Feminism, objectivity, and economics

Feminism, objectivity, and economics

Review of Radical Political Economics, 3 1( 1):132-147 0 1999by URPE AI1rights of reproduction in any form reserved. ISSN: 0486-6 134 Book Reviews Ju...

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Review of Radical Political Economics, 3 1( 1):132-147 0 1999by URPE AI1rights of reproduction in any form reserved. ISSN: 0486-6 134

Book Reviews Julie A. Nelson Feminism, Objectiuity, and Economics New York: Routledge, 1995 277 pp. Hbk., $74.95, Pbk., $18.95 Julie A. Nelson’s Feminism, Objectivity, and Economics is a provocative and ambitious book. Nelson first emphasizes what she is not arguing: she is not arguing that more women should enter the field of economics (although she believes this would be desirable); nor does she argue that economics should concern itself to a greater degree with issues that are important to women (which she also believes to be desirable). Neither does Nelson argue that women should create a feminine economics which would be distinct from masculine economics (a position with which she disagrees). Nelson is also clear that she does not believe that mainstream economics as it is currently practiced should simply be rejected. Instead, Nelson’s basic argument extends to the case of economics the argument made by Evelyn Fox Keller with respect to science, viz., that the field as it stands has numerous masculine biases, so that by helping to eliminate masculine biases, feminism can help economics to be more objective and more successful. Nelson begins by defining gender in the linguistic sense of cognitive association rather than in the sense of non-biological categories associated with the culturally informed behaviors of each sex. Next she observes that there are a number of binary oppositions which, in the dominant upper middle-class white culture of the United States, suggests the inferiority of the feminine to the masculine. Examples include the contrast between reason (masculine, positive) and emotion (feminine, negative), hard (masculine, positive) and soft (feminine, negative), strong (masculine. positive) and weak (feminine, negative), etc. Nelson’s main contribution to the feminist literature is the attempt to reconfigure each of these binary oppositions with a four quadrant diagram. She contends that the binary structures, by only representing the masculine-positive and feminine-negative feminine-positive masculine-negative and hide quadrants, quadrants. She writes, “The central task of the feminist project on

Book Reviews gender, then, as I see it, is the exploration and valuation of the feminine-positive and the exposing of the masculine-negative” (20). For example, Nelson argues the contrast between hard (masculine, positive) and soft (feminine, negative) can be enriched through recognition that hardness in an extreme can also be harmful as rigidity (masculine, negative) while softness is just an extreme of the more favorable quality of flexibility (feminine, positive). Masculine bias conceals the feminine-positive and masculine-negative terms. Nelson then turns to economics and shows that mainstream economics is committed to a number of masculine-positive terms in opposition to feminine-negative terms without recognizing the possibility of masculine-negative or feminine-positive terms. Economics can therefore be improved through the recognition of all four possibilities instead of allowing masculine bias to restrict consideration to the binary pair. Her primary criticism of neoclassical economics is that it has been more concerned with making economics masculine than with making it useful and reliable. Although the four quadrant gender value diagram presents a simple visual tool for making a limited point, it may not have the generality that Nelson implies. While the masculine-positive and feminine-negative terms to reflect dominant cultural understandings in white, upper middle class intellectual contexts in the contemporary United States, the masculine-negative and femininepositive terms are somewhat forced. While hard (masculine) and soft (feminine) do carry recognizably opposed gender connotations, it is not as obvious that the opposition between flexibility and rigidity carries any particular gender connotations at all. The appeal of the four quadrant diagram stems from the fact that in some cases the gender connotations are intuitively acceptable. The artificiality of this device becomes clear when concepts which have no recognizable gender connotation, even in the limited cultural context with which Nelson is concerned, are arbitrarily associated with a particular gender. For example, while she offers “dialectical reasoning” as a feminine-positive term (28). Nelson gives no reason to view dialectic as feminine except that it is different from formal logic, which she associates with the masculine. Nelson argues next that the predominant conception of objectivity as detachment from social influences, the object of and the community of other study, practical concerns, researchers is itself the result of masculine bias. She advocates instead a “strong objectivity,” following the feminist philosopher of science Sandra Harding. which takes the location of the knower within a web of attachments into account. From this perspective, recognition of the masculine biases which hide the feminine-

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positive and masculine-negative quadrants leads to a more, not less, objective economics. The second part of the book presents a number of case studies of applications of feminist thought to economics. First there is a discussion of the mission statements of the American Economic Review and Econometrica. Next Nelson discusses the theory of the family. Third she discusses household equivalence scales. Then Nelson addresses the income tax. The fmal chapter of the applications section considers macroeconomics and empirical economics. In each case Nelson focuses on the prevalent masculine biases which have influenced the direction of research and makes more or less detailed suggestions as to the direction that a feminist approach to the topic might take. The applications section is perhaps the strongest part of the book. Nelson addresses current issues from a feminist standpoint and raises a number of serious questions. But while the case studies do present important criticisms of neoclassical orthodoxy, these criticisms depend very little on the four quadrant diagram of which they are intended to serve as applications. In the third part of the book, Nelson anticipates criticisms from other economists and feminists. This is perhaps the most disappointing part of the book. Throughout most of the book, Nelson identifies mainstream neoclassical economics with in general economics and thereby contributes to the ma.rginalization of heterodox approaches. In the penultimate chapter she acknowledges that many of her criticisms have been raised previously by other critics of mainstream economics, but she claims that her feminist critique applies to such critics as well. To make her point she examines the “humanist economics” of Mark A. Lutz and Kenneth Lux. Whatever the merits of “humanist economics,” however, it does not compare in importance with the various Marxisms and institutionalisms, which she fails to address. For anyone who sympathizes with these schools, in which many of Nelson’s criticisms have been common for decades, the book will be unsatisfying. Nelson also claims that her feminist critique is more likely to be successful in influencing neoclassical economics than previous critics because, “To put it bluntly, I argue that much of the staying-power of neoclassical hegemony is subtly tied to the sting of the insult ‘sissy.’ No one wants to be thought ‘soft’ in one’s work, since (perhaps subconsciously) by implication this is to be thought ‘feminine’” (132). Yet Nelson does not explain how her book might alter this attitude. On the contrary, one might expect that if being called “sissy” were the great fear of economists, then they would pay little heed to a feminist critique. In the final chapter Nelson compares her approach to feminism with various other approaches. Nelson provides a useful introduction to the problem of how to treat differences between

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Book Reviews masculinity and femininity: should feminists attempt to overcome them and achieve some sort of gender neutrality, or should they valorize and celebrate the previously devalued feminine through gvnocentrism? Her dismissal of both of these positions is superficial. Nelson groups all attempts to overcome the simple opposition between gender neutrality and gynocentrism together as “deconstruction,” and gives a facile refutation of the radical relativism into which these allegedly lead. Although Nelson cites Linda Alcoff (1988) with respect to the nature of this opposition, she does not address any of the varied and subtle attempts to deal with this problem that Alcoff presents. To me the most striking aspect of Nelson’s feminism is its almost total failure to attribute importance to power relations. In her discussion of the deficiency of the “weak objectivity” of mainstream economics, Nelson writes, “Feminists argue that scientific practice is already full of subjective and contaminating influences-they just happen to be of an ‘androcentric’ (malecentered) variety and hence invisible to the majority of practitioners” (39). A feminist economics that was not so closely tied to neoclassical economics might argue that the andocentricity of economics did not just “happen to be,” but was rather the result of a history of domination and exploitation. The recent work in feminist theory that has been influential in a number of other disciplines has not yet had much impact on economics. This book, written by an economist well established in the mainstream, may serve to at least open up a debate. If it is successful that far it will have performed a great service. It does not have a lot to offer to those who are closely familiar with criticism of mainstream economics or with feminist theory, but those are perhaps the people who need to hear what it says least of all. REFERENCES Alcoff, L. 1988. Cultural Feminism versus Post-structuralism: The Identity Crisis in Feminist Theory. Signs 13: 405-36. David Andrews Cazenovia College Cazenovia, NY 13035 [email protected]

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