Heterodox theories of economics

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Ferber and Nelson’s 1992 Beyond Economic Man was the first text of its kind to put forth a very radical notion -- that the ideal of impartiality in economic study is itself androcentric. For many, it is at first difficult to acknowledge that objectivity is a cultural construct, let alone a masculine one. Heterodox (as opposed to unorthodox) theories like this feminist critique of scientific methodology seem like outside interests intruding and undercutting the pristine, neutral study of natural phenomena. What all the essays within this anthology make immediately and overwhelmingly clear, however, is that economics as a field already has inherent “inside interests”. Historically, economics was constructed by men in the image of man. Beyond asserts that not only is the field and its objects of inquiry intrinsically male-skewed as a result of this history, but also that the “objective” practice, methodology, and models of economics are themselves partial and, frequently, incomplete.

Objectivity is often heralded as the greatest strength within the scientific practice of economics. Yet gender (or lack of it) is deeply embedded within this practice. This last idea is rarely recognized or acknowledged; in fact, men and women inside and outside the field have become accustomed to regarding subjective, emotional, and/or holistic approaches to the study of economics – characteristics that are largely ascribed as “feminine” – as inferior. For this reason, the simple inclusion of women in economics alone is not sufficient to shift the androcentric paradigms of economic practice. The preface to the collection provides a great introduction to this sort of basic feminist critique of science. Ferber and Nelson briefly document the prevalent gender imbalance in economics (in terms of history, participation, etc) and then move on to describe the spectrum of feminist perspectives on the issue. In so doing, they explain complex concepts like essentialism and feminist empiricism in a very direct and easy-to-understand way that carefully builds up to the notion that objectivity or the separation from the object of study is a loaded, cultural construct. Both editors – indeed, all of the writers included in the collection – repeatedly and loudly disclaim that these essays are not a dismissal of objectivity but rather a call for inclusion of a wide range of economic practices. (This characteristic of the book is itself a commentary on how firmly entrenched and highly pedestaled objectivity is). Regardless, the book remains a radical critique not only of the way economic tools are being applied, but of the tools themselves.

The first few essays tackle the basic models of neoclassical economics; the field, it seems, has come to focus on a very narrow and biased definition of exchange -- how economic man goes about allocating scarce resources. Implicit within this definition is the idea that Nature (always a her) is a withholding entity to be conquered by economic man. Furthermore, most neoclassical models assume rational choice. Studying how individuals respond to their environments inherently assumes a degree of empowerment, than an individual can respond, a prerequisite that could not be fulfilled by women around the world at the time theories of rational choice were being developed. Would women behave in the same selfish, self-interested manner as economic man? Paula England’s piece, “The Separative Self: Androcentric Bias in Neoclassical Assumptions,” exposes the masculine (and Western nature) of this independent decision making in a way that could be informative to students of economics. She dissects three main assumptions of the field in a considered and technical way that highlights how economics can sweep aside issues of gendered difference. England makes the case for centering economic study on a more connected, empathetic self. Beyond thus expresses dissatisfaction with the field but not in lieu of searching for a solution to the problems.

Donald McCloskey’s essay, “Some Consequences of a Conjective Economics,” is similarly rife with examples of how one can change the endemic dismissal of undetached inquiry. He introduces the idea of a “conjective economics”, which is (roughly) an economics created for the community using diverse methods of inquiry. McCloskey’s idea serves as a more practical foil to other ideas described more abstractly in the book . He posits that economics’ reliance on “hard” mathematics and quantification has diverted attention from its more metaphoric and literary dimensions, which are in his opinion “soft” or “gynocentric” ways of knowing. I do not believe that it is in the essence of woman to be holistic or subjective, but rather that economics can be enriched by diversifying. I think McCloskey’s believes the same but more specifically: bring back storytelling, bring in storytellers. Yes, his writing is a little kitschy (he carries the overused metaphor of feminine circle/masculine square throughout the essay) but engaging to read and, again, rich with examples, a notable absence in the book.

The collection does, however, uniquely include separate critical reviews that remind readers of some of the flaws of feminist thinking; for one, viewing economics solely through narrow lens of gender leaves out important questions of class and race. One standout example of this was discussed by Strassman in her critique of the portrayal of non-market work – do we have inclusive frameworks that consider the impact of allocation of labor in homes where women are often primary heads of household, a trend in many black communities? Furthermore, the collection is unabashedly provincial, largely considering problems only of women in the United States. There is always difference to tackle, and economics must be complicated from all angles. Every critique urged an understanding of economics in its broader social context, a pitfall encountered even when using gender as an organizing principle.

Ultimately, it was easy to see the need for reconstruction of economics’ assumptions of objectivity because its ultimate unit of analysis – man or more rightly human – is a self-aware being who functions in a world affected by such huge amorphous forces as culture, history, and society (unlike the ahistorical molecule in chemistry for example). There is influence of the masculine within economics as with all science, and economics has differentially served people according to sex. The smart researcher recognizes these limitations of the discipline as is. The ultimate conclusion of every single essay in the book (including the critiques) is that economics would be improved by accepting a broader range of theoretical and methodological approaches as valid forms of inquiry.

A complete reading of this trailblazing text is required to understand the full scope and implications of this thought (I didn’t even mention work by, say, Nancy Folbre who showed that even the utopist society Marx and Engels envisioned trivialized female labor and perpetuated sexism, especially in trivializing non-market labor). But, individual readings of the introduction and works by England and McCloskey are accessible teaching resources and should provide a sufficient taste of feminist critiques of economics. In the years since Beyond was published, there have been more books, journals, articles, and collections written on the subject of feminist economics (see select examples in appended Works Cited). Instructors might also find Ferber and Nelson’s 2003 follow-up, Feminist Economics Today: Beyond Economic Man, particularly informative as it includes updated articles from England and Folbre as well as new work on models of non-market work and post-colonial thought in economics (Figart, 2005).


Works Cited

  • Ferber, MA and Nelson, JA. (2003). Feminist Economics Today: Beyond Economic Man.

University of Chicago Press.

  • Ferber, MA. (1995). “The Study of Economics: A Feminist Critique” The American Economic

Review. 85:2: 357-61.

  • Figart, DM. (2005). “Feminist economics today: beyond economic man” Feminist Formations

17(3): 213-15.

  • Granovetter, M. (1992). “Economic Institutions as Social Constructions: A Framework for

Analysis” 35:3-11

  • Seguino, S. et al. (1996). “Gender and Cooperative Behavior: Economic Man Rides Alone”

Feminist Economics 2(1): 1-21