Towards a Feminist Philosophy of Economics

“Feminism is the radical notion that women are people.”

-Marie Shear

Yet, people don’t exist within economic models; autonomous, atomistic agents do. Mainstream or neoclassical economics is built upon a masculinist understanding of human behavior and a narrow, particular imagination of society that is hailed as universal. The rational economic man offers a view of human agency that is ingrained with a privileged, masculine worldview. The primary dimension to a rational agent’s identity is that of self-interest and rational agents have no obligations or responsibilities for they only interact with others contractually when it is in their best interest to do so.

 Consequently, a gendered and raced division of labor is explained in terms of the individual choices of rational agents, while the gendered and raced effects of globalization are understood as the effect of natural consequences of different endowments of skills, technology, and resources.

It is interesting to contrast the mainstream economist’s idea of a person as an autonomous agent with a sociologist’s conception of a person as an agent acting out of social roles. The economist's view incorporates the masculine concepts of individual, activity, choice, and competition. The sociologist's view incorporates the feminine concepts of intuition, humanism, and connectedness.

Feminism offers a theoretical and ethical position that bases its analysis on the social construction of different categories of identity such as gender, caste, race, ethnicity, and challenges systems of hierarchy and privilege based upon such categories. Feminist economics is not simply a criticism of the mainstream, but in effect is an alternative conception of economics as an integral part of culture, power relations, and a state of affairs that is always implicated in global politics and regional interests: “The personal is political and the political is economic.”

Mainstream economics is built upon a masculinist notion of science that is riddled with unquestioned, “natural” Western values, and permits only explanations about self-interested exchanges between rational economic agents. The economist writes from a self-interested position that may be affected by intellectual pleasure, ethical sensibilities, prestige, or institutional constraints. Along with the interested position, it is important to recognize the economist’s social location within aforementioned categories of identity. Feminist economics offers an intervention on knowledge production by taking into account the social nature of science and a philosophy that attempts to build an alternative and humane vision of economics.

Feminist empiricism attempts to study the decisions that economic agents actually make as compared to asserting that they act in a particular manner within a theoretical framework. Economic life is shaped by gender along with other categories of identity rather than what is assumed within the identity-blind universe of the neoclassical paradigm. Feminist economics does not shy away from asserting its political goal to improve the status of marginalized social groups and further exposes how scientific knowledge is socially constructed and facts and values are never radically separate.

The social nature of scientific enquiry has certain implications for the production of knowledge as well as the status of science. The role of ethical and political values in influencing belief formation, judgements of what constitutes a legitimate point of departure or enquiry, and the process of knowledge evaluation must be interrogated.  If the production of knowledge is understood to be a social process that is intricately linked to ethics and politics, the evaluation of knowledge claims raises issues of legitimacy that are explored within the framework of political philosophy and theory. A political philosophy of science inherently finds that processes of scientific knowledge production are contestable.

Feminist economists place certain social values and interests at the heart of their analysis that are productive of knowledge and social justice. Science is understood as a set of practices imbricated within cultural histories, interests, and values, and the subject of science can no longer be a centered, transcultural rational knower as found in Enlightenment philosophy. Observations must be interpreted within socially meaningful frameworks. Methodological and epistemological choices become ethical and political choices. Feminist theorizing does not shy away from making value judgments along with challenging the pretense of value-leadenness within the mainstream economic discourse. Theoretical work must aid in the construction of an egalitarian economic system with human well-being and social provisioning at its core. Consequently, feminist economics places issues pertaining to inequality, ethics, environment, collective wellbeing, and social change at the center of its agenda. The project is one that must necessarily struggle with the politics of inclusion along with the questions posed by postcolonial, postmodern, and post-positivist interventions. An alternative, humane conception of economics will study society as an integrated whole and such a framework is crucial if we are to engage with the larger project of social justice.

Baker, Drucilla K., and Edith Kuiper. Feminist Economics. London: Routledge, 2010. Print.

Barker, D. K., & Feiner, S. (2004). Liberating economics: Feminist perspectives on families, work, and globalization. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.