Saturday, November 20, 2010

Ploughing in history and culture

Another intriguing post by William Easterly and Laura Freschi, this one on their own Aid Watch blog: "The plough and the veil." They discuss a new paper by Alberto Alesina, Paola Giuliano, and Nathan Nunn on "The Origins of Gender Roles."

The paper's abstract explains: "societies with a tradition of plough agriculture tend to have the belief that the natural place for women is inside the home and the natural place for men is outside the home. Looking across countries, subnational districts, ethnic groups and individuals, we identify a link between historic plough-use and a number of outcomes today, including female labor force participation, female participation in politics, female ownership of firms, the sex ratio and self-expressed attitudes about the role of women in society."

This idea goes back to Ester Boserup's Woman's Role in Economic Development (first published in 1970; republished in 2007 with an extensive introduction reflecting on Boserup's career). Easterly and Freschi point out these cultural biases do, of course, change over time; wars, in particular, can give rise to dramatic changes.

Although the overall finding is striking, the pattern Alesina et al. identify includes a fair amount of individual variation. For example, among Nordic countries, historic plough use is not found in Norway, Sweden, Finland, and Iceland, whereas it is found in Denmark. Yet female labour force participation in Denmark is very high, and comparable to that in the other Nordics. Nor is it my impression that attitudes about the role of women in society are different in Denmark.

It would be interesting to examine whether perhaps Denmark was more of an outlier (among Nordics) prior to World War II, in which case the shock of war may account for the change to a more Nordic pattern in Denmark. I suspect, however, that this is a case where shared culture trumps non-shared agricultural history.

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