Back to Book Reviews

Back to Cercles

Rising Tide: Gender Equality and Cultural Change Around the World
Ronald Inglehart & Pippa Norris, eds.
Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003.
$21.00, 226 pages, ISBN 0-52152-950-6 (paperback).

Chris Bell
University of Illinois at Chicago

The remarkable changes in familial and cultural politics that occurred during the twentieth century come under close scrutiny in Rising Tide. In this text, Iglehart & Norris examine how the societal shift from industrial to post-industrial has affected gender relations throughout the world. Viewing data and statistics from nearly seventy countries, the editors paint a fascinating—and occasionally bleak—portrait of gender dynamics in a shifting world.

Early in the text, Inglehart & Norris ask: “What explains the disparities between the leaders and laggards in gender equality?” [p. 4]. That such disparities exist comes as little surprise to the reader. The process of societal modernization is always already a complex one, especially given the fact that some societies will (necessarily?) become modernized at a swifter pace than others. What is surprising is how devastating the disparities are, as revealed in the editors’ close critical analysis. The details Inglehart & Norris include are noteworthy and much appreciated. A case in point is the numerous charts and graphs integrated throughout the text. This visual representation appeals to the reader as it frames the argument in an unmistakably clear context. The charts and graphs are a particularly welcome addition considering Inglehart & Norris’s frequently dry and unimaginative style. In addition to the fact that their writing presupposes that the reader is familiar with political science and political sociology, it has a tendency to frustrate the reader. Consider, for example, this excerpt: “For a more comprehensive multivariate analysis, we will use ordinary least-squares regression models with the ten-point left-right ideological scale as the dependent variable, again using the pooled 1995-2000 WVS/EVS across all nations” [p. 94]. Readers not schooled in the discourse of political science will undoubtedly find solace in the wealth of charts and graphs throughout the text, deeming them invaluable in unpacking the authors’ meaning and scope.

Moreover, the authors’ analysis, at times, strikes the reader as somewhat essentialist. One example of this focus is the following excerpt from the chapter titled “Religion, Secularization, and Gender Equality”:

Islamic societies have not experienced a backlash against liberal Western sexual mores among the younger generations, as some popular accounts assume, but rather that young Muslims remain unchanged despite the transformation of lifestyles and beliefs experienced among their peers living in postindustrial societies. [p. 68]

In this instance, the reader wishes Inglehart & Norris had included a counternarrative to balance the essentialism imbricated within the statement, namely the supposition that all Islamic societies are not only alike, but that “liberal” sexual mores are not a fact in life in some of these societies. The reader is reminded of gay subjectivities in early twenty-first-century Egypt. Although outlawed and stringently prosecuted, sexual relationships between men do occur, and on a quotidian basis at that. As Kevin Taylor asserts in “Queer Life in Cool Places,” “sometimes when […] repression is most brutal, gay subculture continues to thrive.”

Rising Tide is best when it speaks of general issues, the more obvious disparities between genders around the world. When Inglehart & Norris attempt to delve deeper and actually offer hypotheses, the reader feels compelled to question the text. One example of the authors’ curious perspective is this statement:

We find that, despite the rising tide in gender equality transforming many other aspects of men’s and women’s lives, in the public sphere women usually remain less politically active in most nations, contrary to expectations.[p. 102]

Here, the reader immediately wonders Whose expectations? The editors’? The readers’? Those of the individuals who live in “public spheres?” It would have been helpful if the authors had made this point clearer. In addition, this excerpt is intriguing as it reveals a potential bias of the authors. It is interesting that Inglehart & Norris simply present their research findings with as little explication as possible. Having read this excerpt, the reader realizes that political activism comes in numerous guises and contexts. The fact that women may not be tossing their hat into culturally-sanctioned political rings with the frequency of their male counterparts is noteworthy. Nonetheless, this does not invalidate other ways in which women are (and historically have been) politically active. Consider, for example, the role of African American women like Ida B. Wells, whose efforts at stopping lynchings in America were, perhaps, as significant as anything Eleanor Roosevelt ever did. Consider, as well, Anita Hill’s more recent actions in the “public sphere.”

As previously stated, Rising Tide can be slightly "soporific," primarily due to the authors’ dense prose. In that regard, the reader cannot help but wonder where the voices of the subjects are. In lieu of interviewing the individuals they write about, trying to give a more complete picture of those they purport to represent, Inglehart & Norris opt to include facts and statistics alone. Although this information is presented in interesting ways (e.g. the charts and diagrams), mere numbers and statistics can never outweigh the power of the human voice. Something is missing in Rising Tide, and that something is the self-representation of the individuals Inglehart & Norris write about. It would not have been difficult for the two editors to have concluded each chapter with a page-long case study, introducing the reader to an individual or group of individuals that chapter has focused on. Given the fact that the two editors are political scientists, perhaps they did not feel compelled to provide this view. Such an unfortunate decision that can only disturb the reader.

In their concluding chapter, the titular “Gender Equality and Cultural Change,” Inglehart & Norris state: “Moving further toward achieving equality for women—in the home and family, in the workplace, and in positions of political power—remains one of the most important challenges facing governments in the twenty-first century” [p. 164]. The obvious nature of this assertion notwithstanding (why would the authors choose to conclude their text with such an evident declaration?), the reader is troubled by the idea that gender equality and cultural change is a concern primarily facing “governments.” In this instance, as in many others throughout the text, the authors reveal their bias as political scientists. Gender equality cannot and will not be reached solely through government intervention or nurturance. Readers who do not identify as political scientists and who happen to come across this text will know this and be troubled by Inglehart & Norris’s concluding supposition.

Overall, Rising Tide is a reasonably interesting text. The book will prove appealing to individuals with an interest in contemporary gender dynamics, and will be like manna from the sun for political scientists concentrating on gender issues. The book is certainly recommended for its detailed charts and graphs albeit not for the authors’ dense writing style. Amazingly, the chapters are all the same length, which lends a cohesive tone to the text. An additional benefit is the text’s comprehensive bibliography which will prove considerably useful to readers inspired by Rising Tide.



All rights are reserved and no reproduction from this site for whatever purpose is permitted without the permission of the copyright owner. Please contact us before using any material on this website.