world of male discourse; therefore, women are silent; therefore, men are ideologically dominant. Many of the studies in Ortner and Whitehead (1981), for example, are guilty of this tautology. In focusing on the absence of women from male discourse and failing to investigate women’s ideology and how they think it relates to male ideology, feminist scholars perpetuate notions of the universal subordination of women. The problem is not the silence of women but the privileged status of the community of men gained through contemporary socioeconomic processes.

Although women are largely absent from contemporary national and “formal” political institutions, their political efficacy continues to be manifested at the community level. It is at this level that we must investigate the nature of the African “public.” As all the detailed work on women’s organizations reveals and as substantiated in a theoretical work on women’s associations (March and Taqqu 1986), women’s communal organizations are one of the most vibrant, effective institutions at the local level. Given that the “formal” juridical and political institutions imposed by colonialism upon Africa are weak, “informal” structures have a local legitimacy that sanctions their decision-making authority in the community. March and Taqqu (1986) analyze the reasons for the emergence of “rational-legal authority” (Max Weber’s term), which led to the formation of the large-scale political structure known as the state. This structure was imposed on the precapitalist, small-scale African societies by colonial conquest

Perhaps because jural-political authority superseded other kinds of authority in our own history, it has largely superseded them in our thinking as well. The historically specific, political-jural form of authority that evolved in the west appears to have come, by itself, to signify the total concept of “legitimate” authority. From this perspective, formal associations appear legitimate because they are empowered by rational jural-political charters. The fact that informal associations do not have such charters, however, neither makes them illegitimate nor excludes them from political processes. Public acceptance and sanction, not charters, constitute the primary basis for authority.

(March and Taqqu 1986:2)

March and Taqqu (1986) attribute confusion over legitimacy to “failure to distinguish between several meanings of the word ’public.’” The summary by Van Allen (1976:64) that they use to clarify these meanings is worth repeating:

One notion of “public” relates it to issues that are of concern to the whole community; ends served by “political functions” are beneficial to the community as a whole. Although different individuals or groups may seek different resolutions of problems or disputes, the “political” can nevertheless be seen as encompassing all those human concerns and problems that are common to all members of the community, or at least to large numbers of them. “Political” problems are shared problems that are appropriately dealt with through group action — their resolutions are collective, not individual. This separates them from “purely personal” problems.

The second notion of “public” is that which is distinguished from “secret,” that is, open to everyone’s view, accessible to all members of the community. The settling of questions that concern the welfare of the community in a “public” way necessitates the sharing of “political knowledge” — the knowledge needed for participation in political discussion and decision. A system in which public policy is made publicly and the relevant knowledge is shared widely contrasts sharply with those systems in which a privileged few possess the relevant knowledge — whether priestly mysteries or bureaucratic expertise — and therefore control policy decisions.

Therefore, there are two meanings to the concept of “public”: “the nature of the collectivity involved, and the nature of the space or style in which that collectivity operates” (March and Taqqu 1986:3). In the West, such distinctions have been forgotten and only one meaning is accepted: a supposedly uniform total public in whose name policy is made. “This assumed uniformity gives rise to an idiom of public interest or common welfare which is essential to formal political action” (March and Taqqu 1986:3). Something is considered politically legitimate only if it serves this hypothetical “public interest.” Because this idiom of public interest is part of a political discourse that has become dominant in the Third World, systems of authority that fall outside the definition are not acknowledged as legitimate.

This is why women’s organizations are seen as “informal” and not considered part of the legitimate political structure. Another problem for the legitimacy of such associations is that they operate in a sphere rendered less visible by contemporary, male-dominated structures and discourses: the world of “women’s affairs.” However, this does not make their activity “private.” The lower profile does not correspond to a low level of public acceptance and political power. In fact, the case of the Ifelodun Yoruba women’s group described in Chapter 5 suggests the opposite conclusion (see also Van Allen’s [1972] classic study of Ibo women’s custom of “sitting on a man” and O’Barr’s [1982, 1984] important theoretical contributions to the topic of women’s political power). To understand the nature of “public life” in Africa and the role of women within it, the Western conceptualization of opposing private and public spaces must be abandoned.

The WID literature has argued that the public realm has been favoured over the private realm in the development process. I would argue instead that it is the community of men that has been favoured over the community of women. Outsiders, from missionaries to colonial officials to contemporary governmental elites, have recognized men’s networks as the sole, legitimate “public” with which they should deal — the uniform, undifferentiated “public” that embodies “public interest.” Consequently, the complex links between the male and female communities, which serve to make of a village a functioning “public” whole, have been broken or distorted. Concomitantly, women’s community has been relegated to the status of “private” or informal, to conformity with Western ideology. As March and Taqqu (1986:5) say, the view that “informal life is personal and hence apolitical — especially among the poor and the powerless — obscured the legitimacy of associations that are not constituted through rational-bureaucratic and legal charters.” The denial of the African concept of public, implicit in almost every development effort, has done a profound disservice to the political life of African communities.

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