Challenges Facing Social Economics in the Twenty-First Century: A Feminist Perspective

Article excerpt

It is the goal of this paper to discuss the connections between social economic and feminism and in the process to make a constructive contribution to the future development of social economics by explicating the challenges feminism poses for social economics. In this context it is important to emphasize that neither social economics nor feminism is considered here to be homogenous theories, but that there are different strands in each. This paper will, therefore, start in the first two sections by providing brief summaries of the broad commonalities between the different strands of each - i.e., the themes that account for one being considered feminist and the other social economics. In part three the similarities between social economic thinking and feminist thinking will be discussed. The last part is devoted to discussion of feminist challenges to social economics.

Common Themes in Social Economics

In discussing the evolution of social economics in America, Bill Waters emphasizes two phases in the history of social economics. The first phase can b identified as the orthodox phase spanning the period 1941-1965. This phase was dominated by Thomas F. Divine who accepted orthodoxy's positive versus normativ dichotomy in the definition of economics. According to Waters, Divine saw economics as consisting of a theoretical part, which deals with positive and thus ethically neutral inquiry, and a second part that concerns economic policy and thus action rather than theory. It was only in this second non-theoretical policy dimension that economics deals with ethical issues (Waters, 1990).

The second phase of the evolution of social economics started around 1965, and it was in this stage that social economics and its journal the Review of Social Economy opened up to a plurality of perspectives. Waters identifies several reasons for this change in direction, the first of which is particularly relevant for feminist concerns:

First, as the new editor in 1965 I expressed interest in two approaches: the theory of social economics--inquiry into "the very principles that shape the economic"--and social architecture--"the strategy of reform and efficacy of plans for the best system" (Waters, 1965, p. 115). Both of these are inimical t mainstream economists: the first because practitioners of science do not find i necessary to investigate the basic principles of their paradigm, the second, social architecture, because while economic scientists describe, analyze, and apply their discipline they are not involved, qua scientists, in the strategy o reforming the science. Here was a not-so-subtle commitment to the Review to (1) a reconstructive (solidarist) approach and (2) a sociopolitical inquiry (Waters 1990, p. 98).

Waters identifies five different strands of social economics that became predominant in the second phase--solidarist, institutionalist, neo-Marxist, neo-Kantian (or deontological), and resources economics (Waters, 1990, p. 99). Despite their differences, they share several commonalities that make it possible to consider them social economics--to publish in the same journal and to carry on a constructive, though at times heated, conversation. Waters claims that what "helped to make the ideologically diverse pieces compatible was a common, personally humanistic base." For instance, the institutionalist "and neo-Marxist articles in the Review tended to be more humanistic than their deterministic counterparts published elsewhere" (Waters, 1990, p. 99).

William Dugger points to three specific commonalities between the different strands of social economics, namely, their value directedness, their ameliorative nature, and their holistic perspective (Dugger, forthcoming 1994). According to Dugger, all social economists reject the normative/positive distinction of orthodox theory and are value-directed in the sense that they se it as their responsibility to make explicit the values that have helped "them choose what problems to investigate and what solutions to advocate. …