Cultural Persistence and the Historical Origins of Gender Roles

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Christoffer Cappelen


PhD Candidate


Stanford University


DKK 510,000




Internationalisation Fellowships


The project aims to trace the origins of traditional gender roles and explain how and why cultural norms such as these persist over time. Research on “historical persistence” have yet to come up with satisfying answers to the question of how history affects the present. While culture is often invoked as an explanation, we know relatively little about under what conditions cultural norms emerge and when and how they may (or may not) change. To answer this question, I suggest we ned to look at the interaction between culture and political institutions and the distribution of political power. Norms such as gender roles benefit some groups of society at the expense of others, and if those who benefit also control the means for change they may persist for centuries. The project thus contributes to a growing literature tracing the historical origins of contemporary institutions and behavior by focusing attention on political power and the developments that may alter existing power structures.


Despite significant progress in the last century, wide disparities between men and women continue to exist: and they vary widely between countries. Gender equality among the UN’s 17 Sustainable Development Goals and a high priority on the international development agenda. Achieving this goal depends on understanding the underlying causes of variation in gender roles and, importantly, understanding when and how such norms may change. This is equally true for other institutions and norms we may wish to change (or to keep). By digging into the deep historical roots and persistence of cultural norms such as traditional gender roles the project will hopefully advance our understanding of when and how such norms may (or may not) change. The first step in designing policies to achieve a goal such a gender equality is to understand under what conditions and by what means we can plausibly affect change. This project, while historical in focus, thus also has the potential to contribute to contemporary policy development.


The project relies on quantitative data on historical societies’ characteristics such as whether there is division of labor by gender, who inherits, who marries whom, and so on. Crucially, the project also aims to measure the process of cultural persistence and change. This requires measures that more directly taps into the cultural dimension. To do so, I propose to use data on language structures, such as the presence of grammatical gender, which has been shown to act as a marker of culturally acquired norms and beliefs in the past. In addition, the project will also use data on folkmore – the oral traditions and myths of a community that have been passed down through generations. The tales and motifs in these myths capture the cultural heritage from early societies and enables us to identify the emergence of specific cultural norms by, for example, looking at gender-stereotypical portrayals in a society’s oral tradition. These measures enables me to identify under what conditions practices such as division of labor may translate into culturally acquired norms and values and whether these persist until today.

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