What Happens to ‘Gender’ in Food and Agricultural Research? Mapping Four Broad Trends

By Merisa S. Thompson and Fiorella Picchioni

The Women and Development Study Group of the Development Studies Association (DSA) recently revisited Sally Brown and Anne Marie Goetz’s 1997 Feminist Review article ‘Who Needs (Sex) When You Can Have Gender? Conflicting Discourses on Gender at Beijing?’. The article examines challenges to the concept of ‘gender’ at the UN Fourth World Conference on Women in 1995, including debates on its institutionalization and depoliticization, the tendency for it to be used as a synonym for ‘women’, and the conservative backlash against the very use of the concept itself. The retrospective value of doing this showed just how relevant these questions continue to be for Gender and Development policy, practice, research and teaching today.

For example, when teaching sex and gender, critical feminist theorising can sometimes lead students to feel that Gender and Development (GAD) approaches are too instrumentalized, too much like an industry and disconnected from reality. Moreover, the positionality of working as ‘the gender person’ in larger projects, where the gender component is often seen to stand alone with little connection to other intersectional dynamics, remains an ongoing challenge. The increasing and worrying trend of an anti-woke ‘backlash’ against feminist analysis and gender equality across the globe was also a recurring theme.

We also considered how ‘gender’ as a concept is mobilised and used in food and agricultural studies specifically. In this blog, therefore, we examine what happens to the concept in food research, policy and practice, mapping out four broad trends. Firstly, the centring of the connection between gender, nutrition and mothering remains pervasive. Secondly, ‘gender equality’ is often instrumentalized as a tool to increase marketized forms of agricultural productivity. Thirdly, while a focus on gender is obviously welcome, it can in fact obscure other important axes of oppression, such as race, class, sexuality, disability and nationality. Finally, it is consequently crucial to ground research, policy and practice in historical specificity and context in order to take into account multiple underlying oppressions and structural inequalities that influence the ability of a range of different actors in the food system to participate both socially and economically.

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Dependency, gender, and race

In the classical works of dependency theory, such as the Dialectics of Dependency (Marini 2011 [1973]); Socialism or Fascism (Dos Santos 2018 [1978]); Dependency and Development in Latin America (Cardoso and Faletto 1979) and Latin American Dependent Capitalism (Bambirra 2012 [1978]), race and gender are absent. This absence is at odds with both the evident reality of racial and patriarchal oppression in Latin America and the concomitant rise of feminist and anti-colonial literature in the social sciences. In fact, in the exciting intellectual and political environment of the 1960s and 1970s, it would not be difficult to imagine productive dialogues between Ruy Mauro Marini and Margaret Benston, and Vânia Bambirra and Amilcar Cabral. Sadly, these dialogues never took place. Instead, the first generation of dependency scholarship privileged debates with white, male scholars engaged in modernisation sociology, structuralist economics and Marxist orthodoxy. With the sole exception of Vânia Bambirra’s forgotten writings about peripheral women’s liberation, gender and race remain to this day ignored by the dependency tradition.

Although the absence of race and gender does indeed represent a major blind spot in the work of dependency writers, the most seminal concepts coined by some of the early dependency writers such as Ruy Mauro Marini and Vânia Bambirra have ‘intersectional’ (Crenshaw 1989; 1991) potential. By that, I mean that they can be understood as referring to more than simply class-based dynamics of domination. Let us consider two examples: Marini’s concept of the ‘super-exploitation’ of labour and Bambirra’s definition of Latin American ruling classes as ‘dominated–dominant’.

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