Collidoscope: Of Gendered Land Access, Jerkitude and Cellphones

This week’s selection from the world of social science research.

Collidoscope is The Wire‘s weekly newsletter on social science research, bringing together different views and ways of understanding and analysing society. If you missed the first edition last week and would like to catch up, you can find it here.


Gendered access to land in Ghana

Credit: Global Justice Now/Flickr CC BY 2.0

Credit: Global Justice Now/Flickr CC BY 2.0

Why do societies and communities prioritise men’s access to land over women’s? That doesn’t sound like a question easily answered in one article – you’re basically asking ‘why patriarchy’.

But that’s what Isabel Brigitte Lambrecht sets out to do in her article in World Development, using the case study of Ghana to explore the social norms and conditions, institutional barriers and market forces that have meant that even today women continue to own far less land than men.

The inequality exists, according to Lambrecht’s analysis, primarily because of social norms and perceptions of what a woman should and can do.

Only 9.8% of agricultural land in Ghana is owned or primarily controlled by an individual female farmer, compared to 83.1% for men. That’s despite the country’s constitution enshrining gender-neutral laws, the author says, and there being a specific law meant to safeguard women’s land rights.

Land tenure in Ghana is quite unique, she writes, since 80% of agricultural land is considered to be under customary tenure and only small percentages under individual or government ownership. Customary land is in the hands of extended families, usually controlled by the head of the family or the traditional head of the clan.

Many social customs are common across the 100+ ethnic groups in the country, including patriarchal family structures and gendered organisation of the household. The sexual division of labour is very much in place – unsurprising, since that’s true to different degrees no matter where you look.

For several women that Lambrecht spoke to, getting access to customary land was seen as the husband’s job. “Our husbands gave us the lands on which we are farming. Our husbands go to look for the land and give it to us to work on. If the woman wants extra land to farm on, she will have to tell her husband that if I get a land, I will also like to establish my own farm. Once you have a husband, you need not to go ahead to do the negotiation. It is your husband who has to do it for you,” said a female farmer in Ejsu district. While women do not own land, the author writes, in most cases female farmers have no trouble getting access to land to work on (through their husbands). But decision-making still lies with the husband. So while the women are free (or even needed) to work on the land, they do not have control over it. Lambrecht also does not address the question of unmarried women.

Control over land and cultivation also changes the dynamic within households, studies have found. Families where women had more control were found to spend more on education and food. These arguments of gender equity based on efficiency have always seemed rather tenuous to me though, and Lambrecht seems to agree – arguing in that manner could mean that all economic (and household) responsibilities are then left to the woman to handle. She doesn’t talk about how efficiency arguments also reinstate a woman’s role as a caregiver (just in a different way) instead of questioning these roles, but perhaps that is assumed.

Lambrecht’s qualitative analysis is an interesting compilation of the various negotiations that exist when it comes to gendered access to land. Her work adds to the large body of feminist research that is trying to look beyond the household as a cohesive unit with all the same interests. And while she may not have fully answered the ‘why’ question she started out with, she leaves reader with a very interesting question – will gender equality in access to and ownership of land be the cause or the consequence of more equitable gender norms and perceptions?


Are you a jerk?

Credit: Matt Grant/Flickr CC BY-NC 2.0

Credit: Matt Grant/Flickr CC BY-NC 2.0

“Jerk self-knowledge is hard to come by,” writes Eric Schwitzgebel, in a strange-but-interesting article in Nautilus. Easy to believe – just think of anyone you would classify as a “jerk” and chances are, in most cases, you also think that they have a pretty high opinion of themselves.

In fact, psychologists have written before about how good self-knowledge is usually more common when it comes to neutral traits, not socially classified as particularly good or bad. It’s also easier with traits that are more observable – how talkative or quiet you are, for instance. But when it comes to traits loaded with social judgment, either positive or negative, this becomes much harder.

When it comes to things like how much of a jerk you are, Schwitzgebel argues, it’s much easier to reason yourself out of it – things like “Maybe I wasn’t the nicest back then, but I’ve had a really long day” or “He deserved what I said, he made me wait forever”. This is true for people across the board, he says, and a recent study has also found that reflective and educated people are especially skilled at rationalising their beliefs.

But then there’s the other big question – what (or who) really is a jerk? It’s kind of this generic insult that we use for a whole bunch of qualities (or at least I do), but when someone uses it you never question what exactly they’re talking about.

Schwitzgebel thinks “jerkitude” deserves to be studied because it captures a psychological phenomenon that no other colloquial term really does. And then he gives a description for the term that I’d never explicitly thought of but clicked the moment I read it – of course that’s what a jerk is!

“Jerks are people who culpably fail to appreciate the perspectives of the people around them, treating others as tools to be manipulated or fools to be dealt with, rather than as moral and epistemic peers. To be a jerk is to be ignorant in a certain way – ignorant of the value of others, ignorant of the merit of their ideas and plans, dismissive of their desires and beliefs, unforgiving of their perceived inferiority.”

The jerk’s opposite, he says, is the sweetheart (a term I’ve always found distinctly annoying, I’m not really sure why). And while it is likely that nobody is a pure jerk or a pure sweetheart, everyone must lie somewhere on the spectrum between them or at different points of the spectrum at different times.

There are two obstacles this brings out in “jerk-knowledge”, he argues. For one, anyone thinking about where they lie on the spectrum is likely to, at least momentarily, stop being a jerk. But this means that the people worrying are often much more on the “sweetheart” side of the spectrum (still can’t use that word without cringing), who will then end up apologising for just about average behaviour.

The other obstacle, he writes, is the jerk’s characteristic inability to listen. “Because the jerk tends not to see others as peers worthy of intellectual and moral respect, the jerk rarely accepts criticism constructively.”

Schwitzgebel has a rather interesting solution to this problem. Instead of looking to analyse yourself on the jerk-scale, he says, take a look at everyone around you.

“Are you surrounded by fools and non-entities, by people with bad taste and silly desires, by boring people undeserving of your attention, by people who can be understood quickly by applying a broad and negative brush – creeps, stuck-up snobs, bubbleheaded party kids, smug assholes, and, indeed, jerks?

If this is how the world regularly looks to you, then I have bad news. Likely, you are the jerk. This is not how the world looks to most people, and it is not how the world actually is. You have a distorted vision. You are not seeing the individuality and potential of the people around you.”

There is something that struck me that Schwitzgebel doesn’t quite address, maybe it was outside of his question. But in my mind, both jerk and sweetheart are quite gendered in their usage. Say “jerk” and I’ll think of a man, not to say that women can’t be (huge) jerks too. But I guess that’s kind of explained by the definition Schwitzgebel gives, even if he doesn’t say so himself – the (over)confidence it requires is probably harder for a woman to come by.


A biography of cellphones in Tanzania

Credit: Reuters/Noor Khamis

Credit: Reuters/Noor Khamis

What can a person’s relationship with their cellphone tell us about a changing society?

Anthropologist Erin Kenny went to Tanzania to study the higher education system, particularly the women in it. But after a year there, she ended up studying the relationship female students had with their cellphones – a relationship, she says, that turns cellphones into social beings.

Studying the relationship people have with their cellphones in the article ‘“Phones mean lies”: Secrets, sexuality, and the subjectivity of mobile phones in Tanzania’ published in Economic Anthropology, Kenny looks at how students were linking their opportunities, possibilities and potential to their cellphones, and what this means.

In addition to aiding communication, especially for those far away from their families, cellphones are also a kind of “wireless leash”, Kenny writes, linking students to the families and others. But students also use cellphones for a different purpose altogether, she found –”to maintain a level of privacy previously impossible in social relationships”. Not only does it make hiding things easier, it also gives the space to portray a version of yourself that may not come across in person, creating a different kind of individualism, Kenny writes. That possibility exists in other avenues of digital life as well, though she keeps her discussion to cellphones.

What cellphones and people’s perceptions of them also reflect, she adds, are changing social norms about marriage, gender and sexuality. “You want to know what’s causing relationships to break in Tanzania?” a male student asked her in a focus group.

““It is this.” He shakes his cell phone above his head dramatically to emphasize his point. “This is what’s ruining our relationships in Tanzania. Phones mean lies. Phones mean no more trust.” Alice, another participant in the focus group, added, “He is right. These phones are causing the breakage of a lot of relationships.” “You can lose trust because of all the lies and secrets,” explained Musa, another man. Everyone seemed to agree, and a general buzzing of the group started as everyone added to Musa’s claim. “Are there secrets on your phone?” I asked the group. Silence fell. Then there was general laughter, which I interpreted as a failed question that no one was comfortable answering publicly.”

Students looked at their cellphones as co-conspirators in their secrecy, Kenny argues. This is particularly true for the female students, who are now expected to find a path between “traditional” femininity and the ideals of individualism and “modernity” projected by the neoliberal global world.

“Examining how Tanzanian university youths “subjectivize” their cell phones offers another lens for discussion of “personhood,” or the creation of new subjectivities and new expectations of sexual intimacy that fit into a neoliberal political economy influenced by a residual influence of disadvantageous structural adjustment policies. The university women I interviewed consciously craft additional layers of meaning and differentiations of the self from the gendered notions from which they were raised to advance a lifestyle discourse that privileges self-invention.”

Cellphones are also an emblem of modernity, Kenny writes, but this modernity and possibility for “self-invention” isn’t available to everyone – differential access to wealth, knowledge and power clearly has a lot to do with who gets this opportunity. But looking at a new-age material object like a cellphone does give an insight into how the young are rethinking their identities, sexuality and relationships in a changing time, and how they navigate and perceive this technology that reflects both freedom and surveillance at the same time.


Political reservations and child labour – is there a link?

A boy separates starched sarees left to dry on the roof of a cotton factory in Hyderabad. Credit: Reuters/Krishnendu Halder/Files

A boy separates starched sarees left to dry on the roof of a cotton factory in Hyderabad. Credit: Reuters/Krishnendu Halder/Files

Political reservations and child labour wouldn’t normally be referred to in the same breath. Affirmative action in politics is aimed at giving a voice to marginalised minorities and increasing political participation. Previous research has also looked at the connection between reservations and welfare, land reforms and poverty. But does it reduce child labour?

That’s what Elizabeth Kaletski and Nishith Prakash look into in their article in World Development. Using data from household-level surveys in 15 Indian states and the share of seats reserved for Scheduled Castes (SCs) and Scheduled Tribes (STs), they have tried to understand whether such a connection exists.

The duo starts with the assumption that political reservations could either increase or decrease child labour. If these reservations succeed in leading to a fairer allocation of resources, child labour could go down and parents could perhaps afford to send their children to school. However, they say, it is also possible that SC/ST reservations lead to inefficient resource allocation or take focus away from social welfare programmes (though they don’t quite explain this counterintuitive possibility as much as I would have liked). Then, more children may be sent to work out of economic necessity.

Their analysis comes up with rather unexpected results. For STs, the study finds, the amount of child labour is inversely correlated with the percentage of seats reserved. So the more the number of reserved seats, the less the amount of child labour. Not so surprising – if a link did exist, that’s what you’d expect it to be. But for SCs, however, the percentage of reserved seats and the amount of child labour increase together. This increase also hits the population of female children worse, their calculations show.

Why does this happen? Though the data cannot answer that directly, Kaletski and Prakash give some possible answers. The geographic dispersion of SC candidates, for one, may mean that they are looking to appease a larger section of constituents and not a specific social group. Another possibility, according to them, is that reservations tend to benefit the “creamy layer” and therefore reallocation is not a priority. They have a few more options of this kind, though all conjecture.

Though the point of political reservations isn’t to reduce child labour, it is interesting to know what peripheral effects any policy is having. This could help plan not just the reservation policy but also child labour policy better.

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