Dr. Rae Blumberg, Sociologist

left-arrow_50Previous portrait Dr. Rae Blumberg,
Professor, Sociology
College & Graduate School of Arts & Sciences
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As a sociologist of development who has worked in 47 countries around the world, the majority of my work hasn’t primarily involved gender. But I never ignore it. Since the mid-1980s, my central research question has been: “What are the causes and consequences of gender equality vs. inequality”?

I was awarded a Ford Foundation Faculty Fellowship while in my first job at the University of Wisconsin. It gave me a year off to develop a theory I was conceptualizing as I worked on development projects in a growing number of countries in Latin America and the Caribbean (LAC).  I saw that of the main types of power (economic, force/violence, political, and ideological, information/education), relative economic power is both the most important and the most achievable for women. I wrote a 25-hypothesis article (“A General Theory of Gender Stratification.”  Sociological Theory 2 (1984):23-101).  It examines gender equality/inequality across human history and all around the globe. Economic power, defined as control of economic resources, such as income, land, property, credit, etc., is posited as the key variable affecting women’s relative equality.

My early work included coding and analyzing the key variables in my emerging theory, comparing hunting-gathering, horticultural and agrarian pre-industrial societies. The quantitative results showed relative economic power to be the strongest factor and the only one that predicted my main dependent variables, a set of “life options” (e.g., marriage, fertility, freedom of movement) found in all known human societies.  My work in LAC involved rural development and agriculture projects, the emerging field of microfinance and much more. In 1986, I expanded my focus to Africa and Asia and worked in countries at vastly different levels of development.  I saw how women spent income they controlled disproportionately on their children’s nutrition, education and health, i.e., “human capital,” and that this had ramifications not only at the micro level, but also at the macro level of GDP growth. This differential spending became the first hypothesis of another theory I soon began to formulate, on gender and development.

Dr. Rae Blumberg in the field working for USAID .

Dr. Rae Blumberg in the field working for USAID .

The research question I tackle with my development-focused work is, “What are the differential results at both micro level and macro level (national income growth and well-being) of women’s relative economic power, from high to low”?  In 1988, I published “Income under Female vs. Male Control: Hypotheses from a Theory of Gender Stratification and Data from the Third World” (Journal of Family Issues, 9(1): 51-84). Ever since, I have been elaborating on both theories and their spin-offs, as my country experience grew and I personally encountered some of the least and most gender-egalitarian places in the world.

I do a rare combination of theory and applied fieldwork. The result has been a family of related sub-theories that have had good explanatory power in assessing differential levels of development within and across regions.  For example, my exposure to very different types of farming systems and kinship/property systems in different parts of the world led me to posit that there is a huge difference in gender and development outcomes among Global South countries with a history of “dry” (rain-fed) plow agrarian systems vs. those with “wet” (irrigated rice) agrarian systems.  In the “dry” nations, it’s a male farming system and the kinship/property system privileges men; this includes the Middle East/North Africa (MENA) and much of South Asia; to this day they have the world’s lowest levels of female labor force participation (LFP) and have lagged in development (e.g., MENA loses 27% of GDP as a result of its low women’s LFP). In the “wet” East and Southeast Asian countries, irrigated rice is so labor-intensive, everybody works: men, women, boys, girls, and suitable domestic animals. East Asia has a male-dominated kin/property system and Southeast Asia a more gender-egalitarian one, but women long have been seen as valuable producers in both. These nations turned to export-oriented industrialization (from clothing to electronics) with high levels of female labor force participation and have grown much faster.  Today, the fastest growing region, Southeast Asia, is also the world’s traditionally most gender egalitarian, with lengthy histories of women having significant economic power and a kin/property system that’s neutral to favorable to them.

My recent development research has been in Southern Africa studying informal cross-border traders. They are mostly women and put up with great difficulties, ranging from bribe-seeking customs officials to (in some places) sexual coercion. But they make more income than in other pursuits.  And they provide food security and keep many other kinds of goods flowing across borders in Africa, which has the world’s slowest formal customs system. So now, I’m working on a sub-theory about women’s role in trade in most parts of the planet across history and geography.  And I’m quite excited about this latest wrinkle in my research.


Visit Dr. Blumberg’s research site and read more about her development work.


I was a science and math major in high school and went on to an honors program in chemistry and chemical engineering in the university.  The level of sexism was rough from day one, but reached unimaginable heights when I wrote an article in the student magazine suggesting that greater exposure to liberal arts courses might broaden the outlook of engineering majors. The implications, such as greater acceptance of women in their classes and field, disturbed many of those guys and I found myself on the receiving end of a nasty campaign. I changed schools and majors.

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