Agency, Gender, and Economic Development in the World Economy 1850-2000

Does economic development contribute to and result  in more ‘agency’, the power of individuals to decide for themselves? And is the reverse also true? Can we find a link between historical developments (e.g. the advent of literacy) and institutions (laws, family forms, political systems) which promoted agency and the actual economic developments in the  various countries of the world? Nobel Prize laureate Amartya Sen (1999) already argued that the ‘freedom’ to realize one’s potential is a major determinant and contributing factor of economic development. A crucial factor in this respect is ‘human capital formation’: education will increase the agency of people – enhance their possibilities to shape their own lives – and is at the same time an essential ingredient of economic development. We aim to study these interrelationships in depth, with a specific focus on gender. Given the crucial role of women in socialization (producing human capital of the new generation), we will look closely at (institutions creating) gender differences in agency.   

Thus, we study the interaction between agency and economic development at two, interrelated levels: at the micro level of household and family formation (are men and women allowed and able to make their own choices in this respect, or are – for example – marriages arranged?) and at the macrolevel of the state (are people allowed and able to be involved in the political decision making process?). We have developed innovative ways to measure these variables on a global scale. This will allow us to contribute significantly to the important debates among social scientist and historians about these links. Moreover, we think that adding the dimension of gender will deepen the analysis of these relationships.  

One or two generations ago, social scientists and  historians, especially those trained in the ‘modernization paradigm’, would consider these links as unproblematic, as ‘modernization’ was seen as a broad process including economic development, the spread of political democracy, the growth of individualism and the decline of sex discrimination. Recent (and some not so recent) criticisms of themodernization paradigm have pointed out that these  links are more complex than was originally thought, and that substantial economic growth can occur in societies without fundamentally changing their political regime (communist China is the obvious example), or may even reinforce hierarchical relationships in household and marriage (as the revival of patriarchy in various Islamic countries suggests). Instead of relying on this modernization approach, the current proposal uses a number of new theoretical ideas and debates as sources of inspiration.

The subprojects:

  1. Household formation, marriage patterns and economic development, carried out by Sarah Carmichael at Utrecht University.
  2. Political participation and economic development, carried out by Selin Dilli at Utrecht University.
  3. Human capital formation and economic development, carried out by Lotte van der Vleuten at the Radboud University, Nijmegen.
  4. An integrated approach to agency, the Historical Gender Equality Index, carried out by Auke Rijma at Utrecht University. 

Jan Luiten van Zanden (Utrecht University) is main applicant of the project and supervises all subprojects. Jan Kok (Radboud University, Nijmegen) is Co-applicant and co-supervisor.  

The original project proposal can be found here.