The Duck of Minerva

The Duck Quacks at Twilight

South Asia’s gender gap

December 19, 2006

Nirmala George of the Associated Press writes:

Lawmakers and women’s rights activists raised an alarm Monday over new evidence indicating about 7,000 fewer girls than expected are born each day in India, where women routinely suffer discrimination and parents often abort female fetuses.

The spread of ultrasound technology allowing parents to find out the gender of their unborn children has resulted in the large-scale “disappearance” of girls here. One study released earlier this year estimated that 10 million fewer girls were born here than expected in the past 20 years.

The government must “rise in revolt against the male child mania,” said lawmaker Gurudas Dasgupta during a parliamentary debate Monday.

The debate was spurred in part by a report last week from UNICEF, which estimated that 7,000 girls go unborn each day in India, where abortions are legal and a ban on finding out the sex of unborn children and aborting female fetuses is widely flouted.

The result is a skewed gender ratio — many districts in the country of more than 1 billion people routinely report only 800 females born for every 1,000 males.

Sex-selection abortions aren’t merely ethically problematic; they very likely have long-term social costs:

UNICEF’s report included dire warnings about the social fallout from the skewed gender ratio — girls getting married at younger ages, dropping out of school and dying earlier after being forced bear children when they are too young. It could also result in more violence against girls and women, UNICEF said.

But our field also saw a debate a few years ago about the possible implications for international security.Valerie M. Hudson and Andrea M. den Boer argued back in a 2002 International Security article, and then in a monograph, that gender imbalances could lead to a whole list of problems: increased risk of civil conflict, terrorism, and interstate conflict. Their claims–which I find plausible in some respects but not in others–touched off a methodological dispute. From the aforelinkedto Chronicle article:

Nothing in the two women’s arguments, however, persuades Joshua S. Goldstein, a professor emeritus of international relations at George Washington University [American University?], who wrote War and Gender: How Gender Shapes the War System and Vice Versa (Cambridge University Press, 2001). “The problem with their design is that they’re basically just picking cases that fit their hypothesis, and so you don’t know whether it’s generalizable or not,” he says. Mr. Goldstein would prefer a much more systematic study, one that would try to identify how sex ratios interact with other variables that are believed to be linked to instability and war: rapid population growth, ethnic tension, poverty, and unstable availability of resources.

Melvin Ember agrees. “Arguing by example is not anywhere near truth or confirmation,” says Mr. Ember, president of the Human Relations Area Files, a repository of anthropological data at Yale University. “A better study would look at a large, randomly selected sample of societies with high, low, and normal sex ratios, he says. “It just requires a little bit of good will and money. The statistical techniques and the databases exist.”

A similar complaint is offered by Manju Parikh, an associate professor of political science at the College of St. Benedict, who has written about offspring sex selection. “This is an example of social-science inductive reasoning, but it’s not a very good example,” she says. “They have to show why other explanations don’t do as well. This is not a unique situation” — that is, she says, many countries with normal sex ratios have also been prone to instability and war.

Those complaints reflect a too-rigid model of explaining the world, responds Ms. Hudson, who teaches courses in social-science methodology. “This critique goes to the heart of how we know anything in the social sciences,” she says, arguing that because skewed sex ratios are a still-emerging variable, it is appropriate to sketch their potential effects more loosely, using what she and Ms. den Boer call “confirmatory process tracing.”

“I encourage others who wish to perform additional analysis using other methods to do so,” Ms. Hudson says. “But until a question is even raised, it cannot be addressed.”

But it wasn’t just the a process-tracing versus statistics dispute.

Mr. Goldstein and Ms. Parikh also worry that the Bare Branches argument leans too heavily on what they regard as crude evolutionary models of male behavior. “The authors seem to completely lack empathy for these low-status rootless men,” says Ms. Parikh. “These guys are the victims of development, and they call them criminals and potential criminals. This is so appalling.” For instance, contrary to the book’s suggestion, she says, most migrant workers in Asia maintain strong kinship ties with their home villages, send money home every month, and are nothing like the untethered marauders pictured in the authors’ warnings.

The term “surplus males,” Mr. Goldstein says, “is offensive, and for lack of a better term, sexist. They’re making a very conservative argument, which is sort of wrapped up in a feminist skin.” It is a mistake, he says, to draw easy lessons from the finding that unmarried men tend to have higher testosterone levels than do their married peers.

Ms. Hudson says she herself is skeptical of sociobiological explanations but finds it impossible to avoid engagement with them. “I don’t know of any social-science findings that are more confirmed than the fact that young men monopolize violent antisocial behavior in every society,” she says. “It may not be PC to say so, but you come up against such a mountain of evidence.”

As for Ms. Parikh’s point about migrant workers’ kinship ties, Ms. Hudson says that “feeling kinship with home and village is not the point. … Even when bare branches stay close to home, when they congregate they form new systems of norms unto themselves.” Those new norms are often aggressive and antisocial, she says. “Families cannot control their ‘stakeless’ sons.”

So what do you all think of the methodological issues? And of the sociobiological ones? I’m not much of a fan of the latter, but it strikes me that large gender imbalances in favor of males probably increase the risks of these kinds of problems… and that we don’t need to know anything about testosterone levels in unmarried males to understand why.

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Daniel H. Nexon is a Professor at Georgetown University, with a joint appointment in the Department of Government and the School of Foreign Service. His academic work focuses on international-relations theory, power politics, empires and hegemony, and international order. He has also written on the relationship between popular culture and world politics.