Academic journal article Review of Social Economy

Modelling Care

Academic journal article Review of Social Economy

Modelling Care

Article excerpt

Abstract (1) This article compares how different types of models--Walrasian and heterodox--have integrated unpaid labour and, more specifically, care, as an economic activity. The article will discuss four models that have, each in their own way, incorporated unpaid labour, or care, as a variable, a sector, or parameter. The analysis of these model experiences will both reveal insights into the role of models in general, and appear to shed light on unpaid labour and caring as particular economic activities, with their own behavioural specifications and relationships to other economic variables.

Keywords: models, care, unpaid labour, realism, feminist economics


This article addresses a paradox: it discusses mathematical representations of an economic activity that generally goes unmeasured, ignored in most of economic analysis, like an omitted variable: unpaid labour, and in particular a sub-set of unpaid labour: caring. (2) Unpaid labour is the general label for all work carried out without payment. The bulk of unpaid labour is domestic labour but it may also include voluntary work outside households--in communities, organisations, or the production of subsistence food for the family. Caring is an important sub-set of unpaid labour and has a wider meaning than only its labour dimension, and may even occur as a dimension of paid labour exchanged in labour markets. While unpaid labour is often characterized by its lack of payment, the defining feature of caring goes beyond this simple fact, and stresses the relational aspect of caring: by transferring the activity to the market its content will be affected. Or, as Sue Himmelweit (1999: 134) put it: the performance of a caring task cannot be separated from the person who performs it. Childcare is an example of such a task--while paid childcare workers can provide excellent caring services, the meaning of the activity is different from the situation in which a parent performs the task. In this article I will use the terms care and caring labour in order to acknowledge the qualitative difference of much of unpaid work, compared to paid work. But I admit that most of the models that I will discuss do not clearly distinguish between unpaid labour in general and the sub-set of caring, as they are simply not refined enough. Therefore, for reasons of simplicity, I assume in this paper that unpaid labour and caring are largely overlapping categories.

The economic dimensions of caring, or more general, the care economy, is a largely invisible economy in which people, in majority women, produce goods and services for the wellbeing of others and themselves, unpaid, and outside the realms of the market and the state. Care has therefore been referred to in economics as (a specific type of) unpaid labour, household labour, the reproductive sector, or as economic activity transacted through gifts and personal relationships, either voluntary or socially imposed (Folbre 1994; Nelson 1996; Himmelweit 1995; Folbre and Nelson 2000; van Staveren 2001a; Jochimsen 2003; Picchio 2003). Since about a decade, an increasing amount of research has been undertaken in order to investigate the economic significance of care, its volume, meaning, as well as its contribution to wellbeing and impacts on other economic variables (Beneria 1999).

I will discuss four economic models that have integrated care, in one way or another, often understood more widely as unpaid labour. These models are not necessarily models of care, focusing on care as a dependent variable, but models that have integrated caring through one or more variables, in one or more equations, which go beyond a simple inclusion of care as an exogenous variable. The purpose of the analysis in this article is not the modelling of care itself. Modelling cannot be an end in itself or a substitute for theory, although for some economists doing economics means exactly building and/or testing models. …

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