Centre for Development Economics
Department of Economics, Delhi School of Economics


On the Origins of Gender-Unequal Social Norms: Unilateral Descent and the Efficient Household
Stefan Klonner (University of Heidelberg)

Thursday, 25 February 2021 at 3:00 PM

In most countries, women are disadvantaged in several spheres of life, including health, education, labor market opportunities and various personal freedoms. One factor commonly held responsible for such gender asymmetries are traditional patriarchal social norms, where kinship and inheritance follow the male lineage and newly-wed couples join the groom’s parental household. Several anthropologists opine that patriarchal norms have become wide-spread only since the Neolithic revolution while matriarchal norms had been dominant before humans started to settle down and subsist primarily on sedentary agriculture. With unilateral descent and unilocal post-marital residence, both patriarchal and matriarchal norms are inherently gender-asymmetric. In this paper we ask why the secular cultural evolution from matriliny to patriliny has rarely halted at intermediate stages characterized by gender-balanced social norms – for which modern societies strive. We develop and test a novel argument for why gender-balanced norms are so rare in pre-industrial societies. We hypothesize that unilateral descent helps spouses coordinate decisions while the most commonly encountered set of gender-balanced norms in pre-industrial societies where separate male and female lineages coexist (double descent) and newly-wed couples found a new residence (neolocality), leads to inefficient intra-household allocations. We show in a simple theoretical model that in an efficient household the identity of the recipient of a small transitory income shock, husband or wife, does not matter for the pattern of extra investments in male or female offspring, regardless of whether husband’s and wife’s preferences are consonant on this matter. We test this hypothesis with a lab-in-the-field experiment that we carried out among three scheduled tribes in India’s northeast, one matrilineal and matrilocal, one patrilineal and patrilocal, and one with a double descent system and neolocality. We find that investment decisions of mothers and fathers in the two societies with unilateral descent are completely synchronized, with girls (boys) receiving the lion’s share in the matrilineal (patrilineal) society. In contrast, in the double descent society, fathers (mothers) invest almost exclusively in boys (girls). The expenditure allocations in our data are consistent with intra-household efficiency in both unilateral descent regimes, while we strongly reject the efficient household hypothesis for the gender-balanced society. We suggest that descent and post-marital residence regimes that do not largely disadvantage one of the sexes are unlikely to prevail in an evolutionary competition with unilateral ones – because the latter are less likely to waste resources within the household.

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