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Feminist Economics as a Response to Complexity

As the study of the economy as a whole, macroeconomics involves dealing with great complexity. Millions of individuals and businesses take decisions each day to produce goods, to buy and sell, and to offer and accept jobs. From a psychological point of view their decisions may have far from simple motivations that are also influenced by the choices and opinions of others. These decisions in turn affect the constraints under which others make theirs and all have to be made with a view to a future filled with irreducible uncertainty.

The approach to this complexity with which most students of economics are familiar is one that ignores large parts of it. Consumers are modelled as having fixed independent preferences which they have the knowledge to fulfil according to strict rational principles. Workers offer their labour according to careful consideration of their trade-off between labour and leisure and businesses always succeed in maximising their profits (even although these profits are often zero). Everyone has ‘rational’ expectations that conform on average to the correct model of the economy. Perhaps the biggest difficulty of all, the interdependence of all individual and business actions, is dealt with by simply assuming the existence of ‘representative agents’ whose decisions can be aggregated up to that of all consumers, workers or businesses. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the value of such models is a considerable source of debate.

On the other hand, does taking all this complexity seriously mean that macroeconomics really has little to offer in terms of shaping human society for the better? One alternative to the ‘mainstream’ that embraces the complexity positively is ‘Feminist Economics’. This approach is about much more than issues of gender discrimination and empowerment, although these are of course at its core.

Feminist economists aim to replace what they describe as an overly ‘masculine’ approach to economics, in terms of its focus on mathematical models of self-interest, with one more focussed on families, emotions and institutions and that uses verbal and metaphorical analysis along with concrete observation. They describe a more bottom-up analysis of economic issues that emphasises the role of caring and domestic labour as part of an economy with interdependent and interconnected actors, and that targets human well-being rather than isolated statistics such as GDP. Feminist economists see significance not just in headline economic outcomes, but also in the processes that lead to these in terms of power, ethics and cultural and social dynamics. Such an approach has been categorised as ‘Social Provisioning’ to infer its emphasis on sustenance, co-operation and support, rather than individual competition and monetary profit-seeking.

Diarmid Weir