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The Social Relations Approach

The Social Relations Approach is a method of analyzing existing gender inequalities in the distribution of resources, responsibilities, and power, and for designing policies and programs which enable women to be agents of their own development. The framework uses concepts rather than tools to concentrate on the relationships between people and their relationship to resources and activities - and how these are re-worked through 'institutions' such as the state or the market. Kabeer’s Social Relations Approach is underpinned by the understanding that gender relations are constituted as relations of power. It has been adapted and used, including in agriculture development. It applies the following concepts:

  • Development is about increasing human well-being: Human well-being is seen as concerning survival, security, and autonomy, where autonomy means the ability to participate fully in those decisions that shape one's choices and one's life chances, at both the personal and the collective level.

  • Social relations describe the structural relationships that create and reproduce systemic differences in the positioning of different groups of people: These relationships determine who we are, what our roles and responsibilities are, and what claims we can make; they determine our rights, and the control that we have over our own lives and those of others. Social relations produce cross-cutting inequalities, which ascribe each individual a position in the structure and hierarchy of their society. Gender relations are one type of social relation; others include those of class, race, ethnicity, and so on.

Institutional analysis is required: The underlying causes of gender inequality are not confined to the household and family but are reproduced across a range of institutions, including the international community, the state, and the market place. Institutions ensure the production, reinforcement, and reproduction of social relations and thereby create and perpetuate social difference and social inequality. It is useful to think of four key institutional realms - the state, the market, the community, and family.

1. Rules (How things get done): Institutional behavior is governed by rules, which may be official and written down. Ask: What is done?  How is it done? By whom is it done? Who will benefit?

2. Activities (What is done?): Institutions do things; they try to achieve goals by following their own rules. These activities can be productive, distributive, or regulative. Ask:  Who does what?  Who gets what? Who can claim what?

3. Resources (What is used and produced?): Institutions also mobilize and distribute resources. These may be human resources (for example, labor, education, and skills), material ones (food, assets, land, or money), or intangible ones (information, political, clout, goodwill, or contacts).

4. People (Who is in, who is out, who does what?): Institutions deal with people and are selective about: who they allow in and whom they exclude; who is assigned various resources, tasks, and responsibilities; and who is positioned where in the hierarchy.

5. Power (Who decides, and whose interests are served?): Institutions embody relations of authority and control. Few institutions are egalitarian, even if they profess to be so. The unequal distribution of resources and responsibilities, together with the official and unofficial rules which promote and legitimize this distribution, ensures that some institutional actors have authority and control over others

  • Institutional gender policies must be understood. Policies may be classified into three types, depending on the degree to which they recognize and address gender issues:​

    • Gender-aware policies: These recognize that women as well as men are development actors, and that they are constrained in different, often unequal, ways as potential participants and beneficiaries in the development process.

    • Gender-redistributive policies: Interventions which intend to transform existing distributions to create a more balanced relationship between women and men.

    • ​Gender-blind policies: These recognize no distinction between the sexes.

  • Immediate, underlying and structural causes can influence outcomes. In analyzing a situation in order to plan an intervention, this framework explores the immediate, underlying, and structural factors which cause the problems, and their effects on the various actors involved.

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