Gender norms, agency, and trajectories of social change and development in agricultural communities

Patti Petesch

Research output: Thesisinternal PhD, WU


With a focus on smallholder agricultural communities, the objective of the thesis is to improve understanding of microsocial processes that contribute to ending poverty and achieving gender equality (Sustainable Development Goals 1 and 5). This objective is important given that rural regions hold 80 percent of the world’s poor population and rural gender inequalities are often greater than urban. The thesis engages with relational theories about agency and the diverse gender norms that prescribe women’s and men’s expected conducts and roles. These norms differentially shape who can access and benefit from agricultural innovations and other livelihood opportunities.  The concept of local normative climate, or the prevailing set of gender norms in a community, is introduced and deepened with theoretical work and findings from a multi-country dataset of case studies from smallholder communities.  Normative climate addresses how gender and other social norms operate in ways that are contextual, fluid, and interlocking, and typically vary among social categories of women and men within communities. This climate often but not always constrains women’s and most men’s agency and capacities to strengthen their livelihood activities.

Chapter 1 presents the theory that informs my thesis and introduces the research questions and methodology. I discuss relational theory that highlights both significant patterning and yet diversity in the interplay between agency and gender norms. This unevenness is due in part to the contextual, fluid and interlocking properties of norms that disadvantage women and many subordinate categories of men. In their daily lives, community members often drive a slow reformulation of norms as they negotiate and withdraw from individual norms that confine their agency or that they are unable to uphold, Yet, these ongoing pressures for change in individual norms do not much alter a community’s restrictive normative climate nor inequitable gender power relations. Under conditions of major shocks that weaken institutions, such as economic booms or wars, however, a literature reveals that sets of norms can potentially transform rapidly.  

Chapter 2 presents the GENNOVATE methodology. The qualitative study engaged women and men from 136 smallholder communities across 27 countries of the global South. We reflect critically on the study’s concerns for “context, comparison, and collaboration,” and how these concerns informed the research design, including the maximum diversity sampling framework, semi-structured data collection instruments, and data analysis protocols. We also reflect critically on lessons from the field study.

The thesis then offers four empirical chapters, each working with different subsets of the GENNOVATE dataset.

  • Chapter 3 introduces and applies the concept of local normative climate to an analysis of 24 village cases from seven countries of sub-Saharan Africa. Women’s and men’s perceptions of their decision-making capacities proved to be diverse across the cases, and often challenged assumptions about agency and norms interactions. We present a community case study from Kenya where women express stronger agency than men do; and in another case, from Nigeria, it is the men with displaying greater agency although women  exercise significant economic roles in this village.
  • Chapter 4 explores the interplay of young people’s agency, norms, and livelihood opportunities in 12 village cases of Pakistan. The young study participants mainly observe limited agency, and often attribute this to expectations of strict deference to elders and other norms about their gender, young age, junior household position, marital status, and socio-economic standing. Young women’s agency appears especially constrained by social rules that restrict their decision-making, physical mobility, and economic roles. We examine conditions in two villages where some youth express stronger agency than others.  
  • Chapter 5 examines local understandings of and experiences with moving out of poverty and remaining poor in 32 village cases from five countries of South Asia. Focus groups of both genders emphasize men’s roles in household poverty dynamics, whether discussing movements out of poverty or remaining poor. We present findings from women’s life stories indicating their significant contributions to moving their households out of poverty. Compared to the set of chronic poor women, the “movers” shared a much greater capacity to negotiate resources from husbands or brothers, and to benefit directly from agricultural innovations and other livelihood opportunities.
  • Chapter 6 presents a three-part community typology derived from the patterning in evidence about agency and poverty dynamics as perceived by diverse villagers from 79 communities of Africa, Asia, and Latin America. The “transforming” set of villages are so-called because focus groups consistently reported significant increases in local women’s and men’s agency and extended poverty reduction. In these cases, we find an inclusive normative climate that is fueling gender equality and inclusive agricultural innovation processes as well as evidence of infrastructural improvements, expanded markets, and male labor migration. Among the “climbing” cases with more moderate rates of favorable change and the “churning” cases with stagnant or deteriorating trajectories, we present evidence of exclusionary LNCs that discourage many (but not all) women and men from bettering their lives.

Chapter 7, the synthesis chapter, answers the research questions on the mutually influencing forces of gender norms, agency, and agricultural innovation, and their effects on local processes of empowerment and poverty reduction. I then introduce and use social mechanisms theory to distill lessons about the typically exclusionary forces of local normative climates in smallholder contexts.   I also elaborate the ongoing mechanism of normative relaxation, whereby community members negotiate and withdraw from individual norms and contribute to a typically slow reformulation of individual norms. The empirical chapters reveal how these social processes appear to reinforce inequalities and slow local development trajectories. The rarer mechanism of normative change, which is unlocked by a major shock, can drive rapid social change marked by significantly greater (or less) gender equality and poverty reduction. I then engage with theory on multi-level perspective on system innovation to reflect on selected macro forces that may influence a smallholder community’s normative climate and the patterning displayed in the community typology (Chapter 6). I argue for additional bottom-up action research on these normative mechanisms as the need is urgent to improve understanding of interactions between micro and macro forces that may speed progress by smallholder communities on ending poverty and achieving gender equality, as called for by the SDGs.


Original languageEnglish
QualificationDoctor of Philosophy
Awarding Institution
  • Wageningen University
  • Leeuwis, Cees, Promotor
  • van der Burg, Margreet, Co-promotor
  • Badstue, L., Co-promotor
Award date17 Jun 2022
Place of PublicationWageningen
Print ISBNs9789464472172
Publication statusPublished - 2022


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