The Biographical Approach and its Possibilities for the Analysis of Gender Patterns in Society

The Biographical Approach and its Possibilities for the Analysis of Gender Patterns in Society

This research investigates how entry into adult life follows different patterns for men and women and how events in the lives of women interact with the events in the lives of their husbands

"The analysis of the biographical data on women is a useful methodological tool for unpacking gender relations in society. Even within Africa, the situation of women and their roles in society do not match a single blueprint, as evidenced by this comparative analysis of biographical data for four African cities: Dakar, Bamako, Yaounde and Antananarivo. Entry into adult life follows different patterns for men and women, and the precise order of three key events - the first job, marriage and the birth of the first child - is variable. How do these events play out in the lives of women and how do they interact with the events in the lives of their husbands? This example of biographical analysis as a methodological tool rests on data initially collected for another purpose: to analyse the effects of the economic crisis on demographic behaviours. A number of findings resulted from this exploratory approach. For example, preliminary findings indicate that in Dakar women seem more confined to reproduction; in Yaounde marriage comes before employment and the birth of the first child; while in Antananarivo, entering the labour market comes first. In order to understand these issues more thoroughly it is necessary for biographical surveys to specifically target gender issues and for data on the professional lives of husbands to be collected simultaneously, in order to gain a better understanding of the redistribution of current gender roles and responsiblities. When complemented by other background data, the analysis of what is described as tri-biographical information (concerning employment, marriage and reproduction) offers interesting methodological opportunities for integrating a gendered approach.

The author's contribution is not only methodological, but also concerns gender inequalities and how events in the lives of women and men interact.

From a methodological perspective, the biographical approach offers certain possibilities:
• Through biographical surveys it is possible to put different demographic and social events into perspective, starting from birth. For example, it is possible to keep track of the development of certain milestones that mark the entry into adult life for men and women.
• The biographical approach allows marriage to be viewed as part of the broader life of an individual, which facilitates analysis of the interaction between matrimonial events and the development of a woman's social and economic status.
• Biographies allow the researcher to go beyond the individual, to understand how men's and women's lives interact. Furthermore, a woman's biographical information offers insight into her husband's life. Biographical analysis helps to understand marriage, divorce and polygamy, which can themselves provide insights into the relationships between men and women.
• The collection of biographical data for consecutive generations is an invaluable tool for understanding how patterns in the lives of women and men evolve over time. In this way, biographies may constitute an invaluable tool for comparing the evolution of men's and women's life trajectories and for highlighting the differences that occur in their respective pathways.

Preliminary findings of the biographical approach indicate that:
• For men professional life begins before marriage, whereas for women there is more variation depending on geographical location. For instance:
- In Yaounde, marriage precedes economic activity, followed by the birth of the first child. In Dakar, women seem more confined to reproduction. In Antananarivo, women's entry into the labour market precedes the other events
- In Yaounde as well as in Dakar, half of women do not engage in any remunerated activity, while the level of activity is significantly higher in Antananarivo.
- In Antananarivo, social changes at work concern women more than men. In the other two cities women remain dependent on men for their economic survival, particularly in the first years after marriage.

• Two principle causes of divorce stand out: a husband's inability to ensure adequate income (due to unemployment), and the arrival of a second wife. But divorce may also result in women being able to access paid labour more quickly.
• Men's and women's life cycles are decidedly different, but economic crisis modifies and slows access to financial autonomy, especially for men.

• Biographical surveys must be designed which are more specifically focused on gendered experience.
• Parallel data on the professional lives of women's husbands must also be collected to verify how existing gender roles and responsibilities are distributed.
• Tri-biographical data (concerning employment, marriage life and reproduction) must be complemented by generational information or background data which may help to fill any gaps associated with the analysis of individual trajectories..


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