Folbre's Feminist Approach.
Note: These notes cover some of the issues in Who Pays for the Kids? pages 38 to 50. These were not covered in class but provide a discussion of Folbre's approach.
Following the introduction and discussion of REM, IRSEP, Mr. Prol
and M. Neo-prol, Folbre develops her own approach. This is the
section "Identities, Interests, and Institutions,"
pages 38 - 50, and continuing in Chapter 2. In developing this
approach, Folbre is trying to do two things - analyze social reproduction
and develop a feminist theoretical approach.
A. Who pays for the kids? First, she is concerned
with who bears the costs of social reproduction and the issues
surrounding males, females, children, family, and the social interactions
among these that are relevant to this question. The various factors
in the framework she develops lead to a reinterpretation of historical
evidence, and provide new insights into how issues related to
children and the family are interpreted. In Canada, current discussions
concerning child tax benefits, child poverty, and a national system
of day care show the relevance of issues of social reproduction.
For Folbre, analysis of both the public and private spheres,
and their interaction with each other, is necessary in order to
develop an understanding and explanation of these issues.
B. General Theoretical Approach. In Who Pays
for the Kids? Folbre develops a general approach to
the study of social issues - summarized as the "stylized
feminist approach" (p. 49). This is the common framework
that she raises on p. 40, noting that it should be possible to
develop a "systematic framework that accommodates the interaction
between interests and identities, choices and constraints."
In developing this approach, Folbre examines individual and
collective action, and the framework can be viewed as emerging
from the action of groups and collectivities and from the common
actions of individuals as they undertake activities.
1. Collective Action is concerned with showing how people
decide to join or become part of 'interest groups' (p. 40, top
line). Individuals join or become part of interest groups and
as they participate in and act as parts of these groups, they
act in coordination with others to pursue their common interests.
These may be collective interests developed through organized
groups, for example, political action of students to improve
state support for education or people with favoured positions
or with power creating and maintaining networks of influence within
an organization (old-boy networks).
Alternatively, collective action may emerge in a less conscious
manner as part of the social structures of society - class,
family, peer groups. These are sometimes chosen groups or they
could be structures to which people are ascribed and in which
individuals may participate in a less conscious manner. Folbre
refers later to "structures of collective constraint"
(p. 57, bottom) as common positions in which a number of people
find themselves, where they have a group identity and common interests.
Within this, as people act together, they exercise a form of
collective action. Examples of this type of collective action
include attempts by some individuals to exclude those of a different
skin colour or sex from participation in certain activities.
Racism, discrimination, and patriarchal power can be considered
to emerge as a result of the structures of collective constraint,
where a set of individuals with common interests take collective
action to maintain their privilege, power, and position. Note
that some of these latter forms of action are not so much personally
advantageous (except as a matter of maintaining honour or standing
in the collectivity) as they are for the benefits of the common
interest. A particular individual might undertake actions which
are more personally advantageous to himself or herself. That
is, not all collective actions of this sort can be reduced to
an expression of individual interests - some are truly collective
interests and actions.
2. Common Actions. These are closely related to the last
point - actions of individuals who are in a similar position to
that of others, with similar identities and interests. The common
actions of people in this situation are common responses of people
in their daily lives, responses that may develop into norms and
rules (e.g. number of children in the family, actions related
to the division of household labour and responsibilities, interactions
between children and parents). As people carry out their activities,
and have similar actions and responses as do other people in a
similar situation, this does create a form of collective action.
That is, collective action need not be explicitly organized,
but can be how people together develop certain common forms of
action and behaviour. This form of collective action may be
less noticeable than a social movement, but may have effects which
are as widespread as movements that are more political and public.
The decline of fertility, along with the increased participation
of women in the paid labour force, both of which took place in
the 1960s and 1970s, is an example of this common type of action.
Neither of these developments were planned or anticipated by
the individuals involved, but emerged as a result of similar set
of interests coincided to create common actions.
In constructing the stylized feminist approach, Folbre draws from
the neoclassical tradition, especially the idea of "rational,
instrumental choice" (p. 40). From the Marxian approach
she uses the emphasis on asset distribution, structures, and political
power. To this, Folbre adds feminist insights and approaches
concerning individual and collective identity and makes norms
and preferences an endogenous part of the model. In combining
these approaches, Folbre produces a theoretical framework that
should provide insights not just into issues related to social
reproduction, but to a wide variety of social issues and problems.
II. Stylized Feminist Approach
See Folbre, p. 49, figure 1.3.
Structural factors: assets, rules, norms, preferences
Agents: individuals, chosen groups, given groups
Processes: coercion, production, exchange, coordination
Sites: firms, states, markets, families
A. Structural Factors.
The first part of the model is the assets, rules, norms, and preferences
that form the structural part of her model (pp. 40-43).
1. Assets. The neoclassical model, with its focus on
how decisions are made, tends to regard the assets with which
the individual enters the decision-making process in the market
as being fixed or exogenous. The micro-choice models do not
include an explicit examination of differences in assets and how
they emerged, rather these models focus on the choices the individual
faces, given the assets. As a result, there is an underlying
implicit assumption that there is not great injustice in the distribution
of assets. In contrast, the Marxian model recognizes assets
as one of the major factors governing the position of the individual
or group when entering into social relationships. Marxists focus
on the inherent injustice associated with the inequality in the
distribution of assets, especially those that inequalities that
emerge from the unequal distribution of ownership of private propoerty.
There are many aspects to the initial endowments that people bring
to the decision-making process. Some of these are as follows.
One example of how a neo-prol analysis can be conducted is that
of Erik Olin Wright, with four types of assets forming a typology
of modes of production and classes: labour power, means of production,
organizational assets, and skills. Each may be unequally distributed
and each forms the basis for a form of exploitation and class
location (Wright, pp. 73-92. Note the summary charts on pp. 83
and 88). For example, in feudal societies, exploitation is primarily
based on the unequal distribution and exercise of labour power,
in capitalism the unequal distribution of the means of production
make exploitation of labour power possible (p. 83).
Each individual comes into the world with certain biological (and
perhaps psychological) assets, and certain are ascribed to
the individual on the basis of social class, sex, region, culture,
etc. As individuals become older, many of these remain the same,
but some change on the basis of education and training, skill
and ability, effort, chance, choice, coercion, cooperative and
competitive efforts, and other historical factors. In the highly
mobile society of contemporary capitalism, many of these change
considerably over the course of an individual lifetime. They
can change as the result of either individual or collective
action. In a traditional society, or in feudal society, these
change slowly for the individual, for groups in society, and for
the society as a whole.
2. Rules "formally define the parameters of acceptable
behavior" (p. 40). These are laws, regulations, contracts,
and codes of acceptable behaviour. In contemporary society, these
are often written (Weberian rationality) although in traditional
societies these may be part of oral tradition and practice. In
addition to laying out the limits of acceptable behaviour, these
generally lay down certain punishments for unacceptable behaviour
and rewards for acceptable behaviour. Family law, rules concerning
inheritance (females were often excluded in Western Europe and
North America), laws governing sexual and reproductive behaviour,
laws governing sale and purchase of labour power all are important
for the issues raised by Folbre. Laws are always subject to change,
and are often the result of the formalization of norms. Rules
change as the result of both conscious and unplanned behaviour
of individuals and collectivities. Those who have highly valued
assets in the society may set the laws (the wealthy, the military,
or the politically powerful) but those who feel oppressed or exploited
by these laws may collectively be able to organize and obtain
the assets that allow them to change the rules of society. Trade
unions, the civil rights movement, and feminist movements are
3. Norms are implicit rules, not enforceable in law, but
part of "social authority, based on common agreements and
understandings" (p. 41). Some of these may be generally
agreed on (individual citizenship rights and equality, freedom
of movement, not exercising physical harm on others, trust) and
may be set down in law. These tend to be decentralized and are
less commonly enforced. Enforcement may be more in the form or
social approval and disapproval (Parsons) than through explicit
sanctions and punishments or rewards. In Canada, some of these
have become part of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. Other
norms may differ from group to group, for example, norms concerning
sexual preference may be subject to dramatic disagreement among
groups in contemporary society. Also note that there may be a
wide range of acceptable behaviour, with the norms governing generally
agreed upon features such as individual rights to enter contracts,
rights to freedom of movement, etc. Other norms are more restrictive,
for example, acceptable forms of religious expression and lifestyles
among members of a particular religion.
Some forms of common behaviour might not seem to be governed by
law, when in fact legal codes and structures stand behind these.
Durkheim in The Division of Labour in Society outlines
the different forms of law characteristic of different types of
societies. For Durkheim, the type of legal system provides an
index of the type of society. Further, Durkheim notes that contracts
and market exchange are governed by regulation and rules that
are socially created. Today the ability to buy and sell and enter
into market exchange is so widespread and common that it appears
to be natural. Durkheim points out how such exchange is rooted
in social convention and subject to the general will (Division,
pp. 210-215). Further, Durkheim argues that the division
of labour, and the exchange that is part of the division of labour,
is a result of collective life, a result of the cohesion of society
due to a "community of beliefs and sentiments" (Division,
p. 277). For example, in our society we generally agree that
each individual should have the right to buy and sell, and to
possess personal property. These norms are not necessarily agreed
upon in all societies, and even in Canada today may be disputed
or subject to limitations by traditional First Nations or by
groups such as the Hutterites. Folbre notes that economic transactions
depend on "a set of mutual understandings enforced by informal
sanctions such as approval and disapproval" (p. 41).
Just as with assets and rules, norms can result in great injustice
and exploitation. Norms that limit what types of work females
can do or are required to do, that shape views of what individuals
of certain ethnic groups are capable of, that define difference
and identity (insiders and outsiders) may result in great inequities.
Norms can also change very rapidly as a result of organized social
movements (civil rights movement in the United States) or as a
result of the common actions of many individuals (gay and lesbian
activities and lifestyles).
4. Preferences are "the dimensions of desire"
(p. 42) and are often play a major role in guiding the decision-making
of individuals. Structures and similar circumstances may lead
to similar preferences, and some preferences may be generally
considered to be ascribed or inherited, although they are more
likely to be part of slowly changing structures. In modern and
contemporary societies, preferences can change rapidly and there
is great flexibility for preferences. Some would argue that these
differences in preference can be exercised only over superficial
differences such as brand or toothpaste or type of sport or exercise
Preferences may be contradictory with each other, they may change
over time, and individuals may be unaware of their preferences
(preferences and patterns of behaviour may only be revealed from
the choices people actually make). Folbre treats preferences
as endogenous, in contrast to the neoclassical approach, but in
agreement with the Marxist view. But she regards them as more
flexible than the Marxian model.
Similar preferences may form part of the collective activity of
people. Those with similar preferences may find it in their interests
to form common groupings with other people (environmental groups,
gays and lesbians). Alternatively, similar preferences may lead
to common patterns of activity, so that collectively certain patterns
of action take place, even though these are not so consciously
developed (musical preferences and youth life styles).
Summary. Together the assets, rules, norms, and
preferences form the structural factors in the Folbre model.
Folbre shows how these structures are formed and change as a result
of collective activity, and how collective activity is itself
shaped by these structural factors.
B. Agents. Agents may be individuals or groups. The
latter may be chosen groups, selected by individuals on the basis
of their choices (youth peer groups, political parties, social
groupings), or given groups, ascribed on the basis of birth, socialization,
or structural position (gender, religion, class). Note that some
groups may fall in between, not exactly the product of conscious
choice but neither ascribed at birth. Individuals may find themselves
in certain positions that have much in common with others, and
as a result these people act in common - for example, members
of an urban neighbourhood or a rural area who may initially be
thrown together but develop a similar set of interests and a common
Agents might be the self-centred, utility maximizing, rational
choice individuals of the REM model of neo-classical economics.
Or they might be politically or economically powerful individuals
who can make decisions that affect many in a society, because
of the position they occupy or the assets or resources they command.
Most agents are not in a position to make such clear decisions,
and Folbre's purposeful choice and strategies might
more appropriately describe the manner in which agents pursue
activities and actions. These could be either individuals or
collective agents (such as Folbre's given or chosen groups on
pp. 49-50). That is, agents must have some ability to take some
action, and this action must lead to some outcome, but the outcome
may not be all that remarkable. In fact, the outcome may be
one that achieves the purpose of the agent, but also contributes
to the maintenance of the structural patterns of which this agent
is part. Or the outcome could be an unintended one.
C. Processes. The processes that Folbre notes are production,
exchange, coordination, and coercion. This is a broader range
of processes than the production and exchange of the neoclassical
model, or the production and coercion of the Marxian model. In
Who Pays for the Kids? there are shifting processes depending
on which agents are being examined, the purpose of the interaction,
and the structures of collective constraint. Coercion and coordination
have much less determinate outcomes and are much harder to model
than are production and exchange. For example, the likely outcome
of workers going on strike at a workplace is much less certain
than the day to day exchange of labour power on the labour market.
In the case of a strike, there are elements of coercion, bargaining,
and coordination, and none of these have a clearly defined outcome.
As another example, in a household, coercion in the form of
violence may destroy the interaction of household members. In
her analysis of patriarchy and discrimination, Folbre shows the
importance of these processes, but Who Pays for the Kids? does
not develop a general theoretical approach for these.
D. Sites. These are firms, organizations, states or governments,
and families, institutions or places where production, coordination,
exchange, and coercion take place (pp. 48-49). These sites may
involve physical locations, but perhaps more important, they are
institutions that have been developed by society. In a functionalist
framework, they can be viewed as having certain purposes such
as carrying out production (firms), ensuring social reproduction
and carrying out public tasks (governments), and reproducing population
(family and household). In this context, these sites can be considered
to be efficient solutions to coordination of activities, solutions
that otherwise would not be possible, or would use many more resources.
At the same time, there are a diverse set of other activities
that go on in these sites, some intended, some unintended, and
many that may be more purposeful choice rather than well
developed functions. Two other characteristics of sites
are that they are (i) problem solving situations and (ii) they
have a division of labour associated with them (p. 48).
Wright, Erik Olin, Classes, London, Verso, 1985.
Last edited on March 10, 1998.
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