Economic Woman strides out

Feminist Economics

October 20, 1995

In common with many other disciplines economics has seen a proliferation of new academic journals in recent years. Whatever the merits of the systems of formal assessment by publication record, this drastic change in the rules of the game has certainly led to a change in behaviour by the participants. The demand to publish has increased dramatically and the supply of journals has risen to meet this demand.

In general, the new journals do not carry the credibility of the more well-established ones, and most articles in them languish virtually unread. But Feminist Economics deserves a better fate than this. The quality and intellectual stimulation this journal provides means it deserves to be taken seriously by the profession.

Many new economics journals operate within the confines of orthodox economics, taking as their area of inquiry ever more specialised aspects of the discipline. They are in many ways plus royalistes que le roi. The distinguished American Economic Review can take an occasional risk and publish a heretical view, particularly of an established scholar. But, striving for professional recognition and approval, many lesser journals scrutinise their output with an ideological fervour that would do credit to the Spanish Inquisition. Indeed, the first issue of Feminist Economics draws attention to the American Chronicle for Higher Education's report of a "lack of openness" by journals in the United States to "research that diverges from the mainstream view".

This would not be so much a worry if the achievements of conventional economics were demonstrable and securely based. But they are not. Orthodox economics is by no means a completely empty box, but its success in understanding the world is distinctly limited. The problems of the discipline go far beyond the well-publicised failures to predict the course of the world economies. The fundamental building block of mainstream economics is Economic Man - or Person as even the textbooks feel obliged to say nowadays. This mythical creature is endowed with prodigious foresight and computing capabilities, using the mathematical technique of differential calculus to follow at all times the course of rational action that will maximise his or her self-interest. In certain very well-defined circumstances, the model can be a useful approximation to reality, but as a general description of behaviour it encounters increasingly formidable problems.

Growing numbers of economists, albeit still a minority, appreciate that the discipline needs new foundations if it is to continue to carry credibility outside the ranks of the true believers. The obduracy of the orthodox can be frustrating, but intellectually it is an exciting time. Feminist Economics represents a valuable contribution to this new ferment of ideas. The journal deliberately seeks a different stance from that of the economic mainstream while expressing the intent to engage in debate with that monolith.

An illustration of the latter point is the discussion in the journal on the economic analysis of children and the family. This has been the subject of several notes and articles in the first three issues of the journal, for it is an area which is far-reaching both in its scope and in its implications, and the debate in many ways has only just begun. Orthodox economics, led by Nobel prizewinner Gary Becker, has attempted to analyse the family using the methodological framework of "rational" individuals who act to maximise their own self-interest. Of course, at its logical extreme the approach is so all-embracing as to be devoid of content. For example, the widespread existence of altruism in family relationships can be "explained" by postulating that the happiness of self-interested individuals depends in part upon the amount of altruism that they supply. Articles in Feminist Economics raise problems for the conventional approach in accounting not just for altruism, but for issues such as polygamy and even fertility, which many economists believe to be well understood.

An appealing aspect of the journal is that the articles are clear and well written. Virtually the whole of the text is in words rather than in mathematical symbols; this fact alone makes the journal stand out in the world of economics.

Too many mediocre economics journals and economic articles regard the use of mathematical symbols as obligatory. The level of maths involved is usually not very high, but it is of sufficient difficulty to act as a deterrent to many social scientists and to convey a spurious scientific air to the proceedings. As Paul Krugman, a leading American economist, recently remarked: "In the academic world, the theories that are most likely to attract a devoted following are those that best allow a clever but not very original young man to demonstrate his cleverness."

Feminist Economics shows it is possible to discuss serious ideas in economics almost entirely in English and in a way that makes them accessible to other social scientists.

The journal's editorial policy reflects the need for a wide-ranging debate in economics. For some, the very use of the word "feminist" will conjure up visions of an American Femintern policing every single word for evidence of thought crime. But the exact opposite applies to this journal. Indeed, it is made very clear that no single definition is claimed even of the concept of feminism itself, and that a "multiplicity" of views will be welcomed.

The articles so far reflect this eclectic view. Some describe the results of applying conventional statistical techniques to largescale databases, without, it should be said, losing sight of the aim to convey the results and their implications as clearly as possible in nontechnical language. Perhaps at the opposite end of the spectrum, others are rather more in the nature of exercises in discursive philosophy.

An attractive feature of the journal is that the editors are clearly trying to ensure that each issue carries some material on matters of contemporary policy debate. By way of illustration, one such article surveys the literature on the impact of benefits on childbearing by single teenage mothers. Although the results described are obtained mainly with American data, the conclusion that other factors are far more important should be of interest to policymakers in Europe as well. Equally significant, however, is the finding that marriage offers in general a very effective way out of the problems of poverty faced by many single mothers, and so should be encouraged.

A potential criticism is that, just as with most mainstream journals, the output so far is dominated by North Americans. The editors are aware of this, so it may simply be a matter of time before a more balanced geographical spread emerges.

Consideration also needs to be given, perhaps ironically, as to whether the use of a little bit of mathematics might help. This is not so much to impress the profession, but to advance the argument. Many articles refer to the problems caused by the insistence of economics on rigid classifications. To give but two examples: a clearcut distinction is made between work and nonwork; there is widespread use of statistical analysis that segments the data into distinct either/or categories. Yet the arguments of feminist economics often imply that less precise classifications can give greater insights. And it is here that the techniques of fuzzy logic and fuzzy sets could usefully be applied.

Feminist Economics is a serious intellectual journal offering a wide range of perspectives that differ in varying degrees from that of conventional economics. A large number of economists will dismiss it precisely on these grounds but, on the evidence to date, they would be mistaken to do so.

Paul Ormerod is chairman of Post-Orthodox Economics and a visiting professor of economics, University of Manchester.

Feminist Economics

Editor - Diana Strassmann
ISBN - ISSN 1354 5071
Publisher - Routledge
Price - £55.00 (inst.), £28.00 (indiv.)
Pages - Three issues a year

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