Out of the Margins: Feminist Perspectives on Economics

By Bruegel, Irene | Capital & Class, Autumn 1996 | Go to article overview

Out of the Margins: Feminist Perspectives on Economics


Bruegel, Irene, Capital & Class


To be a feminist economist in the nineties is a little like being a socialist economist in the years before CSE was established: economics was what you did in the day, politics what engaged you in the evening. Out of the Margin seeks first and foremost to bridge the gap, to put gender into Economics. This is no small endeavour. Out of the Margin succeeds very well in introducing the terrain of current debate, although to a large extent this is a debate around the margins of orthodox economics, rather than a debate within the political economy more familiar to Capital & Class. In asking whether Economics can take gender adequately into account, the book raises fundamental problems about the epistemological basis of the discipline and does so in a lively and accessible way.

The book is organised around five sections that move from history through critique to the development of a feminist methodology and onto questions of empowerment. In many sections the papers come from diametrically opposed standpoints-there is no 'line' but a range of debates. In the first section Pujol is concerned with the way the founding fathers viewed women exclusively as dependents, and outside the domain of rationality. Within this framework female economists, let alone feminist economists, simply have no place. Hutchinson in discussing the Inter-war Social Credit movement takes a different tack, raising the much more fundamental issue of the division of the two separate domains, the one paid and the other not. She shows that feminist economics has a history, but one which was systematically marginalized with the professionalization and political development of Economics as a discipline.

The epistemological divide within feminist economics comes over particularly clearly in the section of the book on Economic Theory. The feminist Notberga Ott, applying neo-classical concepts rigorously in a game theoretical formulation, demonstrates that the gender division of labour within the household may not indeed be Pareto efficient. Power within the householdor the threat point in her model-rests on the earnings potential of each household member. In line with Human Capital theory, this depends in turn on previous rounds of the gender division of paid and unpaid work; as a result 'rational' bargaining behaviour may reduce overall welfare.

Ott applies the model of individual rational behaviour to the household, with some effect, but never questions the model. Much more simulating is Levin's application of the feminist/post-modern critique of Cartesian thought to investment behaviour. Risk and uncertainty bring emotion and 'irrationality' into the most abstract of economic decision making, as we have always known. The disembodied rational calculating economic agent not only doesn't exist, but isn't a useful abstraction either: the boundaries of the discipline have to be dissolved to begin to understand any economy.

In the third section, textual analysis and psychoanalytic method are each brought into play as ways of making sense of the tenacity of the neo-classical model for those within profession/community. This is heady stuff, too heady indeed for Arjo Klammer, the male commentator, who misconstrues many of the points being made, while still recognizing that Susan Feiner's application of object relations theory to the `Queen of Social Sciences' has the makings of a classic. She argues that the market model has the symbolic role of repressing the reality of exploitation in our society. But she goes beyond a restatement of the theme of `neo-classical economics as ideology' and embeds the power of that ideology in the psychological construction of self. …

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