15 September 2020


This autumn, the Department of Anthropology and Sociology welcomes Assistant Professor Isabel Pike, who recently received her PhD in Sociology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Specialised in how men and women experience and perceive inequality in sub-Saharan Africa with a special focus on Kenya, Prof. Pike speaks here about her research activities and interests and her role as a teacher.

Isabelle Pike
I’m particularly interested in how gender interacts with economic change, both in relation to life trajectories and development discourse. Perhaps as a result of these two quite different interests, I use a variety of qualitative and quantitative methods.
Isabel Pike
Assistant Professor of Anthropology and Sociology at the Graduate Institute

In one of your latest papers, you investigate the narrative in Kenya that “the boy child has been forgotten”, a narrative that on the surface could be backlash to gender equality efforts around girls. How did you become interested in Kenya’s “boy child”?

I first heard the term boy child when I was doing preliminary research for my dissertation around youth experience in Kenya in 2016. When I asked how young men were doing compared to young women, I would often get the answer that they were not doing well, that they were getting involved in drinking and doing worse in school. Sometimes, people explained that part of the reason for this was that “the boy child had been forgotten”. This explanation didn’t come up all the time, but it was often enough to be quite striking. Around the same time, I started noticing the phrase popping up in Kenyan media. I found it very interesting. I wondered about the roots of the narrative, how it was connected to the “girl child” of development discourse, and why some people drew on this narrative but others didn’t. Since then, I’ve had a Google news alert for the term “boy child” – though Kenya seems to be a hub of this discourse, it also exists in other countries, including South Africa and Ghana. 
Your paper relies on a content analysis of Kenyan online newspaper texts published in the past two decades. What does the evolution of the boy child narrative tell us?

After doing the preliminary interviews, I thought that I should look into Kenyan newspapers to see how the narrative had emerged over time. This content analysis was a fruitful exercise because it produced a kind of discursive map – the timeline of the narrative, but also who was using it and what kind of topics triggered it. I found that the narrative was present as early as the year 2000, but intensified around 2010 and started producing on-the-ground action, such as NGO initiatives for the boy child, around 2013. But of even more interest to me was the fact that such a wide range of groups were arguing that the boy child had been forgotten, from men’s rights activists to self-identified feminists. These strange bedfellows could be explained by their very different reasons for caring about the boy child. While some felt that gender equality efforts had gone “too far” and were angry that men were losing some power, others felt that gender equality efforts should pay more attention to men, in large part because men had to change for women’s lives to be better. 

You are planning to publish a book out of your dissertation. Will it expand on the boy child narrative?

My book will use the lens of the boy child narrative to explore the gendered language of empowerment in Kenya. In addition to the newspaper analysis, I did a large number of interviews in Kenya, around 160, with men and women across a wide age range (18 to 65 years) to understand how regular people understand and use the narrative. These interviews were life histories, including questions on gender and economic change, so I situate the narrative in this broader landscape. I’m also planning to do follow-up research as soon as possible on how policymakers, including in the government and civil society, are responding to and acting on the claim that the boy child has been forgotten. The book will also put the boy child in conversation with youth, another term with gendered and life-course undertones that is prominent in development discourse.

Among all your research interests, which of them do you consider to be your specialised “research” identity?

I consider myself a sociologist of gender with a regional focus on sub-Saharan Africa. I’m particularly interested in how gender interacts with economic change, both in relation to life trajectories and development discourse. Perhaps as a result of these two quite different interests, I use a variety of qualitative and quantitative methods. 

What courses will you teach and how have they been informed by your research interests?

My courses reflect my graduate training as well as my thematic interests in gender, economic change, the family, and social demography. This fall, I’m teaching “Population and Development”, largely focused on theories and debates around fertility. We’ll explore how these have changed over time – for example, how can we understand the rise of reproductive rights as the dominant frame around family planning in the 1990s? Or the growing discourse around the demographic dividend today? We’ll also examine fertility in relation to some key areas such as education and gender. And in the spring, I’ll be teaching “Sociology of Gender”. This course will focus on some of the key theoretical developments in the subfield, from intersectionality to hegemonic masculinity. We’ll consider questions around methods and how students can build on existing theory in their own research.  

What have you read lately that has marked sociology of gender?

One book that I consistently come back to and recommend to others is Sanyu Mojola’s Love, Money, and HIV: Becoming a Modern African Woman in the Age of AIDS (2014). It’s a qualitative exploration of the glaring public health fact that young women in sub-Saharan Africa have disproportionately higher rates of HIV infection than young men. Focusing on the Nyanza region of Kenya, Mojola shows how young women navigate this terrain in their school, love, and work lives. Though rich in detail and nuance of the particular context, Mojola also shows how global dynamics tie romance to consumption for young women. It won the best book award from the American Sociological Association in 2016. 

Another ground-breaking piece of research that I loved recently is Paige Sweet’s “The Sociology of Gaslighting” (2019). Gaslighting, as defined by Sweet, is “a type of psychological abuse aimed at making victims seem or feel ‘crazy’” – an experience that many readers will surely recognise from either their own lives or public discourse. Through interviews with domestic violence survivors, Sweet shows the power and gender dynamics of gaslighting, particularly how gaslighting often operates through associating femininity with irrationality. It’s both so relevant to everyday life and so well written that I have found myself sharing it a lot with friends and colleagues over the past year.

As a recent PhD holder, can you recall any special memory from your PhD years that you would like to share?

Hmm, it’s a long, winding road, so there are quite a few. The University of Wisconsin-Madison has a famous terrace over the lake, so I have nice memories of spending time there with grad school friends. I also have a very different set of vivid memories from fieldwork. For some reason, what comes to mind now is being at a church in the rural town, where I was based part of the time, when a well-known gospel singer came to sing. It was a joyous, uplifting moment.

If you were to help a prospective doctoral student to formulate their research question, what would your advice be?

Though there is no one right route of course, perhaps I would suggest the following, with the risk of sounding cheesy: Read deeply academically while keeping your eyes and ears open to the “real world”. In doing this, take notice of what sparks your curiosity. What do you find perplexing? Dive into what you don’t understand at first, it likely means there is a lot there, and be open to adjusting course as you learn more. Throughout, strike a balance of remaining true to your interests and being open to advice and feedback. Oh, and identify some favourite snacks!

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Isabel Pike is a sociologist whose research focuses on gender, development and inequality in Africa. She received her PhD from the University of Wisconsin-Madison in 2020. Her current book project, based on her doctoral thesis, explores the contested narrative in Kenya that “the boy child has been forgotten” as a means to understand both reactions to social change as well as the ways development discourse can be repurposed. This analysis of gendered narratives also explores the social category of “youth” – frequently associated with low-income urban, young men in public discourse – and the surprising ways in which men and women try to hold onto their status as youth as they age. Using both quantitative and qualitative methods, Professor Pike has several parallel projects, including on the gendered and economic dynamics of marriage and romantic relationships, occupational gender segregation in the informal sector, and the theoretical and methodological challenges of research on youth. She grew up in Uganda and prior to academia worked for the World Food Programme in Senegal, Burkina Faso and Mali.

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Interview by Bugra Güngör, PhD candidate in International Relations and Political Science; editing by Nathalie Tanner, Research Office.
Banner image: Dry goods for sale at a kiosk in Murang’a County, Kenya. Excerpt from a picture by Isabel Pike.